Dan Smith, WSJ Art Director Profile
posted: April 2, 2008

Dan Smith's lifelong love of illustration is gratified by working as an art director at The Wall Street Journal, where he collaborates with some of the best in the field. But having entered the business in a digital world, he missed getting his hands dirty. Bookbinding and designing the old fashioned way -- with paper and pencil and movable type -- has satisfied that urge.

“I kind of came into art direction through the back door, because I was very proficient on the Mac and that’s where I was making my money, with the Mac skills, working with designers and constructing everything for them. I wound up down here at The Wall Street Journal doing some freelance work for them and it seemed like a respectful place to work – very different from some other publications.

“I’ve always loved illustration. I’d go to museums and shows to see various illustrators and when I started here at The Journal 12 years ago I had an opportunity to work with some of these people and it was such a big thrill.

“I went to art school, and after I got my two year degree in Connecticut I came to the city and started taking drawing classes at the Art Student’s League and design classes at the School of Visual Arts and things like that. But you always had to make a buck, so I was doing photographic retouching for a living. And then when the Macs came I just jumped on.

“When I started making a living with the computer, I really missed using paints and brushes and keeping my hands busy like that, and it became more of an effort to take drawing classes. I learned a lot about design working on the computer but something was missing.

“In the past few years I’ve gotten into bookbinding and design. When I was learning design at school it was all on a computer: I never had the experience of drawing on a full sheet of paper to figure out how I wanted to put together a layout; you had to set up the grids and do everything on the computer. The computer is a fantastic tool, but to get a greater grasp of the concept, you want to go back to the pencil and paper and draw out what you want the layout to look like. It’s nice to have a big piece of paper in front of you and to draw out what you want to do. Then you can approach it on the computer again in a different way.

“I’m working on a few book projects, which include doing the actual bookbinding, design and printing with letterpress. One is a personal project, a limited edition ABC book that I’m printing on a Vandercook. I’m also working with Randy Enos on his Mocha Dick project and it’s a fabulous book. I’m also doing a book of Joe Ciardello’s portraits of blues singers ...wonderful, wonderful drawings. It’s a thrill to be working with these artists, seeing their drawings.

“Art direction for a newspaper has got to be quick, it’s gotta make an immediate connection. Society of Newspaper Designers gave a seminar with Bob Newman of Fortune magazine. I was especially interested in what Newman had to say since we cover the same territory. He starts off shaking his head and says 'The daily is tough; real tough to do original work.' I’m thinking, 'Shit, I know that. You gotta give me something, Man. Come on.” Eventually the seminar was very helpful, but when you come into work in the morning without a concept or story and have to spin something out by the end of the day, that’s tough. It's a challenge.

“Sometimes we’ll get a request for a same-day illustration and all it says 'We need an investor-type in a bank vault with no cash'. You get a sense that the story hasn’t fully developed yet but you still need to get going with the assignment. With things like this, we’ll try to glean out some more info before getting an illustrator going in the wrong direction.

“The Journal has a motivated reader, and art directors in the daily have to make sure the illustration engages the reader and identifies the section, as well as follows the story’s content, and doesn’t get in the way of it. For some stories you want to signal the reader that this is a lighter piece, so you use a somewhat cartoonish, funny illustration. Using a more straightforward portrait might indicate it’s an interview. But mostly you have to avoid the disconnect between the story and the art; if the reader is looking at the headline and it doesn’t quite match up with what the art is, they might just turn the page and keep on going. So you are just really trying to avoid that big discrepancy between the story and the art.

“Digital rendering has really changed the look of illustration. It’s more of a graphic look, it’s a cleaner look. You can’t get so much expression, but it’s great if you’ve got something that needs a lot of type or if it’s just a very simple action that you are trying to portray. The painterly things are, again, a little signal to the reader that it’s more of a fleshed-out piece, that it’s taken a little longer. The photo illustrations are just great, because they can really convey the concept very quickly and just basically slapping on a face into one of these environments and you are done. And people can get very expressive with those collages.

“My favorite things to assign are the ones that are a little bit more of a challenge; they can be more rewarding when you hit the right note. It’s very difficult to predict what the editors are going to like; it has to go through a number of editors and everyone’s sensibilities are different. So you just don’t know which way it’s going to go, but when you hit the right note it really works out well.”