Hey Art Directors—What Do You Think About Illustrators?

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By: Print staff | February 15, 2013

We couldn’t very well run an entire issue on illustration without checking in with those gatekeepers and tastemakers who control the visual side of our newspapers and magazines. Here, ten prominent art directors tell us how they do it.

The Art Directors:

Deb Bishop (Creative director, More), Alice Cho (Former art director, Wired), Matt Dorfman (Op-Ed art director, The New York Times), Arem Duplessis (Design director, The New York Times Magazine), Will Hudson (Art director, It’s Nice That), Byron Regej (Art director, Los Angeles), Josef Reyes (Deputy art director, New York), Ivylise Simones (Art director, Harris Publications), Justin Sloane (Cofounder, contributor, and designer, _Quarterly), Kuchar Swara (Creative director, Port)

Art Directors and Illustrators

What kind of story lends itself to illustration?

Deb Bishop: We typically use illustrators for the conceptual ideas that don’t work with photography or when we want a particular look and thought process. [At More] we have to be careful how we portray women, and we can’t be too edgy, so we have some parameters we need to adhere to. Unfortunately, a lot of editors tend to prefer photography.

Matt Dorfman: Within the framework of a newspaper, stories that examine or critique a set of ideas, principles, or beliefs often yield the ripest visual fruit. The Op-Ed page, the Sunday Review, and our Opinionator blog network are all embarrassments of riches in this regard. The majority of the stories we cover are devoted to ideas—and to a lesser extent, the people behind those ideas—which provides a lot of chances to pair them with smart, concept-driven imagery. And we do our best to exploit every last opportunity.

Arem Duplessis: We are a general-interest magazine, so we cover a lot of ground. We don’t have a formula for using illustration; we just assign it when it feels right or when we don’t have the right photography. A great example would be our most recent story on a drug cartel [“Cocaine Incorporated,” June 15, 2012]. There were no available drug lords to pose for portraits (they were busy) so we commissioned the comic-book artist Steve McNiven, who was just fantastic to work with. He re-created factual events, and his work served as a great visual reference for the reader.

Byron Regej: Usually I read over a story and meet with the editor working on the piece to get his or her ideas and thoughts on the tone/message and whether it lends itself to being illustrated or photo driven.

Ivylise Simones: Stories where the main characters aren’t visually recognizable. Complex stories that can lead to beautiful conceptual ideas. Stories that just need a visual boost!

Are you commissioning as many illustrations today as you were five years ago?

Deb Bishop: I am commissioning more illustration, because the stories we produce for More are, for the most part, more conceptual than at a lot of women’s magazines. Previous to this, I worked for Martha Stewart, where there wasn’t as much need for illustration. Illustration is less expensive than conceptual photography, so we definitely use as much as possible in the front and back of the book to keep the cost of producing each issue down. The economy and the state of the magazine industry are not as healthy as they were five years ago, so illustration is a more economical choice when appropriate—though it seems that less is being used.

Byron Regej: I feel it’s the same as it was five years ago. For me personally, it all comes down to the story—what’s the best way to get across the message, illustration or photo?—and the budget. Budget has definitely been one of the major challenges; with budget cuts, illustrators are working for less than they did five years ago but are still expected to produce an exceptional visual.

Josef Reyes: Our illustration commissioning has remained unchanged.

Ivylise Simones: Sadly, no! Back when I was the art director over at the Village Voice and The New York Observer, working with illustrators was pretty much half of what I had to do on a weekly basis. In those weeks, there could be up to seven illustrations in one issue! At Harris, we average about three or four a month.

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Do you tend to work with a stable of illustrators? How does someone become a regular at your publication?

Deb Bishop: We tend to return to the same illustrators. We kind of go in phases, and yet each art director has favorites. Holding firm to a brand look is also part of it. You become a regular through good thought process and solving tough problems that we encounter over and over again. It helps to be someone who we really enjoy communicating with and who is a great problem solver. Our editors tend to be very literal, so the person we use over and over probably has a great track record of solving problems in a way that is conceptual but also direct and understandable to every woman. A sense

of humor helps.

Alice Cho: For columns, I tend to work with the same illustrator—one illustrator per column. For everything else, I like to try someone new each issue. Illustrators are more likely to be considered for repeat commissions if their process is tight (solid sketches; can present options), they’re easy to work with, and they can turn work around quickly.

Matt Dorfman: We have our favorites, but it’s a long, long list of favorites, and we meet with illustrators, artists, and designers regularly to review portfolios in the hopes of finding new voices and new energy to join the ranks. Going from concept to final in the span of a day is a tall order to ask of anyone, so becoming a regular with us requires a person who is ready, willing, and able to read fast, respond fast, conceptualize fast, and execute with craft and intelligence (and fast)—and preferably with a minimum of whining.

Arem Duplessis: We do both. In the feature well, we tend to mix it up, but our front of the book has a regular stable. Being really good, like with anything else, gets you the job. Will Hudson: I enjoy working with new people whenever possible. Of co
urse you have a few that you turn to, but I like to commission new people.

Josef Reyes: We have a regular stable of around ten to fifteen illustrators. Other than draftsmanship and conceptual ability, speed and reliability are key attributes we look for, given that we are a weekly publication that moves at breakneck speed.

Illustrations in Magazines

How do you decide whom to approach with a new assignment?

Deb Bishop: We always try to match the thinking and style to the job. If it’s a solution that needs a really good thinker, then we go with a good thinker. If it can be more decorative, then we look for a style that works for the piece and our brand. I try to consider an illustrator’s process and what the strengths are. There is no doubt that style comes into the choice as well, but I have a tough time selling a purely style-driven idea to the editors, as they tend to want to communicate the entire story at a glance. Don’t get me started.

Matt Dorfman: The tone of the writing and the subject of the piece count for a lot. Since the clock is always against us, it definitely helps to feel that we’re pairing illustrators with topics that we think their work can comment upon in an interesting way. The best illustrators are capable of attacking a broad range of subjects while keeping the voice in their work loud and present from piece to piece. We want the best possible visual voice to talk with its written counterpart every day on the page. Another primary marker for assigning, if I’m being honest, is envy. I illustrated for the Times frequently before I came on board to art direct, and if I harbor the slightest bit of professional envy in a person’s work and process, I like to embrace that jealousy by giving the person a job.

Will Hudson: One of two ways: You either identify an illustrator you know can fulfill your brief because of the work the person has already demonstrated in the portfolio. Or alternatively (and this is the way I prefer), you identify someone who can take it on and do something unexpected. It’s the freedom and confidence to let them run with it that often provides the best results.

Justin Sloane: It’s difficult to say in my case specifically—there is a lot of gray area in terms of deciding how to use images conceptually and as communication pieces. For example, the last publication we released dealt with the impact of capitalism on the planet and physical alterations to the landscape caused by greed and social inequality. For this we used images from NASA showing irrigation, mining, land development, and ecological devastation from wars. These images were reprocessed and deconstructed through Photoshop and other methods. In a way, NASA satellite was the “illustrator,” or the means of capturing large drawings on the Earth’s surface. This may not fit a confined definition of illustration, but the point I am getting at is that open-source images have changed the way that people look at and use imagery. Digital media has left us with an extremely visually educated public, constantly reading and absorbing. It’s becoming more educated year by year as technology advances, and, in doing so, putting strain on the definitions and requirements for what illustration is and needs to do.

Illustrations in Magazines Example 2

How do you find out about new illustrators? If an illustrator wants to work with you, what’s the best approach?

Deb Bishop: We find illustrators through annuals, other magazines, book covers, and, once in a while, I look at my e-mail blasts—but it is usually a personal note with some work attached rather than from a rep. I get a photography, illustration, or model-agency promotional email about every 30 seconds, so it’s not a foolproof way to promote, but on the right day you might get lucky.

Alice Cho: Design and illustration blogs. Best way to contact is to send work samples and an online portfolio.

Matt Dorfman: We bookmark anything and everything we find challenging, weird, provocative, truthful, or any combination thereof, and keep an ever-expanding list for potential future pairings. Also, despite its epic time-suck capacity, Twitter has proved invaluable for stumbling across new and interesting talent, so even if I don’t have time to gab on it all the time, I’m checking it frequently. On the earthbound, physical side, I’m over the moon about how small presses like Le Dernier Cri, PictureBox, and Nobrow have survived (and in some instances thrived) over the past few years to showcase gorgeous and challenging work from great artists despite the worldwide migration to screens. We need more books of this kind. As far as getting in touch goes, beyond the weekly portfolio reviews that we do in the office, e-mail or snail mail does the trick.

Arem Duplessis: Lately I’ve been finding some great illustrators via Twitter. I look at their avatars and if I like them, I do some more research on them. I also go to different Tumblr accounts and websites like FFFFound! In today’s world, our options are infinite in terms of finding new talent. As far as illustrators contacting me, the worst mistake they can make is pitching themselves to me via Facebook. It feels like an invasion of personal space, although oddly enough I don’t mind being sent links on Twitter. There’s also the mail, believe it or not. Drop me a nice, simple card with your work very visible, and if it feels right, it’ll happen.

Will Hudson: Online portfolio, clearly presented, with obvious contact details. Then a regular (newsworthy) newsletter.

Josef Reyes: Some from blogs, a few from mailings, others via visits from the illustrators themselves. Sending work samples by snail mail tends to catch our attention best, as we’re inclined to keep pieces we like and therefore remember the illustrators’ names better. E-mailed work samples are too easily deleted or can get buried in our inboxes. Ivylise Simones: Sometimes I hunt on Behance/Dribbble/etc. for new folks. I still love getting postcards. I have a postcard wall I make for every office I’ve worked at!

Justin Sloane: The I N T E R N E T (for both questions).

Kuchar Swara: One: E-mail. Two: Do great work in great publications—art directors are always looking at their contemporaries.