What I Found When I Returned to the Office

I returned to The Atlantic’s New York offices a few weeks ago. Our company is still several months away from expecting employees to officially return, so I’ve been coming in only sporadically. The experience of knocking my fob against the sensor and walking through the glass doors lacked the ceremony I’d imagined for the better part of the previous year. No one else was there. The snack area was empty, and mail was strewn by the entrance. No reunions, hugs, or running water.

The office has been mostly empty since last March, when the pandemic exiled us, and the untouched space was at once uncanny and familiar: tables with dried, wilting plants and dusty book piles with galleys of 2020’s most anticipated novels; desks with family photos of employees who’d since moved on.

At my workstation in the art department, where I’m the design director of the print magazine, I found a Post-it note on my computer reading “Empty (condition).” I couldn’t recall why I’d initially jotted this down, but it gained resonance as I wandered through the desolate office. The space was filled with bright light streaming in through the large windows opening onto Madison Square Park. Yes, I thought, I was back—but only liminally, caught between Before and After. I stood alone in the silent, uninhabited space, and the scene around me felt preserved, almost petrified.

Perhaps the most surreal aspect of returning to the office was confronting the magazine wall—the mag wall, as we call it. The surface is humble: a roughly 20-by-9-foot horizontal slab of dark cork affixed to drywall. It was the place where we pinned up printouts of the issue as we designed it; the plane where we scrutinized sketches for illustrations and early layout ideas and compared typographic experiments and photographic references. It was a living, breathing version of the magazine that would eventually enter the world.

Apart from the wall’s pragmatic function, it had been a place to congregate throughout the day, to peruse and appraise our design. To chat. It was a social space, and as I stood there alone I missed the impromptu conversations it had always inspired.

For more than a year, we’ve been making the magazine on our laptops. At the mag wall once again, I saw not the current issue, but a grid of pinned printouts from the last issue we’d worked on before the pandemic struck: April 2020. (In print, we’re always working a month or two ahead of the calendar.) I noticed the initial design for Ed Yong’s lovely essay about giraffes, which appeared just as his beat became the coronavirus. On the wall, almost no single part of the issue was finished: Everything was preliminary and awaiting refinement, or in some cases, replacement. I laughed at a sketch of a fish driving a 1950s sports car that never made it to print, and was reminded that what ultimately became the cover illustration had started out in a humbler corner of the magazine. To behold this version of the issue was strange: The pages had existed in this incomplete state for almost 14 months. This surface, typically in such a wonderful state of flux during the course of our magazine cycle, was now still. The wall was a kind of artifact.

A central challenge of designing virtually is one of scale: What size is the computer screen on which the work is being viewed? How large will the headline appear, comparatively, when printed? What about the illustrations and photography? Representations on screens can appear much smaller than in real life, but during the pandemic, we were forced to make do with such digital limitations.

Standing before the wall and its rows of printed pages was the first time I’d felt small compared with the work in more than a year. Working remotely, I’d spent hours hovering above my modest laptop screen, zooming in with my mouse to inspect the page’s tiniest elements. The wall reinforced the importance of me being the one moving: leaning in to look at the grain of the printed image on paper or stepping back 20 feet to take in the issue as a whole. In person, you can lose yourself in the act of staring, allowing the magazine’s individual parts to settle, its essence to emerge.

Posting the printed pages to the wall also inspires comparison, revision, and experimentation in a way that the constraints of a screen do not. The physical process of printing and pinning can be nonlinear—messy, and better for it. What if the image were flipped? What if the typography crept off the page? Maybe that would look better in red? (Always does.)

These limitations of working on a screen can be mitigated, if not overcome. The greater loss of remote work has been a social one. Our team of art directors and photo editors had always thrived on proximity to one another. We were practiced at sharing screens—not in the sense of nervously broadcasting desktops over Zoom to dozens of people, but by literally turning our screens toward one another, inviting people to come by to look at an idea, an image. These conversations had invariably led us back to this wall, where we’d continue to assess, debate, and occasionally offend.

Another issue of scale: The virtual meetings where we now review the design of each issue prevent us from ever seeing our entire 80-or-so-page magazine at once without squinting painfully. On the wall, we could see each issue in its entirety, getting a sense of visual pace and rhythm, which made it simpler to spot repetitions in color or typographic style, or stretches of too much white. Onscreen, we never see the visuals as they truly are—at scale—or hold them in our hands as our readers eventually will. This detail turns out to be an element of control so crucial to the art of making a print magazine that I’ve decided, as with so many pandemic revelations, never to take it for granted again.

At the office, we’d been able to print articles out—and not on a slow, deskbound inkjet, but with the reckless speed of a Canon laser the size of a UTV. Among the first things we’d printed, to christen the wall when it first went up, were two floating heads: Jean-Paul Sartre and Noel Gallagher, seemingly disparate dudes linked by their affiliations with the word wall. We pinned them above the grid, where they presided as judges of our work. Now Sartre’s wandering eye and Gallagher’s smirk prompted me all over again to study the individual stories and pages filled with TKs (a journalistic stand-in for work yet to come) and provisional pencil sketches, far too many unfilled rectangles and shaggy columns of text. The old issue had had a ways to go when we left it behind, and the permanent unfinishedness was unnerving. I felt the way a musician must feel when listening to a regrettable demo. Still, the wall was beautiful in its roughness. No issue of ours, in any shape, had ever held court for so long. This made it singular.

I recalled my team’s uncertainty as we’d completed this issue from our network of living rooms, kitchens, and dens. At the time, I had thought we’d return to the office after a few weeks, ready to pull down this set of printouts and replace them with sketches and half-formed notions for the next issue. Seeing the old pages, I felt competing impulses. Part of me wanted to pin up our current ones, marked with a new year, 2021—to begin again. Rebuilding the magazine would make the office, the wall, seem less like a memory and more like the present, or, in fact, the future. But something about changing the wall felt wrong. There was an element of fragility to it, as if pulling down one page might topple this sliver of the past.

The pandemic, too, has had its walls—the ones closing in on us at home, the mental ones we confronted after several days spent indoors. I hit them—we all did—and now it seems as though we might have broken through to some other side, as disorienting as it is to be there (here) again.

One morning, several weeks after I started coming back into the office, two others had serendipitously shown up. We greeted each other hesitantly, still wearing our masks, and exchanged stories about the minor ineptitudes of commuting again. A few minutes later, our editor in chief walked in with a recent hire, whom we’d never met in person. The five of us were stunned, unsure of what to do or where to be, though soon, inevitably, we found ourselves drawn toward the wall. We congregated there to joke about the fact that we were all joking again—a once-familiar joy of the workplace. We traded memories of making the old issue that remained untouched before us; the rewrites, rough drafts, and dramatic changes to the art. Someone said they couldn’t believe it had been 14 months, and indeed that felt inconceivable, as most notions of time have since the pandemic began.

I suggested that maybe it was time to take the wall down, start pinning the new one up, as I’d thought weeks before. The editor in chief was taken aback by this; he found the wall an interesting remnant. It was too soon to disassemble it. He looked again at the grid of pages and stared momentarily. We all did. “Someone should write about this,” he said. “Then we can take it down.” The time, still, just doesn’t seem quite right.



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