Art director Shannon Gibson explains the opportunities and challenges that come with designing the Financial Times' weekend supplement, which spans world events, politics and the arts.

Did you have any particular career path in mind on graduating? What did you really want to do?

I always had an interest in editorial design, but when I graduated in Auckland I was honestly just happy to have any design job. It’s difficult landing anything as a graduate, and even more so deciding the direction you want your career to take. Fortunately I ended up working at a publishing company with a number of titles — from fashion to parenting and lifestyle, so my magazine knowledge developed from there.

Following this, what were the key steps that led you to where you are now?

I knew I wanted to travel and work in London, but felt I needed to broaden my design skills and gain a wider experience first, so I spent a year working for a below-the-line design agency in Auckland. Although it was amazing to work with a small team in a creatively diverse environment, it also confirmed my interest to work on magazines.

I arrived in London in August 2008 and through some stroke of luck, a creative recruitment agency got me a foot in the door at the FT.

"Opinions are expected and while important, there are times when you will have to respectfully disagree and fight your corner"

2018 2402 Feature The Fracturing Of Myanmar
Mike McQuade: The Fracturing of Myanmar

What skills are essential to your role as Art Director for the Financial Times’ Weekend Magazine?

A lot! When I am thinking about a design for a cover or feature, my initial thoughts are ‘what are the key points, and how do we want to communicate them?’. I need to know as much about the story as possible before I can begin the creative process. We’re often working on features with incredibly sensitive subject matter, so to find a design solution that protects the integrity of the subject, but is also visually dynamic, is a fine balance.

One of the best and crucial aspects of my job is commissioning outstanding talent for the magazine – emerging and established. It’s always exciting when you see an illustrator’s work you admire, and work with them to take an idea and realise it into something visually powerful. 

Managing relationships and creative criticism is an integral part of the process. Opinions are expected, and there are times when you will have to respectfully disagree and fight your corner. I think that it is something you get better at with time. 

I’m relatively new to the art director role having just returned from maternity leave. The year with my son was by far the most challenging thing I have experienced, but it actually equipped me to be more confident. Being at work and being creative with the team is gratifying in a completely different way. I didn’t realise how much I needed that until I came back.

2016 2708 Data Our New Religion Cover
Janne Iivonen: Data - Our New Religion

The FT’s artwork is very varied, and you work with a number of different illustrators — but what challenges come with creating artwork for a business magazine, and how do you ensure the FT’s tone of voice is maintained throughout?

I would challenge the label ‘business magazine’. We’re certainly part of a financial newspaper and with that comes its limitations, but we have a very different feel from the weekly paper. The magazine has the intelligence and integrity of The Week, but brings a synergy between photography, illustration and typography to create a visual and informative experience. 

A lot of the tone comes from editorial commissioning, so we are designing and commissioning to represent that. However, it’s very important to me to promote the strongest layout or artist, rather than safest. 

"It can take a long time to find your place, so be prepared to be patient and work hard"

2018 1003 Cover The Great American Prison Crisis
Courtney Weaver, Ryan Shorosky, Commercial Type: The Great American Prison Crisis

Are there any projects over the years that have been particularly significant for you? Why, and what did you learn from them?

Coming up with concepts for features that are difficult to visualise is challenging, then throw a tomorrow deadline into the mix and it can be stressful. But when you are working with a brilliant team, it makes a massive difference. Mark Leeds is creative consultant, Brian Saffer is associate AD, Emma Bowkett is director of photography, and Josh Lustig is picture editor. It’s a collective effort and we work collaboratively to find a solution.

The varied subject matter keeps my job interesting. One week we’ll have pieces on Russian elections, artist Celia Paul and Brexit, the next it’s the crisis in Myanmar, working in Antarctica and how to cook seaweed! It’s never boring.

What words of wisdom can you offer to those aspiring to work for a magazine?

It can be a fun and rewarding career, but I think it can take a long time to find your place, so be prepared to be patient and work hard. You need to develop a thick skin for criticism, late deadlines and you need to really care about what you’re doing.

Portrait photography is by Kalpesh Lathigra


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