A Picture Can Tell a Thousand Words. These UVA Today Illustrations Prove It

February 22, 2024 By Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu

Their designs are inspired by geometry, pop culture, psychedelia and more.

Color-popping and provocative, the illustrations in UVA Today play an important role in drawing readers into a story. On any given day, designers are tasked with creating compelling compositions, be they drawings or collages, on a short deadline, undertaking this challenge for the six issues UVA Today circulates each week.

We asked some of the designers to choose some of their favorite work and talk about how they made their eye-catching creations.

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Swift Mania

A collage of a football field, Taylor Swift, and UVA alumna

(Illustration by Meredith Michael Smith, University Communications)

Meredith Michael Smith, the Office of University Communications’ creative director, said understanding the narrative of a story helps with design. “The first thing you’ve got to do is read the story and figure out that nut graph, or what the lead is trying to get at, so that you pull in the person as fast as you can,” she said, “so they understand what they’re looking at. But also it’s a tease.”

Smith made the above illustration for the story about University of Virginia alumna and NBC sideline reporter Melissa Stark. Stark had just worked a huge Sunday night football game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the New York Jets that was made even bigger because megastar Taylor Swift was in attendance to cheer on her new boyfriend, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. 

Smith said her background in editorial design comes in handy when creating art to pull in the reader. 

“Trying to figure out a way to make Taylor Swift the biggest thing, but also make sure that we actually lead with our own connection was what I challenged myself to do with this one,” she said. “So, kind of using her like she’s a background image, even though she’s very prominent, and then putting Melissa on top was my way of making that compromise.”

“I didn't quite fade all of the lines across Swift’s face. I colorized her a bit, just trying to make her more of the texture, rather than the lead. So she’s the context; she’s not the headline.”

A fun Easter egg in Smith’s illustration is the photo of Swift. Taken by Mina Pirasteh, it was from her 2013 “Red” tour stop at UVA’s John Paul Jones Arena.

250 Illustrations in Two Years

Copperhead on an orange background

(Illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Emily Faith Morgan was the digital designer for UVA Today for nearly two years and estimates she made about 250 illustrations in that time. Her first was for a story on copperheads.

“That was the very first one I ever did,” she said. “I had to look up what a copperhead looked like, and I learned so much about how to identify a copperhead.”

A figure whose head is shrouded in fog

(Illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

In November, Morgan was asked to create art for a story on seasonal affective disorder. “This was an article that was a little bit easier for me to make a graphic for, because it was something that I was experiencing at the time where I was like, ‘OK, winter is coming. I know exactly how this feels,’” Morgan said.

When she started to work on the design, she thought about a day at the end of the summer when she noticed the temperature was starting to drop. 

“When I woke up and went outside and felt a little chill in the air, just a little nip, and it felt like this graphic with the clouds kind of impending on me, and kind of surrounding me a little bit,” she said. “And so that was really the main driver for this graphic. [It] was the clouds.”

Morgan added some Cavalier orange for visual interest. “The orange advances in space. It’s moving forward. This is the hope that warm days are going to come again,” she explained.

UVA Rockers

collage of musicians on an orange and yellow pastel background

(Illustration by John DiJulio, University Communications)

This illustration, by digital designer John DiJulio, was for a story teasing UVA Today’s new feature, the Music Beat.

“This one was pretty straightforward because it was featuring some musicians who played here at UVA,” he said. “So I wanted to find some of those bands and represent them using UVA colors.”

DiJulio searched the UVA Library database. “I found the most energetic ones that would all kind of work together like a puzzle, with a wide a range of different people and expressions, and then kind of put that together and then put in all these effects on top to kind of rock ’n’ roll.” 

The designer deliberately placed the different performers from left to right to “guide your eye through” the image. DiJulio said he only had a couple of hours to create the design. 

“It’s all built in Photoshop. All these images are masked and layered on top of each other. And then there’s a gradient map that’s applied to them, which is the blue and white filter on top. And then the orange background, with some kind of rough pastel colors and brush strokes. That to me is in the lane of historical rock kind of music.” 

DiJulio said he thinks a good piece of story art illustrates “the main idea behind the piece in one stroke that’s clever and instantly understandable.”


A collage of mushrooms and color

(Illustration by Alex Angelich, University Communications)

Alex Angelich, the director of digital content, volunteered to illustrate a story on a professor’s National Institutes of Health-funded research into whether or not the derivative of a psychedelic drug can help with chronic lower back pain.

The story focused on a derivative of hallucinogenic “magic mushrooms.” 

“A story about psilocybin and back pain – I was like, ‘Oh, I do a lot of psychedelic art in my personal life for bands that I’m in,” Angelich said. “This is right up my alley. I had a fully formed idea in my head of what I was going to do.”

Student Leaders

Drawings of student leaders

(Illustration by Alex Angelich, University Communications)

This one required a different approach. Angelich was preparing to create header art for a story about student leaders at UVA and was in a quandary. She had photos of each of the students, but they were of varying quality, so putting those into a collage was out.

“I was trying to find a way to give the story some ‘wow!’ factor,” she said. “So I decided to print out all of the photos and do hand illustrations of all of them on paper.” Then she scanned the drawings and did the final coloring on Photoshop.

“I was fortunate at the time to have the time to do that,” she said. “It took a couple of days.”

Creepy Stuff

Various creepy things from collections laying together on a table

(Illustration by Alex Angelich, University Communications)

If it’s October, readers can be sure to be treated to some Halloween content. This past year was no different. Writer Alice Berry, who covers the University Library as part of her beat, visited the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library with photographer Erin Edgerton to capture some of the creepiest objects in UVA’s collection.

Then the pair served up words and photos to Angelich to arrange into an eye-grabbing story illustration.

“When the story and photos came through, I thought it would have been weird to deliver the story with a header image of just one of the objects,” she said.

Angelich settled on a collage, and then applied all of the elements of the UVA brand. Once she’d cut out and arranged the images of the objects the way she wanted them, she applied shadows and textures to achieve the creepy effect. 

Is it fun doing this work?

“Oh yeah. It’s so fun,” Angelich said. “It allows me to really be creative. It allows me to come up with interesting design features. Working with a brand like ours is fun because it’s broad and has a lot of different elements that I can use at the same time. It’s also constrained, and working in design constraints and time constraints allows me to be creative and work quickly.”

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications