On Friday, September 29, Frank Bruni wrote a column for the New York Times that ran with the headline, “Brett Kavanaugh Loves His Beer.” The piece focused on Kavanaugh’s persistent mention of beer (more than 30 times, but who’s counting) during his Senate testimony on the alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford. At the top of the page was an illustration depicting a patriotic beer can emblazoned with “Brett” splashed against a red backdrop. A drumstick pointed towards the can, as if ready to tap; the overall composition hinting at a judge’s gavel.
Consider the joke accomplished.
The artist behind the illustration, Ben Wiseman, spent the better part of the previous day watching Kavanaugh’s testimony. “I didn’t want to live in that story anymore by the end of it,” he recalls. But he had an illustration due for the next day’s column, and the answer seemed to have presented itself on a platter. “I thought of beer plus what—a gavel? A drumstick? And then I mashed them up,” he says.
This year has been a special time for illustrating the news. Every day seems to bring about a new firestorm that needs a news story—and thus, some kind of art. The people who illustrate for places like the New York Times, Time, and Der Spiegel end up filling a multi-hyphenate role—part artist, part comic, part editor. Their work lives above and within news stories, acting as visual shorthand to what’s in the text.
“[An illustration] can be a number of different things depending on what the story is,” says Gail Bichler, design director of The New York Times Magazine. “Oftentimes it’s a way to get people into the story and give them a sense of what it’s going to be about.”
With her team, Bichler is responsible for art directing the entire weekly magazine, from the cover, to photo spreads, to spot illustrations. She says the pace has always been a gratifying grind, but 2018 has been particularly manic. “With the Trump presidency, things changed quite a bit,” she says. “The pace of news has sped up people’s interest in politics.”
For most illustrators, keeping up with the current news cycle means they’re often turning around art the same day they receive an assignment. The day I spoke with designer and illustrator Mark Pernice, he’d just received an email from the New York Times asking him to art a news story about the Russia hacking scandal. “It was like, sketches by 2 p.m. and the final by 6,” he says.
For Pernice, who draws on a digital sketchpad, the actual sketching part happens fairly quickly. “The concept phase is the phase that takes the longest,” he says. Coming up with an idea—a fresh idea—can be a form of mental gymnastics. “Today is another voter hacking, Russia thing,” he says. “That’s the hard part—there are only so many stories in the world, really. You have to constantly figure out creative ways to rehash your own concepts.”
In 2018, it’s Trump, Democrats, Republicans, war, hacking—repeat. Avoiding visual clichés can be tough, but it’s often a matter of looking past the headline. Before Bichler starts working on a cover story, she’ll meet with Jake Silverstein, The New York Times Magazine’s editor-in-chief, to get a better understanding of what a piece is about. “I always come to him and say, ‘What is the main point of the story here? What is the takeaway for people?’” she says. “I often find that the language and a piece inspires some kind of thought about the art for me.”
In the fall of 2017, the magazine was working on a cover story about the future of the Democratic party. Bichler initially cycled through all of the expected metaphors for Democrat—blue, donkey, and so on. But when the story landed on her desk, she realized it focused more on President Obama’s legacy and the state of the party after he left office. The resulting cover photo illustration, by Jamie Chung, ended up as a photo of Obama with the corner of page turned over reading, “Why Can’t the Democratic Party Turn the Page?”
“That was a case where it could have been something that was more representative of Democrats or some other kind of visual that we had seen a lot of,” she says. “But because of the specifics of that piece, we were able to make something that was more unexpected.”
Ben Wiseman got his start in news illustration while he was working for the designer Rodrigo Corral. At the time, Corral was designing book covers, but he’d get commissions from the NYT op-ed page that Wiseman would occasionally assist him on. “I feel like there’s a lot of overlap between op-ed pages and book cover design,” Wiseman says. “Designers usually are problem solvers; we take a complex idea and making it simple.”
Making top art for a news story isn’t always a matter of simplification, but an illustration should ideally communicate the essence of a piece at a glance. “People need to get it right away,” Bichler says. Sometimes that requires an illustration that’s visually complex, but conceptually simple. Other times, illustrations can act as visual puns, revealing a story’s subtext. Wiseman says his brain often defaults to riddles and puns that cleverly morph what the text is saying into an illustration. “What can be twisted to be something else?” he says. It’s an approach that requires balance—make something too clever and it will take people a beat too long to get it; make it too simple, and you’re bordering on cliche.
Earlier this fall, the New York Times’ Sunday Review commissioned Pernice to make an illustration for its cover story about voter suppression. Pernice’s first thought was to play into the idea of manipulation and sleight of hand. He drew an elaborate illustration with a snake-oily magician to convey the theme. “It was the cover, so I was definitely feeling like it needed to be some grandiose thing,” he says. His art director came back and told him that while it was beautiful, it wasn’t working. They wanted something smaller and more evocative of the idea of suppression.
Pernice ended up centering a small “I Voted” sticker on a red background, and sent it off. “I decided to make the smallest piece of art for what was physically the biggest cover I’ll probably ever do,” he says. “I wanted to see how much confidence I could muster to do a tiny little sticker—and they went for it.”
It was one of the unusual cases where Pernice’s second idea ended up being better than the first. “Usually the first thing that comes to your head is the best idea,” he explains. In the relentless news cycle of 2018, there’s little time for hemming and hawing over an idea. A gut-check creative process trumps precious self-editing, if only because it has to. Most of the time, it works out. “A lot of the time, the obvious choices are the best,” he says. “If you think you’ve got a good idea within the first five minutes of reading a piece, you probably do.”