There’s a gif that’s been circulating the internet for a while now that’s always struck me as the perfect encapsulation of the absurdist yet hyper-mundane web humor born of Tumblr in the mid-2000s, and fuelled by the viral nature of social networks ever since. The image is of a pile of cotton balls against a light grey backdrop, gently overlaid with the faces of fluffy white chinchilla cats. In the gif, their round, docile faces and unnerving glare appear and disappear at various places within the cotton mound. Unmoored from any context and inexplicable in any sort of rational way, the humor also makes perfect sense. They’re cotton balls but they’re also cats; the most boring of common household items and yet also the weirdest, creepiest apparition that you’d never even thought to imagine.
This is the work of Steph Davidson, an illustrator and web designer with a knack for finding disquieting humor in the most ordinary and unlikely of places. In 2008, Davidson started the Tumblr Rising Tensions, a collection of the kind of bizarro found imagery that proliferates stock photo sites and strange corners of the internet, sometimes slightly manipulated by the designer. The blog became popular among a certain sect of net artists, earlier Tumblr adopters, and web designers, and it eventually landed Davidson an illustration job at Bloomberg. This was during the reign of creative director Richard Turley and the delirious, early web-inspired editorial design that made Bloomberg Businessweek notorious within the design world.
Now a web designer and art director for Bloomberg digital, Davidson’s work has gotten a good bit more technically impressive than in her early Rising Tensions days, but the irreverent humor remains. This, even within a business publication known for its finance, tech, and corporate workplace stories, published by a multi-million dollar company.
Davidson’s work at Bloomberg might come in the form of a gif for a story about the employee mistreatment and unfair pay for “community staff” at WeWork, which features WeWork members literally partying on the backs of the company’s staffers. Or a synthetic-looking, android-esque version of Mark Zuckerberg gazing serenely at an awestruck Oculus user, overlaid by gradient-infused, 3D lettering spelling out “Nerd Goggles” (designed by Braulio Amado) on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek. For publications about Big Business, in which the content can get staid or esoteric relatively quickly, Davidson maintains a digital-native approach of creating imagery that’s striking enough, and unexpected enough, to resonate with readers.
“From years of using Tumblr and Twitter, I’ve started this probably unhealthy way of thinking, where I say, ‘how can I make this relatable content?’” she says. The question is always, “‘What would I like? And how can I subvert this business imagery and make it relatable to someone like me?’”
For maintaining that relatability, it helps that Davidson’s social media presence has remained one of the most entertaining on the internet. She still keeps up Rising Tensions on Tumblr, and Twitter and Instagram give her a way to test the response to certain ideas. As a personal project, for example, she’s currently working on a series of oil paintings that feature a particularly 2000s milieu, depicting familiar moments captured by paparazzi of Britney Spears and Sarah Michelle Gellar. A cheerful rendition of the Goya painting Saturn Devouring His Son has proven to be one of her most popular tweets. Having a sharpened sense for the images that get the most likes or reblogs feeds into her professional work at Bloomberg.
“If you have to look at a work a bit longer and reflect on it, then that’s effective. I try to make things pretty loud, and gifs are always good for making people pause.”
Davidson went to school at University of Western Ontario for visual arts and media studies, the latter of which she credits with giving her the critical eye that’s been helpful in a career in editorial illustration. After working for a big advertising agency in Toronto, she went back to school for a post-grad program in computer animation, which is not necessarily something she would recommend to others. As someone whose work relies on keeping up with the latest software, she’s a big proponent of online tutorials on sites like Gnomon or Lynda.com. “I taught myself after effects and Cinema 4D through YouTube tutorials,” she says. “You have to have a lot of self discipline to do tutorials, but there are great resources.”
In 2013, Davidson moved to New York to work for Bloomberg under Turley, and alongside designers like Tracy Ma, Braulio Amado, and Jennifer Daniel. It was an exciting time to work at Businessweek—the publication had recently been acquired by Bloomberg and the design team had the freedom to do what they thought would make the magazine relevant. A shared early-web aesthetic sensibility and experience well outside the gambit of finance news and stock market reports, Davidson and the others used stock photos and Tumblr humor to illustrate stories about the economics of oil exports or the news of airline mergers. (For an infamous cover story entitled “The Hedge Fund Myth,” BBW’s design department combined clip art, growth charts, and low-brow humor for one incredibly memorable graphic.)
Davidson was mainly doing illustration and one-off web graphics at the time. Around 2014, Bloomberg got a digital revamp, and a new CMS that allowed for more flexibility in implementing interactive components. Now, as art director for Bloomberg digital (not just Businessweek), Davidson works on big web special features, like Paul Ford’s “What Is Code,” a 38,000-word opus that explains the history, social implications, and specific How To’s of programming for a general (and business) audience.
“That piece obviously needed some kind of special web treatment,” said Davidson, who worked as both illustrator and art director. Animated characters throughout the piece, created by programmer Toph Tucker, guide readers on the mechanics of debugging, provide commentary on the main text, break down complex ideas with conversational speech bubbles, and call you out if you scroll through the piece too fast. (A sample chastisement: “Congratulations! You read 31553 words in 9 minutes, which is 3330 words per minute. Hahahahah as if. Nice. Cool. Frankly we expected no more of you.”)
Ford’s piece was the first time that the design team at Bloomberg got to work on a big, exciting special feature for the web, and it proved to be an enormous success, with coverage and explainers popping up the next day on Gawker, The Huffington Post, and Motherboard. These days, Davidson’s work spans from quick-turnaround gifs and digital animations for news stories, to more comprehensive features for one-off packages, like the glitzy, gif-y Showbiz Issue, or the deadly sin-inspired design direction of the 2017 version of Bloomberg’s annual Jealousy List.
These and other articles on Bloomberg.com have the feeling of being distinctly Davidson, which has also become the familiar, if still unlikely, style of much of Bloomberg’s digital output. But even if recognizable at this point, the work is still unexpected; the discordance between the image, the medium, and the subject matter is an echo of internet humor, an unlikely meeting of the supernormal and patently absurd. “If it’s a funny or weird story, it’s great to bring out whatever feels compelling about it through illustration or design,” Davidson says. “But I never actively sit down and read a story and think, ‘What’s the funniest thing I can do with this?’ It’s more like, ‘what can I get away with? How weird can I make this?’ And sometimes that’s funny.”