Out of Print

The Innovator

By Jonty Cruz

Portrait couresy of Kate Elazegui.
Kate Elazegui on her career as a publishing designer, how she wants to reinvent Opinion, and her New York Magazine state of mind.

Don’t follow the money,” Kate Elazegui tells me. We’re closing in on the second hour of what is perhaps the best Zoom call of my life when we start talking about advice. Good, solid advice—the kind that stays with you forever.

“Don’t follow the money,” Kate reiterates.  “I know it sounds very cliché to say that but what I would say—maybe not to all designers but designers who are just dying to do great work—is if you know you have it in you, don’t follow the money. What you need to do is follow the work.”

Kate was 24 when she heard this from her then boss Bob Newman, whom she calls a titan of magazine design. He gave Kate her first job in New York when she was a fresh transplant from Chicago trying to make it in the beating heart of publishing. “At first I was like, ‘That’s easy for you to say! I have to pay rent in New York City.” But the advice stuck and proved essential.

Kate has always been consumed with finding ways to become a better designer.  “Even when I worked at a financial magazine where the content was pretty dry, I wanted to find creative solutions for typically non-visual material,” she says. She’d take on stories nobody wanted to design, let alone enjoy reading. She’d challenged herself to create memorable designs out of something as bland as 401k stories and mixed stock portfolios. “I’d re-imagine those stories as visual charts of butter and jam and the various amounts needed to spread on your lifetime supply of bread.” Opportunities to push creative boundaries built her confidence as a versatile designer. “It sharpened my skills,” she tells me. “I felt I could take any type of content and make it more interesting.”

Throughout the interview it became clearer and clearer how much Kate valued the opportunity to learn from the best. “Look for the places where you’re going to learn. Look for the people who are doing good work,” she says. “When you meet someone who’s passionate, it’s magic.” She spoke briefly about Bob Newman but it seemed like she could talk forever of the brilliance of Adam Moss, the former editor of New York Magazine who ushered the brand into the digital age of publishing and gave us Vulture, The Cut, and Grub Street.

She recalls her time at NY Mag fondly. It’s evident from the way she talks about it that she loved working there no matter how tiring and gruelling it was. She says she tries to apply what she learned there to all her jobs post-NY. First when she moved to digital brands such as Grantland and FiveThirtyEight, and now to perhaps the biggest publication of them all, The New York Times.


While there were earlier opportunities to join The Times, Kate says she still needed to grow, and that there were still things she had to learn before going for it. “It sounds unreal to say it but I said it, ‘I’m not ready for The New York Times yet. I’m not ready for The New York Times yet.’”

In 2018, she was ready.

Kate was hired by The New York Times as the design director of its Opinion Section. It was a new position tailor-made for her.

The New York Times is arguably the pinnacle of journalism. The most recognized paper in the world, however, is also the most criticized. This year alone, its Opinion section received widespread criticism for publishing an op-ed written by Republican senator Tom Cotton who suggested the use of military force against civil unrest at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. Immediately following its publication, staff from The New York Times publicly denounced the article and said that “Running this put Black New York Times staffers in danger.” The controversy led to the departure of Opinion editor, James Benett, and further emphasized the need to rethink what the Opinion section is really meant for. It’s the kind of pressure and expectation Kate was preparing for when she took on the job. “I’m sorry to my mom for swearing but with all the news and content out there, this is where it is so damn important to get it right.”

Today, Kate is hard at work planning how to rethink and redesign the Opinion section. She imagines what the section could become. She wants it to surprise and to provoke, and be a place where people go to read about the different sides of the latest issues.

She talks more about her plans and her illustrious career over Zoom and email.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

“I think that’s part of every marriage, every friendship, and every working relationship. You can feel good for someone but you can also feel, “But wait, what am I doing wrong?”

Out of Print: Hi Kate! Thank you so much again for taking the time for this interview. Before we start, I just wanted to give a really belated congratulations to you and your family. The article you and your wife, Emily [Kehe], did for The Cut was just so beautiful. How are you and your family doing?
Kate Elazegui: The family is doing well. Like for many people with two four-year-olds, it’s an all-day, all-consuming thing and the boys think we’re just here to have fun with them. [Laughs]

May I ask how that article came about?
The backstory was that it was a favor to some editors [from New York Magazine]. When it was coming out I thought no one would look at it, no one would care, and it would just go quietly on the internet. And I was totally wrong! What was really telling was that women often don’t talk about the difficulty of getting pregnant—the challenges of actually conceiving. It was so touching to see how it resonated with so many women.

