These are big moments in magazine design: Esquire in the sixties, when George Lois creates a new iconic vocabulary of celebrities and politics (Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian, for instance); New York in the late sixties and seventies, when Milton Glaser and Walter Bernard reengineer the architecture of a magazine page (sidebars, call-outs, subheads; type as graphic element); and Condé Nast, in the eighties, when, because of the power of design emperor Alexander Liberman, art directors become as important as editors.
And then there is Roger Black ("I've designed more magazines than you'll ever read," he has been known to say). The last thing you would ever do, or that he would ever want you to do, is associate him with one moment or magazine, no matter how significant or momentous. Instead, the goal he seems to have set for himself is to design, practically speaking, all magazines. And, to a large degree, he has succeeded -- certainly he has designed more magazines than anybody else; he may also have made more money from magazines than any nonowner. This is not so much about homogenization, necessarily, as it is about, perhaps, compatibility. We (the general reader) expect magazines to look the way Roger makes them look. Roger has created a standard. Using a Macintosh, he has become the Windows of print.
Roger-watchers, who include other designers, as well as former clients, employees, and protégés (in fact, there is a Website devoted to Roger-watching), would not disagree very much with this assessment -- but it would make them laugh anyway. This is strictly laughing with and not at. What's funny is that year after year, magazine after magazine, doing pretty much exactly as he pleases, in some seemingly effortless, amazingly overpriced fashion, he somehow keeps everyone happy -- many even find him endearing.
Most recently, the National Enquirer, the Star, and the Globe's new owners -- a buyout firm undoubtedly thinking of a tabloid IPO -- have hired him. Roger's redesigning the tabs seems way off. Roger's stock-in-trade is fealty to classic, elegant typographical standards -- serif type and Oxford rules -- while a sensationalist tabloid's reason for existing involves pretty much an opposite philosophy about type (the more vulgar the better) and taste. Obviously though, even the tabloids, forced to compete with the tabloidization of the general media, must have sensed that there is something unavoidable or inevitable about Roger.
I have hired Roger, too -- more than once. In each instance, I hired Roger even though it was obvious -- it is part of Roger's charm that everything is obvious -- that Roger himself devotes very little time to any one project he takes on (once, in a rare working meeting I had with Roger, he spent a few minutes looking carefully at a prototype and then made his single and singular contribution to the project: "Lose the Bodoni") and that his junior and junior-junior designers will do the job. So why do we (that is, virtually everyone who has a magazine to design and who is able and willing to afford him) hire Roger if we don't actually get Roger himself, and if, what's more, he'll make our magazine (or newspaper or Website) look like everyone else's?
"Roger stages an office Christmas party and explains that he would like everyone to leave the building carrying a component part of one of his many Macintosh workstations."
What is the attraction? What is the compulsion to hire Roger?
Roger has designed or redesigned Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, McCall's, The New Republic, Fast Company, Reader's Digest, Foreign Affairs, Advertising Age, Esquire, and now the National Enquirer (to name just a brief sampling). His new, parallel Web career goes from parentsoup.com and barnesandnoble.com to the U.S. Senate. The accomplishment and anomaly here is not just that he could fit his style to such contradictory enterprises but that he could get along with such disparate proprietors and corporations.
What this says about Roger, I've come to think, is that he has, not unendearingly, many character traits in common with the Claude Rains character Louis Renault, the police captain in Casablanca who is able to prosper with Free French and Germans alike -- that is, a high level of irony and an innate sense of the minimum obeisance his many patrons demand. "He is," according to one editor, "the greatest operator in New York today." Which is saying something. (Indeed, you suspect you might one day discover that he is, underneath his pleasantly cynical exterior, like Louis, a decent fellow -- even a dedicated designer.)
What Roger's vast success says about the people who hire him is more complex. In some sense, the very thing that is annoying about Roger when you're paying him (that he is off in Milan at the Principessa or in Paris at the Ritz) is what you value him for, too: He's taken the art out of art director. He is the antidote to Fabien Baron and Tibor Kalman and Neville Brody -- the temperamental and unpredictable designers. The fact that Roger himself is not there doing the job you're paying him for is, in some ways, a relief; you get the name without the ego.