Art Director Profile - SooJin Buzelli: "Surround yourself with good people"

By Robert Newman   Thursday May 28, 2015

SooJin Buzelli is an art director who has made a huge impact on the world of illustrators and illustration. As the creative director for business magazines PLANSPONSOR, PLANADVISER, Chief Investment Officer, and Chief Investment Officer Europe, she assigns over 350 illustrations a year. SooJin is noted for both her art direction talents and her ability to work with and mentor illustrators; her assignments appear frequently in the American Illustration annuals and Society of Illustrators shows. As one of the most influential publication designers, it’s no surprise that SooJin was given this year’s Society of Illustrators Richard Gangel Art Director Award, honoring “art directors currently working in the field who have supported and advanced the art of illustration.” (Pictured right is a PLANSPONSOR cover with artwork by Dadu Shin.)

SooJin has a wonderful sense of illustration aesthetics and art direction. Her talents have been richly praised by illustrators in our American Illustration Profiles interviews series. “She’s able to bring some of the best work out of me and respects my creative process,” explains Marcos Chin. And Harry Campbell praises SooJin for her “personal commitment to the craft, real understanding of what illustrators go through, and advocacy for good work.” SooJin works with both newer and established illustrators, transcending the confines of business B2B magazines and creating vibrant, exciting imagery. SooJin is the perfect subject for the first art director interview in the American Illustration Profiles series.

I was born in Seoul, Korea. My family—mom, dad, and my younger sister—immigrated to North Carolina in 1983, when I was nine years old. We moved around a bit, but I did most of my growing up in Westfield, New Jersey.

My dad was an architect in Korea. My mom was a school teacher. They ended up running a dry cleaning store in New Jersey for 20+ years.

I remember my first trip to the museum in Korea. I must have been five. My parents took me to see the Picasso drawings. It made a big impression in my memory.

Like most people in the creative field, I loved drawing as a kid, but what I loved even more was getting others to draw for me. Even though I was the oldest, my sister and I were the youngest in our extended family. So whenever family would get together, which was very often in Seoul, I would demand drawings from my older cousins, since to me they were older and much more accomplished in drawing the things I wanted. I told them what to draw—I guess I was art directing even back then.

I was a resident assistant and a tour guide at Rhode Island School of Design. Then I got my first and only job at Asset International as a production assistant. Eventually I worked my way up to Senior Vice President, Creative Director. I’m responsible for PLANSPONSOR, PLANADVISER, Chief Investment Officer, and Chief Investment Officer Europe magazines.

My first day at Asset International was August 1, 1996. I was hired as a production assistant. I gave myself three months at the position; I just wanted something on my resume. Three months turned into 19 years and counting.

I live in the East Village with my husband Chris Buzelli and our dog Sota.

I have two offices—one in Midtown and one in Stamford, Connecticut. Neither are very inspiring locations, but I enjoy both commutes. I love time on the train to Connecticut. It’s a good time to relax, read, or just nap. And I really enjoy my walk to and from the Midtown office listening to audiobooks.

My big break was getting the production assistant job right out of school. I answered a wanted ad in The New York Times. And that led to an interview with the then-art director at Asset International. I had no experience in publishing or even design. I had a BFA in Illustration from RISD. I did take one graphic design class, but nothing really to show for in my portfolio.

So I walked into the interview with eight or so water color paintings. The art director looked at them and said something like, “They are very nice, but I really don’t see anything here that makes me think you can do this job.” And I replied something like, “As you can see in my paintings, I’m good with colors and have a good sense of composition. If I can make a blank page work with lines and colors, I can do the same with type and image.” It was not a prepared answer at all. It just came out. Lucky for me, the art director liked my answer. Months later he told me he figured I would learn on the job, and the real reason he hired me was that he thought he could spend eight-plus hours a day sharing a small space with me.

I was offered the job on Friday and told to start on Monday. I went home and called up my RISD friend who studied graphic design. He came over and showed me the basics of Photoshop, Illustrator, and Quark that weekend. I showed up on Monday and I’ve been there ever since.

Chris Buzelli—artist, teacher, husband, and best friend. He’s one of the hardest workers I know. He never gives up. He’s given me support and encouragement every step of the way. I really wouldn’t be the art director I am today without him.

We both grew together as an illustrator and as an art director. I would hear all the art director stories from an illustrator’s point of view. I would see the kinds of art direction that got him excited and I would also see some directions that sucked the creative light out of him. Seeing his interactions with his clients really taught me a lot about art direction.

Let me back up a bit.

In 1996, Asset International was publishing a couple magazines. And they were using stock photos exclusively—the typical 1990s business trade magazine stuff—businessmen on tightropes, hand shakes, juggling brief cases and money, etc. I was feeling ashamed that I was working with stock images when I had a BFA in illustration.

So little by little, I started to replace those stock images with my watercolor illustrations. They weren’t great, but work people liked them. With that encouragement, I was able to convince them I could commission original art. Chris was the first person I commissioned. We hadn’t spoken since college at that point. He graduated a year ahead and I knew he was freelancing in NYC. I basically thought of Chris because I knew he would work hard and wouldn’t let me down. (I realized since then this is why any given AD hires a particular illustrator—because the illustrator will work hard and won’t let the AD down).

Chris encouraged me to have enough confidence in myself to call up illustrators that I admired. His encouragement finally got me to contact some of them. I would get so nervous calling some of them that I had to write down exactly what I would say before dialing the number.

