Where the art is

There is a definite art to art direction. Sourcing imagery, whether commissioning photography or illustration, using stock libraries or even creating something yourself, is one of the most important roles in the editorial design process. As Violetta Boxill, who redesigned Icon, notes, imagery is the first thing the reader or potential purchaser will notice, and it is crucial in setting the tone for a publication. The manner in which art directors go about this often overlooked creative midwifery varies wildly. Their personal styles can range from a trusting laissez-faire attitude through to fastidious micro-management.

Falling into the former camp is Simon Esterson, one of the country’s most highly regarded art directors and editorial designers, with a roll call that includes Eye, The Guardian, Blueprint, and the New Statesman. Meanwhile, Iranian-born Kuchar Swara prefers a hands-on approach, evident in his much-lauded redesign of Case da Abitare, overseen by Tyler Brûlé while at Winkreative. Swara has since set up on his own and is currently working on Port, an app-only ’new intelligent style magazine for men’ that is being prepared for a spring launch.

Micha Weidmann developed a brand-focused approach to art direction at Time Out before establishing his own consultancy, while Boxill garnered much praise for her creative direction of design magazine Icon and the redesign (together with Cecilia Lindgren) of Architectural Review. Here the four share tips about how they go about commissioning and sourcing imagery, and about what works and what does not.


Violetta Boxill _Alexander Boxill _Icon, Architectural Review (together with Cecilia Lindgren)

How do you get the best from photographers and illustrators?
Choose the right person for the job. This sounds obvious, but it is easy to get wrong. I like people who can take direction, but who bring ideas to the table, too. I’m not interested in people who refuse to deviate from their own ideas: those people are artists, not commercial photographers or illustrators.

What do you do if budgets are tight?
If the budget is limited then be strategic with the allocation of funds. For me, the cover, portraits and features take priority. I’ve been known to be the stylist, illustrator and photographer on various projects, and it is a good idea to think about working with graduates when working with smaller budgets. Try them out on something smaller, find a fee that works for both of you, and forge a good relationship.

Do you have any particularly close collaborations?
I’ve worked with the photographer Andrew Penketh for more than 14 years. We are a bit like a married couple that knows how to get the best from each other. There’s a rigour and commitment which stems from trying to better ourselves on each new project. And, of course, a mutual respect.

Do you intervene in the technicalities of photography?
Yes. I remember actually sitting next to the retoucher for a cover portrait once. Generally, though, I am not that precious about how photographers go about things, as long as the results are right. Once, I tried getting a fashion photographer to shoot an architecture story, but it didn’t really work.


Micha Weidmann _Micha Weidmann Studio _Royal Academy magazine, Time Out

How do you get the most out of illustrators and photographers?
Commissioning is half about choosing the right photographer, which can take a lot of research. The other half is about finding a true collaboration that helps to evolve the photographer’s talent in a way that is good for the client. I tend not to go on editorial shoots; I make sure the photographer is properly briefed, but I like them to work in their own way.

Do you get involved with the technicalities or retouching?
It is down to the photographer to deliver a perfect final picture. This is understood at the commissioning stage and it is vital, as post-production is so important today.

What is the balance between illustration and photography in your art direction?
I used to use more illustration, but this is mainly because of the nature of the magazines that I was working on. We do the Royal Academy magazine, and are in the fortunate position that some Royal Academicians can illustrate for us.

What can go wrong in the commissioning process?
The art to art direction is to find out what everyone’s expectations are. All can seem totally clear and you can get a great result, but then the client can turn around and say, ’I didn’t meanit that way.’ As an art director, on every shoot you need to think, ’What is this magazine doing, why are we commissioning this image, how are we differentiating the magazine?’ For me, the risk is not doing anything interesting and new, and to die slowly like everyone else.

Simon Esterson

Simon Esterson _Esterson Associates _Eye, The Guardian, Blueprint, New Statesman, Domus

How do you get the most out of illustrators and photographers?
My main tip is to work with the best people. When you work with a photographer or illustrator, you know what kind of thing they can do and your role is to put them in the position that allows them to do their best. It is not about telling them what to do, but to ensure that they have what they need. With a photographer, that could mean ensuring they have proper access, or, with an illustrator, that they have the copy and are aware of how the illustration will be used.

What is the balance between illustration and photography in your art direction?
While photography has been very dominant in recent years, there is a bit of a return to illustration. But I increasingly see it as an artificial line – nowadays it is all just digital images being grabbed and worked in different ways.

What can go wrong in the commissioning process?
It is important to remember you are the bridge between the illustrator or photographer and the editorial team. You need to clear the ground for the work and believe in it, so you can present it well to everyone else. If your gut tells you that it isn’t going to work, it isn’t. There’s a temptation to always want to work with the next person, but we also like to build relationships. I’ve worked with photographer Phil Sayer over many years, as well as with illustrators Jason Ford and Tom Gauld at Heart.

Kuchar Swara

Kuchar Swara _Swara & Co _Case da Abitare, The Spectator, Port

How do you oversee the use of photography during a redesign?
We lay templates for photography in the same way as for typography and always give a list of photographers and detailed guidelines. In the case of The Spectator, it wasn’t about specifying the source of the images, but how they should be used. They just needed breathing space.

Do you get involved with the technicalities of the photograph?
Of course. I work with Henry Bourne, who is a very good photographer. If there are instances where we aren’t happy on a shoot, I help find the picture, but you need to be aware that there is a way of helping and a way of getting in the way. Photography is a very delicate business and you need to be very careful. For Case da Abitare, there’s a proper brief detailing the amount of graininess and the tonal values required, and I might also send the photographer a mood board containing images, such as of a Dutch still-life painting.

How do you work with illustrators?
I love using illustration – it is very helpful for breaking things up. I work a lot with Dan Williams. He doesn’t need a brief, I just send him the text and some photographs and let him get on with it. But it’s often cheaper and simpler to commission photography.

What can go wrong in the commissioning process?
For The Spectator, we shortlisted three illustrators to draw portraits for a section, and one was selected. While I was away, the editor sent an e-mail saying one of the others had been chosen instead. I was absolutely horrified. Your contributors have to have trust in you as the person commissioning, and if that breaks down then you can’t work together. After a long battle, the original illustrator was reinstated.

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