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I hate when designers get called rock stars. Are rock stars even a thing anymore? But if you want to talk about someone who brings the thrill, excitement and energy to graphic design that someone like, say, the Oh Sees bring to the rock stage, look no further than Matt Dorfman. If you don’t get at least a mild thrill looking at his book cover designs for The Psychopath Test or Knockout, I can’t help you.

Designing covers for books or periodicals is both easy and extremely hard. Easy in the sense that there is not a ton of information to work with, and you have the same rectangle over and over. Hard because there is not a ton of information to work with, and you have the same rectangle over and over. There is no place to hide. It either works or it doesn’t. It either jumps off the page or you don’t even see it. It takes incredible talent and formidable skill to bring fresh ideas to these centuries-old formats. 

The lines between what used to be distinct jobs: art director, designer and illustrator (and in my experience you can add: mind-reader, salesperson, therapist, mediator, alchemist, poet and occasional bike messenger), have slowly blurred over time. Yes, there have always been designers who were/are masters of all these skills. Think Milton Glaser, Paul Rand or Paula Scher. Matt Dorfman continues in this lineage of art directors and designers who are equally adept at conceptualizing, sourcing talent and inspiring others, those who also have the ability to render their own ideas by whatever means necessary.  

It is one thing to have an ironclad idea, but to execute it in a way that grabs you by the frontal lobe takes it to an entirely other level. Matt’s work is not only extremely smart, it vibrates with energy. Even his emails are energetic. During the years I’ve worked with Matt, each of us has worn the hats of art director, designer and illustrator at different times. I can attest to his brilliance in each of these roles.  As an art director, he is incredibly supportive, motivating, trusting and observant. He will see things in my work that I wasn’t even aware of. Which then makes me feel really smart, which then makes me want to do better work. Pick up any random issue of The New York Times Book Review during his tenure there and be amazed at the range of talent and ideas being expressed within, and then marvel that the whole thing was assembled in a week. Not to mention his earlier work on the Times’s Op-Ed page. 

Some designers you hire for particular reasons. Maybe you need something high concept, or maybe you need someone who is good with the color pink. Then there are the designers you hire because they scare you. In my hierarchy of designer rankings the scary designer is the absolute pinnacle. Not scary in the sense that they are horrible, uncompromising, prima donnas but scary because I know I will be challenged by what they will create. Scary as in original and exciting. Scary in the sense that my heart skips a beat when the email arrives. Scary in the sense that I am actually going to have to do my art director job and sell this thing. Matt is in this tier. I know I will be seeing something I have never seen or even conceived of before. But he is also the opposite of the movie-stereotypical inflexible, combative, genius designer. He is totally reasonable and understanding about feedback, and then he just comes back with something even better. Just to be clear: He is wonderful to work with.

I have a bit of a hard time separating Matt’s design work from his illustration work since they work so well together. But this does a disservice to his skill in service of pure illustration. Whatever he needs to solve a problem, whether it’s drawing, painting, collage or photography, he embraces the technique that takes the solution to a new and exciting place. For instance, there’s the lush and beautiful umbrella/flower ink drawing on the cover he designed for the book Lucky Breaks, or the way he wields abstraction in the beautiful collage piece about Mental Block he created for OH-SO magazine.  For many other instances, look to his work for The New Yorker, The Washington Post, New York magazine, The Atlantic, Esquire and Vanity Fair among others. Then add most of the top book publishers, including Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Knopf; Random House and Scribner. 

So, for those of you not yet familiar with Matt Dorfman’s incredible body of work, I leave these not-quite-immortal words from the willed-into-existence actual rock star, and none-too-shabby collage artist, Robert J. Pollard: “Weep, sad freaks of the nation.” 


John Gall

John Gall Design

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