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Nov. 6, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How 5 publishers enhance their stories with original illustrations

Instead of using stock photos or Creative Commons images, Pando, Hazlitt, Slate, Fusion, and The Guardian are betting on the value of using original art with their stories.

We’ve been mocking stock photos since at least 2011, when Edith Zimmerman published the now-Internet classic “Women Laughing Alone with Salad” on The Hairpin.

Four years later, stock images are still easy to spot, even if they’re not outright cheesy. They’re not the only option, of course — there are always Creative Commons photos, product shots, screenshots, or, of course, photos taken by reporters — but once in awhile you think how nice it would be to have some original art illustrating a story.

I talked to five publishers — Hazlitt, Pando, Slate, Fusion, and The Guardian — about how they’re using original illustrations on their sites.


Paul Carr, editorial director:

Original art illustrating most posts was a decision [founder Sarah Lacy] made at the start of Pando. I did the same thing at NSFWCORP. The simple answer is that illustrations look much, much better than the stock photos or screen grabs that most blogs use, and that we always used at TechCrunch.

We wanted art on Pando to be just as good as the reporting and writing. Custom art telegraphs to readers that we spend real time working on the pieces we publish, rather than rewriting press releases. In many cases the art does an even better job at summing up the story, and drawing in readers, than the headline does.

Also, it’s often very funny. So much tech reporting and writing is painfully dull. We try not to be.

We don’t do any analytics on [our illustrations] at all. I wish we were that smart about it. I just know that illustrations look better than stock photos, and frequently makes me laugh. Readers tell us they love them too, but we don’t have anything resembling data on what that means in terms of traffic, no.

The illustrations set us apart from the crowd, although I notice more and more sites seem to have picked up on the idea recently, and readers frequently email to say how much they love Brad’s work. We’ve had people ask for prints of it, too.

Brad Jonas, illustrator:

I’m the part-time illustrator. I provide all the illustrations for the online site, and we have a quarterly print publication. I bring in some help from freelancers and help put together illustrations.

I think that my art fits with Pando’s vision: It’s a little off-center, a little twisted, more humorous.

I approach illustrations in a few different ways. Sometimes, I email back and forth with the writer and they’ll have an idea: “I want a unicorn” or “I want City Hall.” Other times, the writer is just like, “I’m working on this; if any art comes to mind, have at it.” I get a lot of creative freedom with some of the articles, and I just kind of do what comes to mind and what seems appropriate.

I mostly work from home, digitally. I have a Wacom tablet and I usually work in Photoshop. I check in on Slack and see if any writers have left me requests for art. If not, I ask what they have coming up. Usually, the art is for the next day; after I get an assignment, it’ll take anywhere from an hour to a few hours depending on how complicated the image needs to be. I ink it out, add color, and then I just upload it through Slack.

Here’s an example of a simple illustration request on Slack, for an article about going to the recent Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, and my straightforward interpretation.


Brad Jonas, Pando

Brad Jonas, Pando

This is an example of when I get a more abstract request — something like “I am going to do a story on why women are so dominant in China’s tech business,” where I get to have a little fun taking a relatively straightforward premise and making something that will catch a reader’s attention.

Brad Jonas, Pando

Brad Jonas, Pando

I also draw a lot of tech bros in hoodies.


Anshuman Iddamsetty, art director:

I have two roles within Hazlitt [the online magazine run by Penguin Random House Canada]. I’m their art director and their audiovisual producer. I was always a huge comics fan, and I volunteered to take over our nascent comics vertical to see what we could do with it.

Especially in the last decade, we’ve really been starting to see new voices appear in comics and in illustration in general. It’s no longer just the white males talking about art or their interiority. We’re getting a lot more women, a lot more trans creators, queer creators, people of color starting to enter the fray.

I reach out to artists who are doing fantastic things on Tumblr and Twitter, who spend their entire days doing freelance illustration work and stapling zines at night. If there’s anything vital to be said, it’s in this new space where people are hustling really hard to get their voices heard, and not waiting for, say, Drawn & Quarterly or The New Yorker to come knocking at their door.

We tend to do short seasons of stories, so it mimics a small run of TV — there’s a single story that’s spread over eight or nine installments. Practically, that’s better for an online publication, I think, but it also lets people flex their creative muscles. We also want to cultivate talent. Our writing speaks for itself, and I want to bring that same level of attention and care to artists who’d like to work with us.

With illustrations [for written posts], it’s a little different: That’s me actively seeking out talent. There are people who I’ve followed for quite awhile on Instagram or Tumblr or Twitter. I see what they’re capable of, and reach out to them. I usually have an article in mind, either a longform essay or a feature that I think is especially provocative. If a piece of writing has strong imagery, or strong emotional resonance, I think it’s the perfect candidate for art.

