New feature: Better Know an Art Director! (BKAAD for short)

May 15, 2007

(okay, so forgive me, I am ripping off Stephen Colbert with that one. It’s a homage!)

This is the first of what I hope will be many interviews logged for posterity to give us illustrators an insider view of how the other half lives and works: that’s right, the elusive and often colorfully plumaged art directors of the world. We do work for them, we talk to them, but do we really have any idea how their jobs work or how to be the best working partners we can be? Hopefully this will help.

First up on the chopping block is the ever stellar Benjamen Purvis, art director for the Las Vegas Weekly, whom I’ve had the great pleasure of working with several times in the past year. I gained work with Ben when I mailed off a postcard, found out the address I mailed it to didn’t exist, emailed him for the proper address, and then months later I got work with LV Weekly. Nowadays, it’s one of my favorite publications to work for. Anyway, here is the interview!

************

TS: Introduce yourself! Where do you work; how long have you been an art director?
Benjamen Purvis: Hi Meg! It’s me, Benjamen Purvis, art director for Las Vegas Weekly. I started working for the Weekly seven years ago—not as an art director, but as an entry-level designer handling mundane chores like changing coupon expiration dates in strip club ads that I didn’t even design. But I really worked hard to get recognized, and was promoted to art director two years later. So, five years.

TS: What are your duties as art director?
BP: I art direct a weekly regional publication with one other editorial designer. Here’s how a typical week goes: Every Thursday at 10, we have an editorial meeting where we discuss what’s going on the cover and inside the book. The meeting ends at 11, and I have two working days to conceive and execute the cover, which goes to press on Monday afternoons. I still do most of the covers myself, and I do a lot of photos and illustrations for the Weekly. It’s necessary in order to stay within my budget—even though my budget right now is five times what it was the first two years I art directed the publication. Back then, I could barely get anybody to work with me for what I could pay, so I was really forced to develop as an artist. So I’m usually working out the cover and features on Thursdays and Fridays. On Mondays, I get the cover text, usually a couple hours before it goes to press. Our page count ranges from 120 to 136 pages, and we usually have five or six press forms, so Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are filled with deadlines. We mainly work off templates that I redesigned this past Winter, but a lot of the pages, like features, require customization each week. Copy is almost always turned into us at the last minute, so we have very little time to work on pages before we send them to press. I have an illustrator named Dan Sipple doing this week’s cover, so today, Friday, I’m able to answer emails, look for an illustrator to do some work for a feature, and make tweaks to my templates. The days and weeks really fly by fast here.

TS: How much of your publication utilizes illustration?
BP: I really love illustrators, and I try to incorporate as much illustration as possible into the publication. But my budget is a huge handicap—that and the fast turnaround time demanded by a weekly publication; I’ve already had two different illustrators turn me down this morning for that feature assignment I just mentioned, and it’s not due for another four days—so I have to be very choosy about what gets an illustration and what gets a documentary photo or a stock photo or nothing at all. I try to sprinkle illustration throughout the book from issue to issue, though, so that each pages gets its chance to shine.

TS: Do you prefer to work repeatedly with a select group of illustrators or are you often seeking out new talent?
BP: I guess this isn’t an either/or for me; I like to work with the same people repeatedly, and I also like to find new talent. I understand that a lot of artists who work with me are making sacrifices in order to do it—in pay or in time, or, sometimes, in both. So on my end, there’s more than just an excitement about and appreciation of their work; there’s also respect and gratitude and commitment to the artist. I like to give these people as much fun stuff to work on as I possibly can. Having said that, I also like to enrich the publication with new talent whenever possible. It’s not like I replace one artist with another artist who works in a similar style when I bring in new talent; every new addition is meant to complement the overall look.

A couple years ago I tried out Hawk Krall, Rick Sealock, Jerry Miller and Brandon Bird for my first time, and have tried to work with them whenever I can. Last year I used a lot of great illustrators for my first time: Autumn Whitehurst, Pablo, Eddie Guy, Johnny Ryan, Graham Roumieu, Dan Sipple, Robert Ullman, Mark Korsak, John Coulter and, of course, you, Meg. I’ve used most of these artists many times since, and would gladly use the others again if I could afford to. So far this year I’ve used for my first time Gilbert Ford, Joseph Adolphe, Gary Lacoste and Aaron Thomas Roth—and have already used most of them multiple times. And I have a bunch of post cards on my wall here of artists I’m hoping to use when the right project comes along: Helen Dardik, John S. Dykes, John Bent, Christian Northeast, Robert Wagt … Last year I approached Kirsten Ulve, whose work I love, about doing something for us, but I just can’t afford her!

