Tonia Cowan

The Society for News Design is excited to announce that Tonia Cowan is joining our lineup of speakers for the SND Charlotte workshop on April 19-21 in Charlotte, N.C.

Cowan is a 20-year infographic veteran that has been Graphics Director at The Globe for almost two years. She previously worked in graphics departments at The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Newsweek, Associated Press and Canadian Press.’s Chloe Meister chatted with Cowan about her sketching process, how she overcomes roadblocks and how to get started in the industry.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR SKETCHING PROCESS. I sketch all the time. I’m the world’s most annoying co-worker because in meetings it either looks like I’m paying too much attention to people or too little. Meeting-sketches can keep you in practice, generally, but can also be useful to the process. A quick doodle can sometimes help clarify a concept — performing the same kind of task for writers and editors at a story planning stage as it will, ultimately, for readers.

But, in terms of the process, it’s really easy. If you’re creating an explanatory diagram, keep it simple. Just draw the bare minimum to get your point across. If you’re drawing a sketch “of something,” start with the part you find most interesting — a gesture, the shape, an expression — and pay most attention to that. The rest is either not necessary or will take care of itself.

WHAT TOOLS AND PROGRAMS DO YOU USE FOR YOUR SKETCHING AND ILLUSTRATIONS? The tools I use vary depending on the task and the amount of time I have. I tend to use Adobe Illustrator or Lightwave for topics that benefit from a hard-edged approach or graphics that need to be animated. But, if the story has a lighter tone or if I’m pressed for time, I will draw in pencil, scan the image, then “paint” it in Photoshop. You can get a solid visualization in a matter of minutes that way.

When I’m drawing for myself, whether that is in a meeting or someplace like the subway, I use intentionally low-tech tools. A medium point ballpoint pen is great for fast drawing because it removes any inhibiting concerns over whether or not I’m making “art,” which can result in work that has more life to it.

WHAT INSPIRES YOUR CREATIVITY? I guess the same things that inspire many graphics people: problem-solving and complicated technical concepts. Explaining how ice on planes affects lift, trying to figure out what the space station might look like if you cut it open, or diagramming literally anything DARPA does is endlessly fun.

I’m also inspired regularly by the work of artists in our industry. There are so many big talents doing such cool stuff that I may see something Kagan McLeod, Javier Zarracina, Fernando Baptista, Chiqui Esteban, Alberto Cuadra or some of my other big faves does and think “Wow, that’s tremendous.” Then I take some time out to study what they’ve done and learn from it.


A few ways:

  • • I try to read things that are outside of my general field.
  • • I follow a lot of Art and Design boards on Pinterest and I get a broad mix of old masters and current design. A quick skim through new posts in the morning serves the same function as a cup of coffee.
  • • An iterative approach with lots of thumbnail ideas generally works and, if all else fails, some quality video game time is a good way to hit “reset.”

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR DESIGNERS WHO WANT TO START EXPLORING GRAPHICS AND ILLUSTRATIONS? Well, first off, I would say that it is a smart idea. It can be really satisfying to see your creative vision come to life, especially when it means that you don’t have to find resources elsewhere to get something done.

Then I’d suggest starting with your area of interest. If you draw, you can add to your arsenal by doing some tutorials in Illustrator. You could also look online at collections of other graphic illustrators to see if you can pick up some style tricks — use of color or ways of drawing — or you could seek out tutorials on technical illustration. And, really, I believe in the importance of traditional sketching. You don’t have to frame them, or show anyone, but regularly observing something well enough to draw it is so good for you.

If you are more inclined toward data graphics, you could start with something like Codecademy or Lynda and branch out from there. Follow data design links like Flowing Data  or this Reddit thread. Talk to the people at your organization, or other organizations, who are already doing the kind of work that you’d like to do and ask them about it.

Whether you’re already pretty comfortable creating code-driven visuals or new to it, there are sites and resources to help.

But above all, whatever your interests, I would suggest taking advantage of the collegial nature of our business. There are so many talented people who are happy to share their expertise. If you wonder where to head next, how to handle a particular challenge or how something is done, just ask.

Register now

About SND Charlotte

• Don’t miss your chance to UNITE & REBEL, register today: Register
• Book your hotel room (before they run out!): Use the SND discount link
• Check out the lineup of speakers we’ve announced for the workshop. What a team!
• Don’t miss the Think Before You Make pre-conference day at the U.S. National Whitewater Center