Roger Black

Globe-trotting designer Roger Black shares his business travel tips and tales.


Don George
November 12, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

welcome to week No. 2 of Road Warrior: Adventures of the Business Traveler, Wanderlust's compendium of tips and tales from people who spend the better part of their lives on the road. Last week we launched Road Warrior with Esther Dyson's travel sagacities and stories -- including the night she slept in cardboard boxes in the Moscow airport and the time the engine outside her Tarom airline window caught fire. The thrill of travel!

This week's featured interview is with globe-wandering designer Roger Black. Also look for our Tip of the Week, about business etiquette in Asia, and for Informed Sources, where road warriors share their queries and advice. Last week a reader asked about things to do and see in Poland, and we were inundated with readers' ideas. Check them out and see if you can answer this week's question from a reader in need of frequent-flier therapy. We welcome your questions, suggestions, tips and ideas -- send them to wanderlust@salonmagazine.com. And make us a regular stop on your weekly itinerary!

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A renowned print designer for over 25 years, Roger Black is president and a founding partner of Interactive Bureau, which brings print and television design principles to online and other digital environments. Black started his design career as an award-winning art director at the New York Times and Rolling Stone. In subsequent years he launched designs and redesigns for such prestigious magazines and newspapers as Newsweek, Premiere, Esquire, Rolling Stone, the San Francisco Examiner, Out, Fast Company and Smart Money. In 1994, Black founded Interactive Bureau with partner Jock Spivy. Among his many projects at Interactive Bureau, Black has led the design team in creating, developing, producing and/or redesigning such Internet and Intranet sites as MSNBC, Barnes & Noble Online, iVillage, IBM, American Express and @Home Network. In 1994, Black also established the Media Design Network, an international group of allied design studios with partner studios in France, Spain, Germany and Mexico. In Spring 1997, "Web Sites That Work," written by Black with Sean Elder, was published by Adobe Press/Hayden Books. Black lives on Grammercy Park in Manhattan and in Los Gatos, Calif.

I first contacted Black by phone using his Wildfire service, which tracked him down in New York City. I sent him an initial set of e-mail questions and he sent answers back by e-mail, writing, "Appropriately, I'm answering this on the airplane, on the way from Guadalajara to Dallas! Bad story about this in USA Today, but good jump line, something about Economy Class Blues ... (Answer to that, always fly first!)" I followed up on his answers by phone a few weeks later. This time Wildfire found him in a taxi in the Holland Tunnel. During the course of our conversation he got out of the taxi and checked in for his flight from Newark Airport to California. How much of a road warrior is he? "Well, I'm going to Jakarta and Singapore on Sunday," Black said. "From there I'm flying to London, then on to California, and after a week there, on to Bogota, La Paz and Santo Domingo. It's a four-continent month!"

How often do you travel in a year?

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About two weeks of every month, including the shuttle between offices on either coast.

How do you deal with jet lag?

Denial. No one cares if you're tired, so it doesn't help to whine. And ignoring the tiredness makes it less of a problem. My secret: Sleep! Jet lag is more about tiredness than time shifting. Now, airplanes make me sleepy. Generally I sleep the whole way on long hauls, and as much as possible on every flight.

Do you have a favored plane/seat?

747-400/3F (window)

What places do you visit most often?

My list varies according to the projects. I am lucky. My clients and partners are usually located in the world capitals, so in the last few years I have spent a lot of time in Singapore, Stockholm, Zurich, as well as Paris, Barcelona and Monterrey, Mexico.

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In these places, how do you get from the airport to your hotel?

In foreign cities, I try to get the hotel to send a car to pick me up.

What's your favorite hotel?

Business: The Oriental, Bangkok. Runners-up: The Halkin, London; the Rafael, Munich; the Meurice, Paris; the Widder, Zurich. Pleasure: Villa d'Este, Lake Como; Tanjung Sari, Bali.

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What's your favorite restaurant?

I like the less formal places like the Cafe Marley in Paris, the Zuni Cafe of Europe.

If you have an afternoon free, where do you go?

Typically take a walk to look at the town, then back to the hotel for a little nap before dinner.

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If you have a night free, where do you go?

If I know no one in town I go back to the hotel and hibernate for 12 hours. Otherwise, I go wherever they want to go ... usually just for a nice dinner and conversation.

What's the best shop and/or souvenir?

Paul Smith, London. Otherwise I never buy anything. Adds weight.

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What's your single favorite place/thing in those cities?

Paris: Tuilleries. Zurich: The lake. Jakarta: Cafe Batavia. Mexico City: La Fonda del Refugio. London: Floral Street. Bogota: The aerial tram.

Have you made any memorable cultural/business faux pas?

Constantly.

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Do you have any cultural/business secrets you could pass along?

