I was born with severe hearing loss. My parents were told I would never be able to speak properly or go to a normal school. That, more than anything else, shaped my childhood” says Matt Willey, arguably one of the most influential art directors of the industry and an official Pentagram partner as announced earlier this week in his latest interview with Creative Review.

Born in Bristol, Willey has managed to be the talk of the city that never sleeps as the art director at The New York Times Magazine -a position he has held since 2014 before becoming Pentagram’s latest MVP. 

Willey studied graphic design at Central St. Martins in London, graduating in 1997. In 2002, he joined Vince Frost at Frost Design London, ultimately rising to the position of creative director and three years later he co-founded the London-based firm Studio 8 Design with Zoë Bather. After the company’s closure in 2012 Willey relocated to New York for more adventures in type and design.

“In his editorial design, Willey combines strong typography and photography to create powerful settings for the content at hand” notes Pentagram

Currently the creative director and senior editor of Port, the gentlemen’s quarterly he co-founded with editor Dan Crowe, Willey has art directed the arts magazine Elephant, the travel and culture magazine Avaunt (which he co-founded) and in 2013 he completed the game-changing redesign of UK newspaper The Independent.

A magazine lover since his early days in the industry Willey felt “for a long time quite ambivalent about the idea of being a graphic designer… I maybe gravitated towards magazines because they offered proximity to other worlds – to writers and editors, to art and photography and film, and illustration, and music and so on” says Willey to Crowe for WePresent. 

“Design is almost always – or should almost always be – just a small part of something else. Usually something bigger and more interesting. I don’t think design is much in and of itself; it’s only interesting when it’s in service to something else. But I felt comfortable with magazines, they made some sort of sense to me” he adds.

Feeling “a small cog in a big and incredibly impressive machine” by the name New York Times, Willey has just swapped one of the industry’s most coveted jobs for another.

A type designer as well, Willey’s custom typefaces such as AType, BWord, NewPort, and NSW01 to name a few are created for the specific context of the brands, publications, stories and other projects in which they appear.

Willey, obviously a creative with a kind agenda, has made several of the fonts commercially available and proceeds from select fonts are donated to charity. “His MFred and TIMMONS typefaces have helped raise more than £70,000 for Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support through the Buy Fonts Save Lives initiative, while all money made from the sale of Blakey Slab goes to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)” notes Pentagram. 

“I don’t think design is much in and of itself; it’s only interesting when it’s in service to something else”

Named Designer of the Year by Creative Review in 2014 Willey’s work has been recognized with numerous awards. “During his five-year tenure at The New York Times Magazine, the publication was honored with SPD Magazine of the Year in 2016 (and Finalist for 2017-2019) and SPD Brand of the Year in 2019, and more than 40 gold medals; five D&AD yellow pencils; more than 20 Gold and Silver cubes from the Art Directors Club; and awards from the Creative Review Annual and the Type Directors Club. Avaunt was a finalist for SPD Magazine of the Year and received a D&AD yellow pencil, and Port won SPD Independent Magazine of the Year in 2019.”

Willey’s titles for Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s spy series Killing Eve were nominated for a BAFTA Award and received a Royal Television Society Craft Award and obviously sky is the limit for this son of a poet and the latest creative to join Pentagram’s New York office. 

Explore more of Matt Willey’s instinctively visual brilliance here

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Willey, obviously a creative with a kind agenda, has made several of the fonts commercially available and proceeds from select fonts are donated to charity

All images via Matt Willey

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