MEET CHUCK KERR, ART DIRECTOR AT VARIETY
Sometimes the best way to equip yourself with the tools to succeed in your field is to just jump in head first and learn on the go. That's how WNW Member Chuck Kerr got his start as a magazine art director in his hometown of San Antonio: "I was a 22-year-old, one-man art department with almost no freelance budget to work with and a weekly magazine to put out. To create 52 original covers a year, I had to experiment, improvise, and stretch my creativity every single week. Best education I ever received, hands down."
Chuck tells us how he winded up as Art Director at Variety, a perfect fit for his diverse skills, one of which is working with constant, tight deadlines. Chuck also offers a glimpse into his creative process: "I feel like once you crack the core idea of what the story is trying to say, every other design decision becomes easier — the concept tells you what to do. When something ultimately clicks for me, hopefully this means it will click for the reader, as well."
As a creative and hirer, Chuck shares some great advice for creatives looking to work at Variety. "If you want to get into the weekly magazine world, you’ll have to be flexible and fast. As much as I may want extra time to do tons of research, make mood boards, take nap breaks, and workshop something until it’s perfect, the deadlines never stop coming. Having confidence in your abilities and knowing to trust your gut are valuable skills when turnaround can be so quick."
Tell us a little bit about your creative background. Who is Chuck Kerr and how did he get here?
I grew up in San Antonio, Texas and was always really into drawing, comic books, and music. When it became clear that being the next great Marvel artist or a famous drummer wasn’t going to work out, I gravitated toward writing and designing for my high school and college newspapers. As an undergrad, I interned at my hometown alt-weekly, the San Antonio Current, before becoming their full-time art director in 2006. I was a 22-year-old, one-man art department with almost no freelance budget to work with and a weekly magazine to put out. To create 52 original covers a year, I had to experiment, improvise, and stretch my creativity every single week. Best education I ever received, hands down.
After six years at the Current, I was more than ready for new challenges, so in 2013 I moved to Seattle to launch some new Pacific Northwest travel magazines for Sagacity Media. While I loved living and working in the PNW, an out-of-the-blue offer from Variety was too good to pass up, so I moved to Los Angeles in 2014 and am back in the world of weekly magazine deadlines, only now on a much, much larger scale.
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all of your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?
With every project I work on, whether it’s editorial design, logo design, comics, or whatever, I am always looking to get a gut-level, emotional response from the reader. The reaction I’m aiming for is always somewhere between “Wow!” and “Oh, of course” — the sweet spot where something is simultaneously a total surprise but also satisfyingly obvious.
One of my favorite parts of the job is coming up with visual concepts for complex or thematically rich stories. I feel like once you crack the core idea of what the story is trying to say, every other design decision becomes easier — the concept tells you what to do. When something ultimately clicks for me, hopefully this means it will click for the reader, as well.
In general, my personal style tends to lean toward bold, graphic ideas, without too much extra ornamentation. Sometimes it’s a matter of putting too much stuff on a page and then editing it down, removing elements until what’s left is absolutely essential. That being said, I do have a pretty healthy sense of humor, and enjoy slipping in small details when they add something without distracting from the overall package. For example, I recently did some freelance work for Seattle Met magazine, designing a fun feature story about Sasquatch hunters. On the very last page of the section, I replaced the page number in the folio with a tiny silhouette of Sasquatch — so after several pages dedicated to how elusive this creature is, readers get a little Sasquatch sighting of their own. That was a fun one.
I am always looking to get a gut-level, emotional response from the reader. The reaction I’m aiming for is always somewhere between “Wow!” and “Oh, of course” — the sweet spot where something is simultaneously a total surprise but also satisfyingly obvious.
You’ve been an Art Director at Variety for more than two years. What separates Variety for you? How have you seen its identity evolve from within in recent years?
Variety is a legendary brand that has covered the entertainment business for over 110 years. Our readership is primarily people in the industry, so we focus on news and analysis rather than celebrity gossip. While its core mission has remained constant since its early days, Variety has survived turbulence in the print industry by changing with the times, evolving from a daily broadsheet, to a weekly newspaper, to its current form: a perfect-bound, oversized magazine, which launched in 2013.
Back when I was interviewing, creative director Chris Mihal sent PDFs of back issues for me to check out, but I was truly blown away when I got physical copies in the mail and saw how much care and attention went into each issue. Between our high production value and routinely working with the best photographers and illustrators, the Variety art team is committed to making the print edition as beautiful as it is informative.
Variety is a legendary brand that has covered the entertainment business for over 110 years. Our readership is primarily people in the industry, so we focus on news and analysis rather than celebrity gossip.
Which of your projects for Variety are you proudest of and why?
