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The ‘Smashing Things Together’ Approach to Editorial Illustration

Our Art Director Kjell Reigstad recently shared his insights on editorial illustration with our company colleagues. We thought you’d enjoy it too.

In my role on the Editorial team, I end up touching a lot of different parts of Automattic. I work on learning resources, company blogs, highlighting great users, longform publishing, and brand work, with the occasional theme and conference design thrown in. This sort of variety is absolutely amazing, and one of my favorite things about working here.Of all the projects I get to work on, my favorite thing to do may be illustrations for Longreads. It’s lovely to focus on reading and reflecting on stories, and to have the freedom to explore and experiment with visual representation.I’ve done over a hundred illustrations for Longreads over the years, and I thought I’d share a few notes on the concepting process I go through for each one.

I always start by reading the story (obviously!). While reading, I take note of all the visuals that pop into my head along the way. Most of them will end up being tossed out, but usually there are a few that help build the base of the illustration.For example, we recently published an essay where Jami Attenberg describes her battle with flight anxiety. Here’s the list I jotted down while reading her piece:

  • airplanes
  • airports
  • airplane seats
  • clouds
  • books
  • pills
  • xanax
  • pill bottles

When I’m finished reading the story, I run through a series of mental exercises that I picked up years ago in my “Visual Communication” class from design school. VisCom (as we called it) was a required course for all Design, Illustration, and Advertising majors, since at their core, all of those fields center around utilizing visuals to convey or enhance an idea. We were taught about symbolism, juxtaposition, and how to use use color, shapes, and text to get a message across. Here are the questions I ask myself:

  • Are any of these items a common symbol? If so, does it represent something that relates well to the story?
  • Can one of these items be turned into a new symbol?
  • Can I smash some of these images together to make something new?
  • Is there a scene from the story that I can build using these images?

My favorite of the bunch is the “smash things together” exercise. This usually involves taking two seemingly unrelated things and combining them to create greater meaning. In the case of Jami’s essay, I smashed clouds together with Xanax pills to depict the anxiety-ridden, Xanax-fueled flights she described throughout her story.


Illustration by Kjell Reigstad (Airplane photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Another great example of this approach is the illustration I did for Alexander Chee’s piece, “Our Well-Regulated Militia.” I smashed together a map of the United States and a gun rack to echo the article’s statement about the prevalence of guns in America:


Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

This technique doesn’t always work, but it does help kickstart creative thinking, and can help generate other solutions. I often run through 2–3 ideas for each illustration before finding one that sticks.

We’ve been building up our publishing pace and coverage lately at Longreads, and illustration plays a key part in making this successful. Our illustrations help attract readers, and if done well, they can amplify the message of the story itself. We’ve been bringing in some amazing freelance illustrators lately, and I want to close by showcasing some of the great work they’ve been doing too:

‘The Lily’ Would Like to Provide a Digital Media Repackaging of One’s Own

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf writes:

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

The Washington Post announced Monday they are launching a new “for women by women” website called The Lily, named for the first newspaper “devoted to the interests of women.”

It’s no secret that journalism has long been, and continues to be, far more closed off to women than to men. A now-retired female investigative journalist once told me that when she was working at the New York Times in the 1970s and 80s, if she collaborated with a man on a story, the story could only be double-bylined if it ran on the front page. Otherwise, her name would be dropped, as editors felt a man needed the byline more than she did.

In her post introducing The Lily, editor-in-chief Amy King acknowledged that “these days, publications for women are not so novel.” She’s right: See Jezebel, New York Magazine‘s The Cut, Racked, Bustle, Broadly, The Establishment, as well as the the newsstand stalwarts Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and Glamour — many of which now go beyond the realm of beauty and fashion. The history of specific sections for “women’s interest” is grounded in revenue-grabbing, as Jacqui Shine noted for the Awl in 2014 in her epic history of newspapers’ style sections.

