Meet the Canadian who transformed Vanity Fair's iconic look

Chris Dixon, design director for Vanity Fair, dishes on his job — and his favourite covers

Chris Dixon

The other Canadian calling the shots at Vanity Fair. Regina's Chris Dixon is the Design Director of the magazine. He speaks at Canada's largest design conference, DesignThinkers 2015, Friday in Toronto. (Supplied, DesignThinkers 2015)



The logo, the typefaces, the works. Save for the Annie Leibovitz and Mario Testino photos on the cover, everything about Vanity Fair magazine looks different today than it did in 2011. And if you didn't catch it all happening, that's because Chris Dixon was doing his job.

Dixon is the Design Director of Vanity Fair. Friday, he'll tell the creative minds at Canada's largest design conference (DesignThinkers 2015), how he gradually and subtly pulled off a thorough makeover of the brand — a task that includes not just the print mag, but the website and everything from Oscar party invites to Instagram videos.

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Raised in Regina, Dixon joined VF in 2011. He'd spent the previous 8 years as an art director for New York magazine, following a stint at Adbusters, where he was the anti-consumerist bible's one-man design shop.

Over at VF, though, that design shop is, well, more than one person.

Dixon's in charge of the magazine's visual side, but he collaborates with a team involving an art department, a photography director, a photography research director, and the magazine's other notable Canadian, editor-in-chief Graydon Carter.

The Vanity Fair look is ultimately up to Carter, as the head of the magazine. "It's what he wants," Dixon says, "there's a certain simplicity. There's a large, sort of muscular look to it."

So how far could Dixon push the envelope?

"I think that's why I was interested in the job," he replies.

"I knew the parameters were tighter here, and I think that's a design challenge to take on," he says. "You don't want to experiment for the sake of experimenting."

"[Graydon Carter] had liked the work I'd done at New York, and he was looking to kind of slowly update the magazine." The mission: change everything. Just don't make it an overhaul. Every issue, a new element would be transformed. Maybe a colour palette. Maybe a signature section, like Fan Fair. Maybe the VF logo itself.

Vanity Fair logo change

Que sera, serif. The Vanity Fair logo in February 2013 (left) and November 2014 (right). (Vanity Fair)

"Even just the illustrations that we commission or the way we treat the type," says Dixon. "We basically changed every part of it, but I don't think you woul know immediately to look at it what was changed."

In part, that's because Dixon and co. take care to never disrupt "the familiar language" of the magazine's aesthetic, the one established by Carter. 

Working with Graydon Carter

"Graydon likes to say that [Vanity Fair] tells big stories with great photos and great design. So it's always big and clear and confident," Dixon says.

A few times a day, Dixon and Carter check in on where a design is going. "He's very passionate about type and photography and design," Dixon explains — and the editor keeps files of design references, "decades and decades of collected items.

"I think most great magazine editors are as talented visually as they are with writing," he says. "He'll look at every single thing and give feedback on it, especially the covers. We do a lot of work on those."

What's the big idea?

In terms of inspiration, Dixon doesn't exclusively look to other magazines, though he mentions UK titles including men's magazines Port and British Esquire. "I still think New York magazine is doing really great work — even without me," he jokes. "I just sort of look everywhere," he says: websites, films, book jackets, catalogues. "On the cover we do a lot of little detailing like little buttons. A lot of that stuff gets pulled from some old little matchbook that we found or some signage in Paris that we Xeroxed."

Port Magazine

Port. When it comes to design, the British men's magazine is one of Chris Dixon's favourites. (Port Magazine)

All those details come together to tell one unified story about what the magazine is. And that's the big idea behind every piece of design work he oversees.

"I think the experience of Vanity Fair is supposed to be just a smooth journey through the whole magazine. It has ups and downs and a certain energy, but it's designed as one long experience," he says. "It should feel like a nice journey."

Chris Dixon chooses some of his favourite Vanity Fair covers

Bill Murray, Vanity Fair

(Vanity Fair)

Bill Murray, December 2015

"The new issue with Bill Murray I think turned out kind of great," says Dixon. "Bruce Weber shot it and he's very loose and carefree. He shot for a day or two in Montauk, New York with Bill Murray — hundreds of photos so we had a lot to choose from on this one. It's not a carefully conceived photograph, it's just one of the moments that was caught," he says. "I think it has an authentic spirit to it."

Caitlyn Jenner, Vanity Fair

(Vanity Fair)

Caitlyn Jenner, July 2015

"Obviously this year we had the Caitlyn Jenner issue, and that was quite an exciting thing to work on — just as a big media event and the story that was told." Every cover, Dixon notes, involves a team of players, this one especially. "That was a real collaboration with the photo team, the style and fashion team." Because of the exclusivity of the story, there was a high element of secrecy around the cover photos, shot by Annie Liebovitz in Los Angeles, and that extended to the design team as a whole, to some degree.

"Visually, once we went through the images, we ended up doing that very stripped down cover that we did, with the one sentence and the black logo," says Dixon of the "Call me Caitlyn" cover that sparked instant conversation and controversy. "We wanted the final thing to be very, very special and iconic."

Association of Registered Graphic Designers DesignThinkers Conference 2015. Chris Dixon, Telling Stories with Words and Pictures. Friday, Nov. 13, 11am. Sony Centre, Toronto.

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