Our site design has fixed image requirements, so we ask for the images to be a certain set of dimensions. We ask the artists to send it as a high-resolution JPEG or a PNG file, and always keep an extra high-resolution copy on hand. Things have changed slightly, though, since we’ve all moved onto retina display screens.

Our site has responsive design baked in, and it’s fairly mobile-friendly. Our creators have naturally gravitated toward the vertical scroll format — the Tumblr style with the feed as the dominant scaffold for their comics. They’re a generation more comfortable with the feed as a unit of meaning-making. [Most of the comics we’ve gotten so far] have naturally come in as these long vertical scrolls, and they work wonderfully for mobile.

Right now, for example, we’re doing a series called Swim Thru Fire by Annie Mok and Sophia Foster-Dimino. It’s this startling, groundbreaking interpretation of The Little Mermaid fable, but through the trans perspective. It’s making such amazing use of the vertical scroll. It’s essentially one gigantic scroll, so it does away with the typical comic panels and borders.

If you love comics so much that you’re willing to read them on an iPhone, then you won’t mind having to zoom in a little if something’s not clear. But again, with retina displays and the way our comics come in and are laid out, it hasn’t really been an issue.

We don’t want to create some sort of false hierarchy where the written content that has the prestige. So all the analytics [for our content] are grouped together. We do the usual social media promotions for our comics — tweet them aggressively, make sure that the creators also spread the word because it’s usually their audiences that do most of the heavy lifting for us. We send a comics newsletter by email every two weeks. We do stuff on Tumblr as well. It’s kind of me telling our social team, don’t forget to use our images as much as possible.

This is a very expensive workflow; I’m not going to deny that. Everyone can recognize the aesthetics of a stock photo, or a photo taken by a reporter. There’s a lot of value in the DIY: Here’s a breaking event, here’s the shaky Snapchat of it, here’s the Vine of it, here’s what we got from someone’s iPhone 6S Plus. And that’s fine. But Hazlitt is more about longform and interviews and features, so I think that illustration is the right fit for us. These aren’t just placeholder images; the illustrations we commission — Rebekka Dunlap, for example, is this amazing artist who has done so much for us. She evokes the mood and theme of a piece more than the actual, any sort of denotive “this is what is happening in the story.” I think that only augments the entire reading experience.

If you’re vying for attention and stock photos are everywhere — they’re like the very oxygen you breathe in — you have to set yourself apart somehow.

We pay a fair and competitive rate, and we pay on time. The quality of art we get is because we pay a fair rate that’s comparable to our text pieces. There’s no fixed rate structure for what we do; it’s really based on the piece that we require illustration for. For example, is it a long-form piece, does it acquire multiple spot illustrations, or is it just a header or banner? Even then, do we want to go all out and add these beautiful full-bleed, full-color illustrations? That all goes into the eventual rate for the illustration.

I’ve always made it a point to say please, if you want to haggle, if you want to negotiate a better price, do so. Talk to us, at least let’s have the conversation. I can’t guarantee that it will always be successful, but if you make a reasonable case for it, then I’ll take it to my editor-in-chief, and together we’ll figure out a fair price.

I never want to say to someone, here’s $50, aren’t you glad for this exposure? God, no. That’s pretty vile.


Kent Hernandez, art director:

We always knew we wanted to incorporate original art and illustrations in our content, whether it’s header graphics or in-line art. It was really a matter of finding the right stories and the right people to work on them.

In addition to traditional illustration, we also create photo-illustrations, where we use photography as the base and then bring it to life by adding additional elements, illustrated or otherwise. We also create customized animated GIFs.


Omar Bustamante, Fusion

As a new player in the space, we felt that the visual language was a key differentiation point, where we could set ourselves apart from other outlets. We work hard to make each story unique and try to produce original art or illustration for as many pieces as we can. We usually seek out stories where the topic is abstract or complex enough to be explored via illustration or animation.

The majority of our graphics are created in-house. Turnaround time depends on complexity of the topic addressed in the article — we’ve completed illustration projects in as short as a couple of hours, and as long as a couple of days. We usually work with freelancers on larger-scale projects or partnerships with other organizations. Our Graphic Culture section is primarily driven by freelancers and a growing stable of very talented graphic journalists.

We have an editorial approval process in place. Once the request is green-lit, it arrives into our automated form that specifies request format — header art, inline art, infographic, animated explainer, etc. At that point, we can decide who the best artist is for the project.

