Formats Unpacked: The Lives They Lived

How a format uses visual design to connect readers in a visceral way

Hi all,

I won’t lie. I did get a little excited when the first work email I opened in 2024 came from designer Michael Bierut, whose work as one of Pentagram’s partners includes some of the most ubiquitous brands on the planet. It was flattering to know that he was a subscriber to Formats Unpacked and I was delighted that he had a favourite format that we wanted to recommend for unpacking.

On a slightly separate but related note, Michael is also one of the founders of Design Observer, the publication that hosts Debbie Millman’s superb Design Matters podcast. Design Matters was one of the first podcasts I fell in love with back in the very early days of podcasting. I mention this because late last year we spoke about the value of building an archive. And I also mentioned it in the Boiler Room unpacking. I doubt that anyone involved at its inception almost two decades ago would have imagined they were creating the most important audio archive of design interviews on the planet. But that’s what Debbie and all associated with the podcast have done and I really should’ve unpacked it by now.

Anyway, back to today’s format. At Michael’s request, I’m unpacking an annual format that uses design and curation to elevate its storytelling in a way that sets it apart.

What’s it called?

The Lives They Lived (New York Time Magazine Special Edition)

What’s the format?

Every December the New York Times Magazine creates a special edition issue dedicated to “remembrances and appreciations of notable people who have died in the previous 12 months”. The Lives They Lived pays tribute to a carefully curated group of people who have left an indelible mark on the world.

While the concept might initially appear common, given the multitude of year-in-review formats that surface in December, The Lives They Lived stands out due to its distinct design format. It goes beyond typical fact-based obituaries lists by embracing a format that takes you deeper into the subjects’ lives and achievements.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

The New York Times Magazine covers a huge range of topics, so designing things that differ in tone week in week out is a familiar challenge for the design team. It’s a muscle they have well and truly developed over the years. This annual format, however, stands out due to the team's meticulous attention to every detail of its visual storytelling. In some years, the design's focal points revolve around the structure and layout, while in others, emphasis is placed on the selection of individuals to be included. The magic lies in their consistent commitment to thoughtful design choices, ensuring each annual edition has a unique visual narrative.

In 2014 we lost Maya Angelou, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. We also lost the designer Massimo Vignelli whose work includes the New York Subway signs and the American Airlines logo. Unlike others featured, the tribute to Vignelli is not through the words and images alone - the entire design of the magazine is in a Vignelli style, a choice that signals how highly the team values his design legacy. 

In 2022 the magazine took another design approach by focusing on one particular group of people who died far too soon. Rather than celebrating the usual “fascinating people, scientists and singers and judges and athletes and actors, whose time on Earth left a lasting mark,” it decided to dedicate the entire edition to 12 American kids who died to gun violence. Two years before this edition was published, gun crime had become the leading cause of death for American children. 

The children chosen provided a diverse array of narratives. Among them were girls and boys, hailing from various backgrounds – some from cities, others from rural areas. Some were teenagers, while others were very young. The circumstances surrounding their untimely deaths are equally varied. Some were tragic bystanders struck by stray bullets, while others were homicide victims. Some lost their lives in incidents of domestic violence, and another when a firearm was discharged unintentionally. What unites them all is their shared identity as children.

While these carefully curated stories of such short lives are compelling, the visual design of this issue created a narrative that brings the reader even closer to the children featured. Usually, The Lives They Lived combines archive imagery and newly commissioned photography. For this edition, the NYT design teams chose to work only with the images that the families and kids had taken on their phones, giving readers a view into the day to day lives of the children. Times reporters travelled to the children’s hometowns, met their families and friends, and visited the places they hung out. The tone is upbeat and celebratory - stories about their life, not their death; with the exception of a brief sentence at the end of each biography noting the date and nature of their death - “On Aug. 15, the day after his baptism, LaVonte’e Williams accidentally shot himself at a basketball park.”

When we talk to our clients about storytelling, their attention is often focussed primarily on the words. But great storytelling formats like The Lives They Lived combine multiple disciplines - great writing, great photography, great illustration and great visual design. Simple and smart design choices about space on a page or pace on a podcast can evoke specific moods, convey information that transcends language, and establish and create a visceral connection. The commitment to great design and curation is what makes The Lives They Live a format that leaves a lasting impression on all its readers.   

Favourite Edition

While the 2022 edition is an obvious choice, the 2023 edition included a special feature on the personal collections that 7 artists left behind.

Similar formats?

It’s a difficult one. It’s hard to think of another format that uses a similar approach. The approach of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives sees celebrities nominate the life of someone who has inspired them to be celebrated.

Thanks to Michael for the recommendation. We’re always looking for writers with interesting perspectives on formats. Is that you? Get in touch.

We’re looking for a full-time podcast producer to join the Storythings team on an initial six-month basis. If you’re passionate about audio and know what good audio storytelling sounds like, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch by the 25th January.

If you need help developing content formats we have a brilliant Fromats Unpacked workshop to help you. Just hit the button below if you’d like to know more.

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See you all next time,Hugh

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