Off the Cuff with Graphic Designer Emily Crawford, OC ’92

Emily Crawford, Oberlin native and OC ’92, recently returned to Oberlin to work at the Office of Communications, where she does graphic design for a variety of print publications distributed by the College. Crawford, who has worked for a number of New York-based magazines including The New York Times Magazine, Travel + Leisure and Time, spoke with the Review about the importance of good graphic design, revamping the cover of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine and what it’s like to return to Oberlin.

Julia Herbst, News Editor

What kinds of graphic design are you involved with here?

I am kind of in charge of the look and feel of all of the printed material that Oberlin College puts out. So the big ones would be the Alumni Magazine, obviously, the Conservatory Magazine [which] comes out once a year, … the admissions materials, which are really important, and a bunch of other stuff. I come from the magazine world where I’ve only worked on magazines, so it’s actually been really fun to still have the magazine stuff but also have these other different kinds of design projects. For me, I find it very stimulating to be able to work on different stuff.

Since I’m new, and since I just got here, I’m basically kind of redesigning … everything I can get my hands on. [Laughs]

I imagine this must be a pretty different work environment than New York. What has that transition back to Oberlin been like for you?

I came back for personal reasons, but I was very lucky and excited to find out about this job because I don’t think that there’s really anything else that I could do here that I would enjoy as much. Another thing is just that what I do love about being here, and what is different from large magazines in New York, is that I really know Oberlin. I grew up here, I went here, my parents taught here. Oberlin alums are my people. … So I feel like I’m a huge cheerleader for the school anyway, and it’s really nice to be working for and promoting a place that you believe in so strongly. Whereas if you’re working at a magazine, hopefully it has journalistic integrity, … but at the end of the day, it’s a business, and it’s all about making money. So it’s kind of nice to be free from that world.

But in terms of transition, I do really miss New York. I really miss my neighborhood in Brooklyn. It has been a pretty tough adjustment just in terms of what’s available here, although, that said, it’s so much better than when I was growing up and even going to college here. You couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee until four or five years ago! … Ultimately, I was ready. I was in New York for 11 years and it was time for a change.

In terms of design, how do you balance attempting to grab a student’s attention while still creating a polished professional thing that still appeals to alumni and older people who are looking at these sorts of publications? I assume it kind of depends on the type of publication.

It all depends on the content, sure, but I think that you can come up with a solution that’s going to appeal to everybody. And that’s the goal. My big issue with what the magazine and the other identity materials for the College has been that, to me, they just didn’t reflect what is so special about Oberlin. Oberlin is a really special school, and aside from the faculty being so extraordinary and there being so many strong departments across the board, and the Conservatory obviously, also just the student body. … I know they did a redesign of the Alumni Magazine a couple of years ago, and I think it looks a lot nicer than it did before, … but it felt a little cold and like a corporate brochure, and maybe that’s the way alumni magazines tend to be designed, but that didn’t feel “Oberlin” to me. This [points to cover of the “Food Issue” the Alumni Magazine she designed] feels “Oberlin” to me. It’s earthy and it’s messy, and you can almost smell it. I just feel like it is possible to capture at least the Oberlin that I think of in my head and hopefully make it appealing for everybody — students and 80-year-old alums.

How do you come up with ideas for designing the cover of a magazine?

You have to educate yourself as much as possible and really understand what the subject matter is. That usually involves some pretty intense conversations with the editor, especially since at a magazine you have no choice because of the deadlines to create stuff like this before you even have the story. So a lot of it is just in the editor’s head. But for me, I just kind of sit with an idea, and things start to percolate, and there wasn’t any single image or existing image that came to mind that would work for [this “Food Issue” cover], and … one of my favorite things is that I get to collaborate with really talented illustrators and photographers. I think maybe I’m a frustrated photographer. I really want to be a photographer, but I don’t think I can do it. [Laughs.] Good art is so important to me. So I’m always trying to think of ways that I can work with someone to create something cool and have it be a collaboration.