TS: How do you find illustrators, or do they find you?
BP: I get post cards everyday, and some of them find their way onto this little cubicle divider next to me. I get emails, too, and I generally follow the links, but if it arrives when I’m on deadline, chances are it’ll be forgotten about until I’m cleaning out my inbox. I usually don’t reply to those emails when I get them; I don’t know if it’s expected of me or what. If it is, I’m sorry. But if it’s someone I’m really interested in using, I move the email to a folder I made called Freelancers, and try to check that folder every now and then. But post cards are really the way to go. I know they can be expensive to produce and distribute, but really, the illustrator’s work is more likely going to jump out at me when I look at their post card on my wall than it would in an all-text email with a hyperlink.

I found Brandon Bird when his site was linked on K10k a few years ago, and I think I might’ve given him his first editorial assignment (illustrations of Jerry Seinfeld). Jerry Miller is an art director in town who sent me a note complimenting my personal website, benjamen.net. In his email signature I saw a link to his website, which I clicked out of curiosity. I was surprised to see his site was filled with illustrations he’d done about 15 years ago. It was all celebrities who were famous between 1990 to 1992, so it was pretty dated work, but I was excited by them and asked him to contribute to the Weekly. He’s been doing it pretty regularly ever since and is now enjoying a lot of success as a freelance illustrator.

I also check credits in magazines all the time. That’s how I got into Johnny Ryan; in addition to his comics, he was doing these little characters for Vice magazine’s “Yo! What’s Up!” section every month, and I always thought they were really funny. And I probably check every credit for every illustration that appears in Esquire, because they have such great work in there every month.

TS: What is an ideal process for you when working with an illustrator on an assignment?
BP: Sometimes I have a considered idea that I present to the illustrator, or sometimes I’ll give a sort of briefing and ask the illustrator for thoughts on a concept. But I always try to provide the artist with as much info and reference material and creative freedom as I can. I usually get a rough sketch early on from the illustrator, and I’ll maybe make a suggestion or two, but I’ve usually worked things out before sketching even begins, so I often have nothing to say but “Looking good!” or something encouraging like that. You should see what Rick Sealock does: he’ll fax or email about 10 different crazy sketches for a single illustration, and they all look developed and cool! And he’s one of the friendliest and most fun-loving guys I’ve ever talked to. Even his billing invoice is a customized piece of art.

Anyway, there have only been a couple times in the last five years where an artist’s sketch had to be completely scrapped and approached differently, and I’ve taken great care to word things in a way so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings or discourage the artist. I’m very fortunate to have worked with illustrators who almost never miss a deadline, so I’m not often put in the uncomfortable position of having to hassle somebody.

TS: What is your biggest pet peeve when working with an illustrator?
BP: It actually has nothing to do with the illustrator, but with the nature of this job. I always hate it when I check my email on the weekend and realize that 12 hours ago or whatever, an artist sent me an email asking me to approve a sketch before he goes forward with anything. You try to take advantage of a Saturday like a normal person, and come home and check your email and realize there’s an illustrator who’s probably checked his inbox 50 times that day, waiting around for your approval. That really sucks to inadvertently do that to somebody. I always apologize, of course, and hopefully I don’t get on anyone’s bad side.

TS: What would make you reuse an illustrator in the future?
BP: Great work that I can afford and timely delivery are all that it takes for me.

******

Many thanks go out to Ben for answering these questions so swiftly and insightfully. If you know any art directors or are an art director yourself, we’d love to pick your brains for this segment, so please email us! The questions may vary here and there, but essentially we just want your knowledge.

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22 Responses to “New feature: Better Know an Art Director! (BKAAD for short)”

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  2. Roger said

    Great read. Thanks Meg and Benjamen!

  3. Bradford said

    Thanks for the insights, yet again, Meg! Thanks, Benjamen for filling us in on your side of the scoop! Always much appreciated!

  4. XRIS said

    Dear Meg and Benjamen,

    Thank you so much for your time and you insight.

    Very helpful.

  5. A wonderful read, thanks guys!

  6. Thanks for doing the interview, it was very informative.

  7. Astrid said

    Meg, you’re a treasure! It’s always great to hear directly from art directors. Thanks for sharing this with us! If I can ever help you out, let me know, I’m all for sharing – 2 ways.

    Greetings
    Astrid

  8. Great stuff. Practical, sure, but even better than that is now I want to work with Benjamen because of his obvious character and collaborative energy. Thanks!

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