Q & A Fred Woodward

Creative Director Murry Keith catches up with Memphis' former art director, Fred Woodward, to discuss magazine design, the link between Kurt Cobain and Elvis Presley, and ignoring bad advice.

I still remember the first time I ever saw Fred. It was the mid-Seventies, and we were both graphic design majors at Memphis State. The unofficial "uniform" of art students was a pair of ragged jeans or overalls and a grubby T-shirt, both more than likely splattered with paint. The exception was this lanky kid from Noxapater, Mississippi, who showed up in white baggy slacks, immaculate white dress shirt, and white Converse tennis shoes.

From the very beginning, Fred stood out in the crowd.

But it was more than just his appearance that set Fred apart. His thoughts on design -- and how it affected our lives in every way -- made people take notice.

During a stroll to the old Brister Library one chilly afternoon with my friend Fred, he told me about a start-up publication, City of Memphis magazine. Fred had taken a part-time job assisting the magazine's art director, Jack Atkinson. After the first issue, Jack abruptly stepped down, and Fred became art director by default. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fred remained art director of Memphis until 1980, when he left to become art director at Dallas' D magazine. He would later become art director at Westward, the Sunday magazine of the Dallas Times Herald, Texas Monthly, and Regardie's in Washington D.C. In 1987, Fred became art director of Rolling Stone, where his designs shaped the look of the iconic rock magazine as we know it. His innovative treatments of type, photography, and design elements earned him a place in the Art Directors Hall of Fame, and he remains the youngest inductee to this prestigious group to date. He is also an accomplished photographer.

In 2001, Fred became design director of GQ, and within a year, his redesign of the national men's magazine earned the Society of Publication Designers' Magazine of the Year award. The reverence Fred had for design in those early days at Memphis State, and City of Memphis, has served him well, and continues to shape publications, as well as aspiring graphic design hopefuls, today. ~ m.k.

Q: Was working at Rolling Stone the rock-and-roll experience one would imagine it to be?

A: It's not like I was hanging out with Mick and Keith all the time. I don't want to act like it wasn't interesting, because it was. Going on a shoot with the likes of them was pretty great, but that wasn't the job to me. I defined it as more of a design job. Sounds like I wasted a fine opportunity, right?

Q: What drew you to Rolling Stone?

A: I always loved music, and I'm not going to say that,wasn't a big part of it, but it was the first magazine that spoke to me. Graphically, photographically, and typographically -- all these things came together in a way that was very inspiring to me. It showed me what a magazine portrait could be, what a magazine cover could be. I was a true believer.

Q: What moments stand out from that time?

A: When Kurt Cobain died, it felt a lot like the day Elvis died. We knew that this guy was as important to the Rolling Stone reader as Elvis had been some 20 years earlier. We had to drop everything and do a special issue, just as we had done at Memphis. When we did that issue, I remember living at the magazine for a night or two, and finally going home so tired, but so proud too. Working on the Cobain issue was the same sort of cathartic experience.

Q: It must have been hard to make the decision to leave for GQ.

A: I'd been at Rolling Stone for almost 15 years, putting out a magazine every two weeks. I really loved it, so it was very hard to leave. After all that time Rolling Stone was like a rambling, comfortable old Victorian home to me. GQ was more like a very spare, new house. And that's the design approach I set for myself. How simply could I make it and it still be interesting? How far could I strip it down? I guess I was really looking to reinvent myself a bit, not use the same bag of tricks. It felt good to be starting over.

Q: Let's back up a bit. You were a junior in college when you switched majors to graphic design. How did that come about?

A: I'd switched majors three or four times while I was at Mississippi State. I was lost, and fast running out of my parents' hard-earned money and patience. I had a friend there who was a landscape architecture student, but at heart he was really a frustrated graphic designer. He was messing around with type and design, and it tapped something in me. I felt like this was something I could do. Mississippi State didn't have a design program, so that's how I ended up at Memphis State. I almost talked myself out of going, but I drove up with my U-Haul the night before registration. The next day, I'm sitting in my advisor's office, telling her why I want to do this, and she looked at me and said, "My advice to you is to turn around and go back to Mississippi."

But you didn't.

One class really saved me. It was a typography class, a senior- level class that was meant to weed me out. From day one, it felt right, and I knew I could do it. It taught me what graphic design was, and I found out how obsessive I could be about it. I could work on a project for 24 hours straight. It was that fascinating to me.

Q: Ever miss the South? Think about coming back?

A: I've been away a long, long time, I've been [in New York] since '87 and I've made a home here. But I do have little reveries every once in a while about coming back, usually in February (laughs). I still very much define myself as a Southerner. And that's always pretty apparent. I still am, and will always be, a Southerner.

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