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James Reyman of Reyman Studio on the Power of Good Design

February 16, 2018

By Ian Spanier

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This month we are visiting with James Reyman, designer extraordinaire (www.reymanstudio.org and james@reymanstudio.com). Reyman is a mainstay in the magazine industry and has seen the business change and adapt since 2003.

Ian Spanier: Let’s start out with a bit about where you cut your teeth as a designer and how that’s come to form your design studio today.

James Reyman: My Dad was a “Mad Man” in the 1950s and 60s. A Madison Avenue agency guy. When I was a kid, he’d occasionally take me to his office and that was always an electric experience for me. I loved the atmosphere and the camaraderie. One time, when I was about eight years old, I was visiting and they had just finished a photo shoot with Cheryl Tiegs, who was a very famous model at the time. There were proofs all around the office. It was great and everyone was very excited.

A creative director invited me into his office to look at some of the proofs. To paint the scene: He was wearing an ascot and had those Elliot Gould sideburns. He had a drink with ice cubes on his desk in a short glass. He asked me which picture I liked best and I told him. He said he picked the same one, and so he and my dad gave me a present. One of their accounts was the Spiedel wrist watch band company, so they gave me about 10 twisty watch bands in red cases. Those watch bands are probably still in my mom’s house somewhere unopened.

That was my first experience with the professional world of art and design. I worked for my dad in a small studio setting after college and I decided that, at some point, I’d open a studio too.

IS: Who would you say is your biggest influence? Where do you find inspiration?

JR: I’ve had many influences. I grew up in the time of great change during the 60s and was exposed to new music from the Beatles, Stones, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. It was the age of feminism, civil rights and new ways of thinking. I was a kid who had many heroes: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, The DC comic artists, the MAD magazine artists and, later, Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee, Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, Rembrandt, Duhrer, Diebenkorn, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Andy Warhol. Many people whose work I love I don’t even know their names. Matchbox designers from Germany in the 1950s, cigarette packages, old automotive designs, etc. I love the modern designers and architects, Bauhaus, Dutch, Swiss. I love book jacket designers. There are so many I could not even begin to name them. The list would be too long.

I saw the work of Jim Spanfeller and Murray Tinkelman as a kid and wanted to be an illustrator. I met them both and went to Parsons School of Design to study illustration and painting. I loved every minute of school! I really learned what I was capable of. The classes were hard, the days were long and the work was mesmerizing. Mostly all of my friends today are classmates from Parsons. We all grew up together as artists. I still find heroes every day that I admire.

I’ve had many mentors—I call them my big brothers and sisters—in the business. Fred Woodward and Bob Newman are big brothers in the magazine business (Bob also hired me to help him teach a class at Columbia University). JC Suarez too. He hired me to work at New York Magazine when I was in college, my first big magazine job.

Juris Jurevics, at the time the publisher of SoHo Press, gave me my first book jacket assignment and had amazing trust in me and respect for me. I was not used to that. I designed many books for SoHo. Susan Cotler-Block hired me to teach an advanced type class at FIT after having a 15-minute conversation together. She trusted me and the class went extremely well. Lindy Hess was the director of the Columbia Publishing Course at Columbia University when I started teaching there, and she took me under her wing and had complete trust in me without ever telling me what to do. I’ve been at Columbia for eight years now.

These are all people who have influenced me with their greatness. I stand on their shoulders in everything I do.

IS: When it comes to working with clients, what would be your advice to young designers building their business?

JR: When I’m advising young designers who are working with clients, I tell them to listen carefully to the client when they discuss the project. Good communication is often about listening more than speaking. Turn your cell phone off before a meeting or a presentation. Prepare presentations carefully. Practice speaking in front of other people. Really know what you are talking about when you discuss a project. Know your typefaces and know why you used them on a project (“they came with the computer” is not a good reason).

Speak intelligently and speak clearly. Look the client in the eye. Be authoritative on the subject. Be able to support your decisions with intelligent reasons. No whining. No mumbling. No averting your eyes. Nothing beats being prepared. An editor of a national magazine invited me to his office to chat about a possible logo redesign. I went to his office and was guided to a conference room where 15 people were waiting for me. I did not break a sweat. I was prepared. I got the project. I tell my students that they will all get good jobs in publishing and will not believe their good luck when they get to work on a big project with global reach. They are also not going to believe how little time they have to do it. You have to have a lot of knowledge right at your fingertips.

IS: You host tea time or happy hour with creatives around the industry. What prompted this and how has it benefited you creatively, in business and personally?

JR: I love chatting with creative professionals. They are the smartest, funniest, most informed, self-effacing, best creative problem solvers with the best stories I’ve ever known. They are my best teachers.

Doing the kind of work we do requires a fair amount of solitude, so any chance that I can get to break out and talk is most welcome. I guess it started with the SPD gala—my favorite event. When I go, I get to chat with all my favorite art directors all in one place.  I started to invite them to my studio for a coffee and a chat. These are consistently the best conversations—so smart, so funny, so informative. I started to take photos and post them to Facebook. I always get a lot of comments and likes, but then I started getting calls from people who wanted to stop by for a chat. Now I’ve had about 50 people over for my studio visits and I’ve been asked by a few people to consider making videos of the events. That’s one new project in the works.

IS: Tell us a bit about your space.

JR: I’ve been in my studio space for 25 years. My first projects were designing book jacket designs (which are always fun; difficult but fun). For many years, most of my work was in publishing. I’ve designed a lot of books, jackets and interiors for SoHo Press, William Morrow and Company, Bloomberg Press, Harper Collins, Golden Books, Gibbs Smith, etc., and have done magazine redesigns (Bloomberg, Hollywood Reporter, TV Guide) newspaper projects (Wall Street Journal redesign, Washington Post design consultation, guest art director for the New York Times, etc).  I also have done infographic development for the Nielsen Company and posters, books and newsletters for the Spitzer School of Architecture at CCNY in addition to projects for Columbia University. I have the greatest freelance designers who work with me on the larger projects.

