Tagged: Design

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 Joseph Erceg

The masthead of Portland lists Joseph Erceg and his son Matt as “glorious grumpy tall designers.” Erceg père did not seem grumpy at all in responding to the UMagazinology design questionnaire. Well, maybe just a little. (And whatever else you do, don’t forget to click on the images.)

How long have you been working as designers for Portland?

I have been working on the magazine since 1985 when I was hired by the founding editor John Soisson. This was a design from scratch, not a follow-up from someone’s earlier design. That’s some 27 years and my son Matt has been involved for close to 20 years, starting by doing paste-ups for me right out of high school. Yes, this was a pre-computer design project.

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

By the time I started on the magazine, I already had 30 years experience in design and art direction, much of it doing work for other colleges and universities so I can’t say there was anything significant to learn to do the job.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

Biggest frustration? Fighting with the editor on some of his cover choices. It’s the endless editor vs. designer battle wherein the designer usually loses if it comes to a battle. I’ve got a lot of scars on my tongue from having to bite it once or so a year.

Is there a cover or story spread that you are particularly proud of?

There are a lot of powerful covers that we have put up and inside every issue we find similarly powerful images for editorial use. That’s one of the true joys of the magazine, finding really good art, generally photographs, paintings, or illustrations. It has an effect given the number of letters to the editor that comment on the selections.

As a designer, what part of your magazine are you never quite satisfied with?

The part of the magazine that never quite satisfies me is a sometimes imbalance between text and image—either too much text for the number of pages allotted to the story or not enough text to sustain the layout. Of course, weak images shouldn’t be permitted at all.

What other magazine, alumni or otherwise, do you admire for its design?

What magazines do I admire for its design? Well, I only see a few alumni magazines from time to time and those that I do see are not very good. As far as consumer magazines? As an aside, I regularly subscribe to magazines that are designed with the reader in mind, not the ego of the designer. For example, I subscribed to Wired for a year and it drove me nuts, but since I’m a computer novice of the first order, the magazine wasn’t meant for me anyway. After all, I still work off of a drawing board that has all the scars, marks, and smudges of my design career. To the point, I read The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, The New Republic, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, all conducive to good and pleasurable reading.

If you could hire for a story any illustrator in the world, who would it be? And photographer?

Who would I hire to illustrate a story? Marshall Arisman, Matt Mahurin, Brad Holland, Wilson McLean, Mark English, Paul Davis, Gary Kelley, Daniel Maffia, and there are others but how long a list do you want? The names chosen are done so with the magazine’s needs in mind and I draw upon my recollection of stories from the past in making my selections. I love illustrators but I think that the great days of illustrating are over what with the computer and all those images now stored as clip art in stock houses. Lots of people can draw but it takes more than that to be a top flight illustrator. You will know what I mean when you look at the work of the artists mentioned. Unfortunately, I am one of those designers who use stock images from the likes of Getty and Corbis for photographs and Art Resources and Bridgeman Art Library for historic paintings. I have no photographers that come to mind that I would hire except for local, really good ones that do a great job when called upon.

If you were not a magazine art director, what would be your dream job?

If I wasn’t a magazine art director, I would still be a designer doing what I do now along with my personal photography, and found object assemblage art. That’s 57 years worth. And I love it. But . . . if i ran a billion dollar charitable trust, I would love buying really good art, giving it to our local museums for all to see, and spend the rest of the money promoting worthy causes such as saving the planet and all of humanity. Pretty lofty stuff, huh?

Guest post: designer Claude Skelton on covers

What is that elusive thing that makes a magazine cover both memorable and beautiful? For university magazines, covers can be especially difficult to pull off because the subject matter varies widely—from timely and profound to soft and nostalgic. These challenges make for a uniquely creative opportunity, yet many alumni magazines miss the chance to be unique and suffer from bland sameness. Magazine covers are usually a combination of three elements: headline, image, and nameplate. What makes it so hard to find that magic balance necessary for a great cover? Here are some ideas, with examples. [Click on the thumbnail images and watch them grow.]

The Headline

Provocative stories and great writing lead to great covers. Seems obvious (and I know I’m preaching to the choir) but how often does that happen?

