An interview with Chris Hercik, Sports Illustrated’s Creative Director

As a class project, I was assigned to learn about the magazine industry and all its facets (editorial, advertising, creative) by profiling one national magazine. A subscriber since 2004, I picked SI. Here’s the second part of my three-part series from interviews with the people who create one the world’s best sports magazines — and why those same people want you stop thinking about it as just a magazine.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Here’s Chris Hercik:

On his job description as Sports Illustrated Creative Director…

I oversee the creative identity of the magazine. Any new products we put out, weekly products, the Swimsuit issue, commemorative issues that we do, the .com website or mobile or tablet products that we design or distribute and all the visual aesthetics of it. I want to make sure (all those things) have that Sports Illustrated look and feel that people have come to love about the pictures and the writing. It’s really: How do you bring that all together in a visual story?

On his day-to-day routine…

As much as I’m the creative director of Sports Illustrated, I’m also the VP of Time Inc., native. I have about half of my day being spent on corporate initiatives, working across brands and across titles to create advertising programs. But only a daily basis, coming in, (I’m) seeing where all the designs are at, checking the layouts, the cover. Right now we’re in the preview season. We start with the college football preview then the NFL preview then we’ll do the college basketball preview and then the NBA preview. You have to keep those trains running while getting the weekly tasks done. It comes down to time management, trying to figure out when to do a re-design of the magazine and how to fit that into the schedule … So a lot of it’s time management and juggling and making sure we keep the trains running but while still looking forward for new creative designs and bigger-picture ideas. As well as, the big picture thing you know that I work on is swimsuit, and that comes out in February so we’re going to start laying that out in the next month and that’s going to take a large portion of time as well.

On commemorative editions…

There’s a World Series commemorative that has to happen. There are two started right now—one for obviously the Royals and one for the Mets. We sort of stopped working on the Mets one for now (after the Mets went down 2-0) and then went a little harder on the Royals to get that done so if they win, it’s done and out the door the next day.

On redesigning the magazine…

I would like to (re-design) within the next month. (SI) needs to be freshened up and I think it needs to respond a little more to what’s going on in culture. The aesthetics need to keep pace. Five years ago you wouldn’t redesign a magazine but every three years. But now, with the way mobile is and the way the internet is, people expect something new and fresh and change more frequently. In reality I’d like to redesign a magazine almost yearly to keep it fresh and current, but that means starting over from scratch. The whole grid of the magazine with fonts and typefaces and look and feel. It’s always going to have the Sports Illustrated DNA, but we want it to look unique. We don’t want it to look like ESPN. But how do we redesign to keep it fresh and new and exciting while keeping the basics of Sports Illustrated?

On what he’d like to change in the redesign…

I’d take a look at the pacing of the magazine. What are the sections of the magazine? Do we need all of them? Are they all still relevant? Everybody loves “Leading Off.” Maybe “Leading Off” gets another photo and “Scorecard” gets one fewer page. The feature well maybe gets bigger, I don’t know. But I do think we need to re-examine the magazine and see what’s working and what’s not. Maybe we add more columns; maybe we add a different back page. I think everything’s fair game when you go into a redesign. Usually it’s just the visual aesthetics, but for this one I’ve been working with our managing editor Chris Stone on it to say, ‘What else can we do and what else needs to be redesigned?’

On the balance between creative design and basic information transfer…

First, all the Sports Illustrated properties need to visually hold together. Even if one’s digital and one’s print, when you come to a product, you should know that it looks like SI. Any SI property, when you look at it, should hold together as a single brand. … So when I approach it, I think: What is the best direction for SI to go? What are we trying to convey? Whether we’re more digital or whether we’re responding to favorite tweets. Things like, we used to have “Letters” (in a front-of-book section) and now we have “Tweets.”

