Three Questions with Tim J Luddy, CD, Mother Jones

Three Questions with Tim J Luddy, CD, Mother Jones Mother Jones makes great use of illustration within its pages. Is this an artistic choice on your end, or the by-product of working with a tight budget?
TJL: We decide on whether to use illustration, photography, or a combination of the two on the basis of which medium will present each story's message most effectively. We appreciate the way that editorial illustration can present and shape ideas, and we have a tradition of strength in that area, going back to

Dugald Stermer's work on our very first cover. We also work hard to give photojournalism a good deal of presence in the magazine, with a mix of commissioned work, pre-existing projects, and good-quality agency work.

We are a nonprofit trying to get the most out of every dollar we spend. So we think long and hard before flying a photographer and crew to a shoot, or having them spend days or weeks on location. And while conceptual photography can really bring an idea to life, it can also involve significant concept development, studio time, styling, models, and props; you can easily spend more than my cover budget on a shoot like that. When either of those options is still the best way to go, our photo editor, Mark Murrmann, is great at working smart on a shoot. For our May/June cover story on population, Mark located photographer Michael Rubenstein, who was already in India, and who created a great essay on the empowerment of women in that country. And Bryce Duffy did an amazing conceptual portrait of Republican consultant turned gay marriage hero Fred Karger for the March/April issue. We did have a stylist on that one; when you shoot someone in his underwear, you've got to do it right!

A good number of our print stories contain commentary or analysis of events that have already broken as news, and often this type of story is best served by illustration, where you can use devices like satire, metaphor, or hyperbole. It would be hard to imagine how you could do better at dramatizing the hopelessness of people caught up in human trafficking than Anita Kunz did, working with our art director Carolyn Perot, in her conceptual illustration for our May/June issue. We also tend to use illustration on our covers, not least because of how we can fine-tune the ideas and how they're presented.

Putting it in perspective, I think that your question is based on current practice in editorial art direction, which with some notable exceptions favors photography over illustration by a pretty wide margin. I'd say that Mother Jones is probably split about 50/50, more or less.
timluddy_2.jpg You also have the website to deal with, and spend your days working between print and online. What is it like trying to control the look and feel of two products whose audiences often have different needs and whose platforms require different content strategies... frustrating or rewarding?
I'd describe my role at as an influencer. Mother Jones has had an Internet presence since 1993, but we've never had a dedicated art person for our website. Early in my tenure here, we went through a major redesign and revamping of the site, including open-source programming, greatly enhanced user interaction, and a much more pervasive use of graphics. I was one of over a dozen people who participated in the design reviews at that time, working with a great outside designer, Steve Lyons. That redesign launched in early 2009. Since then I've restructured the duties within the art department to include things like the optimization of the magazine images for print, creation of graphic identity for special web-only packages, management of photo subscription services which are used by both art and editorial people, blogging, the creation and staging of online photo essays, and even the odd podcast interview. But there are still 3 weeks every two months where we're mostly a print-only operation. And for a daily news outlet online, that's obviously a challenge. The process of my team and I being integrated into the online editorial process is still ongoing.

Our Washington, DC bureau reports and writes a lot of news stories which we break on the website; usually the photos for those stories are selected, processed, and posted by reporters or web producers before I see them. I'm trying to provide guidelines for how this should work, while acknowledging that they're often going to be doing the work when I'm not available. We've set up subscriptions with a couple of photo agencies, and that's usually where the art for website-only stories comes from; most of the illustration on the site is work that was commissioned for the print publication.

I'm currently working on a design overhaul of parts of the site; this will be an adjustment of our original vision, working with the visual vocabulary Lyons developed.

What's it like? I'm guessing I feel like a circus performer with each foot on a different galloping horse: I'm pretty nervous, and I'm amazed when I don't fall off.
Business 2.0, BusinessWeek and PCWorld are all titles you have art directed and you have now been at MJ for almost four years... how have you seen the industry change from when you started out back in the late 80's... is it more exciting these days, the same, do you feel something is missing these days?
PCWorld is a technology magazine that hasn't been afraid to critique new products and trends when it feels that they aren't working; and Business 2.0, especially in its early days, would gleefully poke fun at Internet business practices and cultures. So I've developed a healthy amount of skepticism about any new technology or business practice. That said, in my first job as a magazine art director, I was creating layouts on bristol board with paper and wax, and I oversaw that magazine's conversion to a digital workflow. The things that I can do now in minutes could literally take weeks to do back then, and I feel only the most fleeting nostalgia for it. I think that in general we're producing a much richer experience for the reader now, even in print, than we were 25 years ago. The danger is that we can get lost in the richness of that experience, and end up losing focus and just producing Short Attention Span Theatre. The best editorial design in any medium is organizing and channeling everything it presents, so that all those cumulative experiences add up to a message that has specificity, subtlety, and impact.

Portrait of Tim J Luddy taken by Glenn Glasser.

Got more questions for Tim? Leave a question in the comment field and you just may get an answer!

Check out past Three Question Interviews
Mathew Bates, Design Director at Backpacker
George McCalman, Art Director at AFAR
Joshua Gorchov, Principal at the Loud Cloud

  • Tim J Luddy

    Robert, Dugald has done a number of covers for us, including one that was based on a portrait of Count Tommaso Inghirami painted by Raphael in 1512, for our June MCMLXXVI issue (it actually said that on the cover.) I'll work on getting some of those posted; stay tuned. Brian was right, that Too Big To Fail cover was done by the inimitable Bill Mayer. For his drawger posting on the assignment, including a scary interior version of the same guy and an alternate cover with shiny 3D type, see Francesca, thanks for the kind words.

  • francesca messina

    Tim-great to see your work up! I especially note and agree with your comment about "Short Attention Span Theatre"-aptly put. Kudos to you and your team.

  • Brian Taylor Illustration

    Robert. Looks like that's Bill Mayer's illo on that cov.

  • Robert Newman

    Hey TJ! How about showing us a copy of that first Mother Jones cover illustrated by Dugald Stermer? I'd love to see that. And who's responsible for that great flying rich guy cover pictured above? That's a good one.

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