Art Director / Illustrator Profile - Matt Dorfman: "My first big break was a rejection"

By Robert Newman   Thursday February 18, 2016

Matt Dorfman is a visual shape shifter whose smart illustrations have graced the pages (and covers) of numerous books and publications, all while working at his “day job” as art director for The New York Times Book Review. Dorfman has used drawing, collage, found objects, creative typography and general graphic creativity to make illustrations for Wired, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, plus a sparkling series of book covers. His artwork is often a mashup of graphic design and illustration, so it’s hard to figure out whether he’s the illustrator or designer of a project (or both). And as an art director Dorfman fills the Book Review every week with sparklingly cool illustrations assigned to a broad array of artists.

Based in New York City, Dorfman spent many years toiling as a production manager and artist for a large record company. He’s on the jury this year for the American Illustration 35 competition. And he’ll be appearing as part of the Society of Publication Designers/Society of Illustrators event, Wearing Two Hats: Illustrators Who Design, Designers Who Illustrate, on February 24. Moderated by Len Small, art director of Nautilus, the evening will feature six designer/illustrators talking about their work in multiple disciplines.

I've lived and worked in New York for close to 16 years. The rest of my immediate family lives in Pennsylvania, making me the sole deserter. A whole two hours distance is the extent of my desertion—the admission of which may or may not infer something about how I process guilt.

My parents (who are not visual artists) plead ignorance to any sway they may have held over my initial interest in art as a young kid, but I credit them with a fair bit of it. They had just enough books and LPs lying around the house to get me curious. Between The Family of Man, the Beatles Illustrated Lyricsthis insane Rascals LP, and to my then-psychological terror, the illustrated 1972 edition of The Joy of Sex, there was just enough in the house to make me think that if I searched further beyond the home, there was more to discover out in the universe.

I attended Syracuse University with a concentration in illustration while busing tables in the summers. A few days prior to graduation, I realized that I was more interested in design and, behaving as a true young idiot would, renounced illustration. 

I had neither money nor a design portfolio so I moved back in with my parents and took a data entry position at TV Guide magazine. After saving some money this way, I was able to move to New York because I was hired by a large record company to be a production manager. I thought this would provide ample opportunities to segue into design within the company. 

I was wrong. Despite multiple attempts to jump over to one of the label’s creative departments, I was perceived within the company as a production task manager. The one design responsibility I was given within the record company involved me retroactively converting CD package art to fit templates for cassettes—literally working backward technologically. I did this job from a windowless basement within a skyscraper on 8th Avenue 10 blocks north of where I work now.

I didn’t like this job. At night, I would work on self-initiated illustration projects that I would send out to art directors and designers I respected in the hopes of getting attention and/or traction anywhere else. I worked and pitched total strangers like this for two years before someone took a chance on me and gave me an assignment. It took two more years for the freelance assignments to start coming in with relative frequency.

In the combined interest of eating and paying regular rent, I worked three different production and/or managerial positions in the record company for close to 11 years—the last three years of which were spent going home at night after a full day of work and staying up until 3:00 AM to work on freelance assignments. In late 2011, as I was assessing the potential financial impact of quitting my job and freelancing full time, I was offered the op/ed art directo’'s chair at The New York Times—a job I only ever envisioned being done by people who were not me. I came aboard with total ignorance as to the interior mechanics of a working newspaper and that’s when things really got interesting.

I maintain two working spaces. My primary one is at The Times office on 8th Avenue where I now art direct the Book Review. To have a desk all my own at this place is a privilege unto itself, but sweetening the pot is the interior geography. All art directors at the NYT are grouped together on the same floor—making it a sacred environment for candid second opinions and finely crafted profanity. I also recently acquired a standing desk. 

My secondary space is a small corner of one room of the apartment my family shares. The room is kitchen-adjacent and primarily intended for dining and housing my daughter Oona's toys. My working area occupies roughly 1/8th of the room and Oona, a burgeoning toddler, is in the middle of a dedicated initiative to reduce that space and she doesn’t quit easy.

I read whatever I'm asked to respond to by looking for the idea in the text or in the brief that cajoles the most significant emotional response out of me. Then I think really really hard about what that response looks like. This forces me to think about style as a narrative agent and less about whatever my look is. It’s time consuming and rife with blind alleys but it keeps things surprising.

My big break was a rejection. The first time I was invited to do an illustration for the op/ed page, my sketches were overcomplicated and (justifiably, diplomatically) killed. Being uncomfortably close to the deadline, the art director recruited a faster and more experienced illustrator to finish it. That was sufficient motivation for me to re-examine my approach and a year or so later when they graciously gave me a second shot, I focused up hard and went nuts.

I’m a big disciple of using abstraction to highlight emotional conditions. To that end, I love the kitchen sink perversion of psych artists like Victor Moscoso, Martin Sharp, Tadanori Yokoo and Keiichi Tanaami. As a teen I swiped a copy of I Seem To Be A Verb by R. Buckminster Fuller and Quentin Fiore from one of my dad’s shelves (and I still have it) and I credit that book with revealing to me—loudly—how vital books can be if they’re conceived with passion and energy. And I probably owe the Johns Heartfield and Baldessari some money.

