‘Businessweek’ tag-team talks about how their subjects are boring (visually) and how they try to make them not be

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Richard Turley and Josh Tyrangiel at work. ()
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As far as magazine redesigns go, there hasn't been one as buzzy or well-received over the past few years as Businessweek's.

The duo behind the sprawling revamp, which got underway after the title was acquired by Bloomberg L.P. in 2009 (thus re-naming it Bloomberg Businessweek), visited Columbia's journalism school Thursday evening to give a few dozen aspiring magazine editors a crash course in bringing a magazine back from the brink of irrelevancy.

One of the lessons imparted on their pupils: How to make stories about "old white men" look visually appealing.

It's a familiar design trope for business magazines: In the foreground, looking commanding, is a man (however physically appealing or unappealing) standing upright in a dark suit with his arms crossed. Soaring behind him, or beneath him, or on a table next to him, is his new building, his vast vineyard or estate, his sprawling factory floor, or his epoch-making invention.

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This is not what Bloomberg Businessweek wants. Creative director Richard Turley's epoch-making invention is the Interesting Biz Mag Layout.

He pulled up a series of spreads for stories that might have looked like this, where the subjects are economists or C.E.O's or politicians and the like, on a projection screen hooked up to his Macbook. Mitigating design elements included bright colors, blown-up text, big lines, making the old white guys look really small, putting them on their sides, etc.

"In a way this kind of shows where we've kind of found our niche," said Turley, a youthful-looking Brit who was in jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt. "We're not afraid to play and to experiment. We kind of know that we have, visually anyway, boring subject matter. ... We just try to make it as interesting as we can."

"Literally it's like, who's got the weirdest idea is usually the place we'll start," chimed in editor-in-chief Josh Tyrangiel, who was standing to the right of the screen in slim khakis and a light-blue button down with the sleeves rolled up.

The magazine, which has a full-time editorial staff of about 70, has also benefited from the hyperefficient layout of the spaceship-like Bloomberg headquarters on Lexington Avenue. There, the Businessweek worker bees are all packed into a room where everyone has the same cramped little desk and no privacy to speak of. It's a far cry no doubt from the glamorous magazine lifestyle Tyrangiel had been acquainted with in his previous job at Time, which he said had a staff of around 450 when he started in 1999 and where his office alone was 300 square feet. But the arrangement has its advantages nonetheless.

"The Bloomberg philosophy is that everyone should be within whispering distance," said Turley, who previously worked at The Guardian. "That means that you work quickly. If Josh has a cover story that we've got planned and it falls through, I know about it before Josh has even got off the phone."

"I had literally come from a place where, if I wanted to go talk to the art director, I would have to go walk a city block, and that seemed not smart, from a layout perspective," said Tyrangiel. "When I got over to the Bloomberg building and saw all these desks I thought, this is great."

They set the place up so that art directors would be sitting next to editors would be sitting next to photo editors and so on.

"You get this really interesting creative friction, all because Bloomberg believes in cheap office space," said Tyrangiel.

But perhaps the biggest change Tyrangiel made after Bloomberg gave him the keys to Businessweek was an editorial one.

"There was a lot management guru bullshit, to be honest" he said of the magazine's previous incarnation under McGraw Hill. "A lot of stuff about finding the best you, and I just thought, that's insulting."

Instead, Tyrangiel took Businessweek in a newsier direction at a time when its core subject matter—money, finance, economics—had become one of the most important threads in the news cycle.

"They'd gotten out of the news business," he said. "They'd really focused on this kind of middle management, how do you get ahead. And this is in the middle of a financial crisis. ... The magazine had been so fat and so rich that people believed the audience would read it out of obligation. And nobody reads out of obligation. You have to argue for your right to exist."

Disclosure: I used to write regularly as a freelancer for Bloomberg Businessweek.