I was rejected by some of the very best illustrators—some nicely and some not. There was one time I called up Bill Mayer. After I gave him the job description, he told me: “There are three reason I take a job: 1) if the money is good; 2) if it’s for a good cause; 3) if it sounds like fun. Your job isn’t any of the them.” Bill says he doesn’t remember this conversation but I sure do. It’s been my goal from that point to make sure my commissions fit two of those categories. I was never going to fall under “good cause” covering the financial industry. I really have to thank Bill for making it so clear for me!

I love Neil Gaiman’s books. I don’t know how his mind works, but I’m so happy to read his stories and picture them in my head!

This is hard to answer. I commission 350 to 375 illustrations a year. I have way too many favorites to list. So I can’t do one. Here are the ones I remember without going back and looking at them all!

Chris Buzelli: "Transition" (Chief Investment Officer)

Jillian Tamaki: “Notable Distinctions” (PLANSPONSOR)

Victo Ngai: “Too Big to Not Fail” (CIO Europe)

Robert Hunt did a masterful piece for the cover of Chief Investment Officer. He actually sent me a more “finished” painting, but I went with an “in progress” scan he sent during the process. It’s one of the most beautiful portraits we’ve ever published in my opinion.

JooHee Yoon did a fabulous series for the PLANSPONSOR April issue.

And Yuko Shimizu. Even though she’s one of the biggest illustrators out there she will work harder than anyone to get it right. Yuko did this for PLANADVISER.

Once I have the story list and ad count for the issue, I create thumbnails. Then I can see the entire book and know where the art will be needed. I approach cover art as the anchor for the book. Once I decide on the voice (artist), then I can go figure out who to hire for the rest of the book based on the cover direction. I try to balance out the art in the book with different notes (as in musical notes). Some illustrators are “low, deep” notes where some are “high and light.” I’m mixing metaphors here, but I equate illustrations with weight and sound.

My job is to understand what the message we are trying to say with the cover. So that requires lot of back and forth with the editors. I ask lots of questions and editors talk on and on about what the story will be about (many times, I commission art while the story is being written). At the end of that process, I have to distill the story into a clear message for the artist—get the right “prompt.” As long as I get the right prompt for the artist to launch from, things usually go pretty smoothly.

I ask for at least two to three different ideas for sketches. And that’s when I come in and pick a direction or sometimes tweak the direction. It may require a couple of back and forths with the artist. Once the idea is finalized, the artist is left alone to do their thing.

Artists usually have links listed on their sites and that list will lead me to a labyrinth of great artists I’m not familiar with. Then I can be on Tumblr and Instagram for too long.

Irene Gallo for what’s she’s been able to accomplish in She publishes good stories with beautiful, amazing and sometimes unexpected art. She’s not only the art director, but she’s also the publisher.

It’s very rare when I get a promo (digital or physical) that makes me hire the person right away. It really is an accumulation of a lot of different encounters that lead up to that first hire.

Here’s an example: I was trying to navigate through an illustrator’s page (someone I’ve been keeping my eye on ever since a portfolio review from a school visit) and the site was so slow. From my frustration, I tweeted “Was about to hire new young illustrator but website soooooo slow...changing my mind…” and asked illustrators to reply if their work was good and website was fast.

From the tweet responses I ended up hiring Jesse Tise. A couple weeks later I cleaned my inbox and realized I had three of Jesse’s email promos in my saved folder. Then sometime after that, I was cleaning out my “favorite promo” box and found four postcards from Jesse. So it turns out that Jesse was sending me promos via mail/email for more than six months. And I was liking them enough to save them. But it took that random tweet exchange for me to hire him for the first project.

I pick the right “voice" and get the right “prompt” for the artist to work from. The stories I assign art for can be very dense with industry-specific topics (e.g. target date funds, liability-driven investing, retirement income, etc.) that are usually hard for illustrators to connect with. The best work happens when I distill a story into a clear and concise phrase that the artist can use to explore his/her ideas.

Here are some examples of the prompts for stories I just commissioned last week:

Retirement Income — “fatal flaw in the system”
Recordkeeping — “more things change, the more they stay the same”
Evaluating RFPs — “importance of foundation/backbone/structure”

1) Keep deadlines.
2) Reply to the same thread of email chain so I can see what we’ve discussed without having to look it up elsewhere.
3) Keep contact info at the end of all email chains (especially phone #).
4) Give me at least two to three DIFFERENT ideas for the illustration prompt.
5) Send me invoice with the final so I don’t have to ask for it.

I used to daydream about being the art director at The New Yorker in college. I have the same daydream today.

I do keep an active Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. I’m not on social media to find illustrators. I’m on it because I enjoy it. Lots of my friends are artists so my social media is mostly about art (and dogs). So in that way I’m sure it’s affecting me unconsciously and consciously. Illustrators that interact with me on social media are on my mind more when I’m hiring. I’m not saying you must participate in social media with art directors to get hired, but it doesn’t hurt. Out of site, out of mind.

Keep a good network of people. Surround yourself with good people. That’s basically what I do every time I commission illustrators for an issue.

It’s wonderful to be part of this process—the initial art direction to receiving the smart conceptual finished piece of art. It’s like planting a seed and seeing it bloom.

My goal starting out 19 years ago was one day to work with the best of the best in the illustration industry. I’m so proud to say that I am doing just that now. I hope to continue as long as people are willing to work with me!

See more SooJin Buzelli illustration assignments, art direction, and updates: