MIKE McQUADE ADMITS THAT AS A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT, HE SPENT TOO LITTLE TIME STUDYING and too much time skating through the streets of New Jersey and New York City, leaving street art in his wake. Twenty years later, he’s producing illustrations for the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Institutional Investor—respected publications housed in towering buildings not far from where he wielded cans of spray paint.
That unlikely journey began after McQuade graduated from high school (with a less than stellar grade point average) and followed his passion for art and illustration to the only school that would accept him: The Art Institute of Philadelphia. There, he learned technical skills, if not the big-picture problem-solving skills that define the best graphic designers. He says he developed those skills both on the job and with help from his wife, Nicole—a professional photographer and graduate of the Tyler School of Art.
STARTING AT THE BOTTOM
While tackling entry-level positions at a small agency in Philadelphia and Comcast Interactive Media, McQuade spent his evenings and weekends dreaming up his own personal projects, putting together a portfolio that eventually caught the eye of a creative director at BBDO and resulted in a move to the Chicago agency. But the financial crisis of 2008 led to layoffs, and that left the remaining staff with 80-hour work weeks and sizable branding projects to be tackled in mere hours. So McQuade went across town to Tom, Dick & Harry Creative—a boutique agency that offered an up-close look at the process of acquiring clients and issuing proposals. The company’s leaders were so supportive, they paid McQuade’s full salary while he took a months-long leave of absence to care for his ailing mother, who would succumb to cancer.
“They took care of me, and in a way that is pretty rare nowadays,” says McQuade. “But as I received more inquiries into my freelance work, and I had the opportunity to work on some really interesting projects, the full-time work started to feel like it was getting in the way. I knew going out on my own would be tough the first year, but watching someone you love pass in front of you gives you a different perspective on what you should be doing with your time. Ultimately, I wanted that bigger challenge.”
As it turned out, that first year wasn’t as rough as he’d expected. McQuade soon received recognition as an ADC Young Gun (in 2011). Not long thereafter, Richard Turley, creative director at Bloomberg Businessweek, offered a cover assignment focused on Palantir Technologies, which mines online data to identify suspected terrorists. The success of that project gave McQuade the confidence to contact other high-profile art directors, including Matt Dorfman, who oversaw design for the New York Times op-ed page at the time.
“I emailed Matt and said, ‘Hey, if you ever need a guy like me to do a piece of editorial art let me know.’ And he replied, ‘Oh yeah, definitely,’ which I thought was just his way of being polite; then he wrote back the next morning and said, ‘How about tomorrow?’” McQuade had a day to piece together an illustration on the impact of Kodak’s departure from Rochester, New York. The morning the piece was published, McQuade set an alarm for 6:00 a.m., ran down to the Starbucks on his block, and emptied the shelves of every last copy.
McQuade’s distinctive collage style took off after FiveThirtyEight art director Kate Elazegui saw one of McQuade’s pieces for Wired magazine and subsequently asked him to illustrate a piece about EA Sports’ efforts to incorporate player stats into its Madden NFL Football video game franchise. Elazegui provided photographs of J. J. Watt, and McQuade paired the images with color blocks, numbers, and iconography to deconstruct the process visually—“Dada mixed with data,” as he describes it. That approach has since informed his commissions for the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and others.
McQuade uses Adobe Photoshop CC throughout his process, to slice up images, to make grids, and to organize hundreds of layers created using imagery from old magazines. He often starts by scanning photos into an old HP printer, removing backgrounds or adding color, and then applying textures from a library that he’s created over the years. He also uses Adobe Illustrator CC to build icons and symbols; then he brings them into Photoshop for placement.
For his riff on the “Visible Man,” produced for a Fortune article about doctors leveraging medical data to help patients, McQuade made some sketches, scanned in an old Dover medical illustration, and sampled the colors using Photoshop. He then masked out portions of the image, added shadows to convey depth, and spent some time using layers to to push and pull the components until the composition felt just right.
These days, he’s moving into the realm of collages with a 3D look. When Berenberg 10, a British financial publication, commissioned an illustration focused on psychological responses to a shift in the global stock market, McQuade borrowed a phrenology bust from a friend and spent hours in Photoshop, replacing the labeled sections of the brain with stock-ticker data. When Oregon Humanities printed a piece debating the use of trigger warnings on important college literature, McQuade’s solution featured a book wrapped in caution tape that seems to come off the page. Even simpler illustrations like those for the New York Times and Johns Hopkins Magazine appear to be actual multimedia pieces rather than creations composed entirely of pixels.
Today, art directors typically come to McQuade with assignments, so he spends very little time marketing himself. He focuses much more energy on crafting visual solutions for editorial art directors: “When I sell a concept to an art director, it’s typically a moment of excitement followed by many moments of fear as I figure out how I’m going to get the thing done in time to hit the deadline.”
What’s next? As this article was being completed, McQuade was working on branding materials for Red Wing Shoes and Puma, six illustrations for ESPN The Magazine, an illustration for Buzzfeed, and a cover image for Institutional Investors.
“Every time I get an email with a new piece of writing attached, I get excited because it’s almost as if I’m starting from scratch—my style is constantly evolving, and my thinking is always getting a little deeper,” says McQuade. “Because once you do your fifth illustration for yet another article on ISIS, you have to start thinking way outside the box.”
See McQuade's portfolio for more of his work.