David Miller, the art director of The Seattle Times’ Pacific NW magazine, grew up in suburban Kansas City.
He’s a Jayhawk, through-and-through, having studied journalism at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
He worked at ad agencies and design studios in Kansas City throughout college and learned art and design “on the job.” One of his primary clients was Workbench magazine for whom he produced 3-dimensional exploded diagrams of furniture plans. The technical drafting was complicated precision work, all hand drawn and inked — and an invaluable skill years later when newspapers came looking for artists who could produce informational graphics and diagrams.
After stints at The Kansas City Star, San Jose Mercury News, USA Today and The Denver Post — three of those, he worked for twice! — Miller settled at The Seattle Times, where he’s been for about 27 years.
What does an art director do?
The job of an art director is to figure out how to visually present a story — photographically, illustratively, conceptually — to communicate complex information simply and, hopefully, to generate an emotional response.
The art director makes stories instantly understandable and forever memorable, if possible.
Why do so few newspapers have magazines anymore? The Seattle Times is one of the few.
People have less time for straight leisure reading. They’re working at least one job, juggling home, kids, commutes. Of the people still reading the news, many are getting it on their phone or computer. Time is precious, and so when a moment opens up for some reading, readers want the latest information available right now!
We’re fortunate that we work at a place that still values long-form, thoughtful journalism and is willing to provide the time and resources to deliver it. In the magazine, we try to give readers a good reason to open us up every week. On the one day of the week that might offer readers a little more time, we try to fill it with something worth their time — stories and pictures that make a difference.
The magazine staff has five people: the editor, associate editor, two writers and the art director. How does that work?
It’s a weekly scramble. We really have to be on top of it. A lot of planning goes into even the smallest issue. We’re working on next week’s issue, and we’re working on stories three months from now, and managing the flow of all the pieces as deadlines get closer. Everything has to be there and ready and right when we sit down to put an issue together. The editing of stories, photos, illustrations and graphics is always under way.
Tell us more about the editing process. What are you looking for?
The big parts are obvious; it’s the little details that make all the difference — in the stories and in the visuals — between a presentation being ordinary and extraordinary.
Everybody, from the writer to the photographer to the editors, goes the extra mile to produce their best work for the magazine. I want them all to feel like I gave them my best effort to make their work look as good as possible. I want our readers to look forward to opening the magazine. I want them to expect to see beautiful, compelling work every week.
Unlike most magazines anymore, week in, week out, Pacific NW is a showcase for good photography. Beautiful, compelling pictures that stay with you. We’re blessed with a staff of stellar photojournalists — especially in a time when so many papers are gutting their staffs — and I want to make sure the extra effort and the extra miles the photographers put in are rewarded with a great display.
Design-wise, I like to let the photographs or illustrations tell the story without a lot of extraneous design noise. Let the pictures speak for themselves, do the heavy lifting. My personal taste is toward clean, intelligent, elegant design. I want a reader to scan the headline, decks, picture and captions say, “I’ve got to read this.”
Good design should compel a response. In our case, it should move someone to read the story.
With that small staff and that big scramble, do you ever get to take vacations?
There’s really just the three of us editing, so we work doubly hard to get ahead, and we cover for each other as best we can. Like everywhere else in the newsroom, there’s not much give in the schedule. The first half of any vacation is spent recovering from all the extra work you put in just to take the time off.
You’re a designer, but your college degree is in journalism. How did you choose your path?
While I was in college, I worked in advertising and promotions almost full time. I learned how to deliver a simple message with one photograph and five words that would elicit an emotional response. I got to do a number of public-service ads, and those were fun and inspiring to work on. I was picking up art and design on the job, so, in school, I worked toward a degree in advertising, which was taught through the journalism school. I started hanging out with news journalism students and began working on the University Daily Kansan and soon found myself heading in a whole new direction. It still helps to be able to put together a five-word headline and a powerful photo to grab someone’s attention.
Why does the magazine still work?
The magazines that are doing well are niche publications — trade magazines, hobbyist publications, etc. If you can speak to readers about topics they really care about, you can stay in business. Credit The Times for its unwavering commitment to a long-form read every week about the people who live and work right here. We give stories room to breathe — great writing, great photography, great artwork.
Yes, you still do artwork!
I started out as an artist and I still enjoy it. I don’t get the time to do it as much as I would like, but I get a few opportunities every year. I squeeze it in when I can, usually late at night. As I tell young artists coming up, “The stars come out at night.” If you want an eight-hour day, go sell insurance. You have one chance to create something special on any given assignment. Don’t blow it by giving less than your very best effort. Go the extra mile and challenge yourself.
With all the online publications and social media platforms available, there has never been a better time to be an emerging artist. There are so many ways to get your work seen. Make sure it’s worth seeing. Remember, “Perfect is good enough.”
NOTABLE DESIGNS AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVID MILLER
The smug notion that the Pacific Northwest, compared to the rest of the quickly deteriorating occupied world, is some sort of geographic Safe Zone from natural calamities is laughably false, Ron Judd writes in a humor column illustrated by David Miller.
The decision to be a mother is as intense, and personal, as ever. Several Seattle-area women shared with us how they made their choice to be a mom — or not.
The Stupid Idiot’s Guide tackles 10 of our most-pressing plugged-in problems (plus II from those pesky ancient Romans).
It’s a long road to belonging for those Americans who join a country struggling to address immigrants, refugees and undocumented residents.
Professional Bigfoot believers keep believing, and profiting, but they lack one thing: evidence.
Seattle’s future as a major city began 100 years ago, with the grand opening of the Ballard Locks and the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
You can find previous Behind the Byline interviews and other peeks behind the scenes on our Inside the Times page. Want to learn more about your favorite Seattle Times journalist? Send a message to assistant metro editor Gina Cole.