I thought my mom was going to be so upset because I swore in the article. True to Filipino fashion, she called me after reading and said, “Did you have to swear?” [Laughs] I was just so tired that it just came out of my mouth.

We are a gay married couple. Putting our story for the world to see made us nervous. But when we started hearing thoughtful responses, we realized that people wanted to know our story and our birth journey. We still can’t believe we did it, but we accept our story carries the conversation forward and it makes it more real for people. We’re so thankful that our story gave others the courage to talk about it.

I think it was also a story of empathy. Especially here in the Philippines where it’s still so deeply conservative, there are so many who struggle with conceiving and it’s something that isn’t discussed publicly. The people I shared the article with, they talked about how they understood what you were going through with your pregnancy. Especially when you talked about seeing your wife have an easier time getting pregnant compared to you. They felt that too. It just highlighted what so many women must have gone through and are going through.
And it’s perfectly okay to admit that and talk about it. My wife is my best friend and I was so happy for her pregnancy because it was our pregnancy, but then there’s this question of “what is wrong with me? Why am I not [able] to do this?” I felt guilty that I was jealous. It almost feels taboo to say “How could she get pregnant and not me? How are good things happening to her?” I think that’s part of every marriage, every friendship, and every working relationship. You can feel good for someone but you can also feel, “But wait, what am I doing wrong?”

Again thank you for sharing your story. To me it also just shows how remarkable you are and also reinforces the work you’ve done in publishing. You’ve built for yourself such a great resume but can I ask if you had any odd jobs growing up?
I only worked one non-publishing job. When I was in art school, I worked at the Disney Store, greeting guests at the door. At the time, I thought I was going to be an animator. I loved drawing even as a kid. And I thought—and I know it’s so weird—but I thought that maybe if I worked at the Disney Store, that’s one step closer to Disney Studios. [Laughs]

A magazine doesn’t have to be the same every single page. It should feel like an experience.
I’m so excited to talk to you about your career in New York Magazine. I think for my money there’s no magazine that’s had the most success and impact on how to successfully adapt to digital than New York.
That’s obviously the genius of Adam Moss [editor of New York Magazine from 2004 to 2019]. There’s certainly an editorial and design legacy to New York Magazine. It’s long been considered a provocative literary magazine. From its founding days, there was an undeniable partnership between design mind, Milton Glazer and editorial mind, Clay Felker. So when Adam came to the magazine—I was hired soon after he joined the staff—he realized he wanted to redo, rethink, and redesign everything to capture that same spirit. That was the first time I saw an editor who understood the power of visuals, who understood the power of design, who understood the power of different narratives. He didn’t just think as a word editor but thought about photography, design, art — even data-viz charts! It was inspiring to work with someone who raised that storytelling bar on a daily basis. In the weekly review of layouts where he poured over details like headlines and captions and also photos and artwork, he might say, “Okay this is fine, but I think it could have more power. We could be doing more.” That’s already a rare comment from an editor on deadline, but even more rare was that he also knew what to do to make it better. He had great visual instinct. He understood that all these different narratives together could make a really provocative product. It was exciting.

What was your time there like?
Exhausting. [Laughs] I worked there for five years but it felt like 20. Everybody brought their A-game every single day. We all wanted to do something different every issue; it didn’t matter how long it took. It wasn’t about deadlines, but how long you could stay awake to make something great.

Hearing about your time there, it’s hard not to miss working in magazines. And how you talk about Adam, I think a mark of a really good editor is if you can make your staff believe that this is the most important job in the world. 

I feel like that’s the culture you had.
It was very much that! Everyone who’s worked there knows it was the most brilliant experience to work for someone who knows how to push and inspire you. I will say that not every editor is cut out for that, nor every designer. I’ve worked at places since New York Magazine where I thought, “Can we try to be more inspiring about our work?” The passion that Adam Moss had for magazines breathed life into everyone else. It wasn’t just your job, it was your passion. Everyone there most likely refers to it as the pinnacle of their career, a time in which they learned how to be really creative and collaborative. I now take elements of what I learned from my time there and try to apply it to every job since. Once you’ve seen it work, you try to teach that to your team and capture some of that magic.

The magic of New York is that collaboration between designer and editor. When there’s a great amount of push and pull in that relationship, it’s magic! It doesn’t mean that the editor knows all the answers or the designer knows all the answers, but it helps that one can think like the other — an editor thinking like a designer and a designer thinking like an editor.  And when they bring their skill sets together, they come up with something that’s visually, narratively, and creatively interesting. A magazine doesn’t have to be the same every single page. It should feel like an experience.

