illustration depicting art direction, by stephen smith

What Art Directors Want: Tips for Editorial Illustrators

By Jenny Carless

Across the spectrum of print and online publications, art directors rely on illustrators not only to create beautiful and attention-getting images, but also to help impart information and express complex ideas. Editorial illustrations bring stories to life and entice readers to engage with content. It’s bread-and-butter work for many illustrators, and many find it extremely satisfying. The first step? Getting the attention of an art director.



Art directors and illustrators work together to craft the best possible visual to tell a story or illuminate a concept. There’s a magazine or newspaper out there to suit just about every illustration style, and publications frequently play with many varied aesthetics. For instance, think of Sierra magazine, and you may think of stunning nature photography. But Sierra also tackles conceptual political and environmental stories that don't lend themselves to photos.

Sierra art director Tracy Cox gives one example of a tricky concept he turned to an illustrator to express: a recent story about the United States’ penchant for touting its environmental progress while at the same time being one of the world’s largest exporters of natural gas, oil, and coal.

On the other hand, sometimes he wants a representational illustration.

“For a more mainstream story—for instance, the best sushi to eat and help the environment—we may hire someone to create beautiful pictures of fish,” Cox says.

David Plunkert came up with the excellent idea of the happy mask hiding the true face behind it, to show the United States’ penchant for touting its environmental progress while at the same time being one of the largest exporters of natural gas, oil, and coal in the world,” says Tracy Cox of Sierra magazine. “And Carlos Meira did an amazing job tying disparate fish species together and capturing them in paper.”  

Of course, representational doesn’t always mean “exact likeness.” Consider maps: the desired style depends on the particular story.

“We use a lot of maps,” says Emily Johnson, deputy design director at Chicago magazine. “Sometimes we want a very close likeness, sometimes more painterly—more in line with an aesthetic or a color choice we’re going for.”

For a story titled “The Secret Life of Tumblr Teens,” Parker Hubbard, New Republic’s art director, asked Nana Rausch at QuickHoney for a series of related icons as well as the cover illustration; he used the icons to create enticing collages for print and web. The feature was one of the magazine’s most read and shared stories.

A well-crafted illustration can also illuminate the essence of an idea in a flash, eliminating the need for detailed, scientific explanations.

Craig Mackie, art editor at New Scientist, needs this kind of solution regularly; he cites a 2015 article about particle physics as an example.

“It was one of those stories where it would have been easy to fall into illustrating the science rather than the general thrust of the piece,” Mackie explains. Instead, he turned to Simon Danaher, who illustrated the concept elegantly.

About this New Scientist cover (by Simon Danaher), Craig Mackie says, “The particle in question is much heavier than it ought to be or we would expect it to be—so I thought about subverting an everyday object you’d expect to be light, but making it heavy. With a balloon that has smashed the ground on impact, you know immediately that this is about something behaving out of the ordinary, and that it’s about the weight or mass of something being at odds with itself.” The New Republic cover was created by Nana Rausch.  


So, how can an illustrator attract the attention of a busy art director? A digital presence? You bet. The time-honored postcard? Yep—that, too.

“I like portfolio sites with a social element, so I can see what artists I’ve worked with are looking at,” Hubbard says. “In Behance, the Appreciated and Following functions are a great way to go down the rabbit hole and find fresh voices; sometimes, I’ll end up with 50 tabs open.”

Cox found Carlos Meira on Behance when he wanted to create a cohesive look for a recent Sierra article about eating invasive species.

Johnson’s team at Chicago magazine uses Pinterest to keep track of favorites, and she likes to follow artists on Instagram. She estimates that she reaches out to about 25 percent of the people who send postcards, too. (In your search for illustration assignments, don’t overlook regional magazines and airline magazines.) And New Republic’s past three issues have included work commissioned from artists who sent a postcard.

Mark Maltais, art director at Rolling Stone, follows the websites of artist reps who carry artists he likes. He also finds talent in some of his favorite publications: New York magazine, Wired, the New Yorker, and Esquire.

“We have longstanding relationships with agents, which is still an effective way to commission bespoke artwork, and we look around on the web,” Mackie says. He also follows forum sites such as We and the Color, Illustration Daily, This Is Colossal, and It’s Nice That.

To get a sense of what may catch an art director’s eye, illustrators can keep track of what’s popular, too—with the understanding that no trend will suit every publication.

For example, Cox sees a lot of comic-book style illustration these days. “But it’s hard for people to stand out now, because there’s so much out there,” he notes.