One day, about ten years ago, I was working and looked up to see the most beautiful colors outside my window. It was a sunset, so I grabbed my camera and started taking photos out the window. I pieced them all together in Photoshop and created the first panorama out my window. Since then, I’ve created many more. I have a spectacular view from here with north- and south-facing windows. The panoramas are beautiful. I print them out on my Epson printer. I actually just found out that a big hotel is being constructed right next to me, so my view will be eliminated. The panoramas will stand as a testament to my beautiful view.

IS: You also play a mean guitar, draw and paint. How does this all contribute to your creative process?

JR: Thank you for the compliment! I was always an artist as a kid. My brother and I used to make little comic books. We would draw dinosaurs and ambulances in the same drawing. We’d make comics of bike races with villains and good guys. I picked up the guitar at around age 10; I was a little kid in the 60s and got to witness music and events that changed the world. There were a lot of musicians in my neighborhood in New York City at that time and they were really good! I learned a lot from them and always kept my toe in it. I still play every day and I still enjoy it.

I learned at a young age that great art can take many forms. If you listen to a guitar solo by Eric Clapton, when he played live with the Cream in 1968, you have an idea of what it takes to make a great painting. A well-written book can help you live the life you have chosen for yourself, just like a great songwriter. Reading good books and listening to great songwriters gets you into the head of some great thinkers. It can help change your life, it can get you out of that small town you’ve been trying to get out of. All of these things can make you a better artist.

My drawings and paintings have always been my best personal work and have fed my design work. Studying at Parsons School of Design, I had very long and intensive drawing classes. It was a good thing for me. John Gundelfinger, one of my drawing teachers, told me that I would get to a point as a professional when I would forget everything I had learned at school—that’s how I’d know I’d become an artist. I had no idea what he meant at the time but, eventually, it did happen. I always draw on my travels. I created a fair amount of drawing on my trips to Europe as a young artist. I need to draw more now. Drawing is a direct connection to a person’s soul, whether they draw still lifes, magazine layouts, nudes, typefaces, buildings, industrial concepts, cars, tapestries and rug designs or doodles. A person’s drawing is the first and purest step in whatever project they are undertaking. It’s thinking on paper.

IS: You’re a big part of a publishing program at Columbia University. What’s the goal of that?

JR: The Columbia Publishing Course is a super intensive six-week graduate program in publishing. The first three weeks focus on book publishing. The second three weeks focus on the magazine program. In both programs, the students are broken up into teams of about 18 students each. For magazines, team members include a publisher, editor-in-chief, business manager, consumer marketing director, audience development director, branded content director, UX product developer, social media editor, features editor and two art directors, one for digital and one for print. The goal is to invent a magazine for an underserved audience. Each student plays a vital role, just like in a real magazine. I work with the students who are chosen to be art directors. Many do not have any formal design training, but they are incredibly intelligent and excellent creative problem solvers. With the help of an incredible reference table filled with the best-designed magazines of the year, sent to me by the best design directors, I show the print students how to think about logo design, covers, tables of content and feature articles. They have to create all that in one week. Their digital counterparts have to create both a website and mobile device home page and feature landing page. It’s a lot of work—12 to 16 hours a day—but they always shine through. I always have a top design director working with me to help the students because of the long hours.

IS: Where do you see the future of design heading? How do you best adapt to the changes?

JR: Design is a constantly moving, constantly changing, living thing. We all live with design all day, every day. It never stops.

We also live in a world of clutter. Magazines must be designed and organized to help readers get through. There are a lot of newspapers, magazines TVs, mobile devices, watches and tablets all vying for our attention. We need good designers to keep it all accessible and easy to read and easy to follow. Printed newspapers, books and magazines are the parents of the digital publications. And, just like human parents, their children should not take them for granted. News and information on a tablet must be presented differently than news on a computer screen. A mobile phone has another view and a smartwatch has yet another point of view. It’s all about design. Just about every single thing humans make has been designed; some good, some bad. Good design is increasingly important in our jam-packed world. Books, cars, houses, offices, parks, playgrounds, electronics…they all have to be designed and designed well. Remember that good design does not only make something look better, it makes it work better. The great thing about being a designer is that you never stop learning or finding interesting things to look at and design.


Ian Spanier is an award-winning advertising and editorial photographer based in Los Angeles and New York City and a PhotoServe member and contributor. As comfortable as he is in the studio, he can face any challenge presented on location. Ian’s first full book of published work, Playboy, a Guide to Cigars, documents his travels to nearly every country that manufactures cigars and is available at fine cigar shops and at major bookstores. His second critically acclaimed book, Local Heroes: Portraits of America’s Volunteer Fire Fighters, is out now in stores and online. You can visit the book’s Tumblr Page here. Spanier is a member of the Lowepro TeamPhotoflex’s Pro Team, and Imagenomic’s featured photographer list. He has been the recipient of numerous awards from such major photo competitions as American Photography, SPD, The International Color Awards, The International Black & White Spider Awards, PDN’s World in Focus, Planet Magazine, and Seeing the Light, to name a few. Finally, he is a regular lecturer for SMUG, as well as for The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Ian Spanier is available for assignment. Questions or comments, e-mail him at ian@ianspanier.com. To see more of Ian Spanier’s latest advertising and personal projects, visit his site at www.ianspanier.com. He is represented by Big Leo.


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