“Creativity can often feel unbridled if you see everything as interesting. But when everything is interesting, almost nothing is substantial.”

Since you mentioned those “other places” can we talk about Grantland? In some ways it’s the sports website I always dreamt of. It’s almost entirely associated with Bill Simmons but in hindsight its design has connections to the other publications you’ve worked on. Could you talk about how you also made it your own?
So Grantland was the first time where my work was only digital. I was doing some iPad and app design for digital start-ups and for New York when I realized that I needed to fully embrace digital publishing. To be honest, I wasn’t such an avid Grantland reader and I didn’t know who Bill Simmons was! But I knew and admired someone who worked there and he suggested I consider Grantland as my next chapter.

I also wasn’t familiar with the sports angle of the site, but I quickly learned there was a special narrative voice — a certain kind of curious confidence where the topics seemed limitless and the tone and style of its writing connected to its readers. In addition to Bill Simmons, there were also many young talented writers that he mentored and encouraged. People who you would not think would want to write about sports would write about it as a cultural phenomenon, a familiar characteristic of New York Magazine: the topic as zeitgeist. If you can tie a thread through many of the places I’ve worked, it is an experimentation with narrative voice and ability to communicate “We’re not just this [one thing].”

Was it hard to go fully digital?
It was very hard for me. I had never designed for such an extreme vertical format. I knew how to design for magazines which are about pacing, drama and scale. I look back at that time when I was just learning everything—and remember how I loved that Bill and editors like Dan Fierman and Sean Fennesy, very much embraced experimentation. Adam was more “Make stuff but do it perfectly.” And here it was: “Make it and let’s see how it works!” Digital is more forgiving in a way. You can build things that might break, but you can fix it. You can evolve it over time, in real time.

The one thing I’ll always be sad about Grantland, and may it rest in peace, is that we worked hard on a redesign that never launched. Finally trying to capture what readers loved about the site in a fun digital experience was super exciting. We were near ready to launch when Grantland fell apart for ESPN. The redesign now just lives on my computer and once in a while I look at it and think about how it never saw the light of day.

I’d like to think, in another/better world, we’d have seen your redesign and we’d still have Grantland. I have to say while I enjoy its successor in The Ringer, I do find its design to be a bit wanting.
Yeah, perhaps because they do not have a design director. The Ringer still has good content but I think what’s lost in many websites today is the investment in a design team. Many digital platforms focus on the back end of it and maybe for efficiency, believe it’s just a container where the editors fill in the holes. Obviously that can work and I think The Ringer is still a vibrant website. But it lacks the ability to use design to break out of monotony, to offer surprise. In the early days of Grantland, they didn’t have a design team. When I joined, we started putting in resources to make it more experiential, more unexpected—designing custom experiences with reader engagement, using animation and video. I think it’s a matter of looking which companies use design as an important resource in what they offer. And to be honest, there aren’t a lot of places that do that. They create beautiful websites as “the shell”, but not investing in the experience or its unique ability to differentiate from others.

In my time at ESPN, I oversaw niche editorial sites like Grantland and FiveThirtyEight. Part of the ask was to create the visual container, but also to question what we could do to innovate that container every day. What could we be doing that’s unexpected, that’s interesting, that readers would notice. For me, that means you need a visual team working in parallel with the editor. Too often in websites, there are designers involved at the early stage, but not in its daily evolution.

That’s something I really miss, that ability to experiment. I love the site that we have here  but it’s hard to experiment given the resources and the fact that we rely on Cargo.
That’s true. Especially when you’re working on a framework like Cargo or WordPress, there’s a lot of rules to it right? They allow you to publish quickly, but there is something [to being able] to break out when you want to break out. We do it also in the New York Times where we have templates but we also take advantage of opportunities to break out to avoid being predictable.

One great piece of advice I’d give to editorial outfits is to find a designer who thinks like an editor. A majority of designers are good at layout and composition and that for me, is a given. They have to have really good design chops. But equally important is to find someone who reads your content and can ideate from that. Someone who can say, “I just sketched something from reading this piece. What do you think?” That’s the genius of an editor like Adam Moss. He didn’t just tell us what he wanted—he encouraged us to show him different kinds of ideas, how to push for a different expression, a non-predictable version of a story.

I think you can be more creative when you apply discipline. I fully believe that to be really great you have to be disciplined. Creativity can often feel unbridled if you see everything as interesting. But when everything is interesting, almost nothing is substantial. I always tell my designers to think like an editor but perhaps more importantly, as a reader. To imagine yourself as a reader who might not know anything about design and ask yourself, “Does the visual experience make sense?” Many times my designers will show me something and I’ll think, “Okay, that’s a really creative solution but my 75-year-old mother will not understand what I’m trying to communicate.” The experience cannot just be for me, a designer. It has to be for the everyday person who wants to learn, to read and be provoked. It all needs to be accessible.

