Folio illustration agency, established London 1976

Stephan Schmitz

Stephan Schmitz is an award-winning conceptual illustrator.

His work is striking in its simplicity, while offering an insight into complex topics. This ability has made him very popular with editorial clients, from New Scientist to The New York Times.

It all comes down to the idea, so we asked Stephan to give us a behind-the-scenes look at his working process.

Conceptual image making

How do you gain a better understanding of complex / technical material? 

With complicated texts on topics that I am not familiar with, I read through the material two or three times, so I have a summary of it in my head. If there are complicated technical, financial or medical topics involved I usually Google those, to get better insight and also for inspiration. Sometimes I find material on the internet that shows the subject from another angle that is clearer to me. I also talk to people if I get the chance. My brother for example works in finances, so he gets a question from time to time. Usually he starts with: “Well, this is actually really simple…” But it’s really not.

In the end, it’s important for my work to find good symbols for abstract subjects, that explain roughly what the article is about and in the best case make a comment on it, or highlight a certain important aspect.

conceptual illustration of graph

Do you need to understand the material completely to illustrate it? Or can you pick out the key information that a reader needs to know?

To a certain degree; I want to understand as much as possible about the material I get. Since most work is for articles that are meant to be understood by “average” ”everyday”people in mainstream publications, it’s not an impossible thing to do. I am really grateful, that we live in Google times though. It helps so much. I remember the time when I was working on my admission to Lucerne School of Art and Design and had to run to the library for research all the time. Of course, the Internet was there in 2003 but I wasn’t used to utilising it for research.

scientific editorial illustration

How do you begin? Sketching? Mind mapping? Sleeping on it? 

I always read the articles I get on paper. I start underlining and making small doodles and notes directly on those sheets. Just the first things that come to mind when reading it. Sometimes those are the best ideas, sometimes it’s really nothing. I continue with the ones I think might work, and sketch them roughly into a frame of the format. Just quick pencil drawings to think of a composition. When I get commissions I usually have an earlier one to finish first. So most of the time I have the article in the back of my head before I really start working on it. Sometimes for a day, sometimes even more, depending on deadlines of course. And I think that’s a really good thing. It’s kind of a passive brainstorming. No pressure yet, but you still carry the subject around with you. Sometimes you see or read something in that time that gives you possible ways of approaching the subject. Sometimes an idea that doesn’t really fit another commission is great for the next one and so on. It is stressful working on different commissions at the same time, but there are positives as well.

Stephan Schmitz sketches

How do you continue if no ideas immediately present themselves? Is it better to get any and all ideas out of your head onto paper, even if you know they won’t be used?

Yes, of course. It’s rare to get an idea just like that. It can happen, but most of the time getting an idea and working on it happen at the same time. After simple pencil sketches based on the very first doodles, I switch to Photoshop. I work with a lot of layers, so I can play around with them while trying to come up with solutions. I change sizes, colours and perspectives to find out which combination make the idea easiest to read. In this stage I always check with my studio mates, most of all Christina. She works as an illustrator, graphic designer and also an AD, so she knows the way images need to work. I usually show her first roughs without saying anything. In response she tells me what she sees or what is unclear to her. Often she comes up with some solution or suggestion on how to improve the image. That’s the great thing about a shared studio. I work at Studio Strapazin in Zürich with about 15 people from ages 30 to 60 (maybe older…don’t want to offend anybody here!).

There are animators, illustrators, comic book artists, a comic book publisher, writers, journalists, a cartoonist etc. so with almost any problem regarding work I have somebody to ask for advice. There’s a lot of exchange, sometimes collaborations, we cook and eat together once a day and share experiences, ideas and problems. All of this makes it a lot easier if I am stuck with a commission. 

Stephan Schmitz studio

Is it better to develop a quick style to process ideas?

I really think it would be, but that’s something I am having trouble with. Sometimes the roughs I send to clients almost look like finals. I always think if I just do one more little thing it will become more understandable or look better and convince the client of the quality of the work they will get. It’s a bit of a curse. Just this summer a big German Sunday newspaper published one of my roughs instead of the finalised image. 

I am quick with the first rough sketches, which usually no one sees. 

The positive thing about my roughs for the client is that once an option is accepted, I have little to worry about regarding the finalisation, since I already solved all the problems with colours, composition, style of people, etc.

Stephan Schmitz roughs

Have you learned any useful techniques for coming up with conceptual ideas?

Just start working, sketching, thinking. Look for symbols that you can use to represent aspects of the subject. Try to set a stage for them, combine them, play around with sizes and proportions, try different perspectives on how to look at the “scene”. Also keep any ideas that seem interesting somewhere in a notebook, digital or analog, because someday it might come in handy.

If you’re having a hard time getting started, use the the most obvious symbols. If the topic is “digitalisation” you can use a circuit board, if it’s depression a dark cloud, if its finances a chart of some kind. That will help you get started. But then think of how to integrate it into the image, among figures so that it makes sense, or explains something. Maybe try to add some kind of visual pun, if possible. I think a good example is an image from 2015 that I did with Folio for Women’s Wear Daily. The subject was about the expected increase in retail (clothing sales) for the upcommig year. So I started playing around with diagrams, financial charts and curves and then tried to combine it with the aspect of retail (a sales woman in a clothing store). It is not a super amazing image, but it served the article well and worked really nicely in the layout. What I am trying to say is, there’s no need to be afraid of using obvious symbols or symbols that have been used millions of times, as long as you find a good twist on how to integrate those into the image. They’re also a good way to get the brainstorming started.

Editorial illustration process

To see more of Stephan’s illustration work, you can find his portfolio here.

You can also follow Stephan on Instagram @schmitz_illustration.