A select group of magazine editors, designers, and other denizens of publishing’s late hours will remember Fred Woodward this way: sitting in his darkened office, staring silently at the raw materials of his trade—an image, a headline—and waiting. Andie Zellman, an editor who worked with him in the early 1980s at Westward magazine, described the state as “Fred’s art trance.” Robert Wallace, senior story editor of Primetime Live and former executive editor of Rolling Stone for seven years, calls Woodward’s creative process “a world where Everests become ‘A’s and innertubes become ‘O’s and maybe only John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman can really understand what he’s trying to do.” To those who’ve observed him at work, he appears to be, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “waiting for the miracle,” the inspiration that will produce a page architecture that unites font, photography, design and journalism into a creation more powerful and sublime than each of its parts.
As the art director of Rolling Stone, Woodward has, in nine years, on a twice-monthly deadline, compiled a body of work that has redefined the possibilities of editorial design. In the process, he has driven himself to become, in the estimation of Paul Davis, “one of the best magazine art directors of all time.” Woodward’s Rolling Stone has garnered more awards than any other magazine in the US and has hastened his entrance into the Art Directors Hall of Fame as the youngest inductee to date.
Woodward’s arrival at the Fifth Avenue offices of Rolling Stone in 1987 was the natural culmination of a life journey begun in Noxapater, Mississippi (pop. 500), in 1953. As a student at Noxapater High (where he made all-conference quarterback), he found himself attracted to graphic design before he’d ever heard the term. Music provided the gateway. At 17, he was mesmerized by the cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Déjà Vu. “Gold-leaf type, the cover embossed like leather, a tip-on picture—the materials were so rich, I was fascinated,” Woodward says. During high school, he likewise took note of a three-year-old music magazine based in San Francisco and spent hours copying his first name in the psychedelic style of the logo. At Mississippi State University and later Memphis State, Woodward switched majors from journalism to physical education to political science before settling on the graphic arts. He had taken only two courses in his new major when he landed his first job at Jack Atkinson’s design studio on Goodbar Street in Memphis. The pay was $40 a week, the hours were grueling, but the chief client was the new regional magazine, Memphis. I remember asking Jack what an art director did,” says Woodward, “and a week later I was one. They felt so bad about what they were paying me that they just put me on the masthead.” At 23, he began a four-year stint as the art director at Memphis, working on intuition and youthful energy, taking as his paragon the Rolling Stone of Mike Salisbury, Tony Lane, and Roger Black. In 1980, he moved to Dallas’s D magazine and then to Westward, the Sunday supplement of the Dallas Times-Herald, where the staff consisted of two editors and Woodward, who was just beginning to trust his trances.
Woodward enjoyed total control at Westward, but he was also convinced that “nobody was looking at it.” To get feedback from his peers, he entered the Art Directors Club competition for the first time in 1982. The results stunned him; so much of his work was accepted that he had to take out a small business loan to pay the hanging fees. In 1983, he joined Texas Monthly. The circulation was bigger, the platform more visible, and his work started to regularly attract national attention. Here, he began relationships with some of the greatest illustrators and photographers in the country.
Four years later, Woodward moved to Rolling Stone. When he started, the magazine was counting down to a special 20th-anniversary issue. He and his new staff took to the archives to conduct a blitzkrieg retrospective of the magazine’s design history. “I was scared to death,” he says. “I wanted to do work that measured up to that 20-year legacy.” In his effort to “reconnect Rolling Stone to the roots of the magazine that I loved and waited for every two weeks,” Woodward reinstated the Oxford rule framing all editorial, an element that had been tossed aside in an effort to modernize the magazine. “It turned out to be incredibly liberating,” he says. “I felt that whatever I did, if I did it inside that border, it was Rolling Stone.” According to Steven Heller, Woodward’s career can be traced to the lineage that begins with Alexey Brodovitch and continues through Henry Wolf, both of whom expressed admiration for innovation grounded in tradition. “What’s great about Fred’s work is that it’s essentially classically based,” says Arthur Hochstein, Time’s art director. “It assumes that the written word is something that’s valuable.”
At Rolling Stone, text has great value, but it’s not too sacred to have fun with, as Woodward’s quirky type experiments prove. Says Robert Wallace, “Fred’s work draws on older and deeper Eastern traditions that are rooted in ideography and nonlinear logic.” And, according to Milton Glaser, “the invention and high energy that he brought to the job at the beginning has never flagged. One might truthfully say that Rolling Stone is better now than it has ever been.” Perhaps the ultimate tribute can only come from the esteem of a mentor. “I guess we all make mistakes, thinking that our way is the only way to go,” says Henry Wolf. “I was guilty of this were it concerned my work as an art director. Along came Fred Woodward with Rolling Stone. That’s when I realized there was something new that was good.” Jann S. Wenner, chairman of Wenner Media and the editor and publisher of Rolling Stone, last year appointed Woodward the first and only creative director of the company. In this capacity, Fred oversees the visual articulation of Rolling Stone, US, and Men’s Journal, as well as the company’s other projects, including books and new media. “Fred is truly a visionary in the field of magazine art direction,” says Jann Wenner. “He’s a creative force whose energy, skill, and talents continue to amaze and astonish me. After close to ten years, his creative DNA has become an integral part of the Rolling Stone spirit.”