Kirk Benshoff Interview

Kirk Benshoff

Art Director, First Second

Tell us about your creative journey. At what point did you decide to become an Art Director & how did you arrive at your current role at First Second?

I had a very roundabout path to becoming an art director in Publishing. I earned a degree from Rochester Institute of Technology in Graphic Design. The school's design program was very studio-centric, learning about designers like Lester Beal, Alexy Brodovich, William Golden, Bradbury Thompson, and Massimo Vigelli. These were the designers who ran their own studios and ultimately worked in all areas of design including: branding, magazine, book, environmental, etc. We were taught what life was like for a studio designer, not the life of a designer specializing in any of those areas. 
When I left RIT, I had no idea where I wanted to work, and going “freelance” or starting my own business scared the life out of me. So, I just worked as many jobs as I could, as long as there was some challenge behind it. When that challenge passed and I lost interest, I would move on. All in all, the first part of my career I worked in almost every facet of the graphic design industry except one: Book Publishing. 
I am VERY fortunate (and forever grateful) that my then Creative Director Gail Doobinin and the folks at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers hired me. It literally changed the course of my life. It's how I met my wife!! As soon as I finished my first project, I knew I found my home as a book designer. For the first time in my career, I found work where every new project was just as exciting as the first. I love the process. I love the product. 
Over the course of my career at Time Warner and Hachette Book Group, I was fortunate to work at a few different imprints: LBYR, Yen Press, Orbit, and Redhook. I was able to get my hands dirty doing Kid Lit, Manga/comics, Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Commercial Fiction. 
The next significant step in my career was at Scholastic. I was very lucky to work under Ken Geist who made me fall in love with my career even more. Ken gave me something special by elevating the working experience to a place I didn’t think it could go, through humor, passion, and a love for a beautiful book. There was such a collaborative camaraderie in Ken’s team. We all worked through challenges together, made amazing books, and had a great time doing it!
At one point during my tenure at Hachette, I had interviewed for a Senior Designer position at First Second. I wrote Mark Siegel an impassioned email indicating how working at First Second would be a dream job. I didn’t get it, but knowing what I know now, Mark made the right decision. First Second had hired Andrew Arnold who was the perfect designer for the job. But when Andrew left to start his own imprint at Harper, Mark reached out when I was at Scholastic, and the rest is history.

Select three projects to share with our audience that you're particularly proud of.

This is a hard one to answer, because I don’t like to play favorites with my projects. But I will say Dragon Hoops by Gene Yang was a special project because of the hand of cards it presented and the path it ultimately took. When I started at First Second, this project was already late. I needed to pick this project up very quickly and get something designed yesterday. We had a design in the running, which we thought was a solid direction. But after some distance and great feedback, we decided to start over.
I had to dig deep and eventually came up with the current design. This was a journey and a VERY collaborative project, which is a big part of publishing. Publishing is supposed to be collaborative because it’s a collection of people who are experts in their field. It forced me to tap into ideas that I wouldn’t have on my own.
Once we settled on the cover direction of the basketball theme design, I needed to figure out how we were going to actually print it. A big part of the concept was to give the book a very tactile experience. I wanted Dragon Hoops to look AND feel like a basketball when the reader is holding it. It was a really fun challenge to construct the jacket mechanical to replicate that feeling of a basketball. I felt like a carpenter.
In the end, Dragon Hoops was not only a creative challenge but a technical challenge as well, all done in a compressed schedule. It was really hard, and very rewarding.

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Another project is A Map to the Sun by Sloan Leong. Sloan's artwork for this is just beautiful and perfect for the story. As soon as you experience the artwork, you're immediately transported to the hazy lifestyle of the west coast setting sun. There is this cinematic feel to her work that really plays into the tempo of the story as well. I can hear a soundtrack (haha... for me it was Ratatat and Kavinsky) with her pages as the story played out.

Sloan's colors are just bonkers. Her distinct palette sets the story perfectly in California and her use of color holds really propel the artwork into this otherworldly place. The palette changes throughout, not in a drastic way, as if you're watching a sunset. But because the colors of a sunset shift slowly, that subconscious association plays a role in the pacing of the story.

When we worked on the cover design of this project, I really wanted something that was going to echo the beauty of the interior and really convey the experience in an instant. After some back and forth to get an idea of where Sloan's head was at, we settled on the type driven cover where the type was integrated into the art. I could see the movement in this direction, as if it were opening credits to a film, and felt it was showing off the best parts of her art.

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Lastly, The Well written by Jake Wyatt with art by Choo was an absolute blast to work on. I've been a fan of Choo's work whose style rides this fine line of complex with lots of information yet feeling simple and effortless. When you look at Choo's work, you notice they use gradients sparingly and color blocks to define the elements in the art. Their distinct style sucks you into the story, because you get lost in the details hoping to find easter eggs.

I worked in Sci Fi/Fantasy for many years and Choo's style is such a refreshing stylistic contribution to the genre. Their visuals are just so fluid and effortless, paired with Jake's story.... I would find myself halfway through the book in what felt like a blink of an eye.

When we got working on the cover this was another challenge where it was important to showcase Choo's distinct style along with Jake's big fantasy adventure in a blink of an eye. Taking the old ornate frame and picture window book design style, we built on that to make Lizzy, our main character, look as if she's about to jump INTO the book itself to go on her adventure, making eye contact with the reader and pulling them in too.

