Art Director Profile - Len Small: "We hope to create artwork that will last"

By Robert Newman   Thursday October 8, 2015

Len Small is the art director at Nautilus, the smart and modern digital and print science magazine. In a little less than three years on the job, Small’s illustration art direction has turned Nautilus into a striking showcase of brilliant visual imagery. His deft direction and wide-ranging tastes have drawn much praise from the illustration community. Working in a format initially conceived by Point Five Design, Small uses his considerable graphic design and visual storytelling skills to present artwork that is bold, elegant, and perfectly in sync with the editorial content of the magazine.“We try to create illustrations that will stand up on their own,” says Small, “and have meaning and story outside of the article to which they were assigned.” Small is quick to give credit to his art team, which includes Francesco Izzo and Nick Garber.

Small originally planned to be an illustrator, but quickly found that “I was more interested in what was happening on the other side of this conversation.” He was also the designer, along with Esther Wu, of the American Illustration 33 book cover and inside pages.

I am the art director for Nautilus, a non-profit science and culture magazine publishing in web and print. I’m also serving as a Design/Tech chair for ICON: The Illustration Conference. Previously, I was the art director at Tablet Magazine, a Jewish news website. It’s been an insightful leap to go from religion to science. These magazines share a certain affinity—both seek something deeper in their own text. I’ve found them both to be deep wells.

I grew up in Moline, Illinois, which is mostly known for John Deere tractors. My mother is a librarian and my father is a newspaper man, so  we had plenty of reading material around, and we were encouraged and rewarded for enjoying books. Now I have two kids and I can hardly say no if they want to get a book. Luckily my wife tolerates this quality about me.

I’ve belonged to Brooklyn for almost two decades now. I managed to get my first break in 1997 by cold-calling the art director of Matador Records, Mark Ohe, who unbelievably gave me a job. I spent my first decade in design on the agency and commercial side, with pockets of freelancing, until I decided that I wanted to be part of the making of stories, not just building a better website to sell a product.

I will wholly admit being glued to my computer most of the time. However, I judiciously take coffee breaks early and often. I like to walk as much as I can. Sometimes the end of the day becomes a great release of creativity—you’ve been absorbing, stressing, talking, sketching, and there might be 20 minutes when there’s finally nothing to do but to produce, so you do.

I’ve had the fortune of working near Bryant Park for the past few years. It can be a surprisingly meditative place…maybe it’s the vibe from being bookended by the NY Public Library, but it gives me a moment of calm in this city.

Before I was a design student of Steven Heller, I tried my hand at editorial illustration for a year. Steve was the art director of the Sunday Book Review at The New York Times, and kept two portfolio slots open for anyone who called and could get there at 9 am. I went in with my book, and watched him flip through the pages in about 30 seconds, hand it back to me and say “thank you.” I was shocked, but somehow managed to ask for a critique. Steve took back the book, and took another 90 seconds to accurately describe the problems in my work. I left humbled, but when I got on the subway I realized a few things: he was right—I wasn’t ready to be an illustrator. I was more interested in what was happening on the other side of this conversation.

I come from a family of high- and lowbrow readers, and we bonded over Spy magazine in its 80s heyday—you could just feel the sarcasm rolling off the page. There has been a thread of daring magazines I have followed obsessively for periods of time, from Spy to Lucky Peach, Colors to Good, Nest to Pitchfork. They have break-neck stories and images that push out of their genres.

My comic book reading as a kid developed (or devolved?) into graphic stories—RAW magazine, and all the great comics coming out at that time—Lynda Barry, Matt Groening’s Life in Hell, Eric Drooker, Gary Panter, The Hernandez Brothers.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be a student of Maira Kalman. There are some talented folk I see blurring creative lines, and helping to make things that expand our spectrum of what can be read, viewed, taken in. Maira does all of that and sweeps up after her own brilliant mess.

I would like to play bass guitar with Curtis Mayfield circa 1975. Barring that, I would love to direct a cover of The New Yorker with Francoise Mouly.

The challenge of this role is that the game changes daily. The best way you can prepare for the unexpected is to not be precious about your ideas. I’m best when I can be flexible, and hope I can convince the artists to take a similar disposition.

I still look at album covers. Even at their current micro-thumbnail size, there still must be a distillation process for the best ones to work. It’s amazing that I could stare at Peter Blake’s Sgt. Pepper’s artwork as a seven year old, as a teenager, then as an adult, and have different emotional and intellectual response every time.

