IA Talks to Gawker Art Director Jim Cooke

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[A Bride on Acid Answers All of Your Trippiest Wedding Questions – Illustration by Jim Cooke]

Things have been much more visually stimulating over at Gawker and its various identities, thanks to the efforts of Illustrators Tara Jacoby and Sam Woolley and Art Director/Illustrator Jim Cooke. What’s more, last April (2014), Cooke – on behalf of Gawker Media – put out a call for a “staff illustrator” as part of an effort to further ramp up their use of illustration (the position was soon occupied by Tara).

Here at Illustration Age we always strive to celebrate the people, publications and organizations that embrace the use of illustration, which is why last week we interviewed Tara Jacoby about her experiences as a staff illustrator for just under a year, and today we’re excited to share our conversation with AD Jim Cooke about the role of illustration at Gawker.

JCILLUSTRATION AGE: In April of last year, you put out a call for a “Staff Illustrator” for Gawker Media. What was the reasoning behind this? More specifically why seek out an in-house type of arrangement vs. commissioning an individual artist for each article?

JIM COOKE: To answer to this, I think it would help to give you a little background. I had been working for Gawker Media as Deadspin’s primary freelance contributing illustrator for a while (beginning in 2006). Then in January 2012 I was hired full-time as the Art Director and illustrator for Gawker’s gossip-driven sites: Gawker, Deadspin, and Jezebel.

I worked in that role for two years creating as many illustrations and images as I could for those three sites daily, usually upwards of a dozen per day, until we decided to expand the art to contribute to the other GM sites as well.

Last year, it became clear that the role of art was becoming more important to the company. As my workload was increasing, I put out a call for a staff illustrator to join me. There are a few reasons why a staff illustrator was attractive, a large one being the rapid pace of a blogging media company. There are times when a piece may need to have an image created for it within an hour or less. Publishing here works so quickly that a post will develop from the germ of a writer’s idea to a finished piece complete with an illustration inside of a few hours. Our art team of myself, Tara, and another staff illustrator Sam Woolley do this several times in a day.

I found that to do this job, it helps to be closely familiar with the voice of the company, the personalities of the writers, the demand to create good and smart work quickly, and to have a keen recognition whether to approach a piece as silly, serious or somewhere in between. When we decided to expand the art team, I felt that hiring another full-time illustrator to fill that role would have its advantages over working within the conventional process of finding and commissioning freelance illustrators for each piece. It’s a more streamlined process. We work side-by-side, and are able to receive a request from one of our writers and begin the conceptualization and creation of an image immediately.

18yif09m5wxy2gif[“Can I Say Twerk?” A Miley Cyrus Glossary for Whites – Illustration by Jim Cooke]

I found that to do this job, it helps to be closely familiar with the voice of the company, the personalities of the writers, the demand to create good and smart work quickly, and to have a keen recognition whether to approach a piece as silly, serious or somewhere in between.

IA: Could you tell us about the most important qualities you were looking for in an artist, and what eventually drew you to the work of Tara Jacoby?

JC: The illustrations that I’m most attracted to lately are ones that are almost style-less. I’m drawn to visual metaphors, smart and clever solutions to a problem. I try to keep my own work unbound by a “style” and that allows me to approach each piece fresh and decide what the best treatment is for it. I may draw, paint, scribble, use flat vectors, or work with photos and typography on any given piece.

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[How to Hit On Girls in the Club (Or Not) – Illustration by Tara Jacoby]

[Tara’s] work is very bold and strong. She draws excellently but not laboriously. Her use of color is exquisite and I think her voice fits in very well. It’s feminine, but can sometimes be wickedly sharp.

That said, Tara has more of a defined style to her work, as most illustrators do. When I hired her I was mainly looking for someone with a strong editorial sense, a knack for problem solving, and someone who could take direction and whose style would fit in well with what we had already been doing. Her work is very bold and strong. She draws excellently but not laboriously. Her use of color is exquisite and I think her voice fits in very well. It’s feminine, but can sometimes be wickedly sharp. One of the biggest reasons I hired her, however, is that it was clear when I met with her how much she wanted to work here. She was hungry and determined and that goes a very long way with me.

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[Don’t Forget to Tip Bill Cosby’s Rape Jar – Illustration by Sam Woolley]

IA: Your regular use of illustration is very refreshing in today’s world, when so many publications rely on stale and lifeless stock imagery. What do you see as the role of illustration across Gawker Media’s various identities?

JC: Thanks. I came from a background in illustration and I guess when I started I saw the heavy use of stock images as boring and thoughtless. It’s gotten a little better, but it really wasn’t that long ago when it seemed that most internet publications had no illustrations at all and were sacrificing good artwork for speed and economy, in many cases that still may be true. It seemed lazy to me and I’ve felt that with some effort and creativity it didn’t need to be that way. Thankfully, Gawker Media has recognized this too and has allowed me to do some things that I’m incredibly proud of here. For a media company with the daily output we have, I do think we’re unique in that sense.

I think the role of illustration at Gawker Media is to work arm in arm with the editorial staffs. We have some uniquely talented and creative writers, funny and smart and they put so much into their pieces. They deserve much more than to slap a stale stock photo atop their work, and it’s our role to match their efforts. A smart and carefully made image can add a great deal of value to each piece. Something funny or something blasphemous, something weighty or something clever, something to complement and to add to the piece rather than simply fill a space at the top of the page. The culture here at Gawker encourages taking chances and being irreverent, and that is a philosophy that I embrace and always try to push as far as I can. Our images and our content can occasionally tread into blue subject matter, but I’m very comfortable working in that space. Oftentimes, an image can get as much attention as the written piece itself.

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[Fed Up With the Slutty Girl Scouts? Meet the Conservative Alternative. – Illustration by Jim Cooke]

IA: Could you describe the typical creative process of developing an idea or an image for most of your articles? How much creative input do you allow the illustrator, especially given the short turnaround time for these?

JC: The first thing that happens is an editor or writer will send me the draft of a post. I’ll read it intently, and then I’ll either work on the image myself or pass it to Tara or Sam. In those cases, I’ll let them pitch ideas to me and we’ll work together to decide on a solution. Often, I’ll be struck by an idea that seems right and they’ll work on that. Other times they’ll have an idea or a quick thumbnail sketch and I’ll have them run with it. The idea/conception process can be very quick, and this is where the advantages of having illustrators on staff are most evident. From idea stage to finish is usually a very streamlined process and this enables us to work quickly.

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[Answering a Question No One Asked: 13 Years of Williamsburg in the NYT – Illustration by Jim Cooke]

IA: What has been the response, both internally at Gawker Media and from your audience, to the regular use of illustration?

JC: The response has been pretty good! I think the fact that the art department here has expanded over the last few years is a sign that the editors and writers appreciate having our kind of attention paid to the visuals on their posts. Tara and I both managed to get pieces accepted into the SI annual show this year, which is nice. As far as audience reception goes, they are mostly very kind to us in the comments and on twitter. In a culture where a commenting readership can often be merciless, I’ll take it.

Thanks again to Jim Cooke and Gawker Media for their contributions to this article.

Filed under: Interviews

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Thomas James

Thomas James

Thomas James is an Illustrator who has worked with The New York Times, WIRED, Pentagram, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. You can see his portfolio at thomasjamesillustration.com.
Thomas James

Posted by Thomas James on 02/16/15 under Interviews
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