The Look Of Funny: How The Onion’s Art Department Works

The Look Of Funny: How The Onion’s Art Department Works

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When many publishers are laying off photographers and turning to trite stock imagery, The Onion is going another way.


The absurd scenes and photos that look like bad stock art? they’re all designed from scratch.

An Onion article titled “New Law Enforcement Robot Can Wield Excessive Force Of 5 Human Officers” includes a remarkable bit of artwork, which you can see above: a muscled, armoured tank-like robot armed with guns and probes and sprays and hammers, using all its weaponry to attack the business-casual-clad attendees of a beige-carpet trade show. To create it, The Onion’s art department built a digital robot, staged the scene with real people, then combined original photography and digital art with pre-existing stock photography to achieve a perfectly surreal, violent scene. All to illustrate a joke that can be told in a 12-word headline.

This is hardly an isolated example. At The Onion, a fake news website and one of the great satirical outposts of the past 50 years, nearly every image is original: either a graphic created in-house, a photograph taken in-house, or an image so manipulated by Photoshop as to not represent any real event that has ever happened. The tiny graphics team at The Onion pumps out about 50 original pieces of art per week at a time when your average Internet publication arts stories as quickly as possible: with images the subject provided, or photographs from stock agencies and wire services. Nobody sits down and creates original art for a two-sentence post. Yet The Onion does, over and over again. Why bother?

As Stephen Colbert or any great satirist will tell you, a key to satire is to always stay in character. In The Onion’s case, that “character” is an absurd, alternative world invented to comment on the real one. Every aspect of the fake world has to ring true for the trick to work. That includes the visuals. When nothing you publish is real, every single image has to be made from scratch. “We want to make sure that we’re making our Onion-world fully realised and very real,” says Ben Berkley, managing editor of The Onion. It’s all in service of the joke.

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