The Onion’s Art Department Is Awesome

August 27, 2014 | Marina Galperina

There’s a profile of the Onion’s three-person art department on FastCo Design and it just sounds like the best editorial art job in the world, really.

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, armored 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. 

The Onion’s art department is comprised of Eric Ervine, Jimmy Hasse, and Heidi Unkefer (and Nicole Antonuccio at Clickhole). They chug out 50 original pieces of art per week, all combinations of banal and subtle things (both staged and stock), masterfully Photoshopped together to illustrate the joke headline. Not only must the image match the story in tone — aesthetically and contextually, every satirical manifestation represents “Onionworld,” or what the Onion’s managing editor Ben Berkley describes as a “fully realized and very real” alternative universe. The art department often enlists the rest of the staff in collaboration, down to posing for photos. “Personally I’ve been two superheroes, two teens, and a body double for Vice President Biden,” Berkley recalls.

The image that accompanies the article “Fossilized Evidence Reveals Spazosaurus Was Largest Doofus To Ever Roam Earth” took a different kind of effort. It’s a truly ridiculous, watercolor-like illustration of an idiot clumsy chunky dinosaur, bearing no relation to any dinosaur I’ve ever seen, tripping over its own tail while drooling. “I just love this one,” says senior editor Eric Ervine. “It’s so rare we get to do a full-blown illustration, especially with this level of irreverent zaniness.”

Though the satirical publication is consumed as a form of political and social commentary and entertainment, pieces like this point to its true nature. Currently, the Onion seems much like an imagery-driven digital art project, from its conception to production to execution to distribution. The current art department is particularly in step with the trends of contemporary digital art. (Images The Onion via FastCo Design)