Regrets and Fist Bumps

When I first saw the July 21, 2008, New Yorker cover with Barry Blitt's satirical caricature of Michelle and Barack Obama fist-bumping in the Oval Office I felt a little twinge of envy. It was one of those moments when I thought to myself, “Man, I wish I had done that.” That cover, in case you've been living in a cave, caused quite a stir. It was debated endlessly on television and it zoomed around the blogosphere like wildfire. It even prompted USA Today to publish an embarrassing feature on the etiquette of fist-bumping. The New Yorker cover seemed to upset both Republicans and Democrats. It was an equal opportunity offender. In my opinion it was great magazine journalism and a rare use of illustration by the mainstream media today.

Barry Blitt's July 21 New Yorker cover.

I am a huge Obama supporter, of course. After all, he is the graphic designer's candidate, with his stylish logo and his sophisticated website. I've never been more excited about a presidential candidate, and that's why I was so taken by the New Yorker cover. In one simple gesture, Barry Blitt gets to the emotional heart of the matter by underscoring the ridiculous smears that have been endured by Barack Obama and his wife during this presidential campaign. By exaggerating the outrageous stereotypes that have been played up by the opposition and fanned by hysterical TV pundits (Barack is shown wearing a turban, with Michelle, who sports an Angela Davis afro and an AK-47, while an American flag burns in the fireplace) Blitt ends up revealing the truth. That all those accusations and unsubstantiated fears are just as silly and as preposterous as the far-fetched scenario in Blitt's squiggly-lined artwork. This is satire at its best and a prime example of the power of illustration. Blitt's simple drawing is brilliant, but what's even more amazing is the New Yorker's decision to go with it on the cover. It shows a lot of guts and I applaud their “damn the torpedoes” attitude. It seems like there are more magazines than ever but it has become increasingly rare to find publications that will feature effective illustration.

Every time I meet with a new magazine client, I preach to them about the virtues of good editorial illustration.

Before I became a Pentagram partner I was the art director of Texas Monthly magazine for 13 years. During my stint there I commissioned a slew of original photography and illustration. Working with the world's most talented editorial artists was, and continues to be, one of the most fulfilling aspects of my career. At the magazine, I had the opportunity to work with amazing illustrators who created thoughtful, memorable imagery that went far beyond what you could achieve with conventional photography. Matt Mahurin did an illustration once for a story about some kids who killed a horse that was so primal you could almost hear it screaming. Steve Pietzsch did a cover caricature of Ross Perot as Mad magazine's Alfred E. Newman that so perfectly summed up Perot's presidential campaign that year, you didn't even need to read the story. I believed then, and I continue to believe, that illustration and photography are powerful tools that can be employed equally to visually communicate a story. At Pentagram I design a wide array of publications and I still work with many talented freelance artists. They have become some of my closest friends.

When I joined Pentagram one of my goals was to continue to use illustration in my work. This has proven to be harder to do than I ever imagined. Every time I meet with a new magazine client, I preach to them about the virtues of good editorial illustration. Lately, my speeches have fallen mostly on deaf ears. The popularity of editorial illustration seems to be at an all-time low. Editors and publishers prefer photography over illustration because they see it as somehow being “more realistic” or “more honest,” even though photography has become increasingly more unreal. Stock illustration houses are killing the demand for original illustration and the acceleration of the design process brought on by advances in technology has made clients impatient and unwilling to go through the sketch and idea development phase that has always been a part of commissioning original illustration. Illustration is quickly becoming a forgotten art and a completely underutilized communication tool.

I've become frustrated with my attempts to have an illustration revival with my clients, and I feel like I've let illustrators down. This is one of my few regrets—but I haven't given up yet.