Joseph Pulitzer is credited with developing women’s news largely as a means of attracting new readers and, in turn, new advertisers…

Ishbel Ross, a reporter who also wrote the first history of women in journalism, said that Pulitzer’s women, like everyone in his newsroom, were expected to ‘get a good story or die.’ What’s more, they also ‘had to show their feelings in their reporting.’

Even the most successful women working in journalism had to write to these conventions, fashioning themselves as stunt girls or sob sisters.

As Shine notes, female journalists are expected to not only get a good story, but bare their own inner emotional workings to, in Woolf’s words, reflect “the figure of man at twice its natural size.”

On Twitter, the economics reporter for the Houston Chronicle published a thread questioning the Washington Post‘s decision to compartmentalize reporting on women’s issues, as well as its sponsor, JP Morgan Chase.

She was not alone.

Still, others argued that as women in journalism remain sidelined, specific outlets for and by them are helpful. Particularly at a time when even our lawmakers are inclined toward misogynist internet usage, amplifying women’s voices and journalism in the interest of women can only be positive.

In a Poynter profileLily editor-in-chief King argued that her critics are mistaken. The Lily, she says, is “not a women’s page or section or vertical in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s an attempt to take the news the Post produces and repackage it for a different audience on distributed platforms.” King’s explanation seems to frame The Lily more as an exercise in finding sustainable business models for journalism, similarly to how Joseph Pulitzer saw journalism by and for women as an economic opportunity. Poynter writes that King hopes The Lily “will offer lessons for how the Post can reach other demographics that it’s not currently reaching.”


Treating Our Border As a Battle Zone

At Fusion, Sasha von Oldershausen revisits the story of Esequiel Hernandez, the 18-year old who Marines fatally shot when they were patrolling the border in 1997. They mistook him for a drug smuggler in a part of West Texas that the U.S. Government characterized as the front line of the War on Drugs. But how dangerous is this area? And is militarization the most effective way to reduce the drug trade? Twenty years later, many people here feel less safe. As one longtime resident said, “The moment you employ the rhetoric of war, it becomes a battle zone.”

It was this same wrongful characterization of Redford that would ultimately lead to Esequiel’s death. In some ways, it’s plain to see how the Marines could have mistaken Esequiel for a criminal, given “the fragmentary and sometimes inaccurate picture of local conditions,” as the congressional investigation stated.

JTF-6 was equipped with a cursory understanding of the area gleaned from notes written by their sergeant, recounted in the Marine Corp report, which stated: “Redford is not a friendly town,” and “Connections between town residents and drug traffickers were assumed to be the norm.”

They were not informed that families lived just a stone’s throw from where they were hiding, and that among them were Hernandez and his brothers and sisters, his mother and father, who resided in a small cluster of humble homes below the hill where he was shot. They were not told that Esequiel would herd his goats daily in the very region they were monitoring. They didn’t even know that the Polvo Crossing was a “Class B” entry—a legal route for pedestrian traffic to cross the river—until two days into their mission.

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‘The fire burned sideways in the cold, red dark’

At Garden & Gun, Justin Heckert tells the surreal story of the worst fire in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 100 years. The fire, which was started by kids playing with matches, began small and crept across the Smokey Mountains to threaten people as they slept in their beds. The fire took the lives of 14 people, displaced 14,000 more, and consumed 2000 properties in under 24 hours.

The fire burned sideways in the cold, red dark. When it found the little cabin on the mountain, it broke through the front window first, then curled up the wall, and eventually ate the cedar hope chest made from a tree on Linda Morrow’s family’s farm in Sebastopol, Mississippi. The sound of breaking glass startled her awake: her husband’s suncatcher, scraps of stained glass strung on fishing line, knocked off a window by the fire and onto the floor.

As she scrambled past them, those trees were on fire, crackling and groaning, the noises of being eaten alive. The fire reached them on the ground in leaf litter and on the wind as embers, the pines and spruces and hemlocks, taking them—the forest of her inspiration dying in luminosity.