Headline writing is an art in itself. Short is usually best, and clever wordplay is better—and a good headline can generate great visual ideas. The best covers promise a good read inside by using smart headlines paired with original visuals. Some great examples of short, clever headline writing show up on two covers for Bostonia from Boston University (of course it doesn’t hurt that the design of these covers, by Ronn Campisi, is also top notch).

The Nameplate

The nameplate is a given, and it’s often one of the weakest elements of university magazine covers. It carries the identity of the magazine as well as that of the school. The nameplate design—its position, size, color, and typographic treatment—can make the difference between ho-hum and exciting covers. A favorite example of the creative use of a nameplate is on UCLA’s covers. Each cover moves the nameplate to a new position according to the design of the cover image, carefully juxtaposing content blurbs, nameplate, and image. Too often the nameplate appears in the “newsstand” position—as large as possible across the top of the page—contributing to the familiar sameness of so many covers.

The Image

Whether using photography, illustration, or typography, how do you create maximum impact with a single image in a relatively small space? There’s no scientific formula or foolproof solution. You can blow your budget on a fabulous photo shot by a great photographer,but unless your designer has the eye for sizing and cropping the image for maximum effect and balancing it with the other visual elements (headline and nameplate), it can fall flat. When planning a cover, think about the most surprising, original way to illustrate the cover story—and, if possible, develop the headline first. Often a good headline can lead directly to the perfect visual approach.

Since people and profiles are often subjects for umag covers, think creatively about how to make a portrait distinctive and meaningful. There are photographers with a special gift for shooting portraits. Hire one. If the subject happens to have a wonderful, expressive face, take advantage of it (see Kenyon’s fall cover showing the face of a Cold War survivor shot in black & white by John Noltner). Shoot on location if the environment has an important supporting role in the story (The Pennsylvania Gazette’s May/June 2009 cover is a good example). I recently designed a cover for Fairfield University Magazine featuring a student production of Romeo and Juliet. Art directing long-distance, the photographer, Bob Handelman, and I came up with a dramatic close-up of the two leads, Romeo in profile, Juliet facing the camera.

A portrait doesn’t always have to be a photograph. For the past ten years, St. John’s College has hired illustrator David Johnson to render a different classic author on the cover of every issue of The College, in keeping with St. John’s unique Great Books curriculum.

Conceptual illustration can make a powerful cover but it can be one of the most difficult solutions to implement successfully. Start by identifying an illustrator with a style that makes sense with the subject. There are lots of illustrators who can render objects or people in various styles. There are fewer illustrators who can take an abstract concept and translate it visually. The best ones can take a story, even a rough draft or synopsis, and come up with sketched ideas with very little art direction. Then it’s a matter of fine-tuning and finalizing finished art. From Loyola LMU’s fall issue featured a conceptual illustration (by Heads of State) for its cover story on teacher performance scores, “Bitter Fruit.” Simple iconic images—a segment of a standardized test form superimposed on a worm-infested apple—told the story in a more graphically interesting, and less literal, way than a photo ever could.

Display typography can also be an effective form of illustration. Some outstanding examples: Bostonia on HIV in Kenya; Drew’s “How to Do Everything Better” issue; NJIT (out of the New Jersey Institute of Technology) on “synchrotron light” research.

Finally, these are some of my favorite recent UMag covers. They are hard to categorize, but all are wonderful in their own way:

Denison’s “When the War Comes Home,” features Magnum-quality black & white photojournalism by Erin Trieb. The cover shot perfectly sets the stage for an emotionally wrenching essay on returning soldiers.

Auburn’s “Teaching Them to Fish,” about a plan to save Haiti, shows a simple but powerful photo of a man holding a fish against an unbelievably blue sky.

• University of Cambridge (CAM) ran a portrait of a student looking straight at the camera, beautifully composed in front of a Florentine Renaissance painting. It just works.

Bucknell’s “The Lure of the Beast,” about Bucknellians who work with animals, illustrates the “call of the wild” with a striking and dramatic portrait of a baboon shot in black & white.

