Artist Talk: Award-winning magazine designer Ryan Stalvey writes his own creative story

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Tuesday, February 1st, 2022

Ryan Stalvey says he always wanted to be “that cool ad man in the suit and fedora,” even though “in all honesty, I had little idea of what he actually did. I just knew I could draw and wanted to look like him when I did it.”
So he may not always be wearing a fedora — but he’s built an award-winning career that’s taken him to success not only in magazine design, but also in photography, painting, and illustration. His eye as a designer influences all of those creative outlets, and he brings that sensibility to PCA&D on Thursday, Feb. 10, in a virtual Artist Talk to the College community.
A Graphic Design graduate of the University of South Carolina, Stalvey is one of the most recognized magazine designers in the country.  With more than  200 individual issues to his credit, he has served as executive editor of the high-end national outdoor magazine, Sporting Classics, was co-founder of the deluxe golf magazine, The Golf Sport, and currently serves as creator-in-chief of Elysian magazine, a quarterly, portfolio-format, women’s luxury magazine.  Winner of six national awards for publication design, in November he was awarded a coveted first-place 2021 FOLIO: Ozzie Award in the most competitive class: “Best Design, Single Magazine Issue, in the consumer lifestyle/special interest” category for his design of the May/June 2021 issue of Elysian magazine, winning over People, Parents, and Magnolia, among other notable publications.
Zoom link: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/83757904646
“To say ‘variety is the spice of life’ would sum up my career,” Stalvey says. “But that’s what has made the work fun and kept it fresh … it is all about getting that ‘perfect image.’ The variance being the journey it takes to get that ‘perfect image.'”
So how did this creative whirlwind get into magazine design, and what advice does he have for creative careers as a whole?
poster for Ryan Stalvey Artist Talk, Feb. 10, 2022
How did you break into designing magazines? 
Ryan Stalvey: You have to understand, I am a magazine junkie. For as long as I can remember, I have loved to look at magazines. I seldom read anything, but my mind soaks up the visuals. As a kid I went through every magazine I could get my hands on from my mom’s “Southern Living”, dad’s “Outdoor Life”, to my sister’s “Cosmopolitan”. In college, I begin to collect back issues of “Esquire” and “Playboy”. The “Esquire” and “Playboy” of the late ’40s to early ’60s, aside from having a stable of the very best writers, were visual masterpieces. The layouts and advertisements were spectacular and executed by the most talented artists and photographers of that era. And, the construction of the branding was perfection. Those publishers really got it! 
I had been working as a graphic designer with the Morning News in Florence, S.C., for several years. By then I had wrangled my way to designing the feature front pages. I had some early success winning South Carolina Press Association and group awards and that put us on the mailing list for entries into bigger design competitions (such as the Atrium Award for Creative Excellence in the Fashion Industry). I submitted a collection of fashion page designs and was one of seven winners, but the only designer from a circulation of under 250k—ours was 35k. A high-end sporting magazine, “Sporting Classics”, heard about my accomplishment and asked me to come on board. From there, it was a different game for me. I had to design an entire magazine that needed cohesion throughout, rather than a stand-alone vertical news page. But, I had looked through so many of the great magazines growing up, that I was able to hit the ground running. I redesigned the magazine from cover to cover within my very first deadline and won the Folio Ozzie Award that year for best redesigned magazine.
Summer cover of Elysian magazine

Ryan Stalvey’s Elysian magazine won a Folio award in 2021 for Best Design of a National Lifestyle Magazine

What comes first for you in magazine design… the content or the image (and has it ever been the other way around)? Are the two inseparable when it comes to good magazine design? 
RS: If by content you’re referring to the editorial aspects of the magazine, the question becomes, “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” Thirty years ago magazines were more “word heavy,” articles might be 5,000 words, there were book-length features. Magazines placed more of an emphasis on the written word. But today, we live in a world where information needs to be interpreted as quickly as possible. Frankly, we live in a world of the photo essay. The modern reader has a short attention span, you’ve got to shock and stop the eyes, otherwise they move on.
I have worked on magazines where the editorial came before aesthetics. I’ve always argued that the reader’s attention has to be nabbed visually, your mind is attracted by, and likes what it sees, long before you ever comprehend the headline. You can have articles written by the best writers in the world, but if the visuals are not eye-catching then the issue falls apart. In addition, the aesthetics need to maintain a visual cohesion throughout. I prefer to build out the content with an emphasis on the art, illustration, and photography being the absolute best, while strategizing how those visuals might complement each other as the issue is designed. Once that visual roster is in place, I try to hire the best writers I can find. In the end, there is no mystery as to how the issue will look, that was worked out at the onset.
What would your dream event be to photograph? Your dream illustration assignment? 
RS: I suppose a “Vanity Fair” cover shoot would be a dream to photograph. In art, I would love to create a “New Yorker” cover.  For a magazine, I still have a men’s mag prototype I would like to get off of the floor.
What are three traits that are necessary to get into magazine design? 
RS: 1. Study the history of magazine design. Then look through every magazine at newsstands, every genre you can get your hands on. Immerse yourself.
2. Be organized. A magazine may be 300 pages with over a hundred ads. Aside from designing the magazine’s content, those ads will need to be placed among pertinent subject matter and opposing complementary colors/design, some advertisers pay for certain positioning. You have to be very organized to keep all of this in order.
3. Keep the reader looking forward to what comes next. The goal is to get them from the first page to the last. Just like a good DJ, build up to the techno and then step back down to the soft rock, and over again.