Nautilus: The Best Editorial Illustration Showcase of 2014
Nautilus describes itself as “a different kind of science magazine.” Published quarterly in a beautifully-printed edition, it’s an impressive 190+ page journal of modern science and culture, packed with a mind-blowing array of top-flight editorial illustration. The magazine is designed and art directed by the very smart Len Small, who earlier this year designed the American Illustration 33 book annual with Esther Wu.
Small has quickly established Nautilus as one of the top venues for editorial illustration. Both Christine Curry at The New Yorker and Patrick Flynn at The Baffler have edited and curated a brilliant mix of illustration over the past year, and I’ve also seen a lot of great work via Dean Abatemarco and Marti Golon at Reader’s Digest and SooJim Buzelli at Plansponsor. But I think hands down, Nautilus has been the best editorial illustration showcase of 2014.
Small’s illustration choices are diverse and surprising, a thoughtful mix of new and established talent, of well-known names and relative unknowns. If there’s one thing that unifies the Nautilus illustration aesthetic it’s an affinity for work that displays style and technique. In that sense it reminds me a lot of the illustrations seen in The New Yorker. Small gives his illustrators room to work, without over-editing, and also gives them a lot of real estate in the magazine. The pieces are rich and relaxed, running as full pages and spreads, and are printed with beautiful production values and rich colors. Nautilus has quickly become the most exciting go-to location for finding amazing illustration talent, with each issue acting as a catalog of the best contemporary editorial artwork. It’s a prime argument (if any was needed) for the continued vibrancy and importance of printed editorial publications as a showcase for illustration and other visuals.
The design of Nautilus is the perfect compliment to the memorable artwork inside. It’s simple and elegant, with white space and clean typography that makes it an easy read and a perfect showcase for the brilliant images that fill the pages. Small credits his art team for much of the magazine’s success: “Nick Garber is our senior designer and keeps us plugged in to any innovations—he keeps the design sharp. Francesco Izzo is our many-hat-wearing designer who also produces wonderful illustrations and keeps us fashionable and continental.”
In the following short Q+A, Len Small gives some insight on his work at Nautilus and his own personal history.
What was your background before you started at Nautilus?
I came to New York 18 years ago hoping to play music in my country-rock band. I spent over a decade learning design by doing whatever work I could get, eventually designing at agencies and taking on my own freelance projects. I knew I wanted to move into content, and fortunately was able to study at SVA’s MFA Design program and got into editing and curating books and blogs.
From there, I found my first magazine art director position at Tablet magazine, a Jewish news and culture website, which was also starting up when I arrived. I met some fantastic illustrators during my time there like Jonathon Rosen, Steve Brodner, Vanessa Davis, and Daniel Hertzberg, and it gave me a taste of what could be done with the medium.
How did you decide to make your format so illustration-based, and what has been the response?
The best thing that has come from our illustrated covers is the love! It feels like many readers are glad to have this unique treatment out in the world. Our readers are great fans and send us pictures with their magazines—with friends, on vacation, with their cats. I think some illustrators are honestly surprised we’re continuing to run this way.
There are a lot of science magazines that use illustration, but our conceit is to push against what looks like “science” as much as possible. We’ve used a beaker on a cover once, just once.
I must give props to the publisher, John Steele, who had the vision for an illustrated science magazine from the first conversation. I like the fact that our aesthetic is out-of-step a bit—the covers feel like something plucked from another era.
My experience at Nautilus has been overwhelmingly positive—the illustration community feels vibrant and connected to the zeitgeist right now, and I’m lucky to have been able to connect that to science.
How would you describe your overall design aesthetic, in terms of how it fits in and influences Nautilus?
Alissa Levin and Point Five Design have been part of the Nautilus graphics team before I started, and introduced me to the publisher. They created the logo and magazine template, and essentially were our creative gurus for the first year, and continue to consult and help us with new developments. When Point Five Design was developing the cover with us, the approach was to keep the cover clear and understated, much like the website. The issue’s themes are the only elements on the top third. We keep the theme numbers ongoing, so there’s a continuity with the website—some big nods to National Geographic here.
The artwork is also a big player, and I have so much love for the artists who have endured with us to bring us these amazing images. I’ve been lucky to work with some monstrously talented people, and they’ve tolerated the process as I’ve gotten more secure in my direction.
Overall, the aesthetic is: Do we need it? Does it have to be there? What could take its place? If you stare at a page for a while, do you still like it, or do you start hating everything? Nautilus is a long-form reader at heart—can we keep your attention while not undermining the accuracy of science and truth of the story? Can the artwork start the dialogue in your head? And will you come back for more? Yes, please, thank you.
What do you look at for inspiration?
As a longtime music fan, my first love is the album cover. The Beatles of course came first, Peter Blake, then Hipgnosis, 4AD… so many great jazz, country, blues albums. The art director at Matador gave me one of my first jobs in New York—they were doing amazing covers in the 90s and 00s. The recent book on Alex Steinweiss is remarkable.
In the past year, of course I’m looking at magazines intensely. Lucky Peach is giving me that giddy-WTF response that I remembered from some other favorites like Spy and Nest. Richard Turley, Sarah Gephart (Modern Farmer), Irene Gallo, SooJin Buzelli, Robert Vargas, just to name a few, are art directors I’m following. The New York Times is in a fantastic moment right now of art directors using smart and stunning illustration. I love the Oxford American… straight out of Conway, Arkansas!
Below are some of Len Small’s favorite illustrations from the 2014 issues of Nautilus, plus comments on each. We’ve also included two recent Nautilus covers.
(Top): “Ellen Weinstein is the top of my list for many reasons, one of them is her professionalism… she delivers the best sketches. The easy choice here is the cover for our Summer 2014 issue.”
Winter 2015, illustation: Ralph Steadman.
Fall 2014, illustration: Chris Buzelli.
“John Hendrix was our very first artist, and continues to amaze and surprise me with every assignment. I’m building this veggie knight suit at home.”
“Gracia Lam is a powerhouse—I love that she can go Gucci glam and then deliver something so absolutely bizarre yet accurate like this bacterial cosmonaut suit.”
“Gaby D’Alessandro took on the challenge of Darwin, and blew my mind—we commissioned both sketches she submitted! She ended up doing a series of science portraits for a botanic garden in Italy based on this piece.”
“I’d love to see Miko Maciaszek get more action in editorial—just look at the sublime, simple color on this piece on light and technology.”
“I took a class with Jonathon Rosen early in my publishing career. He always pushes the dial towards the macabre with a smile…”
“Marcos Chin... Willie Wonka meets symmetry physics and math. Love.”
“Nautilus was running a serious story on Bigfoot, which is actually a fascinating debate on null hypotheses. I really wanted the best monster possible, and I had seen Jeffrey Alan Love’s Grendel and knew he’d bring it.”
“JooHee Yoon‘s artwork is so absolutely stunning. I loved watching her wrestle with a serious topic (reviving the dead!) and bring both gravity and grace.”
“I had been waiting to give a juicy assignment to Steve Brodner for a over a year…. It’s not enough for Steve to get the portraits of Lincoln and Einstein right, he’s fastidious with the story as well.”
“NEVER EVER EVEN is Eleanor Davis and Katherine Guillen. They work in different cities, and send the artwork back-and-forth until they get to the final. They delivered a Shakespeare piece that is so strange and yet pastoral.”
“We do actually use photography too! Andrew B. Myers made this image about treating PTSD with memory-blockers. It’s deceivingly simple, until you stare at the edges.”
“Finally, Tim O’Brien. I threw him this challenge, in one question: “Could we build the duck-rabbit illusion in a hyper-real painting?” And so it went…”