I’m proud to be designing for Variety each and every week, but there are a few projects where I felt like I brought something unique to the table.
Not long after I started, Variety had a cover story about the so-called “Morning Show War” between NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.” We obviously couldn’t photograph the anchors, so we had to go conceptual for the cover. I came up with the idea of having two coffee mugs — one with the “Today” logo, one with “GMA’s” logo — smashing into each other like “Monday Night Football” helmets, hot coffee erupting everywhere. Then when you opened up to the feature spread, both mugs were cracked, standing in puddles of coffee with steam rising up like on a battlefield (I think I even namedropped “Saving Private Ryan” during the original pitch). Craig Cutler and his team in New York shot everything practically and captured the carnage beautifully. People always assume it was created digitally, but nope — real coffee, real mugs.
This year, Variety did an issue devoted to “Hollywood and Politics.” For one of the feature story illustrations, I proposed that we pay homage to the famous Richard Nixon Esquire cover by George Lois — only instead of Nixon getting ready for his close-up, it’s Donald Trump. Illustrator Anita Kunz did such a great job that we all had to agree it should be promoted to the cover. Even though it’s got one of my least favorite people on it, it’s still one of my favorite covers.
Another cover I’m proud of is much more recent: our 2016 “Global Issue,” which looks at how the entertainment industry is doing across the world. Instead of doing a traditional illustration, I had the idea to model the entire cover on a U.S. passport, complete with gold foil lettering and a custom seal which was designed by La Tigre in Italy. I always love when print publications take advantage of the fact that they have a physical form, and I especially love the idea of a film executive with a huge Variety-size passport on their desk. And who can resist gold foil?
I’ll listen to music related to the story I’m working on as a way of getting “in tune” with it. For instance, a recent cover story on “La La Land” had me listening to Chet Baker and the Bill Evans Trio, and a feature on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” was mostly designed while listening to Can and other psychedelic ’60s groups.
What’s your general process for designing Variety features? Do you research the individual and project, or work entirely from the text?
For me, it starts and ends with the story. We cover everything from media mega-mergers to Oscar season, to filmmaker and actor profiles, and everything in between. Each feature layout has to reflect the subject and tone, but also fit in with our overall aesthetic. Ideally, I’ll have the story in hand to read before designing, but sometimes time constraints mean writing and designing happens more or less simultaneously. Any original photography or illustrations will obviously have a big impact on what the pages look and feel like, but when time permits I also try to do my own research into the subject in case it triggers any design ideas.
My officemates know I tend to wear earbuds pretty much all day, but what they might not know (nerd alert) is that occasionally I’ll listen to music related to the story I’m working on as a way of getting “in tune” with it. For instance, a recent cover story on La La Land had me listening to Chet Baker and the Bill Evans Trio, and a feature on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice was mostly designed while listening to Can and other psychedelic ’60s groups. I don’t do it all the time, and I have no idea if this makes a huge difference to the final product. But it’s fun to think that it does, even if only in the smallest way.
Who and what are your biggest creative influences?
There is so much inspiring stuff in the magazine world right now. I’ve been a longtime fan of GQ and Wired, and most recently have gotten into Condé Nast Traveler since Caleb Bennett took it over. Mike Solita’s newly redesigned Fortune looks amazing and is currently being passed around the office, and we also regularly share copies of Leo Jung’s always-great California Sunday Magazine. T.J. Tucker and his team are still putting Texas Monthly into a league of its own when it comes to city/regional magazines. I love what WNW Member Claudia de Almeida does at o Banquinho, especially her stunning type treatments and her work for San Francisco Magazine. Benjamin Purvis’s redesign on Runner’s World made that book a must-read; their front of book section is really inventive and cool. I loved what Chris Skiles was doing back when he was creative director at Houstonia, and Jane Sherman and Sara D’Eugenio do an amazing job designing Seattle Met every month. (Follow Sara’s Instagram dedicated to cool magazine design: @arteditdesign!) I think Tim Leong and company are doing incredible work at Entertainment Weekly. EW has a smart, fun energy and all the hidden Easter eggs consistently reward sharp-eyed readers.
Finally, an all-time favorite would have to be Richard Turley’s run on Bloomberg Businessweek, which was a master class in how to be innovative, authoritative, and clever. He really helped give that magazine a strong voice. BB comes up in the office on a regular basis.
I also still try to keep up with what alt-weeklies are up to, like The Stranger in Seattle. I might be biased, but I feel like alt-weeklies are great talent incubators and a lot of my favorite designers built up their chops at alt-weeklies.
I’m a big fan of the alternative comics work of Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Charles Burns, Jillian Tamaki, Eleanor Davis, Dash Shaw, and Chris Ware just to name a few. Many of these artists also moonlight as editorial illustrators, and are on my wish list to work with some day.
