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Features / International Women's Day

“They trust us on the art desk”: Buzzfeed’s prolific in-house illustrator Rebecca Hendin

Words:

Lucy Bourton

Illustration:

Rebecca Hendin

Rebecca Hendin is an illustrator with an audience that would make most envious. Her work is presented on a media platform that earns billions of page views per year, is published multiple times a day and is found among the most read content on the internet. The London-based, Missouri-born illustrator works in-house for Buzzfeed, producing images for articles that cover current affairs, think pieces and news stories. It’s a role that allows her to communicate with people through images on a scale that is unprecedented.

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Rebecca is a brave character. She began studying illustration at California College of Arts straight after high school but developed an itch to move. “I got this crazy idea in my head to move to London. It came from nowhere, I’d never been to London previously, I didn’t know anybody here,” she tells It’s Nice That. After the idea popped into her head Rebecca began to plan. “I literally googled ‘art schools London’ and Central Saint Martins was the first one that came up. I hadn’t heard of it, but it was the first google result, which is a very important thing in this world.” Rebecca applied, got in, and moved to London with the intention of year abroad. She ended up staying, graduating, and then completed a masters programme at the same university.

Throughout her studies Rebecca regularly completed freelance work, a practice she felt was key to get noticed in a competitive industry and to support herself financially. During her masters degree this became a problem, her tutors encouraged students to dive into the academic depths of the practice to extend their capabilities. “They gave you room to figure out what you want to do, alongside pushing you to work across disciplines. They were like, ‘great you’re an illustrator, but what the fuck else are you?’” Rebecca took on this encouragement, she developed skills as an animator but continued professional work. “I kept thinking, ‘I need to keep drawing or no one is going to know who I am in a couple of years.’”

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Rebecca’s restless energy and fascination with world led to her creating illustrations in reaction to certain events, with a quick and effective turnaround. Whilst working as a freelancer she created a piece in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015. Her piece was shown to a syndicate, Universal Uclick, who signed her to its roster. Soon, Rebecca had illustrations in Politico and The Washington Post, as well as a job as a weekly cartoonist for The Daily Kos. However her new found role as a political cartoonist was never a conscious objective she says. “It was just a very interesting thing to do, I didn’t have a dream to be a political cartoonist I just really liked drawing and thought politics were an interesting an area.”

Modest as she is, the attributes of a political cartoonist, to speak out regularly with wit in reaction to current affairs is not an easy job. However these are characteristics Rebecca owns, in her personality and work. “I always get really scared that what I’m doing isn’t helping anyone, but actually cartoons can make someone feel really happy. It is the little tiny thing I can do to make the world a bit different.” The 2015 general election in Britain also became an inspiration for Rebecca, writing and illustrating an article An Illustrated Guide to the British Election . She sent the piece to “Vice, Politico and loads of others that didn’t get back to me but also I sent to Buzzfeed”. Although Buzzfeed didn’t publish the work, the timing was perfect, they asked Rebecca to apply for a staff illustrator role in their London office, where she has worked since July 2015.

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The Buzzfeed office just off Oxford Street in London is extensive and open 24 hours. “There is just banks and banks of desks, I sit among the art desk, the copy desk and our in-house lawyer. All the cats and quizzes take up about four banks.” Rebecca’s job role is to create illustrative content for nine Buzzfeed offices across nine countries. To organise herself she set up an e-mail process for artwork requests. “Writers send articles that are written, draft links or even sometimes just an idea, to which I would ask for a draft for me to look at. That’s a good way for them to forget they ever thought about it in the first place.” The illustrator says to expect a two week turnaround time for an artwork as “I’m usually booked ahead due to how many stories I cover”. In reality Rebecca’s turnaround time on an illustration is only a few hours.

Rebecca usually also has freedom on the editorial illustrations she produces. “Sometimes writers will put through a very specific list of what they want…But most often you’ll just receive an article and the writer says ‘I’d like some art’. You then have to ask, illustration? Design? Do you have an ideas or can I just do whatever?” Due to time constraints Rebecca also rarely provides a sketch for the writer to approve, “our team just isn’t big enough for that, and they trust us on the art desk to make it not look shit”. The illustrators process is simply, “To read the article, take in the whole concept. I have a post-it notes and write down elements that I think could become part of the illustration. I’ll send one or several ideas to the writer.”

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Despite Rebecca’s organised and prolific output at Buzzfeed adjusting from freelance to full-time work was difficult. “When I was freelance I was working six, sometimes seven days a week, a minimum of twelve hours a day, often longer. I had a really weird social life where I would stay up all night just to go out,” she says. “I worked very hard because I needed to take on all jobs I was offered to make money and break into the industry. When I joined Buzzfeed I walked into a place where you’re expected to do normal office hours. I just found it hard to get used to the idea of leaving.”

Over time, Rebecca’s trouble in adjusting to regular office hours concerned her managing editor. “I just didn’t know what else to do with my time, how to fill my mental and activity space after work,” she explains. “I tried different things. I did other work in the evenings, I started to make plans I couldn’t break. I began to walk home so that I would spend an hour and a half just walking. Now I get to go to plays, or go to the cinema, or go out to dinner with people.”

Now, Rebecca is settled into a routine that applies her experience as a freelancer into a full-time role. “It was a weird shift, especially because I’m not a morning person, I kick in about noon,” she explains. “Currently I try and do the research before noon, e-mails, admin stuff. I’ve always done that, and I still do it now.” Proving that sometimes you need a little bit of both illustrational tendencies not only to make it work, but for general creative happiness too.

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