IllustrationIllustrations Worth 1,000 Words

Tight budgets and fewer pages demand
smarter and sharper art buys — here’s how

by Robert Sugar


At a Folio:Show a few years ago in a session on buying illustration, the Art Director of Maxim was the speaker. His advice was to leave a big hole and hire the best artist you could find. A skeptical audience member asked how much the Maxim AD would spend in that situation, and he replied, “About ten grand.”

Amid gasps and grumbles, the guy next to me (I never did find out who he was) said, “That’s my art budget for the whole magazine — for the entire year.”

It reminded me of an old Steve Martin routine: “How to make two million dollars: First, get a million dollars….”

Designers need to be more resourceful than ever to find appropriate illustration for their magazines. We all need to make good buying choices and develop strong relationships. Mostly, we need to communicate clearly about our needs and get the most from every commission, or find the best piece of stock to fill our needs.

There’s a difference between designing something that looks good superficially and a similar layout with a more compelling piece of art. Recognizing what makes art “work” is the most important element in improving the impact of the editorial presentation.

Illustrations NOT Worth a Thousand Words…

» choose style over substance.

Without a driving message, even a great illustration or photograph will take the reader out of the message. What art director hasn’t given in occasionally to a great-looking piece of art that doesn’t quite fit the content?

» don’t have much style to begin with.

Using poorly chosen stock art, or art that is inappropriate or unsophisticated, sends a message, but not the one you want. It fills expected holes, but adds no new substance.

Well-made illustration that adds nothing new to the perception of the message, or doesn’t enhance insight or comprehension, is a double waste — once for the effort and cost of producing it and once for the space it takes up in your project.

» are inaccurate representatives of the message.

Presenting art in a journalistic or representative manner that is not actually what it purports to be (showing your “office” that’s not really your space, or employees who aren’t really yours) may be easy to get away with, but the extra effort to show your au­dience the real thing is worth it.

Illustrations Worth a Thousand Words…

» tell a complementary story (metaphor, anecdote or interpretation).

Using illustration to bring up archetypal allusions, to use shared cultural motifs and to provide emotional resonance to your message through analogy is its most powerful attribute.

» bring a new idea to the mix.

Some complex messages are enhanced through simple images that deliver a strong single idea. An illustration can use hyperbole or contrast against the editorial message.

» combine surprise with comprehension (the “aha!” moment).

The value of illustrative metaphor is its ability to combine instantly recognizable elements manipulated against expectations to provide something entirely new. Great art used in editorial often provokes admiration and the feeling of “why didn’t I think of that?”

» provide an immediate jolt of comprehension.

Images demonstrate people, places and events better than text. Art as demonstration puts content right in front of your audience, allowing a more complex message to be related after the reader is hooked.

» create an emotional context (how you feel about the story).

Creating an emotional range for a message can feel manipulative in text. Images are much more capable of evoking a response from your audience.

» use art to enhance branding and make your project memorable.

A distinctive illustration style or photo technique used throughout a piece of collateral creates strong visual identity. Extending the same use across multiple pieces in a campaign creates branding.

Objective review of concept and execution can improve the final product. Designers can get desperate for innovation and sometimes use or create art that is a poor fit for the editorial. Following are some common faults that often mar good designs.

Illustration Mistakes

Too simple a concept

Restating the obvious is ho-hum, the effect when an illustration repeats the text without additional context.

Too complex a concept

On the other hand, trying to bring too many ideas into the art can create confusion and reduce impact. Effective illustration strives for impact and depth.

Conflicting messages

A great piece of art that sends the wrong emotional tone or metaphor hurts the credibility of the message, no matter how well executed the idea or well known the artist.

Inadequate execution

If the art is inadequate for technical or craft issues, the content becomes secondary to the audience’s evaluation of the poorly executed work. Simply put, if the thing looks amateurish or cheap, that’s the message you are sending.

