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My Favorite Kevin Cornell

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After 200 issues—yes, two hundred—Kevin Cornell is retiring from his post as A List Apart’s staff illustrator. Tomorrow’s issue will be the last one featuring new illustrations from him.

Sob.

For years now, we’ve eagerly awaited Kevin’s illustrations each issue, opening his files with all the patience of a kid tearing into a new LEGO set.

But after nine years and more than a few lols, it’s time to give Kevin’s beautifully deranged brain a rest.

We’re still figuring out what comes next for ALA, but while we do, we’re sending Kevin off the best way we know how: by sharing a few of our favorite illustrations. Read on for stories from ALA staff, past and present—and join us in thanking Kevin for his talent, his commitment, and his uncanny ability to depict seemingly any concept using animals, madmen, and circus figures.

Of all the things I enjoyed about working on A List Apart, I loved anticipating the reveal: seeing Kevin’s illos for each piece, just before the issue went live. Every illustration was always a surprise—even to the staff. My favorite, hands-down, was his artwork for “The Discipline of Content Strategy,” by Kristina Halvorson. In 2008, content was web design’s “elephant in the room” and Kevin’s visual metaphor nailed it. In a drawing, he encapsulated thoughts and feelings many had within the industry but were unable to articulate. That’s the mark of a master.

—Krista Stevens, Editor-in-chief, 2006–2012

In the fall of 2011, I submitted my first article to A List Apart. I was terrified: I didn’t know anyone on staff. The authors’ list read like a who’s who of web design. The archives were intimidating. But I had ideas, dammit. I hit send.

I told just one friend what I’d done. His eyes lit up. “Whoa. You’d get a Kevin Cornell!” he said.

Whoa indeed. I might get a Kevin Cornell?! I hadn’t even thought about that yet.

Like Krista, I fell in love with Kevin’s illustration for “The Discipline of Content Strategy”—an illustration that meant the world to me as I helped my clients see their own content elephants. The idea of having a Cornell of my own was exciting, but terrifying. Could I possibly write something worthy of his illustration?

Months later, there it was on the screen: little modular sandcastles illustrating my article on modular content. I was floored.

Now, after two years as ALA’s editor in chief, I’ve worked with Kevin through dozens of issues. But you know what? I’m just as floored as ever.

Thank you, Kevin, you brilliant, bizarre, wonderful friend.

—Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Editor-in-chief

It’s impossible for me to choose a favorite of Kevin’s body of work for ALA, because my favorite Cornell illustration is the witty, adaptable, humane language of characters and symbols underlying his years of work. If I had to pick a single illustration to represent the evolution of his visual language, I think it would be the hat-wearing nested egg with the winning smile that opened Andy Hagen’s “High Accessibility is Effective Search Engine Optimization.” An important article but not, perhaps, the juiciest title A List Apart has ever run…and yet there’s that little egg, grinning in his slightly dopey way.

If my memory doesn’t fail me, this is the second appearance of the nested Cornell egg—we saw the first a few issues before in Issue 201, where it represented the nested components of an HTML page. When it shows up here, in Issue 207, we realize that the egg wasn’t a cute one-off, but the first syllable of a visual language that we’ll see again and again through the years. And what a language! Who else could make semantic markup seem not just clever, but shyly adorable?

A wander through the ALA archives provides a view of Kevin’s changing style, but something visible only backstage was his startlingly quick progression from reading an article to sketching initial ideas in conversation with then-creative director Jason Santa Maria to turning out a lovely miniature—and each illustration never failed to make me appreciate the article it introduced in a slightly different way. When I was at ALA, Kevin’s unerring eye for the important detail as a reader astonished me almost as much as his ability to give that (often highly technical, sometimes very dry) idea a playful and memorable visual incarnation. From the very first time his illustrations hit the A List Apart servers he’s shared an extraordinary gift with its readers, and as a reader, writer, and editor, I will always count myself in his debt.

—Erin Kissane, Editor-in-chief, contributing editor, 1999–2009

So much of what makes Kevin’s illustrations work are the gestures. The way the figure sits a bit slouched, but still perched on gentle tippy toes, determinedly occupied pecking away on his phone. With just a few lines, Kevin captures a mood and moment anyone can feel.

—Jason Santa Maria, Former creative director

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Kevin on the illustrations for each issue of A List Apart since we launched the latest site redesign in early 2013. By working, I mean replying to his email with something along the lines of “Amazing!” when he sent over the illustrations every couple of weeks.