On balancing advertisement and editorial needs in native advertising…

In both situations, what the advertiser is trying to reach and what editorial is trying to do is: They’re both trying to give the reader the best experience. We’re trying to give the reader something they didn’t know and insights they didn’t have before. We don’t have to hit them over the head with ads. You don’t have to do that. It can be a line under the advertiser in content. You don’t have to write an advertiser’s name into a piece of content for people to understand what you’re doing. Our readers are smarter than that. As long as we’re able to give them added value or added benefit, our audience will engage. (Advertisers) know if it comes from Sports Illustrated … then they see a four to six times lift in engagement. In other words: The combination of the two together makes the difference because Sports Illustrated is working together with a partner to create a special piece of content for you, the reader. We know you’re going to like it, we know you’re going to read it, and we know you’ll engage with it. The readers are like, ‘Oh yeah, this is great. They made this for me.’ It’s not the old advertorial scenario anymore; it’s very much tailored to a certain need.

On the Sports Illustrated style…

We’re not the big flashy Esquire or GQ— and I don’t mean that in any disrespect — where I think sometimes design takes over for a lack of content. We are the exact opposite. I know that at SI the two things that readers want are photography and journalism. I’m happy (for design) to be the third wheel on that. My job is to make sure that we tell a story. (The design) may not win an award, but we’re a weekly magazine and we need to get it out on time and get the reader the best experience. We have to make sure it’s well-organized, easy to navigate and easy to read. That’s what we’re trying to do. Could we do GQ and Esquire for SI? One hundred percent. I could have big pictures and little words — and that’s great for that audience. I love GQ and Esquire, I read them personally, but that’s a totally different mindset.  If you took GQ and Esquire and crossed it with The New Yorker then SI is somewhere in the middle. That’s the best analogy I have for it. We just need to make sure we frame and showcase our content and make it (easy on) our readers. That sometimes means sacrificing flashy design, or design for design’s sake, but that’s what SI is.

On what he looks for in ‘good’ design…

Two things in good design: Balance, balance on a page, and contrast. Things shouldn’t look and feel like they have the same weight. How you design a page emphasizes how someone reads through a page. If you put a block of text, a photo and a caption all at the same size then obviously it’s hard to choose which to (read first). Make the photo four times the size then your eye will go right to that. Using visual cues to be able to, as a reader is flowing, to pick out a photo or pull quote or caption. To have another bit of content. Or it’s also to — knowing our stories are longer — give reader’s some of what I like to call “visual sorbet.” It’s giving your eyes a break before you continue reading. It’s also entry points. We don’t do a ton of entry points. I wish we would do more because I think people enter pages at very different ways and I think that’s one thing I would change. We should have more entry points on a page and that starts with a good grid system because things look clean and organized. It’s not things jutting through copy and it’s one of those things that hard to explain but when you look at a good page and look at a bad page then you can just immediately tell what the difference is.

On the nitty gritty of what makes a magazine well-designed…

We spend a lot of time tracking, kerning, ledding, and all the buzzwords that, if you asked readers, they wouldn’t know. But they do know they have a very smooth experience. White space. That’s not something we do at SI very well because every time we have white space everybody wants to fill it and that’s fine. We fight that battle because it does give more content to the reader, but I’d like to open up our pages a little bit. … I hate spaces between ellipses by the way. I like them next to one another. I think it just looks odd. It’s one of those things, right? When you have them side by side you see: The ellipses together just looks better and to me that says the same thing. Whoever made the style about put the extra space, I’m like, ‘Why?’ and it’s like those things where you go with your gut. Our copy desk talks a lot about that and sometimes it’s just a thing where, it looks better. This isn’t rocket science.

On what he looks for in ‘entry points’…

Charts, infographics. I have a short attention span so it’s hard for me to get through a big piece. But with more entry points, I can read through a story without reading through a story and then when I have time I can sit down and read through that longer story. But I also want to have those entry points add stuff to that story that’s not necessarily there in the text. Added facts, added quotes, added photographs, added value without having to write it into the story yet you’re giving the reader more information. And when you look at a page you should be able to sort of enter a story at multiple different points and have some added information about a story at any given point.

