texasmonthly.com: You co-designed the Bum Steer Awards layout with Texas Monthly creative director Scott Dadich. How do you get ideas for the overall concept? Where do you get your inspiration?
T. J. Tucker: I think the main inspiration for this year’s Steers came from the Academy Awards ceremony. We wanted a real red-carpet feel for the cover, and we carried that concept into the actual guts of the piece. We don’t have any one place that we go for inspiration, although I do think clearer after a few beers. But I find inspiration in all sorts of places—books, flea markets, antiques stores, sometimes just walking down the street for a cup of coffee.
texasmonthly.com: How do you keep the feature fresh from year to year? What changes from last year did you make to the overall layout?
TJT: Keeping things fresh visually is the fun part. Stylistically speaking, the most obvious move we make that can alter the overall look of the piece the quickest is the illustration choice. That seems to set the tone for everything else.
texasmonthly.com: How do you determine which blurbs will have art assigned to them?
TJT: There are two factors that determine which blurbs turn into illustrations. Obviously they have to be funny, but we’re also looking for blurbs that the illustrators are really excited to paint. If the artist is happy, then everyone is. We go through and pick 25 to 30 of the funniest write-ups and go over those with our illustrator. From there, we narrow it down to 10.
texasmonthly.com: How do you determine which illustrators to use?
TJT: After reading the blurbs several times, we start to sense certain traits in the text—traits that match the traits and strengths of certain illustrators. I try to envision how different artists would handle the assignment. The choice of who we use usually comes pretty fast at that point.
texasmonthly.com: What is the most difficult aspect of working on the Bum Steer Awards?
TJT: Well, with Bum Steers you’re usually talking about cramming a head, subhead, intro, close to one hundred blurbs, ten illustrations, and thirty or so pieces of other art into ten pages. Its like a big puzzle. Blurbs can’t jump from page to page, so between them and the art, all the content has to fit perfectly. We’re really fortunate that the editors allow us to move the blurbs around. Some of the blurbs fit together, so they obviously can’t be on different pages, but other than that, we can push and pull things until we’ve got a rough layout in front of us. From there we focus on polishing the design elements; lead-ins, rules, the way things break, the photo of a pot leaf that needs to be rotated slightly to the left . . . you get the idea.
texasmonthly.com: This year, there are very colorful illustrations. What prompted you to go in this direction?
TJT: This year we used Nathan Fox, one of my favorite illustrators out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Imagination was a big factor going into this, and Nathan’s is bigger than Dallas. Add in his phenomenal sense of color and you’ve got a winner. If you look at this year’s Bum Steer Awards illustrations long enough, you’ll find all sorts of little details that you didn’t notice when you first glanced at them.
texasmonthly.com: How time consuming is it to layout out the Bum Steer Awards feature?
TJT: I’d say it takes a full week to get a rough layout going. However, blurbs are still falling out and being added during the layout process. When something falls out or gets moved, it reflows everything, so in a way it’s like starting over. It works the same way with the art components. Most of the art is decided upon come layout time, but not everything. It’s a real tricky affair.
texasmonthly.com: Do you already have ideas about what you want to do next year?
TJT: Since there are only two of us who actually handle the design of the magazine, we rotate Bum Steer duties. The guy who isn’t handling Steers gets to “consult.” Next year the honor is once again mine, so yeah, I’ve got some basic ideas, but I’d like to read the new blurbs before I make any real decisions.
texasmonthly.com: From a design standpoint, is it harder to design a multicomponent feature like the Bum Steer Awards rather than a standard feature that appears in the magazine? If so, why? If not, why not?
TJT: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s harder or less fun to design the multicomponent features, it’s just that the really large ones have a way of eating on your nerves over time. You basically spend the whole month dealing with the same material, and you literally don’t have time for anything else. When your working on several smaller features at once, you can bounce from story to story as you get inspired.
texasmonthly.com: Did anything interesting or funny happen this year while designing the Bum Steer Awards?
TJT: Something odd always seems to happen. Primarily because I like to give the illustrators plenty of room to be funny and outlandish. I’d rather have to tell an illustrator, “There’s no way in hell we can run that” than say “Uh, where’s the comedy here?” So, inevitably, we see some risky preliminary stuff. Going over sketches with Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith is always a treat in itself. I believe there was a breast-size issue on one of the illustrations this year. You know, someone wants the banjo-playing squirrel to be attacking the crowd and someone else doesn’t.