A few years ago I found a stunning book called For the Love of Vinyl, about the London-based design studio Hipgnosis, which created the most iconic album covers of the 70s and 80s. The range of bands was amazing—from Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd to XTC. Those were the days when a record company would fly a couple art directors to Timbuktu to “experiment” with their ideas. You can feel that moment in time where music was pushing in tandem with culture and art.

Reading Rolling Stone as a young person, I saw how that magazine always synthesized its content with amazing artwork (Steadman, Kunz, Burke!). It gave me the experience of turning a page and not knowing what was coming up next.

I’ve shared some classroom critiques with SooJin Buzelli and now I’m on Team SooJin. When people look back at this decade I hope they’re seeing how she inspires so many artists to push boundaries, not by being shocking, but invoking a mythic narrative in the art.

Alissa Levin and Point Five Design, who were the progenitors of Nautilus’ identity, have been my magazine spirit animals for the past three years. I continue to collaborate with them, and come back with a teaching moment from each experience.

The art direction at Lucky Peach is sensational. Richard Turley broke lots of rules gloriously at Bloomberg Businessweek. I love everything Nobrow publishes—it makes me inspired to see such attention to the craft. All those designers and directors from the Times! Matt Dorfman! Alexandra Zsigmond! Nicholas Blechman at The New Yorker. Jeez!

What a time—I hope everyone is goddam reading.

Since I’ve been at Nautilus, I’ve gotten to know many illustrators, which makes answering this question difficult. I recently worked with Gérard DuBois on the July/August issue cover. Gérard is one of a handful of illustrators I’ve directed who always calls me to discuss an assignment. We talk about the concepts in art, stresses of protecting work, our kids...these conversations make me feel connected and even more responsible for the success of the work.

I was a student of Jonathon Rosen, and now I’ve worked with him for seven or eight years on various adventures. I’m sure he hides a secret in every one of those illustrations. Yuko Shimizu makes me sweat on assignments; you just can’t work harder than her. Steve Brodner’s linework kills fascists. Eleanor Davis, Chris Buzelli, Federica Bordoni, Jon Han, Angie Wang, Brian Stauffer (he illustrated the current cover of Nautilus, pictured at top)...your artists are your children; you can't like one over another!

Ellen Weinstein has taught me a great deal about my role. She sets a high bar on what would be the ideal expectations for an illustrator: tight sketches, prompt replies, eager for comments, but willing to defend her decisions. And of course, delivering fantastic results.

Julia Breckenreid delivered what I feel is a quintessential Nautilus piece this year for a profile about a forgotten scientist named Walter Pitts. There’s both revelation and loneliness in the pose, and these emotions also bounce back and forth between the flatness and depth of the composition. And bloody great colors.

Nautilus is a deep-dive into science, so when I assign an illustration, I’m looking to fasten a story that makes the focused reading so compelling. This is not always evident until we’re thick in the article, so I try to encourage flexibility in many solutions. Science appears to be hard facts. In truth, the most assured thing you will encounter is another question.

Through all this examination, we try to create illustrations that will stand up on their own, and have meaning and story outside of the article to which they were assigned. We hope to create artwork that will last and continue to tempt new insights and curiosity.

I make sure to look at every piece of mail and email that comes to me, but when I’m cruising… I’m looking at Tumblrs, Twitter, design sites like Illustration Age, Colossal, Design BOOOOOOM...I’m constantly checking the credits on my favorite magazines. And I have met some great people by word of mouth.

Once I have an illustrator in my wheelhouse, someone I’m interested and watching, I really wait for that “right” assignment to make sure they’re working at their best, whatever the quality is that leads in their work. I occasionally play opposites (assigning the “happy artist” the article on depression), which is a little riskier but can often yield amazing results.

I feel incredibly lucky to have come into magazines at a time when boundaries on what is unconventional or alternative seem very porous. I don’t think I would have ever imagined what this role was going to be like.

If you’re coming out of school or starting in a new career path, embrace your ignorance; enjoy the fact that you are learning as you go. Don’t assume you know the answer, and don’t be afraid to try out your own solutions. The people who might hire you are eager to see a new solution. Take any meeting you get, and then, follow up. Once you get the door a little open, don’t let it close again!

See more work by Len Small, plus updates, here:
Len Small website
Nautilus website
ICON illustration conference