On how to bring the elements of page design online…

Here is the bane of my existence. On SI.com, with any web site, it just doesn’t translate. Here’s my biggest beef with the web site: Every web site you go to, rather than having an indent with the paragraph, they have a line space. I’m like, ‘That’s great, but everything you read has no line space and an indent. Why do we have this when the normal way of reading (is with an indent)?’ And when you look online it starts to seem odd. That doesn’t translate one to one. You’re spending a lot of time working on very fixed templates. We spend a lot of time designing to a space, but a lot of mobile browsers and web browsers are different sizes. Different resolutions are different sizes. If you open or close your window then the widow you just cut is still there. You have to let a lot go for online. But the one thing you can do is, again, be simple and just use high-impact photography because it looks amazing. Don’t screw with the words. All too often, if you’re going to run a story, they have boxes that jut halfway in and I’m like, ‘I would clean up some of those things,’ but it’s tougher. For a medium to be agile, it’s the hardest thing to get stuff fixed or do stuff with. SI’s site has a million pages in it, so it’s not like you can change one thing and that’s it. Where we do have a little bit of freedom is at SI.com/longform and you look at all of our longform templates that are really highly designed and customized, parallax, scrolling videos, that’s where we have the freedom to interject the aesthetics from a magazine into online. You just can’t do it every day. You just can’t do it on every page.

On his favorite covers in the over 700 he’s done or overseen at SI…

The one that will always rank up there will be the Boston marathon cover. The one we ran on the day of the bombing and the one that we ran a year later where 3,000 people came out to the start-finish line to gather for the Boston strong cover. That’s one of my all-time favorites. The 60th anniversary cover, where I had the idea to recreate our very first cover using Instagram photo pictures of all of our readers, those are always super cool. And then there are swimsuit issues. They are what they are, but some things, like Kate Upton on the bow of this ship in Antarctica? That stuff never happens. That’s a moment. You can go on through stories that I’m trying to think of. There’s a whole wall of them. … Another one is the first cover I ever did here at Sports Illustrated which was a high school athlete about 13 or 14 years ago that had really bad design and was ugly, but it was a kid sitting on his football helmet in the middle of a football field. It was all in sort of Sepia, but that was the first cover I ever designed for Sports Illustrated, which was really cool.

[At this point I noticed Wright Thompson’s mammoth “Saints and Sinners” cover story for ESPN the Mag on Hercik’s desk] …

On how closely pays attention to the design of competing magazines…

I mean, I look at the design. I like to see what they’re doing. I look to see how they’re dealing with similar subject matter. When we do our NBA preview, I look at them for what they’re doing for an NBA preview. Are they giving different stats? Are they featuring different people? It’s not the size, the color, the fonts. It’s, ‘How’re they dealing with similar weekly topics?’ They have their sort of, ‘Zoom’ is their photo section. Like what’re they doing? Ours are always great action photos, but what did they get that we didn’t get? Are we missing something? Then of course covers. I just like to see how they treated a subject. I wish I just had that paper and that size format, too.

On the style of paper Sports Illustrated uses (XXX) compared to ESPN the Mag (XXX)…

As a weekly it kills us to be on the paper stock that we’re on. We did an exercise we printed it out at that size and everything just looked so much better. But everybody looks at it for different reasons, but I just want to know that we’re on the same plane. Like if we’re going in a similar direction and one of us isn’t going crazy, then I feel like, ‘OK, we’re on the same page.’ But if we start changing up something and they’re not then I’m like, ‘OK, we’re doing something really good or we’re making a really bad choice.’ You look at it and you try to get as much information as possible in the end and looking at what they’re doing and who they’re featuring.

