Day in the life of an art editor

Nik Spencer, senior illustrator

What’s a typical day like for an art editor at Nature?

As with most roles at Nature, a weekly publication, there isn’t really a typical day. What we do varies depending on the time of the week, the projects that we’re working on, and schedules and deadlines. The core part of our role is to design and produce visual content for the journal, both print and online. Every art editor tends to work across a few different sections, so there’s a variety of graphical content that we’ll be working on each week.

The News section, for example, usually contains charts and maps, with the occasional infographic; News Feature graphics tend to be larger and more in depth, with the occasional infographic special; News and Views tend to be more scientific, and our aim here is to illustrate research paper topics in an easily digestible way for the non-specialist reader. We also have broad-ranging Comment graphics, a weekly ‘trend watch’ chart and occasional Careers and Tech Feature graphics. These all need to be prepared for the print issue and the website, and adapted for social media. Aside from in-house graphics, we also commission conceptual artwork from external illustrators for most of the magazine sections.

The process of producing a graphic for the magazine section varies greatly depending on its type. Broadly speaking, all relevant data and content will be discussed between the artist and editor, and then we’ll take this information away and research it further. This could involve anything from deciding how best to present data, to extensive further reading and planning. We’ll then put together a draft, which is honed over time; the time this takes can vary from just a few hours for news, to a week or more for features. We’ll receive feedback from editors and authors, and produce (sometimes countless!) iterations in which we improve the artwork and layout, until it is polished enough to be checked by the subeditors.

Aside from producing graphical content, all the sections need to be laid out through the week, and the content has to be checked and passed for press in line with our schedules. We have a team of media editors, who research images and produce video and motion content for the website and social media, and a dedicated team member who specialises in rich media and interactive web content. We also have artworkers who process and style the back-half research figures to Nature’s high standard.

As senior illustrator, as well as producing graphics I spend a lot of my time each day advising editors on figure content for reviews and research papers. I meet regularly with News and Views editors to discuss their figures, to advise them on how best to represent the concepts of the research papers that their reviews are covering. Similarly, I advise authors and editors of back-half research papers on their figures, and direct members of our team on how best to produce these.

I am also in charge of ‘figure integrity checking’ — in other words, examining research figures for signs of image manipulation or panel duplication, both during the paper-acceptance process, and post-publication. I liaise with editors about problems with figure content, and advise on ways of resolving figure-integrity issues.

In the magazine section, I work regularly on News Features — usually those that deal with more complex scientific topics and require explanatory infographics. These can cover anything from quantum mechanics and astrophysics, to cell biology and genetics. When the opportunity arises, I produce illustrations for features, the occasional Nature cover, and supplement covers.

A fairly recent addition to my role has been producing Nature’s cartoon, ‘Quirks of Nature’, which I try to do each week (if I have time!) so that it can go out with a Nature Briefing and on social media. It is a fun, single-panel cartoon based on ‘anything science’. This is an enjoyable departure from my usual work, although the process of coming up with ideas can be both time-consuming and painful! But once an idea has been prised from my brain, the pleasure of drawing the final cartoon begins. Each of these is then approved (or not!) by a panel of senior editors, before it is finished for release.

What do you enjoy most about your day?

Each day I enjoy learning about the latest advancements in science, and how we’re going to be involved in representing those through our work. I enjoy the process of researching content, conceiving ideas for graphics and illustrations. But, generally, I enjoy how unpredictable each day can be — you never know what you might be working on next! And, of course, I enjoy working as part of a great team, one that works together so closely.

What has been your most memorable experience working at Nature?

I’ve worked on Nature for more than 15 years, so over that time I’ve had the chance to see how the journal has developed and changed. Being so involved in its visual content has made this all the more memorable. I’ve had the chance to speak at a couple of conferences, and I once got to visit some theoretical physicists at a local university to discuss the intricacies of a feature graphic on space-time. But generally, working with so many fantastic people over the years has brought with it many great memories.

How many other art editors work on Nature?

In our team, we have an art director, Wesley Fernandes, four other art editors (Paul Jackman, Jasiek Krzysztofiak, Claire Welsh and Chris Ryan), five media editors (Lizzy Brown, Tom Houghton, Amelia Hennighausen, Jessica Hallett and Agnese Abrusci), plus one full-time (Jennifer Burns) and two part-time artworkers — all led by our creative director, Kelly Krause, who works across all Nature-branded titles.

What do you find most rewarding about your job?

It’s hard to pick out just one thing — but, as for all the designers in the team, the satisfaction of producing a piece of work that you’re particularly proud of is hard to beat. For me, that could be a cartoon that is especially well received, or graphics or illustrations that are part of a major discovery or development in science. But overall, what’s most satisfying is the sense of pride in the content we produce — knowing how important our graphics and visuals are in conveying the latest discoveries in science to our readers.

If you'd like a bit more info, take a look at our Nature graphics blog. It contains posts about Nature covers, graphic specials and graphics in general, with descriptions of processes, sources of inspiration and the challenges we face when producing artwork.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d42859-019-00107-y

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing