Graphic Times with New York Times Designer Tracy Ma

On Garbage Design, Font Punchlines, and Fruitful Tension

  • Interview: Olivia Whittick
  • Photography: Monika Mogi
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Tracy Ma

Businessweek, February 2016.

Businessweek, January 2014.

Barack Obama’s face fails to fully load, and an Apple color wheel spins where his nose should be. Walmart’s jolly cost-cutting Smiley turns sinister, peering through Venetian blinds like an agent. A baby is covered in price stickers which spell out the phrase, “Guess who gets to decide how much everything costs?” Graphic designer Tracy Ma is interested in power. Who has it, and why? And how can we take them down a notch with only an image? For me, the ability to “get away with” something is very much tied to power, but it is also very much tied to talent. For the most part, only the smart and skilled can pull the wool without reprimand. Ma is one of these people—a small-time trickster with the ability to smooth a design faux-pas into a stroke of genius. If you don’t recognize her name, what you will recognize is her work—she is responsible for many of the covers that made Bloomberg Businessweek one of the strangest and most intriguing business magazines of its era. Under creative director Richard Turley, it became the unlikely magazine that every photographer wanted to shoot for; it became a source of inspiration for graphic designers who never would have otherwise sought out a business publication for its artistic ingenuity. For many, it put Businessweek on the radar, its design thrust adding style to creatively bankrupt content, flashy covers spurring people to pick it up off the stands. Tracy now works at the New York Times Styles desk, and teaches a course on graphic design at Parsons. I spoke to her in a little apartment in Greenwich Village on a humid afternoon in New York.

Olivia Whittick

Tracy Ma

I’m not going to ask you too much about Businessweek, but I was listening to the lecture you gave at RISD, and in it you said you felt like you were constantly rebelling against the company that you were working for in your time at Bloomberg. To a certain degree, I’m sure most creative people working in a corporate environment feel that way. How did that tension inform what you guys were able to achieve there in the Turley era?

We were seeking ways to get away with something. And it was easy at Bloomberg, because that environment was so different than any creative endeavour. Any little thing we were doing was the antithesis. We were the antithesis of internal sales people, from the way they dressed to the way they pitched ideas. The confines of the company were huge. Technologically, we had to use this thing called The Terminal, and day-to-day things were so difficult because of the interface (that the company makes 9 billion dollars a year of off)—every little thing, even making a meeting, was kind of rebelling against the company. And so we created a bubble around the people that would rebel with us.

It was evidently very inspiring for you guys, in maybe a backwards way.

I didn’t realize how fruitful tension could be until I started working at Bloomberg. It completely developed the crazy visual aesthetic that Businessweek had for so many years.

How do you employ humor in design, or know when to use it?

Never make fun of people who don’t deserve it. At Businessweek it was very easy, because everyone was terrible and often misusing their power. We were making fun of very specific people doing very specific things.

Trying to make something fun for yourself feels like what made Businessweek what it was at that time.

Subtlety and hiding Easter eggs is the only way I derived joy from my work there towards the end.

Businessweek, August 2015.

In your experience, what makes an image travel on the internet?

If it can speak to a very specific type of thing. My stuff doesn’t go viral, but the viral images that I respond to are very minute. If it speaks to a very small group of people, that’s what I value in a meme.

Right, like incredible specificity.

Or if something is mesmerizing to look at but also has meaning behind it. If someone can decode something, and enjoy looking at it, they will want to share the feeling that they have decoded something. I’m quoting Darcie Wilder in a speech that she gave—and I’m paraphrasing her wrongly—but she said her tweets are successful because they’re so garbage-y that it feels like whoever is retweeting could have come up with the tweet on their own. So there is role-play involved in meme culture, with shares and retweets. It’s like, “I could have made that joke.”

Or, “I wish I did.” It’s interesting to me how deeply people enjoy the process of decoding.

It’s what makes memes memes.

I’m curious about trends in graphic design, probably because I’m not a designer and so I have distance from it, but also of course engage with it all so much just being an alive human. Like, what is the trend cycle of fonts? How do aesthetics in graphic design go from clever and cool to corny? At what speed?