At least once a month, a circumstance will arise either in work or in life in which I reflexively ask myself, without premeditation: “What would Ian MacKaye do?” This has been happening since I was 15. There’s probably something to it.

Working at The Times requires that we look at as much art and illustration as possible, which is both great and immobilizing. To keep it more on the side of great for my own work, I read books without pictures as much as I can. The more time I spend with text apart from the pictures, the more I have to work at providing those pictures for myself and my internal critic is harsh. Failing that, I go to Printed Matter or the PS1 Bookstore or McNally Jackson.

Avoiding repetition.

I was approached by the producers of Fresh Air with Terry Gross early in the year about working on a re-brand of their identity. Terry’s show has been an actual voice in my head for years and I think her approach to conversation is singular enough to be considered a public service. Knowing nothing of the show’s inner workings and oversight, I presumed that I would probably just pitch a few ideas before they moved on to a different direction. Instead I ended up working closely with the show’s producers throughout the summer. After everything was finished, I happened by chance to hear my own name spoken by Terry in a public shout out to me on the air—it was immobilizing enough to stop everything, turn away from my desk and stare out the window blankly at the Port Authority across the street.

Dream jobs are breeding grounds for indecision and doubt for someone like me but if I’m ever invited to work on anything that involves either Jerzy Kosinski or The Replacements, I’ll show up. Failing either of those items, I’m searching for a worthy guiding principle to produce a ’zine. I have no idea as to its worth, its purpose or its reason to exist as of yet but I’m thinking it through in my idle moments. 

JooHee Yoon is a notable standout. Her work is capable of capturing the complete emotional spectrum and is never not alive. I have every confidence that her process is long and labor intensive but every time I see a finished piece of hers, its beauty is tied to a sense of immediacy, which makes it look as though it was conjured on the spot. I would clone her if it didn’t cut into her bottom line.

Though I suppose he’s technically a publisher/curator, I love what James Gallagher is doing with his publication Secret Behavior. It’s jarring, completely uncontrived and illuminates an essential component of being a human on earth that’s handled respectfully without sacrificing provocation. It’s a magazine I needed the second I saw it.

Also, my co-worker Alexandra Zsigmond art directs the Sunday Review at The Times and it’s the first section in the paper I beeline to every week for art and reading. She maintains a curatorial mix of fine artists, comic artists, illustrators, designers and photographers throughout the section that help to draw out the universality in very personal, minutia-driven stories. The art assortment is always unpredictable and alive and I love it.

And renown to many with good reason, Nicholas Blechman’s decisions and approaches to art and stories command my regular attention. The work that people produce for him is consistently compelling and surprising (which I imagine is difficult to sustain) and I’ve never felt thematically or stylistically pigeonholed by anything he’s asked me to work on. I’d work for Nicholas if he were managing a Rite-Aid.

Social media is work’s sworn enemy but Instagram (and to a lesser extent, Twitter) are both ironclad utilities for stumbling upon work that I simply wouldn’t chance upon on my own. Also great are true curatorial sites like who take honest critical stands on what they consider to be the work that thrives above the noise. I am dependably buried in print samples and email submissions and even if I don’t respond to the mail, I really do look at everything I receive, print or digital.

Most significantly, I get jealous of other people’s talent easily and quickly, so from all these avenues, I zero in on the work that stirs my envy the strongest and I use that as my barometer for the people I recruit for the section.

I love working on book covers (this one just came out, this one has been out for a whileand this one’s coming out very soon), I still illustrate for the NYT when the hours and stamina permit and have had some outrageous experiences working with Gail Bichler and her inspired team at the magazine (here is a semi-recent onehere, an earlier oneand this one was completely insane). Illustration outside of the NYT last year landed me working on collage for Psychology Todaytype construction for Maxim and having an actual neon light built from a vector drawing of mine for Wired. At the start of the year, I resolved to sleep a little bit more and begin some collaborative drawings at home with Oona. 

Whenever I’m in the middle of art directing, a part of me wishes I were illustrating something. If I end up working on an illustration later that week, I start worrying that my design faculties are malnourished. Once I put the illustration down and start designing something, I just want to be back at the office continuing on with art direction. It’s a vicious cycle but it buries tunnel vision and keeps my head limber and ready for curveballs. 

I’m lucky. Given where I work and what I do there, my best means of promotion is to do the very best work that I can with the opportunities I’m given and release it into the universe. If I’m particularly happy with how a piece turns out, I’ll post it on my site and I’ll tweet it. 

I came to New York with zero connections to where I landed, so print and email promotion and also competitions were essential for me when I was starting out. I imagine they will be again the next time I’m struggling to fill the hours.

A worthy opportunity will never present itself at a convenient moment.

See more Matt Dorfman illustrations and design work and updates:
Matt Dorfman website
Twitter @mattdorfman
Instagram @matt.dorfman