Tagged: illustration

A Guy Can Dream

Issue_6_Cover_wideThis may be odd for an avid photographer, but I am far more interested in magazine illustration than magazine photography. Probably because of the sameness of so much editorial photography, especially in university magazines that can’t afford the more creative shooters out there. For years I have harbored a dream of an all-illustration magazine — no photographs. It won’t happen at Johns Hopkins Magazine, where the art director would probably walk off the job, and if she didn’t shoot me, any one of a dozen Baltimore photographers would. Even the ones I consider friends.

But thanks to that smart bunch at Dog Ear Consultants, also known as Mo Harmon, Dan Morell, and Patrick Kirchner, I can indulge my illophilic fantasies on the website of Herself, a fashion magazine with no photography. Nada, zilch, bupkus. No pics, only illustrations. I think what they’re doing is fabulous.

I’m not sure which of the dogeared is responsible for the post on Dog Ear’s Dogblog, but the author points toward Herself to make a point:

The magazine as a form has existed for hundreds of years and has been wildly successful. And some magazines have kept that same form for hundreds of years and been wildly successful. Why do we need to reinvent the wheel?

Because there’s value in creating unique products. And not only because, as creative professionals, we’re all special little snowflakes and we need to be seen as such, but because being unique has value to our readership. Your schools have a distinct ethos to them. Your alumni are makers, problem-solvers, healers, or aesthetes. You need to make a magazine with content and structure that speak to those things that make your institution what it is.

But, again, that’s the hardest part. The big ideas aren’t easy. But if you are sitting there thinking, “Great, but there are no new ideas left in magazine publishing—we’re all simply refining the past,” then we’d say, “You can’t smoke those clove cigarettes indoors, bub,” and then we’d have you take a look at this.

And then they link to the fashion mag.

Product_View_1__72456.1405373880.1280.1280Stanford Medicine used to do this thing I always wanted to imitate. They’d dedicate much of their feature well to a theme, with two or three linked stories, and turn the whole package over to a single illustrator to do the art for all the stories. I loved it. The science quarterly Nautilus comes close to my dream, with minimal use of photography.

Someday. When I have my own magazine, maybe.

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):

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!