Trends are something that we talk about a lot in the class I teach at Parsons—which is over soon, thank god. A trend is a trend when you are aping something that has nothing to do with its original context. Like for example, David Carson, who was an untrained surfer/skateboarder dude who made type compositions that spoke to his subculture. At the time he was very cool, and he ended up informing in a short few years the whole look of advertising. So that cool grunge-y aesthetic is lifted in service of something else, and loses meaning when it’s not speaking to its original context. I think that’s one way to overcome being trendy—to focus on the context, and to find what you can fight against. The only trend I recognize now is that circular sans serif font being used for every start-up, and part of that is the popularity of gothic but it’s also Céline, and The Gentlewoman. That aesthetic is now used for every single toothbrush company.

Total Power Move, 2016.

Total Power Move, 2016.

Fonts are so semantically loaded—each one has an aura, its own personality. You can write any phrase and if you use a specific font it has such a specific tone.

There was a whole trend while I was still at Businessweek of garbage design, of using garbage fonts, and that was a rebellion against Apple, and start-up-y typographic best practices. Typographic excellence. And that’s when we started going, “Fuck this, this is so annoying,” and going to, and garbage font places. There was sort of a thrill in that.

Of being bad.

Of being bad! And in a very small way—like, it’s just design! And then to get the reaction of people being upset about that was funny to us. People are way more in tune with the kind of meaning that fonts carry these days, even if they aren’t designers. People have sharper eyes now. They are visually woke, they are much more able to decode meaning in graphics almost instantaneously, just from seeing an overload of it. Fonts now play a role in delivering punchlines.

That sort of campy, tacky, bad-on-purpose approach—I hope that isn’t offensive—is very you to me.

There is something of a throwing in the towel kind of mindset with using camp in design, of freeing yourself from your anxieties. And I used camp to do that, which isn’t the proper way. Those anxieties are still there.

Total Power Move, 2016.

Total Power Move, 2016.

Are there any rules you would never break?

I would never just make something illegible. I would never ape someone’s aesthetic because I couldn’t figure out how to design something on my own.

It’s a strange time to be a creative person in media, when every brand is trying to editorialize. Everyone wants to make a magazine even when it makes no sense for them to do that. Every individual is a content producer.

All I feel about that subject is anxiousness, even sitting here. Like 15 years ago a designer could probably feel sort of ok just designing, and it seems like now you have to be this and that. And you have to look sick. Some people should just try not to also look sick.

Editorialize everything! Even yourself!

There’s this writer I admire—I can’t tell you who it is because I’m about to say something a little neggy—and she writes beautifully. I’m like obsessed. But this person also feels like their social presence needs to be a certain way, and they want to be admired for their quite basic style as well as their not-basic-at-all writing. It’s semi-depressing, I guess, that writing well has nothing to do with all these other aspects of your output. I really admire Maggie Nelson, a writer who just doesn’t do any social. Which is bad for us because we can’t mine more content from her, but her output is her output and I admire that. It probably took a lot of out her to extrude The Argonauts, and she didn’t put any of that extrusion effort into her social feed.

I still find it incredibly weird, that you have to brand yourself in all these ways beyond just the work you are doing.

And I’m not good at it. I’m good at this very specific thing. Just please look at my covers!

What are some design reference points you find yourself returning to?

Stylistically, it’s just nostalgia for me at this point. The 90s Hong Kong signage and aesthetic. It just gives me a sense of comfort.

If we were to look back on this moment in a decade how do you think it would be defined aesthetically?

It’s very loud, it’s very eclectic. In terms of fashion…pretty…chunky? It’s like still Phoebe Philo’s Céline era, a lot of oversized chunks. And that stuff already looks dated.

I wonder if we are just too all mixed-together now.

I’m sure every decade probably felt as overlappy and chaotic. Like in the 70s, it wasn’t just wide-leg pants. And with graphic design too, there’s always going to be that lineage of Swiss modernism in every decade, even though it’s not the riding look. I think with that sort of summation, you are just throwing out things that didn’t fit with the canon. The oughts had the most distinct look. When I was just coming-of-age with my eyeballs in terms of graphics—the raver aesthetic type of graphic design, the PlayStation 2 type. That stuff's super trendy now. I’m trying to find those oughts jeans. Low-waist and tight and really long and slightly flared.

Those never looked good on me.

No, same.

I always think trends have reached their peak, but then they actually don’t peak for so much longer. Sometimes it feels like, aesthetically, nothing is changing.

It does feel that way, but in ten years this will look of its time.

Olivia Whittick is an editor at SSENSE. She is also managing editor at Editorial Magazine.

  • Interview: Olivia Whittick
  • Photography: Monika Mogi
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Tracy Ma