Guest blogger: Claude Skelton regarding design-on-a-shoestring

Designer Claude Skelton offers ideas on how to stretch limited resources to produce an attractive magazine:

I’ve recently heard from several UMag editors about the quality of photography in their magazines. (This was inevitably followed by a flurry of magazines forwarded to me with great photography—thanks Portland, Bucknell, NDSU, and Mizzou). Many of the comments, as expected, mentioned tight budgets as the main reason for poor photography. Several spoke about small staffs comprised of “word people” with little or no experience working with photographers, art directors, and designers. Another frequently mentioned issue was an apparent disconnect between administrators and magazine staff. Various combinations of these problems contribute to many university magazines becoming a big source of frustration to committed editors.

Given a low-budget scenario, and in lieu of creative ways to increase magazine funding (another blog topic, Dale?), here are some thoughts about art directing on a shoestring:

—Probably the most important way to achieve good (no, let’s aspire for great) photography or artwork for your magazine is to include your art director and/or designer early in the planning process. A good designer will show up with a bag of tricks and can often come up with ideas for visuals that are unexpected and creative, and could even influence the direction or emphasis of the story—in a good way. Of course, the more experienced the designer, the deeper the bag of tricks, but it’s always a good idea to have a brainstorming session with the creative staff. You never know where inspiration will come from.

—One of the most common problems I run into is finding a creative way to photograph people. As I mentioned in my previous post, too often the default solution is using supplied head shots—always boring and many times of poor technical quality (low resolution, out of focus, overexposed, etc). Try to avoid those like the plague. Find the best “people photographer” you can afford, commensurate with the importance of the story—possibly negotiating a better fee by assigning more than one photo per issue or setting up a contractual arrangement to shoot for multiple issues. Tip: it’s usually best not to over-direct a good photographer. I generally get the best results when I choose a photographer for his or her strengths and let them go to it. Sometimes a suggested concept or environment can inspire a photographer to find a more creative portrait approach, but try not to hover.

—OK, sometimes I have to reach way down in my bag of tricks for an economical solution. Here’s one: If you’re doing a story, say, on science, engineering, or business, contact someone in the department and request technical diagrams, drawings, imaging (such as brain scans, MRIs, x-rays), PowerPoint presentations, charts, or graphs—anything that can translate into an interesting graphic. Sometimes these resources are good enough (maybe with some creative cropping or enhancement) to use as is, or they can be used as a starting point to create original graphics.

—And, of course, there’s always stock. As stock photography and illustration resources are continuing to improve and grow, they are (unfortunately) giving professional artists a run for their money. Sometimes you must have original photography if your subject is a specific person or place, so save your budget dollars for those situations. When stories are more idea driven, and you can’t afford original illustration (always preferred), stock imagery can be a viable solution. Just be careful to choose images that don’t look obvious and trite, like you’ve seen them before a hundred times, because you probably have. Sometimes original-looking stock art is difficult to find and the more creative stock images usually cost more. But I have found acceptable photos on “royalty free” sites if I look hard enough.

—A note about stock illustration: I generally get the best results when I go directly to an illustrator’s site. They will often have a selection of stock images available, sometimes even categorized by concept or subject. Stock photo sites, like Getty or iStock, have a selection of illustrations, but they are generally very “stocky” looking. The more you look through those sites, the more you’ll start to recognize what I mean by that. In my opinion, the generic quality of those stock illustrations can cheapen rather than enhance the look of a magazine. Identify illustrators whose style fits the story and start looking at what they have to offer—not always the easiest way to match a concept with an image, but you’ll get better results with a little persistence.

—Creative use of typography can be another great solution to difficult design problems, especially on a tight budget, but it can also be a disaster in the wrong hands. Using type effectively—a topic I feel strongly about—will have to wait for another installment. Stay tuned.