Illustrator Jason Seiler created this portrait of Rick Ross for Rolling Stone. Get a closer look at its creation, in “Creating Portraits and Caricatures with Jason Seiler.


Publications typically have a stable of “go-to” artists, but they’re always looking for new artists, too.

“My job is to keep the magazine fresh, to be open to new suggestions,” Maltais says. “When I call someone who’s never worked with Rolling Stone, it’s good for both of us.” Three illustrators are typically considered for each story; those three almost always include someone he hasn’t worked with before.

In 2015, of 36 illustrated New Scientist covers, Mackie used the same illustrator only a couple of times—and 17 were first-timers.

“Collage seems to have made a resurgence. There are some really skilled artists who get the feel of physical even if it’s done digitally,” says Mackie. “For example, Marie Luise Emmermann—known as Skizzomat—makes a traditional craft with a contemporary feel.”

Marie Luise Emmerman, also known as Skizzomat, created these collage illustrations for New Scientist.


When art directors evaluate illustrators, talent is a given. Beyond that, desired qualities include a collaborative work style, a unique voice, openness, dependability, and flexibility.

“I really appreciate it when artists understand that we’re sending them guidelines—and when they work within those but also take the time to explore and present new ideas,” Johnson says.

It’s a fast-paced world, and illustrators frequently must work very fast: two to four days for initial sketches, with another three to seven for the final, isn’t unusual.

Each publication has its own way of providing guidance—whether it be a conversation, the article draft, a specific design brief, or a list of key points.

“We try not to be overly prescriptive; that can be detrimental for both parties,” Mackie says. “The illustrator can feel his creativity has been contained, and we may miss out on an amazing image we could never have dreamed of, because we took the opportunity away before we even started.”

illustration by Gizem Vural, showing a man inventing a language
artistic map of Highland Park, Chicago

New Republic relies on illustrators to tackle concepts that are difficult to visualize, as in the case of an article on invented languages and the people who create them—whether for movies, for literature, or simply for fun. “Gizem Vural found a fresh, elegant solution to illustrate invented languages,” says Parker Hubbard of New Republic. Emily Johnson of Chicago commissioned this artistic map of Highland Park, by Michael A. Hill.


Create has recently spoken to several illustrators who work for top publications. Their advice? Malika Favre (the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and others) explains that she begins each new assignment by doing “a lot of research” (“The Bold, Cheeky, and Frequently NSFW Art of Malika Favre”). Lincoln Agnew (Le Monde, Harpers, and others) credits a positive attitude, in part, for his success (“Illustrating the News: Artist Lincoln Agnew”). And Jason Seiler (Rolling Stone, Time, and others) recommends that illustrators who are just starting out participate in illustration shows (“Creating Portraits and Caricatures with Jason Seiler”).

Here’s what art directors have to add:

  • If in doubt, leave it out. “What my teachers and others told me is true: You’re generally judged on your worst piece, so leave it out of your portfolio, if in doubt.”—Tracy Cox
  • Show cohesiveness and depth. “Include a good body of work that is cohesive. For example, if you want to be a caricaturist, provide 10 to 15 examples of that. It’s great to show range, but only if you can provide enough examples. Melinda Beck does this well; her site is broken up into sections, each with plenty of illustrations.”—Mark Maltais
  • Personalize, personalize, personalize. “Show me that you haven’t sent a mass email. Do that by mentioning a recent piece or something about the magazine’s style.”—Parker Hubbard

The work that falls into the category of “illustration” has become very broad—which is a great thing, says New Scientist’s Mackie: “Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love traditional illustration, too. I just think the wider the field, the more creative it can be.”

This means that for artists who can deliver a one-two punch of artistic skill and conceptual brilliance, opportunities abound—whether it’s collage, photo illustration, painterly representation, caricatures, maps, or simply a beautiful drawing of a fish.


An illustration of many bugs, by Tim McDonagh

“This illustration is for a story about turning to creepy crawlies for a new food source. Tim McDonagh produced an image that is teeming with life and feels like it’s about to crawl off the page. Somehow he made a huge square of yucky bugs look beautiful,” says Craig Mackie of New Scientist. (Create recently interviewed McDonagh; check out “A Fine Line: The Illustrations of Tim McDonagh.”)

Are you an editorial photographer looking for industry advice? Check out “What Photo Editors Want: Tips for Editorial Photographers.”

April 20, 2016

Marquee illustration: Neasden Control Centre

Other illustrations: as credited