8 inspiring uses of editorial illustration

Editorial work is a staple for many illustrators. While it's rarely as well-paid as branding or advertising commissions, it's a chance to stretch the creative muscles and tackle a broad range of subject matters.

Illustration can visualise the most abstract, surreal and complex themes and concepts that photography would struggle with. It can fill any available space, interact with the copy, grab readers' attention and draw people into the story.

As our illustrator hotlist 2018 attests, the global illustration scene is booming – and editorial is no exception. Read on for our pick of eight particularly inspiring editorial illustrations from around the world.

01. Calum Heath: Cyber Bullying

Calum Heath: Cyber Bullying for VICE

To represent cyber bullying, Calum Heath used Facebook Likes as shark fins circling an isolated girl

Editorial illustration can represent powerful, emotional and also quite abstract concepts, as this piece by London-based illustrator Calum Heath demonstrates.

Heath specialises in editorial work, with clients including The New Yorker, the Guardian and MixMag. This piece for VICE, one of his favourites to date, accompanied an article about cyber bullying. 

In a clever symbolic twist, it transforms familiar Facebook 'Like' icons into foreboding shark fins, circling a girl. "The drawing was originally from life – an observational sketch of my younger sister on her phone," he explains. "I re-contextualised the drawing to make her seem isolated and in danger."

02. A. Richard Allen: Trump Wave

A. Richard Allen: Trump Wave for The Sunday Telegraph

Donald Trump's election victory sparked a flurry of political illustrations, including A. Richard Allen's Trump Wave

Political satire has always been a fertile breeding ground for illustration, and Donald Trump's shock victory in the 2016 Presidential Election gave plenty of ammunition to creatives around the world.

One particularly memorable example is A. Richard Allen's Trump Wave, for The Sunday Telegraph's Money section. Inspired by Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic painting Great Wave Off Kanagawa, the award-winning editorial illustration expresses the world's financial markets bracing themselves for potential impact.

“Hokusai’s Great Wave is such a beautiful and iconic image – it even has its own emoji – and it seemed apt to reference it when seeking a metaphor for a frozen moment of dramatic anticipation," explains Allen. 

“The Trump coiffeur as the breaking wave was a neat piece of serendipity. I had to make an oblique reference to the man himself, and chose his inimitable hairstyle.”

03. Helen Musselwhite: 10 Myths of Creativity

Helen Musselwhite: 10 Myths of Creativity for Dance Gazette

Helen Musselwhite's intricate papercraft illustration added extra depth and colour to this Dance Gazette article

Papercraft illustration has enjoyed a huge resurgence over the last decade or so, with leading proponents such as Owen Gildersleeve, Yulia Brodskaya, Helen Friel and Helen Musselwhite flying the flag with style.

Used in an editorial capacity, papercraft can add an incredible amount of depth to an article, although commissioners need to be clear and confident with their feedback at an early stage, and sign off roughs before the build begins, as even the smallest tweaks at the end can be a real challenge.

Helen Musselwhite: 10 Myths of Creativity for Dance Gazette

Musselwhite created two skulls to represent the joy of a great idea, and the disappointment when one doesn't come

One of Musselwhite's standout pieces, 10 Myths of Creativity, illustrated an article in the Royal Academy of Dance’s magazine Dance Gazette that explored popular myths surrounding the creative process.

She created a series of intricate paper skulls, using various weights of paper, to represent two extremes: “That lightbulb moment when you know you’ve nailed it, versus the crushing feeling of despair and insecurity when the creative juices aren’t flowing and you feel you’re on the edge.”

04. Simon Pemberton: The Blackest Isles

Simon Pemberton: The Blackest Isles for the Financial Times

Simon Pemberton captured the bleak, moody, stormy seas around the Shetland Isles for the Financial Times

Sometimes editorial illustration is as much about capturing the mood or emotion of a particular scene or place described in the copy, as it is about depicting it faithfully – which a photograph could do.

A winner at the V&A Illustration Awards 2015, Simon Pemberton's stormy, evocative illustration for the FT Weekend magazine accompanied a feature about the Shetland Isles, and perfectly captures the icy cold and thunderous skies during a stormy boat journey.