Guest blogger: Claude Skelton

I have known designer Claude Skelton for nearly 20 years. My first job upon moving to Baltimore was with a local business magazine, and Claude was the art director. He has his own firm, Skelton Design, that has done work for many colleges and universities, including Colgate, Ball State, and Dickinson. (He designed an earlier incarnation of Johns Hopkins Magazine.) I invited Claude to examine a carton of university magazines and write a post about what he saw, as a designer. Mr. Skelton, you have the stage:

Over the weekend I perused a stack of 36 alumni magazines, hoping to end up with some kind of useful design critique. Needless to say, the quality of design and writing varied immensely as did the size and nature of the represented institutions. I started to wonder if there’s a correlation between good design and good content. It’s true, some of the best-looking magazines—from Drew, Kenyon, Dartmouth—are also well-written, but it’s also true that there are some good, compelling stories hidden in bland packaging. Some of this can be blamed on poor or mediocre graphic design, but there also seems to be reluctance—budget driven?—to allow stories or sections to breathe, as if white space or big images are a waste of precious space. If a designer, no matter how talented, is told to squeeze every word of a feature story into six pages when it deserves eight or 10 for maximum legibility and contrast with (also packed) news and notes sections, it’s tough to make an impact. After paging through issue after issue of wall-to-wall text, I came across NDSU Magazine (from North Dakota State) and it was a breath of fresh air. True, they don’t deal with ads or, for that matter, news sections or class notes. But the stories are well written, the photography and illustration is professional and well printed on dull-coated stock, design is understated and clean, and there’s an abundance of white space. It’s not perfect but it stands out in a crowd of alumni publications that are tending toward sameness.

The majority of university magazines are designed using the tried-and-true layout conventions of consumer magazines. Some of those design practices are useful, some are unnecessary since most alumni magazines are not sold on newsstands. There is evidence, however, that a hybrid style is evolving that better suits the unique nature and audiences of alumni magazines. None of the magazines I reviewed have achieved the perfect balance for what I’d consider the prototypical university or college magazine, but the one that comes closest may be Kenyon’s Alumni Bulletin. Although Kenyon borrows some useful devices from consumer publications—lots of “entry points” (callouts, short sidebars, punchy subheads, etc.) and feature story treatments that don’t always work with the magazine’s overall look—it still can’t be confused with a glossy commercial publication (it’s beautifully printed on heavy uncoated stock). I’ve noted below some things I’d like to see changed—in the interest of good design and the continuing evolution of alumni magazines.

Covers—Consumer magazines require the nameplate to be as large as possible and always placed at the top edge across the cover for maximum visibility on newsstands. With few exceptions (like UCLA, NDSU, Dartmouth) alumni magazines still adhere to this rule. I’d like to see more covers break the rules—maybe showcasing story titles or great art without having to compete for attention with the nameplate.

Features—Lots of consumer magazines spend big budgets on great photography and illustration and use bold, innovative typography-as-illustration to get maximum attention and compete with full page ads and departments. Lots of university magazines try to mimic this style, but are unsuccessful either because the editorial content simply isn’t appropriate for glitzy design or because designers are trying too hard with limited resources. The most successful magazines (at least in this batch) tend to have a consistent house style and stick to it—clean simplicity rather than over-designed, over-decorated clutter.

Photography—Sure, universities can’t afford to hire Annie Leibovitz, but there are lots of great photographers out there who, when they aren’t busy, will sometimes work within a limited editorial budget. It takes planning, and can even lead to an affordable contractual arrangement, and it’s always worth the investment. Too many alumni magazines are obviously making photography and illustration the lowest budget priority and assigning everything to staff photographers who specialize in event coverage, not creativity. Great images make just as much, if not more, impact as great writing. If the aim is to attract readers, visuals should be a bigger priority. And an important note—there are way too many smiling head shots in most of these magazines, usually a default solution to lack of artwork. It’s almost always better to find another way to illustrate the topic—spot illustration, object photography, even iStock. Keep those head shots to a minimum—and when they’re absolutely necessary make them small. I’m talking postage-stamp size.

Overall, it looks as if tight budgets are driving a lot of design decisions (understandably), but with a little creativity and planning—and possibly a slight reallocation of dollars—there’s room for improvement. It’s hard work to produce every one of these issues, and it takes a very specific kind of talent and discipline to pull it off successfully. Maybe an outsider’s perspective can help push some of these babies to the next level. Here’s to the next generation of UMags!