Prior to launching the new design, I had to go through the backlog of Kevin’s work for ALA and do the production work needed for the new layout. This bird’s eye view gave me an appreciation of the ongoing metaphorical world he had created for the magazine—the birds, elephants, weebles, mad scientists, ACME products, and other bits of amusing weirdness that breathed life into the (admittedly, sometimes) dry topics covered.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be the illustration that accompanied the unveiling of the redesign, A List Apart 5.0. The shoe-shine man carefully working on his own shoes was the perfect metaphor for both the idea of design as craft and the back-stage nature of the profession—working to make others shine, so to speak. It was a simple and humble concept, and I thought it created the perfect tone for the launch.

—Mike Pick, Creative director

So I can’t pick one favorite illustration that Kevin’s done. I just can’t. I could prattle on about this, that, or that other one, and tell you everything I love about each of ’em. I mean, hell: I still have a print of the illustration he did for my very first ALA article. (The illustration is, of course, far stronger than the essay that follows it.)

But his illustration for James Christie’s excellent “Sustainable Web Design” is a perfect example of everything I love about Kevin’s ALA work: how he conveys emotion with a few deceptively simple lines; the humor he finds in contrast; the occasional chicken. Like most of Kevin’s illustrations, I’ve seen it whenever I reread the article it accompanies, and I find something new to enjoy each time.

It’s been an honor working alongside your art, Kevin—and, on a few lucky occasions, having my words appear below it.

Thanks, Kevin.

—Ethan Marcotte, Technical editor

Kevin’s illustration for Cameron Koczon’s “Orbital Content” is one of the best examples I can think of to show off his considerable talent. Those balloons are just perfect: vaguely reminiscent of cloud computing, but tethered and within arm’s reach, and evoking the fun and chaos of carnivals and county fairs. No other illustrator I’ve ever worked with is as good at translating abstract concepts into compact, visual stories. A List Apart won’t be the same without him.

—Mandy Brown, Former contributing editor

Kevin has always had what seems like a preternatural ability to take an abstract technical concept and turn it into a clear and accessible illustration.

For me, my favorite pieces are the ones he did for the 3rd anniversary of the original “Responsive Web Design” article…the web’s first “responsive” illustration? Try squishing your browser here to see it in action—Ed

—Tim Murtaugh, Technical director

I think it may be impossible for me to pick just one illustration of Kevin’s that I really like. Much like trying to pick your one favorite album or that absolutely perfect movie, picking a true favorite is simply folly. You can whittle down the choices, but it’s guaranteed that the list will be sadly incomplete and longer (much longer) than one.

If held at gunpoint, however ridiculous that sounds, and asked which of Kevin’s illustrations is my favorite, close to the top of the list would definitely be “12 Lessons for Those Afraid of CSS Standards.” It’s just so subtle, and yet so pointed.

What I personally love the most about Kevin’s work is the overall impact it can have on people seeing it for the first time. It has become commonplace within our ranks to hear the phrase, “This is my new favorite Kevin Cornell illustration” with the publishing of each issue. And rightly so. His wonderfully simple style (which is also deceptively clever and just so smart) paired with the fluidity that comes through in his brush work is magical. Case in point for me would be his piece for “The Problem with Passwords” which just speaks volumes about the difficulty and utter ridiculousness of selecting a password and security question.

We, as a team, have truly been spoiled by having him in our ranks for as long as we have. Thank you Kevin.

—Erin Lynch, Production manager

The elephant was my first glimpse at Kevin’s elegantly whimsical visual language. I first spotted it, a patient behemoth being studied by nonplussed little figures, atop Kristina Halvorson’s “The Discipline of Content Strategy,” which made no mention of elephants at all. Yet the elephant added to my understanding: content owners from different departments focus on what’s nearest to them. The content strategist steps back to see the entire thing.

When Rachel Lovinger wrote about “Content Modelling,” the elephant made a reappearance as a yet-to-be-assembled, stylized elephant doll. The unflappable elephant has also been the mascot of product development at the hands of a team trying to construct it from user research, strutted its stuff as curated content, enjoyed the diplomatic guidance of a ringmaster, and been impersonated by a snake to tell us that busting silos is helped by a better understanding of others’ discourse conventions.

The delight in discovering Kevin’s visual rhetoric doesn’t end there. With doghouses, birdhouses, and fishbowls, Kevin speaks of environments for users and workers. With owls he represents the mobile experience and smartphones. With a team arranging themselves to fit into a group photo, he makes the concept of responsive design easier to grasp.

Not only has Kevin trained his hand and eye to produce the gestures, textures, and compositions that are uniquely his, but he has trained his mind to speak in a distinctive visual language—and he can do it on deadline. That is some serious mastery of the art.

—Rose Weisburd, Columns editor

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