An Interview with GOOD Guy Brian Rea

An Interview with GOOD Guy Brian Rea

I met illustrator/designer Brian Rea a couple of years ago when he did some cool illustrations for a special travel section in Bon Appétit. Recently, Brian was the guest art director for the award-winning GOOD magazine, "an entertaining magazine about things that matter." Being a loyal subscriber to GOOD since its inception and a big fan of Brian's work, I took the opportunity to have a conversation with him about his past, present and future. Here he tells us all about the creative process behind the last two issues of GOOD, risking his life at the office, and why he thinks L.A. doesn't suck.

Hi Brian! Why are you in Sweden?
There is a great snack the Swedes have called Skaagen- shrimp mixed with mayonnaise and dill, spread over toast. That alone is worth the trip. Besides that, I'm here working on personal work, illustration projects and preparing for an exhibit in Barcelona while Mary attends a digital media arts program at HyperIsland.

We have worked together on occasional editorial illustration projects, but I wanted to talk about some the the art direction work you've been doing in the past year. Particularly the last two issues of GOOD magazine, where you were a guest Art Director. Sounds like a great gig! I'm really interested to know what it was like.
I've been a big fan of the publication since the first issue, both in content and design (especially the work Scott Stowell and Open had done). Initially when I met with Casey Caplowe the Creative Director we just talked about what we thought a magazine could be like. How to tell multiple stories through an issue, exploring new directions for image making, but without 'assigning,' or 'illustrating.' My hope was that a reader could experience the magazine on multiple visual levels that ran parallel to the content instead of simply 'illustrating' it. Casey and the editors over at GOOD seemed really cool about these ideas. So that was our hope anyway on the last two issues (The Water Issue and The GOOD 100).


Well I really like how different the approach is to both issues. Tell us a little about the process, working with Casey and the design team at GOOD.
There are no office spaces at GOOD so you're a part of every process and every meeting- a totally collaborative environment of ideas and information. Everyone gets involved, editors down to interns. Casey is amazing to work with. He is very process oriented and he motivates everyone to think before designing. When he brought me in one of the first things he asked me to do was a presentation on 'unconventional image making.' I think these two issues show a bit of that spirit.

I worked closely with Atley Kasky the senior designer (and co-curator of He's an amazing designer, curator and thinker and he handled the heavy lifting on each issue. Will Etling was our 'closer.' He shot both covers and inside images, handled most of the charts and informational images we did in-house and was a wizard with the cut paper objects. Anna Simutis who had recently moved out to L.A. from NY was our design angel who we brought in at just the right moment and helped finesse all the layouts, deal with pages for production, kept us moving in a NY way but with a light touch.

Amrit Richmond was our photo researcher, found all our water issue props and was our culinary snack queen. Plus our interns did a lot of imagery for each issue. It was great to see them getting involved as well.

Wow, sounds like a total team effort. The artwork for The Water Issue was almost entirely illustrated by you. That's sounds pretty cool, but also like a lot of work. Did you have a lot of creative freedom?
Casey gave me no restrictions on the visuals at all- if anything he pushed for more experimental imagery. I have to say, in the 3 months I was there I don't think I ever heard the word "No." He and I both wanted the art to drive the flow of the issue and we tried super hard to avoid the obvious. Our budget was tapped so we did what we could to fill in the gaps with our own work for sure. Honestly, I think between me, Will and Atley we probably did an equal amount of the illustration. We were willing to use just about anything we could to keep that hi-lo feel. At one point, we tried to track down a Venice Beach airbrush artist to create an image of Atlantis (the fella never returned our call so we did it ourselves).

The GOOD 100 issue recently came out. I love that the majority of the illustrations are made out of cut paper...seems like it would have been so much fun! Did you all work on that as a group?
Yeah it was a bit like art camp. Once we settled on doing it all in cut-paper and in-house we set up a giant work desk with cutting stations and a lot of extra blades glue and paper. We worked as a group for about a week, then people would help during lunch or boyfriends would stop by and make say a paper satellite. It was pretty wild to see a drawing become an object. 'Best of...' issues tend to suck and designers hate working on them for a variety of reasons, but Casey and I were convinced we could make a strong issue- especially for the first GOOD 100. We wanted something totally cohesive and seamless, not boring or list like. In the end I was happy with how it turned out.


It turned out great! How long did it take? Were all the pieces photographed in-house as well?
Longer than I thought. The paper objects took about 2-3 weeks. We brought in 2 cut paper artists Jared Andrew Schorr and Ana Serrano to help us out for a day or two, but nearly everyone in the office made at least one. All the designs were based on sketches I worked out or we discussed around the table while working. Colors and style we kept a close eye on, but really it was up to each person to figure out the engineering. Will Etling shot all the objects in-house as well as the cover, which took us about a week to build, style and compose.


Well all that worked paid off. It's definitely a unique issue and one I'm going to keep. You were an Art Director for the New York Times for 4 years. How did working on GOOD differ from your experience at NYT?
They're two totally different organizations. One is a small circulation magazine where the average employee is probably mid- 20's. The other is one of the largest newspaper/ information sources in the world where the average employee is NOT in their mid-20's.The pace is also VERY different. Op-Ed closed 2 pages every day (4 on Sunday) and commissioned roughly 800 pieces of art each year. GOOD is a quarterly magazine. Made for two very different cultures.

