Crisp lines for key messages: an interview with illustrator Judith Carnaby

Judith Carnaby's illustrations are full of friendly smiles, clean lines, and intricate patterns. The warm aesthetic of her work belies the hard graft that goes into unpicking and distilling complex data and information — the bread and butter of her illustration job at design agency Gusto in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington.

In this, the second in our artist series of interviews, Judith chats about her path to illustration; the evolving relationship between accessibility and illustration, digital and hand-drawn; and how to build a community when you’re a freelancer.

Thomasin Sleigh: Judith, can you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to be an illustrator?

Judith Carnaby: I've always worked in the creative fields. I studied contemporary art at university, and then I worked in the arts in a gallery in Christchurch where I grew up, and in Auckland after that.

Judith Carnaby - Self Portrait

Judith Carnaby - Self Portrait

Then I abandoned everything and moved overseas. I traveled around South America and moved to Berlin. Travelling was an opportunity for me to get back into the practice of drawing, which I left behind when I started working in galleries. And I loved it! I made travel journals of South America and it was a creative, productive time for my drawing practice. When I landed in Berlin with a backpack on my back and not really many other plans, I always had drawing to fall back on, but it wasn’t a money-earner.

I majored in sculpture at university and am quite handy with tools, so in Berlin I found work in film set construction and set dressing. But I always kept up drawing as part of my practice. I was making observations of life on a little blog and a friend of mine loved it and commissioned me to design the label for his new drink – my first official illustration commission! After that people started commissioning me for illustration work, and I figured out, “Oh, this could become a paid career for me.” It took about three years until illustration and design became my full-time job.

Label design and illustrations for "Berliner Winter"

Label design and illustrations for "Berliner Winter"

I lived in Berlin for eight years, and during that time I met all kinds of other illustrators and did a lot of research into illustration. Because I’d never studied it I felt like I needed to do some of that education myself so I created a blog researching illustration, and asking illustrators how they work and what they do. By the time I left Berlin, I was also working as a freelance lecturer in illustration at Design Academy Berlin.

When I moved back to New Zealand I worked as a freelance illustrator and tutored at Victoria University. Then I had a baby and, at the end of my maternity leave, I joined Gusto as an illustrator and designer. That's where I've been for the last two years.

TS: It's interesting that after doing your visual arts degree that you went back to drawing — drawing was not at all a part of your undergrad degree and your visual arts training.

I wondered, where did drawing sit in your visual arts degree?

JC: I did a lot of drawing at art school, but it wasn't what I would call illustrative — that can be a somewhat problematic term in the fine arts… if something was too obvious or describing what something actually is. I’d say people were discouraged from doing anything too ‘illustrative’. So when I say coming back to drawing, it means drawing for communication rather than drawing for research or abstract expression.

TS: Are there illustrations from childhood that particularly resonated with you?

JC: I read picture books to my three-year-old and there are some books that I was read as a child and these spark almost physical memories. Things like The Tiger Who Came to Tea, with Judith Kerr’s illustrations. I have this almost physical response to those, even though I must have read them when I was three, too.

Another moment was in London at the wonderful Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration. There is a room in the museum where they show originals of his work, and when I was visiting they had works from The Witches by Roald Dahl. I had such an overwhelming response to them — these gnarled, scratchy witches that he had illustrated. It was just so evocative; it gave me the shivers, seeing them again.

TS: Looking through your work, it is very varied, but there were a few words that came to me around your style: clear, crisp; all the limbs in the hands were very elegant and smooth; all the people’s faces are warm and friendly. There’s a real fluidity in the way you illustrate.

How would you describe your style?

JC: I work in illustration for communicating information rather than organic, expressive illustration, say, for a children's book. My work is really about clarity of information so it's  bold, strong colours and lines, trying to be as clear and engaging as possible.

I work across diverse projects and for different clients, so that necessarily impacts the way I illustrate. But it still comes from me, my personality, so there’s no doubt a similar approach that I take to all my work. Also my style has changed over time, and that's also partly from learning more techniques or using different tools. When I created that first drink label, I drew everything by hand, using a fine tip pen. 

