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Big Ideas

Javier Jaén

How one Barcelona-based designer is shaking up American culture.

Javier Jaén lives in Spain, but he makes 95 percent of his income from designing images for U.S.-based publications like the New York Times and the New Yorker. The 32-year-old produces three to four illustrations per week from his desk in a knickknack-filled corner of a Barcelona co-working studio. A full-time editorial illustrator, Jaén says he earns enough of a living to rent a flat and office space, but not enough to “buy a second yacht.” (For the record, he doesn’t own a first yacht, either.)

In his work, Jaén deliberately rubs everyday items together in an incongruous fashion to upturn widely-held sentiments and provoke readers to think more deeply about a story’s truth, whether that’s troops on the battlefield or the meaning of a killer selfie. For a New York Times magazine story on politicians refusing to answer relevant media questions, he drew a crying baby standing behind a podium stacked with reporter microphones. And for another New York Times story on the mythical billion-dollar unicorn start up company, he produced an image of a bright blue sky streaked by a unicorn-shaped cloud.

We recently spoke with Jaén about how he lives where he pleases and still writes for top outlets, what it’s like to comment on another country’s cultural issues from afar, and why he uses his images to stir up emotions that hurt a little bit.

Jaén working at his studio located in the Gracia neighborhood of Barcelona.


What is your role in the editorial process?

I am interested in making something that tickles people. It can be in their head, in their eyes, or stomach. But I understand that is a lot to ask of an image. We are surrounded by noise. My role is often similar to a tailor. I have to make specific kind of clothes for every project. Different sizes, fabrics, colors…

Your work appears in the New York Times frequently. How did you connect with the paper?

In 2009, I studied at Cooper Union in New York City. I started then to understand how to work with American clients, and nowadays 95 percent of my work comes from the U.S. When I was studying there, I met by chance Nicholas Blechman, the former art director of the New York Times Book Review. It was after a talk by Christoph Niemann. I was too shy to introduce myself, but there was a cocktail party and two wines later, I gave Nicholas my card. He wrote me the next day with an assignment. I was the happiest man in the world — I remember running in the street in my East Village neighborhood. The first illustration was about the lost art of reading I designed a black and white image of pallbearers carrying a book. It all began with a funeral.

How do you approach your illustrations and designs?

I don’t think illustration has to repeat exactly the same thing the text is saying. Imagine you have to design a CD cover — you don’t need to show all the instruments that are used there. You have to translate the atmosphere of the music into an image, and that’s the tricky part. I am interested in this language translation. I feel closer to the idea of communication than to “art.” Visual language is quite international and it has offered me the opportunity to work for people in many different countries.


Even though images are a familiar worldwide language, have you ever had any “lost in translation” moments designing something on an unfamiliar culture?

Usually I work with popular expressions like “tighten the belt,” “eyes are the window to the soul,” or “crocodile tears.” When the work will be only understandable for certain countries that is something to keep in mind. I remember a case for Bloomberg View. It was about a political scandal in Indonesia. I can find Indonesia on a map, but I don’t know much more than that. By trying to approach that illustration from what I knew, I was going to fail. So I ended up reading the article again and again and realized the soul of the piece was about populism, which is something I can understand and explain through a more universal way.

How many times do you have to read an article to get an illustration idea?

Picasso once said that “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” I could not agree more. Sometimes in the middle of reading an article, I get the idea. And sometimes I read it 15 times and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes I work without final text, just a brief because the writer has not finished the article.

You designed Ebony magazine’s recent cover on Bill Cosby by showing a framed Cosby family photo splintered by cracked glass. How did you navigate the sensitive nature of the topic to create that image?

The editors were thinking about how we can review the legacy of Bill Cosby, specifically the family issues and how the memory of what he represented in the show was kind of destroyed. Reality versus fiction. I did several versions of the original picture. But in the end, I changed almost nothing in the original image. I printed out the image, put a piece of glass over it and hit the glass with a hammer. And the whole meaning of it changed.

After Bill Cosby was accused of rape, Jaén designed this cover to show how what Cosby depicted in his show had been destroyed.

The Ebony cover sparked a huge discussion in the U.S., but probably not in Spain. What’s it like to have a big impact on a hot-button U.S. cultural issue, from afar?

It is a great honor and a great responsibility to contribute to the debates that underpin a society. Certainly I’m in a peculiar situation by not living there and missing some of the nuances, but I’m just part of a big team, and I trust the sensibilities and comments from editors, journalists, and art directors. Cases like this one make that somewhat of an abstract experience. But I could follow much of the fuss online.

Given that nearly all of your work is for New York City-based publications, do you operate on a New York time schedule?

Working on a New York time schedule works good for me because I never liked to wake up early! It gives me six hours more in the morning, but it also means that it can be midnight and I am still reviewing sketches. I arrive to the office around 10 a.m. and I stay until whenever the work is done. I should work on my time management.

Javier Jaén photographed in his studio by Joel Brooks

Javier Jaén photographed in his studio.

Have you ever considered moving to New York full time?

I considered it for a while. I live on New Yorkers’ schedules, work on their topics, and most of the time I am paid in U.S. dollars, but my personal life is here in Barcelona and that counts too.

 What is the biggest difference between designing for publications in Spain and the U.S.?

In Spain, the figure of the art director is different. They don’t interact that much with how the final piece should look. Most of the time what you send in is the final design. Whereas in the U.S. I might go through up to 10 drafts, plus finals, plus possible changes on the final. The work for U.S. publications takes longer and is harder, but the result is usually better. In the beginning it was difficult for me to adapt to this way of working, but once I understood that they wanted to make my work better, I saw it as a luxury. The other big difference is economical.Publications in the United States have a larger market where they can better reward the collaborators and pay about 8 to 10 times more.


A behind-the-scenes look into how Jaén designed the cover image for the New York Times Book Review, 2015.

In December, you produced the cover of the New York Times Book Review section featuring the top 10 best books of the year. It’s a prestigious cover for artists to land, and you chose to represent the subject through a constellation of diamonds. How did you arrive there?

I have wanted to work with diamonds for a while — I have one on my desk. I love the way that it distorts the images and breaks them, and how the brightness behaves and the abstract repeats itself. I was waiting for the right assignment when the art director Matt Dorfman wrote me to make the 10 best books of the year cover. The first step, and absurdly one of the most difficult ones, was to find nine more diamonds. With the help of a friend, I walked all around Barcelona in search of the treasure. Then I printed the covers of every book and tried to find the spots where you can break the image and still read part of the name of the book title. Since the reader would see the list inside, there was no need for the titles to be totally readable. I wanted the readers to want to know more. I like staying closer to the idea of eroticism than pornography.

More Posts by Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.

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