Guest blogger Claude Skelton on editorial illustration

My long-time friend and Baltimore colleague Claude Skelton has written some of the most-read blog posts in UMagazinology‘s brief lifespan. Today he offers some thoughts on illustration.

A good illustration can do what a photograph can’t. For communicating difficult and abstract concepts, drawn art says more with a single image than a collection of photographs can. Illustration can be technical, serious, quirky, or silly, depending on the tone of the piece. A really good conceptual illustrator can interpret a story in ways that surprise and delight, and in the best cases, introduce a whole new spin. Take a look at these Bloomberg Businessweek covers, for example. Could a photograph demand as much immediate attention or communicate so effectively? Not likely. [Throughout the post, you can click on the images to view them larger.]

Bloomberg Businessweek cover credits: Bernanke: David Parkins (after Milton Glaser); King of Vegas Real Estate Scams: Barry Falls; Coke in Africa: Nick White; Crisis in Japan: Noma Barr; creative director: Richard Turley.

So how do you find and work with illustrators to get innovative, thoughtful results? First, familiarize yourself with the talent that’s out there. Look for great work. Don’t limit yourself to local or regional illustrators (another advantage of illustration is that artists don’t need to be on location; almost all work electronically). Use the best, most professional illustrators you can afford. Amateur or mediocre illustration reflects badly on your magazine and ultimately on your institution. Look at sites such as drawger.com, illoz.com, picturemechanics.com, or theispot.com, all of which can connect you to individual artists or artist’s reps. Another approach is to notice illustrations that grab your attention in publications you read; start a reference file with names and samples as you find art that impresses you.

As you plan a story lineup, consider illustration as part of the mix. If you’re profiling a professor or an alum, the natural default solution is to commission a photograph. An illustrated portrait, like this drawing of a disabled war veteran from Dartmouth Magazine, can add style and substance to an otherwise run-of-the-mill profile. If the work or activity of the profiled person is more to the point, illustrating that idea or topic is an effective approach. The full page image below, from Cambridge Alumni Magazine, illustrates a complex essay by a neuroscientist on movement and the brain—a far more intriguing and informative solution than a portrait of the author.

Illustration and text combine in a pop-inspired spread (above) by Design Army, Washington DC, from Kogod Now, the American University Kogod School of Business’ magazine. The article, on targeted food marketing to minority populations, is original, eye-catching, and unexpected in the context of a business school publication.

When you’re ready to choose an illustrator, think about the tone and emotion you want the story to communicate and find illustrators whose styles best fit what’s in your mind. You’ll need to be confident of the illustrator’s track record and ability to translate an idea into art. And you’ll need to sell a working concept, knowing that the illustrator will be bringing additional thinking and visual interpretation to the table.

This is a very subjective process and should never be attempted by committee. It’s a matter of trust—between publisher and editor, between editor and creative director, between creative director and artist. If approval from “above” is necessary before hiring an illustrator, you’ll be forced to justify your choice with nothing more than your idea and samples from the artist’s portfolio. It could be hard for an administrator to visualize the outcome, therefore the need for trust.

Art directors: it’s usually best to communicate a general concept and supply a draft of the story to illustrators, then wait and see what they come up with before making suggestions or over-directing. It’s your job to inspire creativity, not solve the problem. Trust your illustrator to find a solution that fits the assignment and suits his or her style. It rarely works to force a pre-conceived vision on an artist; be open to surprise and innovation and you’ll almost always get the best results.

A word on stock illustration: it is a less expensive alternative, but generally too generic to properly illustrate a feature story. Spots can liven up a news or class notes section, and stock can be a good substitute for those bland head shots that show up in faculty or alumni profiles—better to illustrate what they do (with symbol or icon) rather than what they look like (do readers care?). If stock isn’t available, original illustration can be cost effective for simple spots, drawing attention to complex, text-heavy pages (see news spread from Auburn Magazine, above).

Illustrated covers can be both challenging and satisfying. You have two big challenges: Finding the right artist for the job, and getting approval of concept, style, and budget. Then it’s working with the illustrator through sketches, revised sketches, more approvals, adjusted deadlines, and the holding of breath before the final artwork arrives. It’s the rare (and lucky) editorial staff or art director that has enough autonomy to move ahead through this process with no roadblocks. It’s the not knowing until it’s finished that can make you uneasy. What if it’s a disaster? What if readers are offended and cancel subscriptions? What if it’s just not quite what you had in mind? What if you hate it? These are the questions and fears that might keep you from taking a risk in the first place. But when that finished, original art finally appears, and your cover sings, it’s so worth it.

To illustrate my point, a few covers that sing (all very different tunes):

One comment

  1. Pamela Fogg

    This is a great post! I will be doing a session at the UCDA Annual Conference in Montreal next month on this very topic. Working with illustrators is the best part of my job.

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