She wore a cotton nightgown that flayed from her in wind gusts that topped 80 m.p.h. She put her hands above her head, holding her long red hair back, praying it wouldn’t catch fire, too. Everything else was on fire. The grass and the ground. Embers swirled through the air. More flames bent toward her as reflections on the creek. Behind her, she could see that the roof of the cabin and all the stacked wood on the bridge for the winter were burning.

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Was It a Story of Love or Exploitation? It Was Both, and More

Reality is always ambiguous, and that is something stories do not want to be.

In real life, people are riddled with conflicting motives, emotions, and ideas. We can both love and hate our families with equal intensity. We can make choices not for one reason, but for a multitude of reasons, sometimes in opposition to each other. Our identities are inevitably, and infinitely, hyphenated.

Stories, by their nature, tend to resist ambiguity. A story is a kind of model of the world, a map rather than the terrain, and therefore they tend toward simplification. This is especially true in journalism, which in its most basic form asks “what happened?” with the expectation that there will be a single, knowable answer.
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Donald Trump’s War With the Past

Yes, it was only last week—nine days to be exact, but who’s counting?—that President Trump committed the historical equivalent of hurling a live grenade into a crowd when he ventured into an improvisational analysis of the Civil War during an interview on Sirius XM radio. “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?” he said to the interviewer. “Why could that one not have been worked out?” It was a comment that poked the bee’s nest of public opinion and pushed the Civil War back into feverish public debate.

It’s been easy to dismiss President Trump’s comments as ignorant non-sequiturs or a childish attempt to divert attention from more pressing political issues. After all, there’s an entire field of inquiry devoted to asking exactly those questions about the Civil War, and scholars have devoted their lives to that question—but given Trump’s staunch anti-intellectualism, it’s not really surprising that he’s never bothered to notice. “Donald Trump has always acted in the moment, with little regard for the past…” wrote Marc Fisher in the Washington Post a day after the firing of FBI Director James Comey. But the Civil War, it seems, is an endless trauma to American democracy. As the republic reconsiders it again and again, it continues to mirror our understanding of the country we currently live in.

Perhaps, as Jon Meacham suggested in TIME after the president’s remarks, Trump was simply looking for himself in history—a plausible theory given the president’s perennially self-centered worldview. But by overlooking the war’s relevance and refusing to acknowledge slavery’s role in its birth, the president wasn’t merely sidestepping the issue; he was using tactics similar to those employed by “Lost Cause” revisionists and Confederate holdouts for generations, in which the cause of the war is questioned, reimagined, or willfully forgotten.

Our current decade marks the 150th anniversary of the war. Biographies, histories, and reconsiderations have come in measured steps and harsh reckonings—and discussions of memory, cause, conflict, reparation, and reconciliation have made it clear this war must continue to be discussed.

Conflicts rarely have only one cause, just as more than one thing can be true at a time. As Tony Horwitz wrote in The Atlantic in 2013 on the anniversary of the war’s start, slavery may not even have been central to Northerners’ experience of the Civil War. It was a kind of midwife, though, a stage on which a nation barely a century old played out its conflicts over sovereignty, autonomy, and national identity. Slavery as an institution concerned itself with just those questions. It used the bodies and labor of people stolen from their homes, excluded from equal society, and refused a personal identity.

In the summer of 2015, after Nikki Haley, then governor of South Carolina, announced the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol, Ta-Nehisi Coates collected the words of Confederate leaders who stated clearly that slavery was central to the identity of Southern states, which viewed it not just as an inalienable economic asset but as the very basis of white equality. The existence of slaves meant that white men could sidestep industrialized slavery of their own; the institutions’ proponents freely admitted that it upheld and enabled their quality of life.

Once slavery was abolished, the certain supremacy of Southern white men was threatened and the institutions it propped up were no longer guaranteed. The Confederate cause went from vaunted reason to fight to a heroic struggle that was snatched from its champions, spawning Lost Cause revisionist rhetoric that centralized the white Confederate experience. And as soon as the war ended, another one began, this one concerned with textbooks, memorials, and the “official” historical narrative.