“What I’m hoping to do for the Opinion section is to capture the smart conversations between many people, not just who is talking but why their point is something to consider.”

Reading about your hiring at The New York Times as design director of Opinion, it sounds like they made the job for you specifically. What’s that job like? Especially when one thinks of design, an opinion section isn’t really the first thing that comes to mind.
They did create a role where I oversee both print and digital efforts, and partner with graphics, video, photography and product design—a role that did not previously exist on the Opinion desk. A storied part of the visual legacy of The New York Times is that this section was known for publishing really powerful illustrations along with its content. So when they first approached me for the job, I told them while I really love commissioning editorial illustrations, it’s not something I’ve spent as a focus in my career. But they expressed intention to evolve the Opinion desk into a more digital future, open to being more experimental in its form. By now you know that’s an ask I rarely walk away from.

It’s been two years—and no major changes to launch quite yet—of thinking how to move Opinion design towards a more digital priority. But perhaps unsurprisingly, I have also started to rethink the print section as a magazine-like experience. I know the section is only 10 pages but you can still do so much with 10 broadsheet pages!

That sounds equally exciting and daunting.
Yes, I’ve been working on an interesting project at The New York Times. The publisher asked me to spend time exploring how we could innovate Opinion, its forms and its connection to readers. I’ve spent a lot of that time thinking, “What is it about Opinion that is unlike any other part of the newspaper?” For the most part, it’s a section that brings in different voices, different points of view to speak to a particular topic, event, situation. The diversity of voice is a unique differentiator for the desk and for The New York Times. The newsroom reports fact without fear or favor, but the Opinion desk offers thoughtful analysis through different, sometimes opposing, perspectives.

For example, on the topic of Covid: you have teachers, scientists, doctors, and policy makers. How do you make—and forgive me for the analogy—how do you create a dinner party where you invite these intelligent people? The feeling after a dinner party where you leave feeling smarter because you listened to many different views and have expanded your understanding and awareness. And part of what I’m hoping to do for the Opinion section is to capture the smart conversations between many people, not just who is talking but why their point is something to consider. That’s something that hasn’t been explored before in a really scaleable experiential way. I’m very excited to see if there are ways to create conversation that feels very different from news. Opinion could be a townhall conversation where people go to understand what the debate is, where you don’t need to listen to a hundred people but you want to know these people.

From everything you’ve done, you seem to emphasize designing some kind of experience.
You can see what I’m trying to do! Bring a little bit of what New York Magazine did to everything I do now: how do you apply discipline, how do you convey curiosity, and how do you create narrative voice? I hope the editors I work with are no longer annoyed [laughs] when they see that the stories I do touch, are better for it. They have more impact. Readers remember. And in journalism, that’s what we want. You want people to read it.

There’s so much good content in the world and you have to vie for people’s attention. I think one way to do that is to excel in the nuance of good writing and the craft of powerful design. Readers notice that even if they can’t articulate it. And then they start to expect it and desire an experience that matters to them.

And you said you have to do this for both print and digital? Which would you say has been harder?
While there are many advantages to digital, a real challenge we face is a loss of readers’ interest as a result of a typical quick consumption habit. In addition to just creating interesting stories, we also have to keep someone scrolling and engaging. How do you create an experience where a reader comes to an end of an article but should now be interested in clicking to another? In digital, it’s fairly easy to disengage and there’s so much energy spent addressing that reality, limiting the frictions of user behavior.

With print, it seems easier. Once you pick up a print product, you are forced to engage with it. It can be really fun and really easy to digest. The tangible aspect of holding a curated storyform—built for pacing, drama, and voice—is unparalleled. You can grab someone’s attention longer in print, you can capture visual or written moments that make great impact, saved sometimes as an artifact of flawless execution. Haven’t we all saved a powerful front page, an issue of a favorite magazine?  It makes me sad when people just discount the power of print. When The Times hired me, they said they needed to be better at digital and even though I understand those reasons, I still believe print can be a powerful driver of journalism. Sometimes holding it in your hands can make it more real.

It’s so refreshing to hear someone talk about wanting to innovate print. I gotta say I was so ready to just talk about digital the entire time but hearing how you plan to innovate print, and The New York Times no less…
I love both mediums, but I gotta tell you, my soul is print. ︎

Jonty Cruz is a writer and former magazine editor.