IA Talks Illustration with Nautilus Art Director Len Small


(Illustration by John Hendrix)

On April 29th, Nautilus Magazine launched its very first issue as “a different kind of science magazine”. Art Directed by Len Small, and co-directed with Alissa Levin of Point Five Design (who also created their brand identity/mark), the first issue seems to live up to that mission statement immediately. On first glance, it’s obvious that Nautilus is a magazine about big ideas, or in their own words, “science and its endless connections to our lives”.

The other striking thing that hits you in the face right away is the extensive and impactful use of illustration.

Nautilus embraces illustration and its power to tell stories and explore big ideas. Here at Illustration Age, that’s the kind of thing that gets us excited. We had to know more, and so we decided to get in touch with the Art Director himself to ask a few questions about Nautilus’ approach to visual storytelling.

len-portraitILLUSTRATION AGE: Since Nautilus is a brand new publication, what can you tell us about its design philosophy/approach from your viewpoint as Art Director?

LEN SMALL: Science magazines have a great history of illustration. Much of it is used in support of complex scientific maps and infographics, or just to retread the awesomeness of space or microscopic insects. I love this type of illustration, and most of it is is fantastic, but our concept with Nautilus is to allow the storytelling of science to come out. Therefore, the artwork takes on a less literal role, and becomes more fluid and parallel to the story. We are looking at illustration that will not always be such a straight line, and instead gives the reader the space to be curious about the story, art, and their connection.

(Portrait photo by Allison Michael Orenstein)


IA: Your extensive use of illustration is so refreshing to see, especially when there are more and more stories out there about publications cutting illustration budgets, or even worse, about some Editors becoming wary or fearful of the use of illustration. What do you see as the role of illustration in Nautilus?

LS: When I first met with John Steele and Michael Segal (publisher and Editor-in-Chief), they were already enthusiastic about having illustration be the lead medium in our articles. Illustration supports our longer-form writings, and opens up the deck to the big ideas we’re asking the writers to explore. It makes the story even more connecting to a reader when they scroll back up to the art and go “oh!” We want to make those ‘a-ha’ moments in our magazine.


(Illustration by Victo Ngai)

IA: Could you describe your creative process when it comes to pairing illustration vs. photography with an article? How about pairing the right illustrator to each piece?

LS: We spend a lot of time on this question every day! The challenge for the lead art is “will it advance the article’s premise without being too literal?” That question becomes especially pertinent when debating between photos and illustration. I believe it is important to support a story with the best visual solution, and I’m happy with our photo quality as much as our illustration. That said, I realize that illustrations can bring the connection and wonder that you can’t always find in photography not commissioned for an article.

Another unique turn we are taking is having a lead illustrator for each issue. Each issue has a theme (our first issue is about Uniqueness, and our second issue will be about Uncertainty), we look for artists whose body of work seems to work into that theme. John Hendrix did a knock-out job with Issue 1, yet his style is quite different than Gérard DuBois, who is working with us on Issue 2. Having a single artist’s work helps bring out the story thread of a issue, in both look and tone. Still, we balance these lead artists with other fantastic illustration, so it’s not just one style you’re seeing in an issue.


(Illustration by John Hendrix)

IA: At first glance, Nautilus seems to be as much about ideas as about science. How much input do you encourage from the illustrators you work with in terms of bringing their own personal response to a project?

LS: The ideas in our articles are constantly brewing, being challenged, and full of paradox. Our illustrators get to play a part in this process, and we often share sketches with the writers to help with their inspiration (though we don’t let them art direct!). I hope that our artists are passionate about stories. The best thing I can do as an Art Director when I see an illustrator cooking along with their idea is get out of the way.

Special Thanks to Nautilus Art Director Len Small for giving us some insight on their approach to illustration. Be sure to keep your eyes on them to see what they have in store for us next!

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9 Comments on “IA Talks Illustration with Nautilus Art Director Len Small”

  1. May 10, 2013 at 10:12 am #

    Nice interview. I love the illustrations you chose to include.

    • May 10, 2013 at 12:13 pm #

      Thanks very much. They work with so many great artists that the choice wasn’t easy.

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