Tagged: cambridge alumni magazine

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):

Eight questions for the ladies of Cambridge

Those of us who attended the 2011 CASE Editors Forum had the opportunity to meet Morven Knowles, managing editor of CAM, the Sibley-winning magazine from the University of Cambridge in England. (Note to American copy editors: U.S. publications constantly get wrong the official names of Cambridge and Oxford. It is not Oxford University, it is the University of Oxford; same for Cambridge. The University of Harvard or Florida University would never pass, so why do we never get this right?) When I contacted Knowles about the questionnaire, she reminded me that the editor at CAM is Mira Katbamna and suggested that she respond. I suggested the both of them, which is where we sorted out. So then:

How long have you been in your job?

Mira: I’ve been a journalist for 10 years, and editing CAM for just over two.

Morven: My background is mainly in book publishing—across a whole range of different roles and over more years than I like to say! I’ve been managing editor of CAM though for just under three.

What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do that job?

Mira: Not so much something I had to learn, as something I’ve seen proven: If you don’t put your readers first, you may as well put your budget directly into the recycling, because that’s where your mag is going. Unopened.

Morven: Probably switching from working within the commercial sector to working for a higher education institution. The ethos is very different and in particular the way decisions are made; it’s all about consensus here and things can take a long time . . . (Although having said that, we were able to make the changes to CAM in 2009 with surprising speed.)

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Mira: For every issue, it’s always holding the first copy in my hand.

Morven: It has to be winning the Sibley. I was in the office on a Saturday afternoon when we got the email, and for a very long and incredibly frustrating hour I couldn’t get hold of Mira to share the excitement. It definitely felt like just reward for working on a weekend!

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

Mira: Science. Can we find writers who can explain big ideas in ways that arts graduates can understand, but science graduates can still enjoy? No we cannot.

Morven: CAM has changed a very great deal over the past two years; visually, with the redesign in spring 2009, but also in terms of its editorial content. We see CAM as a magazine which presents the big world-changing ideas which are generated from within the university; one which looks out from the university rather than in, and genuinely competes for alumni time and attention with the newsstand publications they could be reading. It can be frustrating when alumni or colleagues who used to find CAM at times somewhat parochial haven’t taken a real look at the more recent issues of the magazine. But obviously this is down to us to communicate about CAM better.

What part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?

Mira: We run a regular called “History of a Friendship,” which tells the story of a group of friends. It’s important to our readers and it’s very difficult to organise—but somehow it doesn’t quite hit the spot for me.

Morven: I’m not sure we get the news pages (“Update”) quite right.

What story are you proudest to have published?

Mira: Not a specific story, but the features where we have turned something we had to do into something brilliantly readable, meeting the university’s objectives while keeping the reader firmly in charge.

Morven: Everything in the first issue with the redesign. We didn’t get everything right, of course, but it was so fresh and different.

If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?

Mira: John Updike.

Morven: Happily I can leave these things to Mira! But there is an English don at Emmanuel College, Robert Macfarlane, who writes beautifully and inspiringly (and with great publishing success) about landscape and wildness and whose work I love. So far we have failed to persuade him to write for CAM—although he did talk to us for the “Books” page last autumn—but we will!

If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?

Mira: Editing is my dream job!

Morven: I love what I do, even though the hours are insane. But in a parallel world I am Head of Rare Books at the University Library—endless fascinating volumes, with collections dating back to the 15th century. Heaven.

Guest blogger Claude Skelton on typography

Designer Claude Skelton has been casting his eye on type. Casting . . . type . . . typecasting . . . all right, look, it has been a tough week trying to get a winter issue out the door and on press, so cut me some slack. Better yet, let me turn this space over to Claude while I look for the martini shaker:

Thanks to all the UMag editors who have kindly included me on their mailing lists. A corner of my office is piling up with your publications—I hope they are fairly representative of what’s out there. In previous posts, I’ve talked about the quality of photography, and I can’t overstate the importance of great images on editorial impact. However, there’s another aspect of good magazine design that is just as important and too often overlooked: typography. Using type well is a skill that can be learned through observation and experience; using type creatively is an art form.

Legibility is not a problem in most university magazines these days. Vast expanses of unbroken nine-point text is becoming a thing of the past as editors and designers understand the importance of “entry points” for readers (subheads, callouts, quotes, captions, sidebars, etc). Font choices for body text are, for the most part, just fine. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but for my money, classic serif fonts like Garamond, Caslon, and Baskerville (and their derivatives such as Hoefler and Mrs. Eaves) are hard to beat. Speaking as someone who’s been working with type for more than 30 years, these classics are still more attractive and easier to read than most “modern” serif families (actually, there are legibility studies, but I won’t get into that). As a rule of thumb, sans serif text is best used in small amounts or for contrast and, with few exceptions these magazines seem to understand that.

Similarly, many UMags are doing a good job with typography that’s used to organize and distinguish departments. News sections are the most difficult pages to design, requiring juggling of multiple stories, images, sidebars and graphics. Dartmouth, for one, maintains a distinctive look in their “Notebook” and “Alumni News” sections largely due to an appealingly chunky display font that’s also used in the cover nameplate. Along with a carefully balanced mix of contrasting serif and sans-serif text fonts, the overall effect is smart and professional. Auburn Magazine’s news sections and departments are masterfully designed with contrasting fonts, consistent type treatments, and varied column widths—not easy to achieve. Kenyon does some fun things up front—a “hot sheet” of short “things we love about Kenyon,” a box of “in & out” trends, a page of quotes, a few student profiles—all handled with typographic flair that remains faithful to the overall graphic brand of the magazine.

The main problem I’m having with many of the magazines I’m seeing is that too many designers are throwing the magazine’s typographic identity out the window when it comes to feature stories. The prevailing rule seems to be “anything goes” for display type in features. Many designers are attempting to use type to “interpret” the story. Once in a while this approach works (Denison manages to pull it off pretty consistently). Most of the time it doesn’t. Massimo Vignelli said it best: “I can write the word ‘dog’ with any typeface and it doesn’t have to look like a dog. But there are people that [think that] when they write ‘dog’ it should bark.” True, some consumer magazines use typography as art, and when it’s done well it can restore your faith in print all over again—but those publications have world-class creative staffs and budgets to match. There are just as many consumer magazines that have a strong, consistent typographic identity and they manage to use it creatively throughout, even in features. My suggestion to alumni magazine designers is simply to use what you’ve got, but use it creatively. Play with scale, experiment with color, pair type with images, turn it sideways, but don’t stray too far from the integrity and spirit of your magazine’s visual identity. For inspiration, take a look at Cambridge Alumni Magazine (this year’s CASE Sibley Magazine of the Year), Bostonia, LMU Magazine, and Auburn—all produce dynamic, original feature design without sacrificing the brand.