Speaking of comics … while not exactly a graphic design textbook, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics was a very, very early influence and detailed how ink on a two-dimensional page can create a three-dimensional, emotional response in a reader. I feel like every designer (and editor!) should read this book, it has a lot of great things to say about the relationship between words and pictures, and what is a magazine if not a bunch of words and pictures?
Having confidence in your abilities and knowing to trust your gut are valuable skills when turnaround can be so quick. One thing that makes it all easier: The Variety art team is a great creative group that genuinely enjoys working together.
What advice can you offer to creatives hoping to work at Variety? What can they expect from Variety’s creative culture and what would it take for them to succeed there?
If you want to get into the weekly magazine world, you’ll have to be flexible and fast. As much as I may want extra time to do tons of research, make mood boards, take nap breaks, and workshop something until it’s perfect, the deadlines never stop coming. Having confidence in your abilities and knowing to trust your gut are valuable skills when turnaround can be so quick. One thing that makes it all easier: The Variety art team is a great creative group that genuinely enjoys working together. I feel very lucky to work with collaborators who actually know how to collaborate. We all strongly believe in putting the work first and egos second, and letting the best idea win, because — hey, guess what? Then everybody wins.
What do you look for in a creative portfolio that is unique to Variety? Any tips for creatives to breathe life into their portfolios?
“Be undeniably good.” That was Steve Martin’s advice on how to succeed in comedy, and I think it applies to pretty much everything. The Variety art team sees tons of portfolio websites and we look at tons of magazines, and the artists that stand out the most have strong, unique voices and distinctive styles. We tend to go after people who are very consistent because we always want to have a pretty good idea what the final piece will look like before we hire them. If you’re someone who dabbles in several different aesthetics, it might be a good idea to focus on just one or two styles so art directors know more or less what to expect when they reach out to you. We usually don’t have time to go back and forth with an illustrator for several rounds of revisions, and if that did happen, we would probably avoid that person forever.
A couple other things: Check out what kind of work gets published in your favorite publications or websites, and if you fit in with what they already seem to like, feel free to submit your work to them. Blind submissions (“Hello sir and/or madam…”) tend to be less successful. Also, if you’re still building up your portfolio, personal work or fan art can be fine — especially if it has a really unique point of view — but we mostly want to see if you can tell a story visually. So one thing you could try is taking a pre-existing story and creating your own illustration for it. Even though it’s unpublished work (and make sure to label it as such), it will demonstrate that you can create art in service of a specific story, which is what you will be doing 99% of the time when illustrating for editorial. Bottom line: Make the kind of work you want to be hired for, and if you’re persistent and consistently good, you’ll break through.
What’s next for you?
We are going to head into a short publishing break while we gear up for early 2017 — specifically Oscar season. I’m hoping I’ll do better on the office Oscar pool this year; last year’s was rough. (How could Stallone not win for his work in Creed? How?!)
What do you do when Not Working?
“Not Working” isn’t something I do very often, even when I’m not at work. In 2014, I founded a monthly collaborative zine night at Meltdown Comics in Hollywood, based on a similar event I used to attend in Seattle. Melt-thology is an inclusive, social, creative space where artists of all skill levels get together and draw a one-page comic or illustration that I collect into a monthly zine for contributors. We average about 40-50 diverse artists per Melt-thology issue, and it’s been really inspiring to see the growing community that has sprung up around it.
The other thing I do, but have been taking an unintentionally extended break from, is play and write music. I’ve been playing drums since I was about 4 years old, and I also play the piano. I was pretty active in bands back in Texas and Seattle, and I’m hoping to go into the studio in early 2017 for my own songwriting project, Bad Breaks. Music is a big part of my life, whether I’m making it or watching it (or stuck in LA traffic, listening to it). My all-time favorite moment at Variety so far is meeting Brian Wilson at a cover shoot inside the studio where the Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds in the mid-’60s. At one point, Wilson sat at a grand piano and plunked out some chords while photographer Marco Grob shot amazing portraits. It was like getting a very small, very special concert from one of the greatest musical geniuses ever, and that’ll stick with me for a very long time.
Who are some WNW Members whose work you admire and why?
I’ve been in LA for over two years now, but I admittedly still haven’t made many connections outside of the editorial world. One of the reasons I was so excited to join Working Not Working was to have a resource for getting to know other creatives in this city, and elsewhere. I do know a few WNW illustrators like Joel Kimmel, Erin Gallagher, and Daniel Fishel, who all do great work. Erin does amazing pop culture posters and illustrations, and we both had pieces in a recent Broad City-themed art show at Meltdown Comics. I look forward to meeting more artists and creatives through WNW!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Go Spurs Go.