TS: What tools do you use now? Is there any relationship between your analog and digital work at present?

JC: I'm generally working in Adobe – Illustrator and InDesign as our work at Gusto may get shared around different designers in the studio and potentially to our clients. It needs to be quite adaptable and will often be used across multiple platforms, so if the illustration will be both social media and billboard size, then you need to make it in a way that will do that, and that is usually digital. Digital tools have improved so much that you can make a lot of digital work look as organic as you want, with it still having the flexibility of digital work. But there's something that I still love about the feeling of pencil on paper; it's just so tactile.

I work on a lot of animation at Gusto too; script editing, storyboarding, and illustration. In that process there's a strong analog-to-digital work stream. I start storyboarding by hand, sketching out ideas. It's a great way to get rid of all the rubbish ideas! After the rough sketches I move to creating more refined storyboard frames in Procreate on an iPad because it saves labour. After that it’s illustrating those frames in Illustrator, which then gets animated. One of the tools that I’d like to explore in this area is Grease Pencil, a tool developed for Blender, the open source animation software. You draw in 2D, but on 3D shapes or in a 3D environment, which can then be animated. Terrible name, but interesting tool!

TS: How has your relationship with data evolved over time and in your illustration work? How do you approach distilling complicated information into something simple?

JC: This question is basically the entire crux of my job! People don't usually see the process that goes on between being given a spreadsheet of data, or a Word doc of bullet points and trying to turn that into an engaging story and clear communication … That's where most of my work happens. Making it look colourful and engaging at the end is the easiest part.

Illustration and animations for Ministry of Education | Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga

Illustration and animations for Ministry of Education | Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga

We specialise in this at Gusto and we start by figuring out the most important and interesting information, because ultimately people don't need all of the data that they can be given. They need to know key messages and be shown those in a way that is clear to understand. I use colour, scale, shape, and space to show information and relationships between information. And with illustration you can tell a story, represent people or create an entirely new world. Illustration can replace words and reduce jargon, but it can also be imaginative and emotive to connect people with the content and support the information in that way.

TS: That’s so interesting. I wondered if you worked on the medical workforce burnout piece for Gusto.

JC: Yes I certainly did!

TS: There’s an image of a doctor standing upright and one doctor standing next to them who’s just flopped over, sagging from the waist. Their position just totally captures the feeling of burnout. 

Image excerpt from "The hidden cost of health care" - ASMS | Toi Mata Hauora

Image excerpt from "The hidden cost of health care" - ASMS | Toi Mata Hauora

JC: The key part of visualising that statistic was using two people to support the ‘one-in-two’. By using one upright and one flopped over doctor, you get a visual representation of the number in a way that really tells the story of doctors’ experiences of burnout.

TS: I wanted to talk a little bit about maps because you've done quite a lot of work on maps and wayfinding. For example, all the lovely work you did for your neighbourhood in Berlin with all the local sites. What tools do you use to make maps and illustrate them?

JC: Maps were quite a big part of my work in Berlin, like the project you’re thinking of, the Neukölln Schatzkarte (Neukölln treasure map).

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It was really nice to illustrate scenes that the people who live there, or who might be visiting, really recognise and resonate with. It wasn’t necessarily the places, but the people on the map – they were really diverse like the people you'd see around Neukölln; I made sure to include people I saw around the neighbourhood.

I worked on another big series of maps with Visit Berlin, and did many illustrations of sites of Berlin. On the weekend, I'd bike around to see some of these sites to see if I was getting the right feeling for them. I loved this, because I got to go out and see more of Berlin and I wanted to capture the diversity of people, places, and sites.

Zoo Illustration for "Visit Berlin"

Zoo Illustration for "Visit Berlin"

TS: In your work for Gusto, or with those maps, whether you test stuff with people, do you show things to people and say, does this make sense to you?

JC: I don't think we did much with the maps, but generally speaking, it's great to test illustrations if possible because you want to ensure that people see themselves or connect with the illustrations you're doing. Especially with representations of people or special cultural elements. Unfortunately for a lot of projects there's not often the scope to do such testing. I think often for websites there's a lot more user testing that goes on and then the graphics and illustration are part of that, and also for accessibility. 