I imagine the working environment and structure at GOOD to be quite different than NYT.
Obviously GOOD has less distance to fall. It is a young organization and can be more innovative because of the nature of their content. The office functions more like a lab where ideas can be exchanged without all the egos. Really great environment for creativity. There is more collaboration and discussion about ideas and design and conversations go both ways instead of top down.

GOOD has some pretty awesome parties too.
Indeed. But I have to say, the work day has its light moments as well. One story: GOOD recently moved into a new space- a raw two level warehouse with a massive hole cut out of the 2nd floor. We spent the first week trying to figure out if it was possible to broad jump across it. We measured it, went outside and taped it off then spent the next 20 minutes trying to stick our landings. The results: our senior web editor Andrew Price probably would have cleared the gap. The rest of us would have been killed.

That's hilarious... sounds like a great environment. Have you worked on other socially-conscious projects?
Yes. though mostly as the illustrator. Working at GOOD made me feel like I was participating in something bigger, something that might help affect change hopefully. That's a great feeling to have on the drive to work.

Speaking of driving to work, didn't you move to LA from NY less than 2 years ago? What's your opinion of living and working in LA versus NY?
Yes a little over a year ago. I had been in NY for 11 years- so I did my time. I moved to L.A. to find a better balance between living and working that I wasn't able to create for myself in NY. Here I have the studio plus I'm surrounded by beaches, mountains and the desert.

I would think it might be difficult to find a tribe of illustration and designer peers in LA, coming from NY?
No question L.A. takes time to develop friendships- you're not on top of everyone else like you are in NY so you don't have that constant interaction. You have to make an effort. I was lucky. My girlfriend lives there and I knew a few people so I had a soft landing when I
arrived. They helped me get hooked up with a great studio, a teaching gig at Art Center and Martha Rich even threw a bbq for me. Nice when a city gives you a hug.

So does LA get a bad rap?
Not from me... your environment is what you make of it, so make it good. I love living in L.A. Great weather, surfing, on street parking---it's amazing. That's my rap.

I recently went to Apartment Number 9 in Beverly Hills and saw your framed pencil portraits. I really loved them and they look great in that context. What are your feelings about being a fine artist vs editorial illustrator vs designer/art director? Is your approach to design reflective of your illustration style?
Thanks. I get this question a lot. I think as our industry has changed and the nature of image making and the dissemination of images has changed, viewers, readers and curators have become more comfortable with artists having multiple roles. I realize they have different end purposes, but hopefully my work reflects the things I see and experience and love. Honestly, I see them all the same. There is no switch I hit when I go from one to the other or at the end of the day. Whether as an illustrator, designer, artist or art director the one constant in my approach is to be a storyteller.

You seem to be traveling a lot. What can we look forward to seeing from you over the next few months?
Lately I'm doing more work in series and working larger. I just completed a book with Paul Dickson called DRUNK that's out now- super fun project I worked on with Kelly Blair. Sixty of the drawings are on display over at Melville Publishers in DUMBO. In January I'll be taking part in a mural installation exhibition in Barcelona at the Joan Miro Foundaccion.

Sounds like some great projects. Who or what inspires you and keeps you motivated?
I respect a ton of illustrators, designers and artists, but the stories I have to tell or the problems I'm asked to solve as an art director are way more inspired by family and friends and by observing the things I pass on the street. I find if I keep lists of the things I observe each day that's more than enough inspiration. I have a lot of lists.

I love lists! OK, one last question. With the state publishing is in right now, with all the closures, what do you think is the future of magazines?
Oh man, I'm not sure, but I like that things are getting shaken up. Money, technology, environment, politics...people are scared. But I think some of the most creative work is done in climates of change.

images courtesy of Brian Rea and GOOD,

  • robert rendo

    Brian is especially inimitable when it comes to infusing originality and simplicity in his work and those he directs. I had the good fortune to illustrate for the letters section of the N.Y. Times back in 2007 when he was art director for the Op-Ed page. Brian's mantra was "not too many symbols or components" to a drawing, since the pithy expression of an idea had to target a reader within seconds, and too many elements would compete with each other. I have since stuck to that lens, thanks to Brian, and have had enormous success in further publications.

    Brian ability to maintain graphic focus in his art is unmistakably a hallmark of artistry and power. I hope he can lend his touch to Time magazine and Newsweek.

    -Robert Rendo

  • Corliss Elizabeth Williams

    What an inspiring interview!

  • Scott Dadich

    Terrific post, guys! Thanks for the insight.

  • Martin Gee

    freakin' awesome. wonderful interview and insight into one of my favorite innovative magazines. what a creative and collaborative environment and spirit! it's really inspiring (and depressing). i've had my share of "100" issues (3 this year) and 2010 will be quite interesting. thanks GOOD and SPD!

  • Mike Solita

    Great interview -- GOOD blows my mind whenever I see it. Fun to see a little of what goes into those issues. (More interviews like these plz!)

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