The Art of Direction

Perspective, interests, and experiences are all important considerations for finding an artist—and helping them bring a story to life.
Left: Hanna Barczyk / Right: Harriot Lee-Merron

“How do you pick an illustrator or photographer for a story?”

Art direction is typically not taught in school, but I was lucky to begin my career working with Ronn Campisi, former art director at the Boston Globe, at his studio where I had a front-row seat to see how he worked with artists and even dipped my toe in art directing. After that, I worked at a magazine where I hired dozens of illustrators and photographers and directed them under the guidance of a very talented art director, Carol Layton. These two experiences gave me a strong foundation in how to work with artists and also the ethics of the industry.

When I work with illustrators, photographers, and writers, there is a reason I pick that person for the assignment. But the person I may pick may be different than who one of my team members or clients may pick. “There is no right or wrong. It is subjective,” says Melissa Wells, art director at Bowdoin College. This is so true, especially noting that Melissa and I selected very different illustrators for a story about “women’s writing—the word choices the authors and translators make, the stories they tell, and the gendered lens through which they are viewed.” When I read the story I was drawn to the women’s perspective and envisioned Hanna Barczyk’s bold work while Melssia was drawn to the quieter work of Harriot Lee-Merron in representing the text that was referenced. Two very different takes on the same story, neither right or wrong. (For the record I think Melissa’s selection was perfect.)

But the rationale behind selecting an artist shouldn’t be entirely subjective. At the core is the assignment: What is the story that needs to be told? Who is the audience? Melissa notes, “The editor’s ability to tell the story, to talk through it, share a summary and notes about a feeling they want to evoke is all really helpful in directing the story.” All of this informs who is the best fit to tell that story visually.

Art Director, David Armario, notes that you want to hire “an illustrator for their mind.” From there give them the story and creative freedom to get the best illustration. For over 30 years that has been his approach for Stanford Medicine, among other magazines, and the result is an elevated magazine.

In addition to the story and audience, the institution’s brand plays an important role in direction. The way a story is told for a small liberal arts college will be different from a big state university, or a graduate school. Referencing the institution’s Identity Brand Guide is important, though these tend to include visual direction for photography and not illustration. If you don’t have a selection of illustrators and photographers as part of your identity guidelines consider adding them. As part of the redesign scope, 2communiqué always includes samples of illustrators and artist representatives that align with the identity of the school. This framework gives the team objectivity when selecting talent for an assignment. 

Melissa notes that she uses this guide as a launching point (we redesigned Bowdoin Magazine in 2018) and from there, she pokes around agency websites, looks at work in other magazines, and reviews samples from illustrators and agencies. When she is narrowing down her selection, she likes to read their bios to see if their interests align. “It is good if they have a personal interest in the story,” adds Melissa. Examples she shared of personal interest enhancing a story include Harriet’s interest in history, photographer Greta Rybus’s nature-themed work for a story about winter farming, and Heather Perry’s portrait series, Six Feet Apart, which inspired the direction for the Spring / Summer 20202 cover story, “Finding Our Way”). 

This point of view or personal connection is particularly important when working with a photographer. Timothy Archibald said when he was a younger father he got a lot of assignments with children because he was posting a lot of images of his children on social media. His direct experience gave him a deeper understanding and comfort in working with children. He notes, “When I was the dad, I could photograph any kid. Before I was a Dad, I couldn’t photograph kids, I was terrified of photographing kids. I remember seeing other people on set know how to talk to these kids and I couldn’t. But I think as an artist and a photographer, you tune your radar to the thing that you are engaged with.”

We worked with Timothy on a story for Nobles about the documentary filmmaker Pete Nicks. While Timothy’s early personal work was about his children, it is now about his life at the University of the Arts in San Francisco, represented in the “Sutter Street” series. It was this work that captured my eye when thinking about photographing a filmmaker—I wanted the visual direction to document time with him. I also knew from working with Timothy in the past and having the writer share her experience interviewing Pete Nicks that they would connect personally. That connection added depth to the shoot that another photographer may not have captured.

Melissa selected Levi Walton for the profile on Electric Black, a longtime writer on Sesame Street, after reviewing portfolios of numerous photographers on Diversify Photo, and Jessica Scranton to photograph Bowdoin’s first female President, Safa Zaki, knowing that they wanted to work with a woman photographer for the story. This isn’t to say you have to have children to photograph children, be a 50+-year-old man to photograph a 50+ man, be Black to photograph a Black person, or a woman to shoot a woman. But it is important to consider the artist’s point of view and how they will connect with the subject and story because making it easier for subjects to connect with their photographers makes them more comfortable, resulting in better pictures.

Along those lines, knowledge or comfort with a subject matter may hinder the outcome. When I look at a lot of institutional photography, I see a sameness. How can a school stand out if the visual direction from one to the next is similar? How can we look at campus-wide photo shoots and allow for the photographer to bring their perspective to the assignment? Timothy shares, “The photographer who shoots for the college campuses all the time thinks he knows what he needs, ‘Let’s have the picture of the Asian woman walking down with the math textbook or whatever it is.’ These things are hard to break for all of us but I think there is that fine line where you want the fresh eye on it and also need to have structure in the shot list.”

Last, it is always nice to have a connection with the photographer, like you would with the campus photographer or other local freelancers. But that isn’t always an option when assigning photo shoots around the world. Curating a selection of their work, giving background on why this story for this institution, and sharing what you are looking for in the story, whether it is a portrait or a day with a group of students in Prague, will lead to success, most of the time.

When visual storytelling is done well it connects the audience with the subject and place in a way that is unique to the institution.