He’s redesigned the Independent, launched Port magazine and, most recently, helped create the new-look New York Times magazine, but Matt Willey maintains that his design career so far has been “haphazard and accidental”, rather than any well-laid plan.
“I never really came to any sort of realisation that I wanted to be a designer,” says Willey. “I muddled through art college, through illustration (I wanted to paint but wasn’t brave enough) and photography and was surprised to emerge from Central Saint Martins with a degree in graphic design.”
He adds: “I used to worry about that a lot – that because I hadn’t made a conscious or deliberate decision to be a designer it couldn’t possibly be what I was ‘meant’ to be. I feel like I’m still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up.”
For someone who still feels like he’s trying to figure his career out, Willey has certainly achieved a lot so far. Following a period at Frost Design, where he became creative director, Willey co-founded the acclaimed Studio 8 Design with Zoë Bather.
Studio 8 established a reputation for typographically-led design, particularly in print. It worked on magazine projects including the launches of Elephant and Plastique and also for clients including Wired before closing its doors in 2012.
Willey says of this period: “I was always excited by the variety of work that would come through the door at both Frost and Studio 8. We worked on books and magazines, posters, album covers, exhibition graphics, identities… It always felt like there was something different to try, or new to learn.”
He adds: “There was a level of anxiety attached to that when Zoë and I were running Studio 8; the unknowness of what the studio would be doing in a few weeks, and therefore how we would pay the wages and so on, but there was an exciting part of being a small studio nevertheless.”
When Studio 8 wound up, Willey had already worked on the launch team at Port magazine and assisted then New York Times Magazine art director Arem Du Plessis on that title’s redesign.
He says: “I can say that the year after Studio 8 closed, when I was working for myself, was the most enjoyable year I’ve had as a designer, but that was down to a lot of different things, including luck.”
In a previous interview with Creative Review, Willey has said that after closing Studio 8 he was trying to figure out what to do with next – “I was looking at woodwork courses”. What happened instead though was that he was commissioned to work on a series of projects that would end up with him becoming one of the most acclaimed editorial designers of 2014.
Key to this was Willey’s work on the redesign of the Independent newspaper, which was developed with the newspaper’s in-house design team, including Stephen Petch, Dan Barber, Gordon Smith and Nick Donaldson.
The Independent overhaul featured a new set of typefaces by Henrik Kubel, the introduction of a strong, simplified page structure and a masthead that was literally flipped on its side. The Independent’s eagle logo was redrawn by Milan studio La Tigre.
Independent editor Amol Rajan, who commissioned the redesign, says it was inspired by the newspaper’s first editions from the 1980s and aimed to be “beautiful and elegant”.
The Independent redesign went on to win awards including a Design Week Award, while Kubel’s typefaces picked up a D&AD Yellow Pencil. Willey was named the 2014 Designer of the Year by Creative Review.
Willey says: “The Independent was an unusually ‘visible’ project in the context of what I’ve done, which I think has had, for the most part, a very limited reach really. It was interesting seeing it in people’s hands, observing someone reading it on the bus for example.”
With such a high-profile project though, was Willey concerned about a potential negative reaction? “I think I deal with criticism OK,” he says. “The response to the Independent redesign was overwhelmingly positive, far more than I expected. But there’s something curious about human nature that will focus on the one negative comment out of 100 positive ones…”
Following his industrious 2014, which also included redesigns of architecture magazine RIBA Journal and a rebrand of Condé Nast Traveller, Willey is now based in New York, having taken the role of art director of the New York Times Magazine.
Here, he has worked with design director Gail Bichler and designer Anton Ioukhnovets on a redesign of the magazine, which launched this month. Similarly to Willey’s work on the Independent, this has involved a complete design overhaul, with new logo (by Matthew Carter), typefaces (by Kubel), layouts and features.
NYT Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein says: “We have used the hammer and tongs but perhaps not the blowtorch; we sought to manufacture a magazine that would be unusual, surprising and original but not wholly unfamiliar.”
Willey has started his time on the NYT Magazine with an intense four-month redesign project, running alongside the pressures of week-to-week design deadlines. Silverstein says of the period: “It is as if we have been bidding our dinner guests adieu each week, busing the dessert plates and then hurrying out to the garage to tinker with our strange creation under a flickering bulb.”
The redesign may be in place now, but Willey is adamant that his commitment to the NYT Magazine is as serious one. He says: “For the first time in my career I’m not trying to figure out what I will be doing down the line. I took this opportunity – and went though the upheaval of transplanting my family and so on – with a view to it being long-term.”
He adds: “I want to experience working on this magazine; the weekly pace, working with this extraordinary team, with this calibre of content… There are no guarantees of course and I’m only just beginning to feel my way into this job, but if you told me I’d still be here in ten years, I’d be very happy with that.”
And beyond the context of the NYT Magazine, Willey says he believes that the current period is a hugely exciting time for editorial design. He says: “Magazines are still trying to figure out how they fit into an increasingly digitally-obsessed world. There was a lot of apocalyptic noise when the iPad launched in 2010 and the responses to that have been really interesting.”
He adds: “The daft one-or-the-other response to the iPad was born out of people’s fixation on the presumed meaning of the word ‘magazine’. Magazines produce podcasts, host events, animate their content online. Talking about magazines doesn’t necessarily mean talking about print. The way you reach your audience as a ‘magazine’ is more complicated (and more exciting in many ways) than it was in the 80s and 90s.
“And if a magazine is printed there’s more of a focus to produce something that embraces the tactile qualities and processes of print. Print’s not dead and it’s not going anywhere – it’s just having to readjust, and that’s a good thing.”