Revisionists knew what they had lost. They knew that it would do them no favors to admit they had fought and lost a war over the right to oppress others. And so they turned toward telling their own story through the lens of states’ rights, a perspective that made room for the Confederacy to reintegrate into the union and still maintain face.

In documents like the “Confederate Catechism,” which was used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1920s to mobilize and coordinate their stance on the war, slavery was cast as a mere side player in a war that was necessary for peace. History as weapon was embraced as a matter of religion. As Tracy Thompson notes in her book The New Mind of the South, the UDC didn’t just educate its own. It shaped the war’s public image through decades of grassroots organizing and struggles to include the “right” version of history in textbooks.

Trump’s no-big-dealism is a more plausibly deniable form of that same beast. Downplaying slavery, whether in textbooks that omit it or comments that ignore its existence with wide eyes, calls 150 years of historical reckoning into question without saying a word. It invites people to start from square one—sidestepping, perhaps, the abundance of historical evidence and analysis that already exists.

If Civil War history is a graveyard, it’s one still strewn with fresh graves. It will haunt us until we face it down collectively, reconciling its truths with the world we have constructed around its gates. The president is not the first person who’d rather avert his eyes than look inside—even though Trump whistles blithely by, it doesn’t mean the cemetery ceases to exist.

Further Reading:


Poets Talk to Poets about the Border Wall

Journalists aren’t the only writers covering international politics. In a two-part series at Poetry International, poets from Mexico to Europe, Africa to Asia,  discuss the roles borders play in their lives, and the way borders limit our lives physically, linguistically, and culturally. Whether reflecting on living in Texas near the route of Trump’s proposed wall or exploring the  psychological borders of one’s cultural identity, these writers weigh in on what it means to be a citizen, the way language moves through populations, and how movement across borders creates vitality. You can read the forum’s first part here.

Philip Metres (b. USA): Borders are notoriously porous; no wall ever holds everyone out. The Great Wall failed to keep the Mongols at bay. The Maginot Line was crossed. Consider the tunnels of Gaza—whole cars and brides smuggled through. My passport is blue, and I try to live a political life according to and beyond the ideals of the Constitution. But I am a citizen of the earth and verse, of oxygen and lung, of the hurting and longing, of hoping against hope.

Every time I attempt translation, I feel something in me transported elsewhere, beyond my own skull’s borders, like some figure in a Chagall unmoored from earth, somewhere between thrill and terror.

Martin Camps (b. Mexico): Benedict Anderson said that we live in “imaginary communities”. What does “Mexican” or “American” mean? I believe that all human beings have planetary rights to cross borders, to live where they want to live. But borders exist to preserve a world order, the ones that have and the ones that don’t. We have borders even in our cities, living in the “nice part of the city” and not going to other parts where the “undesirables” live. We have shadow borders in every American city.

Ishion Hutchinson (b. Jamaica): To be a citizen, strictly speaking, is to belong to a state, which, from an official standpoint, is always suspicious of duality. “But,” Auden says, “Love, at least, is not a state,” and I think that speaks to being a citizen of a border, without fear of either side, unwaveringly in love with both.

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Yes, We Could, But Can We Now? Reflections on Obama’s Speeches

Americans hear more from our current President on Twitter than we do from his speeches, and it seems better that way. Donald Trump is no orator; he admits he doesn’t even read for pleasure. President Trump’s 140-character tweet style of mass communication—with its em dash misuse, random capitalization, and misplaced exclamation!— might portend the future of American politics in which words don’t particularly matter.

It certainly contrasts greatly with President Obama’s powerful oratory. At The American Scholar, former DOJ speechwriter James Santel reads the newly-published collection of Obama’s speeches, We Are the Change We Seek, to discuss what Obama’s sense of storytelling reveals about him, and how the power of residential speeches can motivate us, set the national tenor, our vision of the future and, as Obama frequently said, define who we are.

