NBC’s digital art direction team chats in-house vs freelance commissioning, and telling a story through imagery
We chat to Kara Haupt, digital art director for NBC News, MSNBC and the Today Show, and her team about their high octane creative process and some of their favourite projects.
- Jenny Brewer
- 14 April 2021
After a patchy start to her career, NBC art director Kara Haupt quickly hopped from one high-profile design role to another. She studied photography, “quickly changed my mind” to communication design at PNCA in Portland, and after college did odd design jobs and freelance work before moving back to New York City without a job lined up “or really any money”. Applying to anything she could find, she finally landed a role on the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign for its final six months, leading content and social design, and creating artwork for the campaign blog, Feed.
After that, Kara went on to become web art director at The New Yorker, no less, where she says she “really cut her teeth” and learned how to art direct illustration and photography. These were the skills that earned her current spot at NBC, which she joined in 2018 as NBC News’ first ever digital art director. At the time, the network – one of the biggest and oldest in the US – was making moves to ramp up its digital offering in terms of scale and range of content, broadening from just news to long-reads and opinion. Kara says there was also “a desire to raise the profile of illustration on the site, and create more strategy around photography and photo illustration. I was intrigued by the challenge and interested in what it could look like to lead and develop a new, contemporary style at a legacy institution.”
Since then, Kara has been building and shaping her vision for the platform, and it must be going well because, in early 2020, she became digital art director across not just NBC News, but MSNBC and the Today show too. Together with her team, which includes photo editors, photographers, designers and art directors, Kara has defined a visual style for each of the platforms which allows the team to produce illustration and photography in-house, as well as commissioning freelancers – all the while focused on how best to tell a story through imagery. Each brand has a different audience and remit, and so the team tailors art direction to each accordingly.
When setting out to create artwork for story, Kara and art directors Jenny Chang-Rodriguez on Today and Chelsea Stahl on News and MSNBC, have a roster of illustrators and photographers they turn to, which are organised by style, topic and location. “We will often try to hire someone who has interest or experience with the topic, or is located where the story is centred, but most of all we’re looking for conceptual illustrators to achieve styles or turnarounds we can’t accomplish in-house,” Kara tells It’s Nice That. “We find new artists from all over: Instagram, other publications, cold emails, and sites like It’s Nice That!”
Importantly Kara adds they “rarely hire an illustrator to execute our ideas – we are hiring illustrators because of how they think and how they execute”. Lead times for freelance creatives can range from a one or two-day turnaround, to a few weeks for a bigger project. When they commission an illustrator, the process sees the freelancer send three or four sketches, from which the art directors and a writer or editor choose one, and then feedback a number of times towards the final piece.
Recently, the team has worked with Jun Cen, Kelsey Borch, Bianca Bagnarelli, Anuj Shrestha, Cari Vander Yacht, Eleni Kalorkoti and Janice Chang on a visually diverse range of stories. Asked to pick out some favourites, Chelsea highlights a piece about “what’s been happening to our brains during quarantine and how some folks are using bad habits and vices (alcohol, online shopping, smoking, overeating) to cope,” which had a reflective, informative yet light-hearted tone, she describes. Chelsea commissioned illustrator Hunter French, believing he could create something “evocative and fun while still balancing the tone and point of the piece,” and says he really delivered. “The stressed, wide-eyed brain is so relatable. The animated, floating vices were equal parts fun and foreboding: like how real vices and bad habits are always nearby.”
Fellow art director Jenny selected a recent piece by Subin Yang for an article titled Miss your office bestie? How to maintain friendships while working from home, about the widely relatable topic of staying connected with people during the pandemic. Subin’s bold and fun work was ideal, Jenny says, because her “stylistic touches brought a lot of brightness and most importantly joy,” to the article. “She highlights the importance of our newfound reliance on technology and ability to adapt while bringing a playfulness with her use of colour and pattern.”
You can see some of the NBC digital creative team’s best work on its dedicated Instagram account @NBCNewsArt.
GalleryCopyright © NBC, MSNBC and Today digital, 2021
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Illustration by Hunter French. Copyright © NBC, MSNBC and Today digital, 2021
About the Author
After five years as It’s Nice That’s news editor, Jenny became online editor in June 2021, overseeing the website’s daily editorial output.
Jenny is currently on maternity leave.