Studio at work: Drew Litowitz on musical illustration 

Meet one of our Senior Designers in our New York studio, Drew Litowitz who has joined us from Pitchfork, a publication at Conde Nast that specialises in music. We interviewed him to understand his design process and how he brings his learnings from his previous life into Wolff Olins. 

Why musical editorial illustration? How did you get into it?

I’ve always been interested in music, music writing and illustration. I used to do music reviews for live shows and albums when I was in college for a blog called Consequence of Sound, which wasn’t popular at the time but now is a bit more well known. I interned at design studios, had full-time jobs, and was still going to shows and writing reviews all at the same time. When I started to think about what my career could be in the long run, I felt like becoming a music journalist might not be the most viable long-term. That’s when I went to RISD to get my MFA in Graphic Design and decided to make design my main priority. 

Six years after I started blogging about music, I was chatting with a friend of mine who had been art directing at Pitchfork, and the next thing I knew I was designing for them. I have been reading Pitchfork for my whole adult life and always had a kind of crazy dream to work for them. My favourite thing about working there was the experimentation, having the freedom to make aesthetic choices that might be a bit outside the norm. The intersection of music and editorial felt like the perfect fit for me in that context. 

Where do you draw your inspirations from? 

There’s a lot of designers I follow, especially many from Bloomberg Businessweek, Braulio Amado, Tracy Ma; who was at the New York Times and is very subversive and witty in her kind of style; Richard Turley, and other friends and studios that I follow and respect a lot. But mostly, leveraging the inspiration by crafting editorial illustrations that I would have liked to have seen when I was reading Pitchfork everyday.  It's about leveraging inspiration from some of the more experimental publications and taking influences from what’s happening in the world. I also love to tap into very cheesy, kitschy designs such as infomercials or low-brow designs. I think experimental music comes from that same space of people not really knowing exactly what they’re doing, and so creating designs that are influenced by the music: experimental, punk and lo-fi were ways I could try to speak directly to the music.

What work are you most proud of? 

There were a few because I challenged myself to learn a few new styles every week. I wanted to learn this 70’s airbrush illustration style, some photo collage techniques, but I always think back to this piece that I created of this musician Sophie, who passed away last year. Sophie was an iconic electronic music pioneer and I wanted to create a portrait of her, and wanted it to look very angelic and dreamy. It was really hard because I questioned if I was the right person to create this image of her just because she meant so much to people. I questioned whether I could pull it off because it is generally hard for me to capture people’s likenesses. It took a lot of time, effort and patience to bring it to a place where I felt comfortable with it. That is one of the pieces I’m most proud of because of how much heart and effort I put into it. 

In the world of illustration, how would you want to transform it for the future?

I think mixing high-brow and low-brow design in a way that’s very craft-forward, nuanced, and sophisticated in its humour. I think that having illustration be a balance of fun and playfulness with being very smart in its own right is what is often missing. It can help make things more attractive to read and it brings a kind of energy to even the driest of topics. The great thing about art direction is that if you widen the scope a bit, you can create so many different types of emotions in the readers. If you’re only focused on branding things super consistently, sometimes it can get very monotonous. 

Is there anything you’ve learned from your past experiences that you continue to leverage at Wolff Olins?

I think bringing a sense of naivety to spaces that are normally quite polished can help bridge the gap around why some organisations are necessarily capturing new audiences today. I like creating energy that is unexpected and unfinished looking - things that don't look final as a way to bring people into the process of creating the work. I feel like that kind of design aesthetic also brings a type of energy and unexpectedness that helps people feel more of a sense of wonderment when you look at an illustration. 

I also try to encourage my fellow Wolffies to draw inspiration from everywhere even if it's just in the sketching phase. How do we draw inspiration from everything - from the strange and trippy designs out there to scientific journals that had interesting experimental visuals. It’s about being less restrained in the design process, embracing a little bit of the weird. 

What advice would you give to your younger self or someone else that’s looking to get into editorial illustration?

I would say be patient and always try to come to presentations with an explanation that you believe in and will resonate. Not just explaining your process but more so understanding who it is you’re communicating with, so that you’re better able to speak the language of the people you’re communicating your ideas to. You have to meet people where they are. 

You can see more of Drew’s illustrations at https://drewlitowitz.com

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