Like all good orators, Obama was a storyteller. Among his favorite stories was his own: how the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas rose to become a U.S. Senator. That background opens the speech that made him a national figure, the Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. After talking about his parents and grandparents, he said, “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story.”

Obama uses his autobiography to argue that his unconventional background did not place him at odds with the American experience, but made him emblematic of it. That case required Obama to offer a particular reading of American history, which goes something like this: Our shared commitment to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the principles set forth in the Constitution has always been more powerful than our divisions and disagreements, allowing our country to slowly “perfect” itself over time (to use a favorite Obama verb). It is a story of steady change and patient progress, of obstacles overcome and common ground discovered, a story in which all people are given equal attention and credit. In it, racism and prejudice are not defining features of the American character, but blemishes upon it, historical aberrations that we have slowly corrected over time. Above all, it is a story that, in one way or another, has always made room for everyone.

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This Land Should Be Your Land: A National Parks Reading List

When President Obama walked out of the Oval Office earlier this year, he left behind more land protected under federal law than any of his predecessors. President Trump appears intent on challenging that legacy, recently ordering a sweeping review of national monuments with an aim to “balance” the protection of these lands. (The Bureau of Land Management also recently added banners to its website to evoke the wondrous vistas of coal mining and oil drilling.)

It’s not yet clear whether Trump will actually try to revoke Obama-era designations—or whether he’d succeed if he does—but the land protected under federal law has been a mix of majesty and mystery ever since Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act designating the nation’s first national park. Writers have used their craft to ask fascinating questions and expose the weird underbellies of national parks, monuments, and federal lands since long before Trump ever expressed an antipathy toward them.

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Battling the Odds Against Wolf Reintroduction

Now that they’re endangered, the wolf has become as much a symbol as an animal. From folk tales like Little Red Riding Hood to dramatized stories of mass cattle-killing, many people want the wolf out of the lands where scientists have reintroduced them. In an excerpt of Brenda Peterson’s book Wolf Nation over at The Morning Newsthe author follows captive-bred Mexican gray wolves from a Washington sanctuary to their release site in New Mexico. What she finds is grace and determination among one of nature’s most maligned but majestic creatures, and she examines the powerful network of political and economic interests battling over wolf recovery.

The struggle between state and federal wildlife agencies over the Mexican wolf recovery continues. The Center for Biological Diversity urges that New Mexico should “extricate itself from the state politics driven by the livestock industry, stop removing wolves from the wild, release five more family packs into the Gila as scientists recommend, and write a recovery plan that will ensure the Mexican gray wolf contributes to the natural balance in the Southwest and Mexico, forever.” Even though the law demands that the USFWS fulfill the Endangered Species Act and wolf recovery has huge public support in the Southwest, the states still continue to resist. In late fall of 2016, an Arizona judge issued a court order requiring USFW to finally update a decades-old recovery plan for the endangered Mexican gray wolf by November, 2017. With only about 113 wild wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, this move toward increasing Southwest wolf populations is essential to recovering the Mexican gray wolf in America. “Without court enforcement, the plan would have kept being right around the corner until the Mexican gray wolf went extinct,” said the Center for Biological Diversity. This court order dismissed protests by ranchers and other antiwolf factions in favor of moving ahead with wolf reintroduction.

But the root cause of much antiwolf bias remains. Wildlife commissions reflect the preferences of their members. A recent Humane Society study of eighteen states’ game commissions revealed that 73 percent were “dominated by avid hunters, clearly unrepresentative of the state’s public they speak for, but in line with their funding sources.” New Mexico’s Department of Game and Fish receives $20 million each year from licenses bought by hunters, trappers, and anglers. Not much has changed since 1986 when Ted Williams wrote his famous essay, long before wolf reintroduction: “Wolves do not purchase hunting licenses. . . . That, in brief, is what is wrong with wildlife management in America.” But we are on the cusp of a cultural change in wolf recovery. As Sharman Apt Russel writes in The Physics of Beauty, “All Americans would feel better if we could agree to share our public land with one hundred Mexican wolves, a fraction of the wildness that once was here.

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