Overly fussy presentation

In a similar vein, using overwrought image effects, such as feathering, collage, beveling or distortion, will not overcome inadequate source material, but will demonstrate a mentality that uses cheap tricks to hide poor art. These days, most people are aware of the tricks Photoshop can do.

Chart Your Art

Evaluating illustration can be too subjective. It’s easy to be swayed by what’s available instead of what’s best. When spending money for a talented, recognized artist, the tendency to let them do all the work and take what they give you is natural.

A simple, objective way to evaluate the power and appropriateness of the illustration is to graph the value of the concept on two axes: Impact and Complexity. The Impact axis demonstrates how powerfully appealing the concept can be, and the Complexity axis indicates how much the ideas in the article are represented. Obviously, Low Impact and Low Complexity are least interesting on this scale. But while the best concepts should have high indices of both, sometimes Big Impact with Low Complexity works better than High Complexity with Low Impact. It depends on what you’re shooting for.

Art That Fits Your Book

Part of the tone of the magazine is how impact and focus are used on a regular basis. The front page of The New York Times and the New York Post are both reserved for important news, but each has a very different definition of what that might be. On our scale, it’s easy to see that the Times goes for Lower Impact and Wider Focus, and the Post wants Maximum Impact and takes as Narrow a focus as it needs.

10 Illustration Tips

(A-B-C) Art direct, Brief, Commission.

As simple as… art direct the project and develop the concept for the illustrator; don’t just leave a hole and expect it to be filled with genius. Next, write a detailed creative brief to give the artist as much information as possible about the intent of the illustration, including, if possible, a mock-up of the design. Then, commission the work by choosing among several acceptable choices, instead of insisting on one artist, who may hold up the works.

(C-B-A) Collect, Brainstorm, Adapt. Reverse engineer concepts.

When you can’t create new art, you can still create a great concept by finding interesting art and then reverse engineering the design. Start by collecting images whose style, complexity and metaphors might have some application to your message. Use these as a basis to brainstorm ways to adapt the copy to fit the illustration. Be flexible enough to recognize how specific elements can be erased or cropped out of the image. In the case of more extensive alteration, many illustrators are happy to alter the stock for a minimal fee.

Use illustrators for branding (and save $s).

In a campaign, using a single illustrator creates branding plus the possibility of a commission that is much less costly than assigning individual pieces. If the art is needed for a publication on a continuing basis, a long-term contract is usually an even better proposition. Using similar artwork repeatedly creates editorial branding.

Engage artists in the idea (don’t micromanage).

Even though you should present a detailed creative brief to your artists, using professionals simply to evoke your ideas can be a waste of resources. Allowing artists to develop and present variations on your concept will usually result in a more original work.

Pre-plan multiple use.

Making maximum use of commissioned art might entail repeating parts of it throughout text or on a cover or contents page. Thinking about usage in advance allows the artist to develop modular sections for use as details.

Use collage to make a single point.

While a collage is an easy solution to complicated ideas, it works better if there is an overall point to the assemblage, not just an idea-per-image editorial match-up.

Multiple images can make complex messages.

A grid or Mondrian layout with multiple images can present complicated ideas. Shrewd image choices will avoid conflicting or overly repetitious ideas and will make the audience pay attention to all of the art.

Play with scale.

Tightly cropping images and using them very large, often with overlapping text, creates a dramatic effect. But so does using multiple small silhouetted images intermingled in a text block.

Go big, go small.

Laying out images with lots of size variation is effective because the relative size and placement create priority, while similarly sized images compete for atten­tion. Images with similar composition should be replaced with a variety of close-up and wide compositions. Pictures that are polite are pictures with no bite.


Great illustration and photography are vital tools for conveying the meaning and nuance of copy, but every use says something about the magazine, too. Readers can easily tell the difference between a publication that uses the power of art to engage readers and one where art is a low priority and the execution is hampered by lack of funding, poor art direction or editorial disinterest. Not every publication has the resources to throw money at artists and get great work, but finding creative solutions to challenging editorial packages is a real test of the skills and talents of a designer.

This article originally ran in the Summer, 2008 issue of FPO.