Never assume anything. The farther you go from home, the less like home it is going to be. Before I learned this I would get in trouble, and I still make big cultural mistakes because often, like all Americans, I assume everything is going to be like America.

One of my first jobs outside the country was the redesign of Novedades in Mexico City. The publishers wanted to give this newspaper a national image, since they had editions in several cities. I thought, USA Today, and went back to New York and made a front page that I was absolutely in love with. Under the logotype were bold red and green stripes, and at the top right an elegant old engraving of the great seal of Mexico -- the eagle, holding a snake in its beak, landing on a cactus.

The top brass of the paper were gathered around an elaborate private dining room in Mexico, and after a gigantic meal, I went over to a big easel and lifted the cover from the mock-up of my design. I quickly looked around and was appalled to watch as jaws dropped around the room and expectant expressions turned to scowls.

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Politely, my clients told me how much they liked the design.

"OK, OK, OK," I said, "but what is the problem?"

"Well," said Romulo O'Farril Jr., the billionaire senior partner in the group, "did you ever notice, Roger, that we don't really 'fly the flag' in Mexico?" I glanced out the window, and sure enough, there was not a flag in sight.

"That kind of patriotism is considered in slightly bad taste," he said. "It identifies us rather too closely with the government, and seems to indicate that Novedades is a government-owned newspaper. And besides, in order to get permission to use the national colors, we have to get the permission of three government agencies: the Ministry of the Interior, the army and the president himself."

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I quickly reached over to the front page and pulled off the green stripe.

"Anything else?"

"The engraving ..." said Miguel Aleman Jr, the other owner of the paper and now in the Mexican Senate. "It has the same problem. It is a very fine version, of course, but have you ever noticed that the eagle on the peso, for example, looks left?"

"Uh, no."

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"This eagle," observes Aleman, "is looking right. It is the emblem of the notorious dictator, Porfirio Dmaz."

Coda: That eagle was never seen again. We compromised by putting the weather up there, like so many American newspapers. The client was not very excited about it. Only on the launch day did I realize why. The weather is totally predictable in Mexico City. And sure enough, the little headline above the weather box read, No hay cambio in todo el pams: There is no change in the entire country.

What's your favorite business travel tale or memory?

Business travel is a ghastly endeavor. Hell, when we get there, will be an endless airport concourse, and we will spend eternity trudging toward "Customs" and "Baggage Claim." And so my favorite story is a nightmare.

I was in Milan, meeting with some of the editors at Epoca, a magazine my firm was redesigning. Silvio Berluscone, who owned the parent company, was also at the meeting. After that meeting I had to get to Madrid by noon the next day for a meeting about the start of El Sol.

So when the Epoca meeting ended I went to the airport -- only to find that my flight to Madrid had just been canceled.

OK, I said to the agent, is there another way of getting there?

Well, we have another flight that goes to Rome and connects to Madrid.

Fine, I said, put me on that.

I get to Rome, and I have to make the incredibly long schlep from the domestic to the international terminals. So I'm hauling ass over to international and checking the video terminals and I can't find the Madrid flight; it's not listed.

No one seems to know what's going on. So I search around for someone who knows something and finally find a woman from Iberia Airlines who tells me that all flights to Madrid have been canceled. A virus has been introduced by a hacker into the air traffic system in Madrid airport and so they are rebooting the entire system -- and it could take all night.

Can you put me on a flight first thing in the morning? I ask.

All our flights are booked, she says, but we advise you to leave Rome before noon because they are going on general strike at noon.

She checks and there are only three flights with open seats going anywhere out of Rome.

This was before cell phones and the like, so I find a phone to call my travel agent in New York. I'm feeding this thing slugs while she goes through the system and finds that the only flight that will do me any good is leaving for Paris -- in 20 minutes.

So I start to run for the gate and then I remember: my bags! So I run backward through customs and get my bags from the carousel and then run to the gate.

They look at my Rome-Madrid ticket and wave me onto the Paris plane.

So I get to Paris. Of course, that was the night they were changing all the phones in Charles de Gaulle airport and all the public phones were ripped out of the walls. It was also the grand prjt-`-porter fashion show weekend and every hotel I could reach on the hotel phones was booked. Finally I persuaded one of the airline people to let me use their phone and I called a hotel where I had often stayed in the past, and the manager, who knew me, gave me this little secret attic room they save for old customers.

From Paris I called my answering machine and found they'd booked me on a 7 a.m. flight to Frankfurt, where I could catch a connection to Madrid.

The next morning that flight was delayed because the Madrid airport was still not open. But finally the airport opened up and I made it just in time for my noon meeting.

I walked into the room and who should be there but Silvio Berluscone. I looked at him and said, "Silvio, I didn't know you were going to be at this meeting." And he looked at me and said, "Roger, I didn't know you were going to be here, either. What a shame -- I could have given you a ride in my plane!"


Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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