On what helped him most get to Sports Illustrated…

Well, it’s funny. I was a graphic design and advertising major in college (at Moravian). None of those classes were magazine classes. The professor at the time, Jamie Franky, was into magazines. I couldn’t remember how he actually got into them, but on Friday afternoons he would hold a computer class for anyone who wanted to come and learn how to use InDesign — well, back then it was Quark — but Quark, layouts and how magazines worked. I was like, ‘Well, I’m sort of interested,’ so I went. And only two other people went and the three of us and him. Today, two of us are creative directors at national magazines.

On what makes him love magazine design specifically…

I liked the arts, but I loved structure more. Like, I have to have structure. What magazines and newspapers at the time did was give structure to what I like to do, (which is) to tell a story through a very linear process. Art is great. You can look at it through many different ways and interpret it, but magazine design is very straight-forward. Something just clicked. I really liked the process. I love photography. I like looking at photos. How does that accentuate design? I like going through the process of creating it. How do we go from in my head, from the moment we have an idea and I can see it in my head, through the actual photoshoot and the layout? But then we have to go to the photoshoot and actually create it. Sometimes that doesn’t match up with what’s in my head. It’s hard to sometimes explain what I see. But it’s one of those things that, with anything I do even today, I still have to keep my hands dirty in magazines because I like designing a cover or a page here or a page there. I just really am passionate about design. Especially — I don’t want to say print even — but storytelling. Let’s put it that way.

On his biggest challenge…

With anything, I know how I would do it if I were doing it, you know? Sometimes I can do something in 15 minutes but I don’t have the time, so someone else has to do it. Like, sometimes it’s hard to explain what I’m thinking without just doing it myself. If I’m sitting here telling you about it, I could’ve just had it done if we just worked on it together. A lot of it is, ‘Do I do it? Do I not do it?’ Do I do it myself or do I delegate? And then when I delegate, it’s not what (I was) thinking. I tell Brad (Smith), our photo editor, how I want something to look but then it comes back and it’s not exactly what I was thinking. But I can’t be on every shoot. I can’t be everywhere. It’s on me to give as much direction and clarity as possible. It’s also hiring the right people who think like you. I have a great group of people here who share the same visual aesthetic and can pick up a lot of the stuff when I’m up running around the company.

On the ideas he brought from previous jobs…

The first job I ever got was at the Eastern Pennsylvania Business Journal. Three of us from our class had to go in — because we all applied for the same job — and we had to do a test where we create an ad. I got the job. Six months later they told me why I got the job. (My boss) is like, ‘In the same time everyone else did one ad, you did three ads.’ … For me it was just such a natural iteration. Like, ‘This one’s done,’ so I would save that version and create multiple versions. (The first job) was sort of learning and honing the skills of good design. Really asking why a lot — to the point where I sort of pissed off my creative director a lot. I really wanted to know everything he knew. When I interviewed (at Sports Illustrated), it was about being able to do a layout quickly, competently within 24 to 48 hours. Monthly (publications) have days to work on layouts. We have hours. He needed to be able to have an aesthetic and a sensibility that could get you 80 percent of the way there and then he would give his input and then that would finish it off.

On how he got hired at Sports Illustrated…

The interview process for here was a portfolio, which I got lucky enough to send in a portfolio right at a time when they were hiring which I didn’t know. I sent in my portfolio on a Wednesday, got a call on Friday and hired on Saturday.

On what his creative team is like at SI…

Eight people. … We used to have 16 in the art department, so we’re down to half. We design the magazine and then the tablet issue on Tuesday, so really the magazine starts Tuesday afternoon with some pages. Everybody’s off on Wednesday. Then Thursday and Friday everybody’s in here again and then Monday we close the issue. Maybe it’s about 40 to 45 pages of edit so you got about eight people, not counting me because I only do the cover. So seven people basically doing a story or a section each in the magazine. It’s not like you just design it and it’s done. You have design it, go through the process, art-check it. You have to put it through and design the digital edition which comes out the next day. And not just that, you have to start designing the NBA preview which comes out the next day, it’s starting a commemorative and a lot of it is time management and managing workflow.

