You’ve created pieces for a broad range of clients, markets, and topics. How do you approach a new brief?
I’ll give a quick walkthrough of how I sketched ideas when I worked with the Radiolab podcast. For context, I created six illustrations for their latest series about intelligence. It was a super streamlined process and worked really well through the months of that project.
I skim over the writing a few times beforehand. Reading it really quickly gives me the big picture of the story - if I go too deep into the details, the illustration might not make as much sense if it’s trying tell entire the story itself. I write down a couple blurbs that will inform concept sketches for later.
Then I get on the phone with the producer of the podcast, the art director, and other big decision-makers to make sure we’re on the same page. It’s a short call - less than 15 minutes. I ask them how they would describe the story in a few sentences, and write down more blurbs beside the concept sketches. That way I get a sense of their vision as well.I choose about three blurbs that reflect different facets of the story. Again, these blurbs are meant to be more overarching and open-ended, and not about a small detail.
I sketch out thumbnails that reflect each blurb. For example, one might be “the brain is malleable”, and the sketch might be a person playing with brain-shaped play-doh. As well as the concept itself, I try to vary the mood, composition, and metaphor for each thumbnail to make sure the client really does get different takes, and not iterations of the same idea. Normally I’d send three concepts, but because I try to make them good, I create maybe six sketches in total and pick out the top three.
Okay Deb, we gotta know - what’s this about the time you were in a fantasy internet cult?
This needs a graphic novel on its own!
Way way way back, I tumbled down one of those internet rabbit holes and uncovered a community of girls my age who claimed they were part of a reincarnated royal family from a Tolkein-like universe, who were trying to find their way back somehow. I was a pretty depressed and anxious kid who lacked a sense of belonging, so I tried to see if I could join them for the heck of it. Suddenly, I had a whole new identity, who I was told was my “reincarnated spirit”.
I believed in this thing for so long that it consumed my real life - especially the interactions I had with my friends, and the way I saw the world. I wanted so badly to return to this “fantasy family", as I didn't have the best home and school life. I don’t think any of us did, so we all used this group as a form of escapism. You know, if this world sucks, at least we have another one to fall back on!
We talked every day for two or three years before we learned it was faked. It was insane how elaborate this was for our age - all 15 of us had our own identity, a family history, our own relationships, even our own academic levels back there. We had a plan every year to return to that world, which coincidentally failed every time. Even the leader of the group believed their own story because of how deep we went. Ironically, they ended up studying acting or something at an extremely prestigious college. There's so much I want to say about this, about how malleable kids are at their lowest lows. My therapist said later that this case, although unusual, had very strong ties to relationship abuse. It was wack.