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  • Nancy Soulliard

Strengthening storytelling with distinctive illustrations

Working with illustrator Sara Tyson brought a unique perspective to a feature story on listening

There are many ways to visually tell a story. Sometimes photography or graphics are the right direction. With other topics that are more abstract, illustration enhances and brings cohesion to a story in a creative way. Illustration often tells a story in an unexpected, unique way, brings a depth to the story and gives the audience a broader view of the subject.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a few different talented illustrators. Most recently, Sara Tyson illustrated our feature for the Bridge about the Art of Listening which explores how people can listen in ways beyond just audibly. I’ve admired her work for years and this was a perfect opportunity and project to connect with her. Her contribution and creativity won our team a 2021 UCDA Award of Excellence.

After we published, I asked Sara a few questions about how the process went for her and where we could make improvements along the way to strengthen the creative director/illustrator communication. It was great to get her perspective so that I can improve the process each time I work with an illustrator.

Pre-planning, preparation and process

As our first issue of 2021 was in the planning stages, my editor, Anna Seip, and I discussed the upcoming feature story. In this story, our alums and faculty described a variety of perspectives on what listening meant to them. The best way to tie these stories together with cohesive visuals was to use illustration. After following a number of creative illustrators over the years, I suggested a few whose style fit the theme and we agreed on Sara Tyson. Her abstract, natural style fit beautifully with what we were envisioning.

I reached out to Sara with the key details I had:

  • Who Messiah University is

  • Our alumni magazine, The Bridge’s, circulation and size

  • What our specific needs were (cover, feature and 4 spots.)

  • Timeline - Sketches in about 3 weeks, lock in the sketches within about a week and final images within a month.

We agreed on a price (thankfully, it fit in the budget!) and we were off!

Creative flow and idea generation

Projects requiring illustration are often more visually loose than those that need specific photography. Once I give the illustrator the stories, I like to hear their thoughts rather than begin with a prescription for how it should look. After all, I’m hiring them for their creativity! And Sara agreed. She said “Sometimes, an art director can have a very specific idea to be fulfilled by the illustrator. I don’t mind taking direction, but if I get a gut feeling that the illustration is going down the wrong road for me, I try to catch that in the beginning and see where it goes from there. I don’t think that art directors will get the best results from me in those cases.”

Sara prefers to get as much information upfront as possible. “I am always open to ideas from both the editor and the art director. I also think that it is very important to get a synopsis of what direction they would like the illustration to go. I will always explore my own ideas as well as exploring theirs. My initial take on a concept is very analytical. I absorb the story and look for the most obvious metaphors. The concept continues to evolve in a more visceral sense throughout the various sketching stages. It is not until I get to the stage of these rough sketches that I get a really good idea of whether my idea will work or not” Sara describes.

" Illustrations are a true collaboration between art director and illustrator." –Sara Tyson

For this story, Sara suggested “A bird became a patient surrounded by caring hands for the counseling spot. A bird became the voice in the ear of the conductor for the music opener and 3 overlapping birds became the voices of a choir or an orchestra for the music spot.” Our editorial team loved the idea of using a bird to metaphorically connect all of the types of listening.

As Sara said, “Illustrations are a true collaboration between art director and illustrator” and that was evident throughout this process. Sara was open to my suggestions along the journey that helped her realize the final details of each illustration, including the use of a noisy bird— a parrot — in the illustration about the deaf and hard of hearing.

Exceeding expectations

Sara’s unique and complex illustration style requires time to perfect. Her technique is time-consuming and her illustrations can take anywhere between 20 and 40 hours depending on the size and complexity. Thankfully, we had some buffer room on the final deadline because she needed an extra day for her illustrations to be perfect. I always try to plan breathing room into the schedule just in case there are some hiccups along the way.

Her final illustrations exceeded all of our team’s expectations. They were visually rich and added a deeper visual interpretation of the theme. They truly complemented the text of the story and drew the reader in. With such a unique issue of our magazine, I entered it into the UCDA Design awards competition and was excited to hear it received one of only 178 Awards of Excellence in a competition that includes design work from colleges and universities all over the country.

Want to see the full issue? Check it out at or the online edition at

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