Joe Newton of Rolling Stone
posted: September 6, 2007
Outside the offices of Rolling Stone....
After spending 16 years touring with a punk band, Joe Newton, deputy art director at Rolling Stone, decided he better find a way to make a steadier living.

"I’ve been in punk bands since high school, and part of the tradition of underground music scenes is to draw your own posters. I would always draw everything pretty obsessively into late hours in my bedroom during high school, furiously scribbling with my double zero rapidograph; the kind of small chicken scratching where you pull back from the drawing and realize that you’ve only done about two inches of it in an hour and it’s like, 'Now I have to cover the rest of this piece of paper with that same density'. But that’s what I started with and I kept doing that all the way. The last poster that I still have in my book that I did all by hand was probably from like ’94 or something and then after that it faded out pretty quickly, just because it would take 25 hours to do a poster.

"I was in a punk band, Gas Huffer, for 16 years, so I wasn't able to have a real job or a career path because it had been too broken up with the touring. I was getting to the point in my life where I thought, 'I need to get started on a career because I'm getting older and I can’t rely on being in a weird underground rock band to support me in my dotage'. An opportunity came up to get a job as an ad designer at this news weekly, The Stranger, in Seattle, which is pretty equivalent to The Village Voice if you took Vice Magazine or The Onion and smashed it in there, with a lot of sophomoric humor. Actually, the guy who started The Stranger came from The Onion originally. Anyway, a job came up there, designing ads for 40 hours a week and I said, 'Okay, I’ll take that, just because I’ll have benefits and I’ll be expected to work fast, which will be a good challenge to just crank through a whole lot of stuff, designing 20 or 30 ads a week for the paper'. I did that for a year and a half and when the art director position came open, I said, 'I can do that,' and I convinced them that I could and they believed me and so I did that for four and a half years.

"I wound up at Rolling Stone through a process of coming out to New York a lot, showing my illustration portfolio. I’d been coming here since 1985, just visiting, because I really liked the city. I always felt that I would eventually move to New York, because it’s the center of the art world. Or used to be. I had met quite a number of art directors, and I was starting to think,  'I should be showing my work as a designer and not as an illustrator; I really like design work and it’s a lot more viable as a profession and I could have a day job.' So I started really pushing that and meeting and greeting people just in the hopes of eventually making the connection with somebody and they’d say, 'Hey, by the way, we have a job and maybe you want to come work here'. About three years ago I met Amid Capeci, who was the art director at Rolling Stone at the time, through a referral from Florian Bachleda who was at Vibe who I had met when I was showing my illustration book.

"I enjoy art directing. It’s problem solving–sort of like you have all these puzzle pieces to fit together and how do you best communicate the information and how big is the illustration or photograph and which photograph do you choose and what kind of type face and all that kind of stuff.

"What I don't like as much are the deadlines, the stress, the waiting game, the editorial trying to squeeze out as much time to do their end of the work, where you have this absolute deadline and it has to go to press and your time window gets smaller and smaller ... it’s always that same battle that they will kind of cheat you out of precious time and then you have your back against the wall and work 10, 12 hour days.

"I use illustration usually when there isn’t a good lead photograph. If there’s a good photograph we’ll probably run it. In this current era we’re in, editors tend to be pretty literal. And especially if it’s a true story, the editor thinks a photograph makes it look like this is a real story that happened to real people. And I think there’s some truth to that. But at Rolling Stone we have a lot of true crime stories that might use illustration more than photography. Like right now we’re working on a story about these punk gangs that killed a couple people in beatings, and there weren’t journalists or photographers there for the incidents. So in this case, illustration is really handy.

"I have a very specific aesthetic and at The Stranger I was able to do anything I wanted. I just picked somebody if I liked their work: I’m using you, here’s the assignment. But we had no money to spend, so you had to give them pretty much total freedom, which produced some fantastic results. At Rolling Stone there's already an existing aesthetic and Jann Wenner, the owner, publisher, editor, whatever, he has a very hands-on approach to things and he’s really interested in illustration, but he also has a very specific idea of what he does and doesn’t like. I would say he likes stuff more in the tradition of what you see in Communication Arts or the Society of Illustrators or something, which is very illustrative and very well rendered. Which I certainly like and appreciate, but sometimes I find a little limiting, because I think there’s things you can do with line and color and so on that are expressive that a more controlled rendering style will suffocate a little bit.

"Many, many samples come across my desk that I think are great, but that I have no use for because they're styles that I'm not allowed to use or they don’t relate at all to the type of editorial work that Rolling Stone does. That happens a lot, and it’s good for illustrators to keep in mind that it doesn’t mean your work is bad, just because somebody is not interested in using it. You just have to be patient and persistent.

"I'm very critical of my own work. I tend to pick apart everything I do. Having been at Rolling Stone two years, I have only four layouts in my portfolio that are from those two years. And that’s putting out 25 magazines a year. Part of the reason for that is that since there is a need for design consistency, the layouts tend to be very much of a piece. There’s a certain design style that the art director wants, a certain number of type faces you can use. And it’s a formula to a certain degree so you're not going to end up with a huge amount of variety. Even though there are a lot of designs that I was pretty happy with, there’s only a few that transcend to the point where I’m like, 'Yeah, that was pretty perfect.'"