Our in-house art team has traditional illustrators who work by hand using pen and ink and then sometimes digitally color. We have 3D artists, animators, and designers who mix tools to create animated and static visuals and infographics.

We’re definitely concerned with how our art appears on mobile. We typically use tight crops, punchy colors, and illustrated or animated elements to help our graphics stand out against other items on someone’s social feed, for example. The art we produce should support and augment the story, but be able to stand on its own to bring readers in and further amplify Fusion’s tone and voice.

We are living in a world where a clever, captivating image and/or headline can sell a story. We know a large percentage of people are consuming content on smartphone and tablet screens, so it’s important to stay visually relevant.

A lot of our pieces have unique and separate art for social distribution. Our social teams — Vine, Snapchat, Facebook, etc. — are very in tune with their niche audiences, and sometimes we find ourselves producing several variations.

We don’t have a dedicated analytics process for images, but we would love to develop an A/B testing process for header and key art.


Lisa Larson-Walker, associate art director:

At Slate, with everything being kind of template-based, what it means to be a designer is way different than what it means to be a designer at a print publication.

We do our best with making original art and illustrations, and feel pretty proud of it. Most of our illustrations are done in-house [rather than with freelancers.] This frees us; there are ways that we can make something that’s suitable and creative in-house. We can do things in-house on a same-day turnaround, and figure things out over Slack. If we feel like it’s important, we can put the budget toward something outside when there’s something exceptional that calls for it.

I’ll give you some examples of illustrations we’ve done recently. One story was about college courses you should take. It was fun, exuberant, and brightly colored. We could have just pulled photos out of our Thinkstock subscription, of people on a campus, but that would have been very dry. There was a spirit of curiosity and wonder that we were trying to imbue in the piece, and we knew if we designed an illustration, it would have a different impact.

We did a story about the police shooting of an innocent man in Charlotte. The tone was dark and moody. For that story, we had news photos from the trial, mugshots and photos of the victim, but they didn’t really get at the emotional quality of the story, the qualities of fear and aspects of profiling and misunderstood identity. It seemed like illustration could do better, and we went with Wesley Allsbrook, a [freelance] illustrator who was uniquely capable of making a drawing of that.

We don’t really have metrics around how photos and illustrations perform, and it’s tricky to base that off of the social shares of a story or how something does on Twitter, because so much of that is about the context of the headline or the piece itself.

Lately, I’m making a point of having specifically visually designed posts to put up on Twitter, and those posts perform well. We’ve been doing a lot more animations lately. We’re not aggressively experimental, but we’re paying attention to what’s going on around us and adapting to things. Drawings are just another part of the toolkit.

The Guardian

Chris Clarke, deputy creative director:

Before we even begin to consider commissioning art, we first look at what will best complement the story’s narrative. We read the piece we’re working on, re-read it, and begin by asking questions about what the feature requires.

We have a broad palette of artistic storytelling techniques at our disposal, including infographics, photography, animation, sound, illustration, and typography. Often, it’s the combination of a number of those things that really brings our journalism to life. Illustrations are often great for communicating complex or sensitive subject matter, or things that require a level of subjectivity.

Tone of voice is very important to us. Different sections of The Guardian have different design dialects, and reflecting that through what we commission is paramount. The tone can range from provocative to empathetic, but will always be under the umbrella of engaging and human.

We have a large number of illustrators we work with regularly. We try not to use the same artists across different publications on the same day. It’s hugely important for us to use illustrators from different countries and backgrounds, who all have their own unique take on the world.

We recently ran an excerpt of Harper Lee’s book Go Set a Watchman. The piece was published across both print and digital, so it required a design narrative that would work on both formats.

We wanted the design to represent visually the first chapter of the book, in which the protagonist, Scout, is on a train journey. We knew we wanted a cinematic effect to simulate the moving train, so we worked with the illustrator Tom Clohosy Cole. The final concept saw the Scout’s train journey come to life across both print and digital. Digitally, we were able to be more experimental with animated scenes that moved as the reader scrolled, and bespoke sound design.

For our ongoing climate change campaign ‘Keep It in the Ground,’ we needed to find a simple way to communicate quite complex environmental issues, so we wanted to find an artist to work with who was able to reflect this in their work. Award-winning artist Antony Gormley granted us the use of one of his never-before-seen artworks for the campaign and worked closely with us to adapt his initial concept into its simplest form, which later became the campaign logo. The Gormley pieces were used on the front cover of the newspaper and appeared online as full-screen takeovers.

Featured image of girl drawing by Hyoin Min used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Nov. 6, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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