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How would you describe the kind of artwork you're looking for at First Second?

I’m a big fan of cheesy phrases and I like to say, “I like to see art that not only goes out on a limb, but hovers next to the tree and laughs at it.” Nothing brings me more joy than when artists experiment, play, and have fun. You can tell they are enjoying the process when looking at their portfolio and the artwork feels natural and fluid. 
However, there’s a realistic side to the industry. Some art styles elicit a visceral response from the audience by being either dated or very niche. Being self-aware of your own art and knowing your style's place in the marketplace is important. Maybe your style is dated or very niche, but can you push it to make it work in some way? Can you figure out a way to elicit a new response through different character designs or color palettes? If so, that’s when artists are pushing the boundaries and creating cool stuff.

What is your all time favourite children's graphic novel and why?

This Was Our Pact is pretty much up there as one of my favorite children’s graphic novel. This book taps into my childhood of riding bikes and exploring the woods behind our houses, new and growing friendships, and owning my own actions. The artwork in This Was Our Pact is so beautiful and whimsical…. I’ve read it about 6 or 7 times and it never gets old. 

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The colors, the pacing, character design….. It’s just a magical story! I got my son into the book too, and we both love to go on our own adventures when we go camping.

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What are some of the most a) rewarding and b) challenging things about being an AD?

An art director does more than make a pretty design. Art Directors are overseeing projects, collaborating with artists, and often managing teams. One needs to develop skills beyond just good design. Communication is key. How do you talk with creators and try to get the best work out of them? How do you manage your team so they grow and develop their own style and voice? Organization is important too. How do you navigate all of your projects so there’s enough structure for your colleagues yet providing your creators with flexibility to work the way they need to? How do you do all of this and manage your own projects?  
The art director also needs to be a resource for creators in every way imaginable. Especially in comics, because there are so many ways one can create comics these days. Between different types of traditional media, a wide range of software, and creative drives to push the comics medium. The art director really has to be available as a resource for the creator. It could be helping figure out glitches in software. It could be helping the creator push their ideas so they’re getting more impact in their book.
Nothing (and I mean nothing) feels better than when you, your team, and creators are catching a wave of working together, bouncing ideas off of each other, and pumping out great books! There’s never a straight line from start to finish, so when an art director can get everyone to enjoy the ride…. That’s when everyone enjoys the end destination the most!

What should an illustrator looking to appeal to First Second include (and avoid) in their portfolio?

Include style(s) that look and feel developed with multiple samples of each style. Please don’t include random one-off images… that doesn’t communicate to me that you can handle an entire book. Only include samples that you enjoy doing, because if I ask you to work on a book in a style, I want you, the artist, to be stoked to do an entire book that way.
Having multiple styles is great… Just curate your selection. We’re not looking for a set number of styles. We’re looking for quality. So if you can execute your work in multiple ways, all of them you do really well, and have fun doing…. Flaunt them!

Aside from artistic talent, what are the most important skills for an illustrator to have?

To be willing to explore and play. On rare occasions, a solution presents itself right away. But many times, the best solutions require exploration. Opening up your brain to investigate and play is a skill set in of itself. Don’t lock yourself into a solution, because something extraordinary always presents itself after some searching. Remember, until we’re holding a book in our hands…. Nothing is set in stone. Use that time in the beginning to play and communicate what’s working and what’s not. Does that mean compromise? Yes, absolutely. But the best books come from artists who take the time to find that amazing solution.

Reflecting on your experience of being an Art Director, what have been some of the most important lessons that you've learned along the way?

The best products and books come out of collaboration. It’s important to remember that a balance needs to be had between the creator and the publisher. If a creator wants full control, they can always self publish. But if a publisher is fronting the capital to make an investment on your project, there are going to be expectations the publisher needs met. Working with the editor and designer/art director is important. Finding the best solution and communicating in an amicable/respectful way from all sides is key. Publishers need to remember that these projects are a creator's brain child and creators need to remember that publishers don’t work in a vacuum.

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

Easy, working at First Second. There is never a day that I don’t appreciate the incredible talent I get to work with every day. Not to mention, my colleagues are some of the most talented people in the industry who are genuine and have a heart of gold. As far as the comics industry goes, it’s filled with creators/contributors/readers who just love the medium. They love the craft of sequential art and are constantly pushing the art to new levels. Being a kid who grew up reading comics and dreaming of one day working in the industry, this job is very special to me. I’m very lucky.

Who or what has been your greatest source of inspiration?

As an art director, everything becomes inspiration. Everywhere I go, I’m looking at how different people use type, imagery, and what makes them tick. Depending on what kind of project it is and what that project is about, I need to understand how to best communicate that subject matter. That opens up the door for taking deep dives in different cultural worlds. It’s in those deep dives where you discover symbols and visual languages that you can use. Whether it’s New England folk art paintings to Basquiat, a film by Hayao Miyazaki to Bob’s Burgers, Blue Note album covers by Reid Miles to underground club fliers, watching The Great British Bake Off to Binging with Babish, watching a SpaceX launch to a crazy maker build with Mark Rober, listening to acapella by Pentatonix to thrash metal by Slayer. As an art director, the more culture you’re exposed to, the more you can understand what creators are communicating in their work. It's an endless pursuit, but one that never gets old!

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