Tagged: dartmouth 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):

UMag inbox

In the matter of covers, apparently black is the new black.

That PittMed cover story (Erica Lloyd, editor)  is part of a powerful two-story package about traumatic brain injury. The science/medical story, Chuck Staresinic’s “What Hit Her,” is an excellent overview of what TBI is, how it happens, what it does. Some exemplary science writing here.

Your brain does not sit inside your skull—its weight would impede blood flow just as sitting in a chair for too long does to other parts of your anatomy. Neither does the brain float like a duck, which would create the same problem up top as it pressed against the roof of the skull. The brain has neutral buoyancy, like a densely compact jellyfish suspended in the sea. The result of neutral buoyancy is that the human brain, which might weigh 1,400 grams when the coroner set it on the scale, effectively has a weight of 25 grams or so when it is properly suspended in its bath of cerebro-spinal fluid.

That’s about as good as an explanatory paragraph gets, with its clarity, concision, and sprightly language.

The second piece is “None of My Memories Are My Own” by Kristen Cosby, a poignant story about a young husband and father who survived a truck tire flying into his car and smashing his head. His memories did not survive. Cosby does a great job with delicate material.

The couple sits at their kitchen table, Derrick smiles, crooking the right corner of his mouth higher than the left. Anna [his wife] smiles back. “You used to smile that way before the accident, when you were saying something funny.”

“Really? I don’t remember that,” says Derrick. Then he listens as she tells the story of how he proposed to her. If she repeats it often enough, it will become his story, too.

While we’re on the subject of brains, here’s the latest cover from The Pennsylvania Gazette, John Prendergast, editor:

My reaction was about what you’d expect from a nerdboy who regularly feeds his inner 12-year-old: “Oh, cool . . . look at that!” I showed the cover to two of my female colleagues. Their responses were, more or less, “Please. I just had breakfast.”

Eight questions for Sean Plottner

The editor of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine steps up and faces the UMagazinology questionnaire.

How long have you been in your job?

Eleven years.

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

Learning the lexicon of academia. My prior magazine experience in New York did little to provide me with an understanding of what a provost is, what deans do, and how a development office operates.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Winning the Sibley Award as best alumni magazine in 2008.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

Getting the magazine online. It’s a long and not uncommon story. We’re finally up and running, but we’re still not close to meeting our electronic potential.

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

Our front-of-the-book news section. I think we’re strong when it comes to features, design, profiles, pacing, display copy, etc. But campus news? Not so strong.

What story are you proudest to have published?

Our July/August 2007 cover story about the warring alumni factions battling over representation on the board of trustees, a battle that has led to ongoing lawsuits that pit alums against their alma mater and trustee against trustee. As the fur was flying we got Washington Post political reporter Matt Mosk to investigate and sift through all the controversy and the soundbites. He did an excellent job of reporting and cut through a lot of pro- and anti-administration propaganda to give readers a balanced look at the players, issues and allegations involved. It was juicy stuff for a little alumni magazine.

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

I can’t decide between Frank Deford, still the best sportswriter of our time (his 2002 Sports Illustrated remembrance of Johnny “YOU-ni-tass,” is but one example), or Chris Jones, who’s rightfully won a few National Magazine Awards for feature writing. His 2008 Esquire story, “The Things That Carried Him,” is the best piece of magazine feature writing I’ve ever encountered.

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

Defensive back, Cleveland Browns.

UMag inbox

Consistently one of the best-designed university periodicals, 2010 CASE gold medalist Drew Magazine, from Drew University in New Jersey, does well again with its spring issue. Art director Margaret M. Kiernan has mastered the ability to throw a slew of graphic elements onto a spread yet keep it clean, coherent, and attractive. Particularly nice (and clever) is “The Drewid’s Guide to How to Do Everything Better.” The idea of collecting snippets of expert advice from faculty and alumni is not new—Dartmouth Alumni Magazine did it in the January/February 2009 issue, as just one example—but the various how-to’s are fun and the layout, featuring Leigh Wells’ illustrations, is exemplary. (Try to grab a copy of the magazine; the web version does not do the graphics justice.) Renée Olson edits the magazine.

I am an inveterate reader of notes on contributors. The July 2010 UCLA Magazine has five, including, “Jan Sonnenmair, who hit the road to photograph our tour of Bruin wineries . . .” Man, there’s a job I want someday. Deeper in the magazine, where they keep the long stories, Alison Hewitt asks around campus if digital technology is ruining human minds. From the answers I learned that UCLA students fight over a certain corner of a lecture hall because it has the strongest WiFi signal, UCLA professors have come across undergraduates who have never hunted down a book on a library shelf, students these days seem unable to focus on a single topic, and computers appear to stunt frontal-lobe development. OK, that’s it, stop reading this and go read a book. That you found at the library. Wendy Soderburg is managing editor.

The latest edition of The Penn Stater (c’mon, guys, get a magazine website, it looks like this whole Internet thing might catch on) is most notable for its photography. For the cover story . . . cover spread, it’s not really a story . . . editor Tina Hay and undergraduate photographer  Andy Colwell ascended in a helicopter to snap some striking aerial photos of campus. I’m sure Hay, who is a shutterbug on the side, has a cogent editorial rationale, but she’s not fooling anybody. She just wanted to grab her Nikon and get airborne in a chopper. The second set of featured pictures are stunners from the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökul in Iceland. (Yeah, I can pronounce it, I just don’t feel like it right now.) The writer of the accompanying text, Penn State alum Nancy Marie Brown, recounts riding in a jeep over a glacier to a spot west of the volcano’s crater for look at the initial, comparatively mild eruption. What Brown did not know was that her driver had parked directly over the underground lava pool. Ten days later, reports Brown, “the spot I’d been standing on was blasted 35,000 feet in the air.”