Talking to Graham McDonnell of TIME magazine

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The Creative Director’s cut with Graham McDonnell

Appointed Senior Director of Brand and Creative at TIME earlier this year, Graham has over 18 years of creative industry experience behind him. During those years he learned the value of creating visual stories around brands that their audiences can relate to. That’s led to him winning far too many industry awards to be listed here, and a very successful stint as founder and International Creative Director for T Brand Studio, the in-house creative agency at the New York Times.

We spoke to him about his life as a creative director at one of the world’s most prestigious magazines.

What would be your definition of creative director?

 Someone whose role it is to define the creative north star of a project and guide the team towards it, supporting the creatives involved by providing inspiration and pushing them to expand their creative limits.

How long have you been creative director at Time and has this role changed over that time?

Only six months! It’s been full steam ahead since I joined and I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in some really interesting projects.

What are the essential qualifications for a good creative director?

I don’t think there are any essential qualifications in the traditional sense. However, communication is 100% necessary if a creative director is going to succeed. You could have the most creative people in the world, but they need to be able to communicate their vision to stakeholders above for buy-in and to the team that is accountable for creating it

What skills do you use day-to-day in your role?

My background is pretty varied… I’ve worked in music, film, design, etc. which means I’ve been exposed to all different kinds of processes, skills and techniques and my role requires me to use most of these at one time or another. The most common thing I’m responsible for is asking questions and dissecting briefs in order to gather as much information as possible before a project is started in order to give us the best chance possible at finding the best solutions.

Are there any covers that really stand out for you?

 I love covers that tell a story using the power of visuals alone. The recent cover about coronavirus in the White House is a great example of this.

And if we can go on to ask if any particular political covers that have stood out, too?

TIME takes great lengths to remain impartial when reporting on any topic, but politics definitely provides plenty of material for great covers. All the covers in the past year have been incredible.

Are you the one who has all the ideas for what you do, or is it often more of a collective effort?

I find that if you are the only one providing ideas, then there is something wrong. Ideas can and should come from anywhere and it’s important that team members feel confident enough to put ideas out there, but also remove as much personal connection when ideas evolve or are not taken forward.

What’s the difference between being a curator and a creative director?

Originality. A creative director should be able to take inspiration in order to create something new, whereas a curator simply collects pre-existing material.

What example of your own creative direction were you most happy with? 

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on multi-million dollar campaigns for some of the biggest brands in the world, but I find I have much personal satisfaction when we find success with more restrictions. The Allbirds piece I created didn’t have the biggest budget and had a very tight timeline, yet we pulled it out of the bag and the project delivered great results.