One of the things that we're always working on at Gusto, and I hope all illustrators are working on this, is to make diversity and representation a part of everything that we do. As an illustrator it is one of the most important things you can do because you are visually shaping the world and helping people see themselves. If you're illustrating people or places that people might recognise, or especially if you're doing work that has any kind of cultural connection across different audiences or ethnicities or population groups, do your research!

TS: I noticed that Gusto is a fully female workforce. In your research, have you looked into the role of women in illustration?

JC: We do like to have a diverse company! But we’re happy as an all-women team at the moment. Personally as a woman with a young family, being an illustrator in a company led by women who are very empathic, has been incredibly supportive for me.

Image from "Suffrage 125 Whakatū wāhine" for Ministry for Women

Image from "Suffrage 125 Whakatū wāhine" for Ministry for Women

When I think about the history of women in illustration, there have been a lot of fantastic female illustrators! Although I think there were challenges in equity, as in many fields. It makes me think of a survey by the illustration union in Germany of their members, probably six years ago. They surveyed all of the different areas that men and women currently worked in illustration: which parts of the industry, their pay and conditions… The majority of male illustrators worked in advertising – the field that was paid the most – and the majority of female illustrators worked in picture book illustration – the area that was paid the least. So even though the number of men and women illustrators was pretty even, men were getting paid considerably more. So there’s still a bit more to research about the history of women and their roles in illustration, as well as current equity in illustration!

TS: I was wondering about collaboration. You have organised the Drawn Together events where illustrators would get together and make work and discuss their practice. Was that in response to working as a freelancer and working mostly on your own?

JC: Yes absolutely. I was really fortunate in Berlin in the final few years that I was there, and then when I landed back in Wellington, to be in really great studios with other creative workers. So even if I was working on my own projects, I still had friends and studio mates to chat with and also, importantly, talk about my illustration work and get feedback. 

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I started Drawn Together as I felt that for illustrators there weren’t many events, or opportunities to talk about illustration with other professionals. Drawn Together was an excuse to have a beer with colleagues, to ask questions, and do silly parlour games like Exquisite Corpse. For me, it was a really lovely opportunity to get together and share knowledge, and gripes, with other professionals.

TS: I have a few questions just to wrap up. What excites you about the future of illustrating and illustrating for digital stories?

JC: I think there’s still so much space for illustration to grow in digital storytelling. One area I’m interested in is the future for illustration and accessibility — they don’t seem to go hand in hand very easily. As I understand it currently, an image doesn't often get included by a screen reader so it removes a lot of depth and interest from people using that tool. It’s an area I’d love to learn more about — how to make illustration as accessible to as many people as possible. How can we innovate in digital storytelling, image making and communication? Particularly as an information designer, when we're trying to make information as clear and engaging as possible. That should also mean as accessible as possible. For the future of illustration for the web, I think that is probably an area where illustration needs to develop. Web developers are able to create graphics and animations in code, so I’d like to learn more about illustration that's built in code.

TS: Finally, Judith, what illustrators do you really love and follow and why do you love them?

JC: I mostly follow my friends because I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of really interesting illustrators over the years, and I keep in touch with their lives and work. My old studio mates Robin Davey, Heather Gatley, Bárbara Fonseca, Amy van Luijk… There are lots of famous illustrators on Instagram and I enjoy illustrators that have a bit of a sparkle in their eye, and make me laugh… Jean Julien, Olimpia Zagnoli, Emiliano Ponzi, even David Shrigley. But I’m mostly interested in people I have connections with, and seeing their work develop over time.

Beyond social media, it's always motivating when you see a beautifully made print, comic or a new picture book with incredibly immersive illustration work. One of the most interesting parts of illustration is how diverse it is and how it impacts people’s lives in so many different ways, from billboards to toilet paper, that’s what makes it such a powerful medium.

All images courtesy of Judith Carnaby and Gusto design.