This extract from the article sums up what Pemberton was trying to achieve: “Last night… the ship bucked and tossed as if we were on a fairground ride... the gale has dropped outside and it has started to freeze. Weather is everything in Shetland… we always know which way the wind is blowing.”

05. Eva Bee: The Day My Brother Was Taken

Eva Bee: The Day My Brother Was Taken for The Observer

A book review in The Observer for The Day My Brother Was Taken was brought to life in style by Eva Bee's illustration

As well as communicating abstract concepts, editorial illustration is also fantastic for telling stories – there's a reason why the best children's books feature a collaboration between author and illustrator.

Eva Bee specialises in editorial work, with clients including The Boston Globe, Financial Times, the Guardian and Reader's Digest. This particular piece accompanied a book review in The Observer magazine: the story of a young boy who leaves home on his bike, and is abducted and killed in the woods.

Filled with foreboding menace, Bee's illustration draws you in, in classic horror style, communicating the eerie horror of the story without gratuitous violence.

06. Izhar Cohen: Burnout 

Izhar Cohen: Burnout for The Economist

Izhar Cohen visualised the risk of burnout using a sea of metaphorical matches for this article in The Economist

Certain publications rely on illustration to add colour and personality to topics that can be quite wordy, theoretical and not always immediately visual in scope.

Izhar Cohen created three illustrations to accompany an article about 'burnout' in The Economist's 1843 magazine, in which the author argues that the root of the problem lies much deeper than people simply working too hard.

Using a field of matches with subtle human faces as a metaphor, Cohen created a powerful image of what happens to the human mind if it's pushed too far. 

His full-page opener features a man chopping a lone matchstick with an axe inside a human mind, and risking setting the whole place ablaze when it falls.

07. Tom Dilly Littleson: Undead

Tom Dilly Littleson: Undead for WIRED

The terrifying nature of the rabies disease became a blood-red wolf in Tom Dilly Littleson's illustration for US WIRED

WIRED is famed for its stylish use of commissioned illustration, and work for the magazine is a portfolio highlight for many top creatives around the world.

To illustrate a 2012 story in the US edition about a girl with rabies who benefited from a pioneering course of medical treatment, the creative director at the time, Brandon Kavulla, turned to Australian-Spanish artist Tom 'Dilly' Littleson.

Tom Dilly Littleson: Undead for WIRED

Littleson's two illustrations were strikingly overlaid for the feature opener, representing the conflict inside the girl

Known for his realistic pencil drawings, and often visceral, gruesome and unsettling subject matter, Littleson represented the disease as a snarling wolf on a blood-red background, juxtaposed with a calm, sleeping image of the girl on pale cream.

Dramatically entitled 'UNDEAD', the article opens with a split version of the two images as alternating stripes, to symbolise the crossroads that the girl faced between recovery and descent into rabid madness.

08. Weapons of Reason

Weapons of Reason is published biannually

Weapons of Reason is published biannually

Picking up the prize for best use of illustration at the Stack Awards 2017, Weapons of Reason is the brainchild of London-based creative agency Human After All. Published "roughly biannually", the title aims to tackle the biggest questions of our time.

While many of the examples above are stand-out examples of particular articles that editorial illustration has brought to life, here we're featuring Weapons of Reason in its entirety, as illustration is such as fundamental part of how the magazine tells stories, from the cover inwards.

Weapons of Reason magazine

Halfway through its ambitious run, Weapons of Reason has mastered the use of illustration to explain complex topics

The first four issues explore climate change, the ageing population, the growth of megacities and the balance of power in the world – with four more to come over the next couple of years. 

Such huge topics require a deft touch to make them accessible and interesting, and the magazine's skilful approach to illustration helps translate even the most complex subject matter into bold, simple visuals.

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Nick Carson

Nick is a content strategist and copywriter. He has worked with world-class agencies including Superunion, Wolff Olins and Vault49 on brand storytelling, tone of voice and verbal strategy for global brands such as Virgin, Pepsi and TikTok. Nick launched the Brand Impact Awards in 2013 while editor of Computer Arts, and remains chair of judges. He's written for Creative Bloq on design and branding matters since the site's launch.