On what he would write down first if writing a book about creative design…

Think about the reader first. All too often you get caught up in how I would view the page or what looks cool or interesting, but you have to think: There are 3.1 million people who’re going to read this. I think starting with the reader in mind as the ultimate guide would be the advice I could give. Also, photography, to me, is underutilized because we just don’t have the space. The tablet edition is beautiful because we have an unlimited amount of pages because we can run as many (photos) as we want and whatever size we want. There’s no paper so everything’s white.

On the challenges of printing…

The biggest one is space. Today we’re 60 pages and we used to be 160 pages. So, how do you do more in fewer pages? If you just cut stuff out of the issue then you still want the reader to feel like they’re getting their value but you want to make sure you’re covering enough sports. In the end, it’s supposed to be an enjoyable experience. Someone’s investing some time in your publication and you want to make sure it still lives up to their expectations. So my piece of advice is: If you’re getting this magazine, what would you want to see and how would you want to read? … It’s tough because those things (like the sections “Hot or Not,” “Pop Culture grid” or “Sign of the Apocalypse”) are franchises and staples that people have come to enjoy but you just don’t have space for them. Pop culture grid was awesome, but it’s: How do you get time with three athletes every week? Sometimes it was more than that. That’s where sometimes it’s a big expense… but I’m with you on the pop culture grid.

On when Rick Reilly left…

… That’s the evolution of the brand. I love Reilly. I thought he was synonymous with the brand of SI at the time and he just had a different vision and unfortunately …  I miss those big personalities. Not that we don’t have any big personalities now, but someone with that big humor bone. You know what I mean? The Onion, CollegeHumor, you know… (Reilly) was sort of the pioneer or the genesis of that sort of stuff. I still wish he was doing his thing, just for less money.

On the differences between weeklies and monthlies…

They’re really different. Yet, in a way, I believe that weeklies are the new monthlies. We still don’t compete with the news cycle so you still treat a weekly like a monthly. You have to approach it from what I think SI does well is that you have to treat it like premium. You don’t write off Game 2 of the World Series because everyone’s watched it, read all the social on it and then saw the highlights and then saw the second highlights about it. What we need to do is an insightful piece about how we have a different take on the World Series. Whether that’s Game 7 or Game 1, or whether it’s over. We need a take you want to read about the World Series. We have to approach the magazine with a new aesthetic. We need to approach this and timely — I mean, we still need to be relevant; we shouldn’t put something on the cover in the offseason, though I probably would (in some cases) disagree with my own statement — because if it’s a good story then it’s a good story. We just put Muhammad Ali on the cover for the legacy award and that was an amazing event and we got to meet him, but it had no relevance to anything happening right now other than we were giving him the award. But it was a great story. I felt like we were a monthly. I loved it. Thought it was great.

On the differences between working for each…

I would go crazy at a monthly right now. Knowing that something I do won’t be out for another 20 more days and then knowing when it comes out it’s 40 days after you discussed it—and I worked for a monthly, I loved it—but like right now I’d be like, ‘Oh my God. I can’t do it.’ Right now I leave on Monday and I come in Tuesday and it’s on my desk. I get to see immediately. It fits in with today’s world of immediate gratification but as far as design goes, Time Inc. has a portfolio of brands that are iconic. To look back as only the sixth creative director in Sports Illustrated history and to have designed…14 times 50 covers, whatever that turns out to be…it’s an honor. It’s a sh*t-load of covers, I know that. If I only had to do 12 a year that’d be so easy, but we do 50 and that’s not even covering regionals, special issues and so we put out close to 70 covers per year and I think that’s really cool to know that four million people see your work. Sometimes when you get this close you need to take a step back and say, ‘I design Sports Illustrated.’ It’s one of the coolest things you can say you do.

 

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