Peek Inside the Onion‘s Surreal Art Department

An original Onion illustration for a story on the dinosaur known as the "Spazosaurus"

Journalist Dan Nosowitz has a fascinating in-depth look at how seriously the satirical website the Onion considers the images it uses to accompany stories and the great lengths to which its art department goes to create them. Among the examples he cites is a story headlined “New Law Enforcement Robot Can Wield Excessive Force of 5 Human Officers.” To create the image that accompanied it—a military-grade figure using weaponry to attack a tame crowd at a trade show—the site’s art department built a digital robot and staged the scene with actual humans. Then original photos were mixed with digital art and other photographs to depict the event. “All to illustrate a joke that can be told in a 12-word headline,” Nosowitz writes.

Almost every image that the Onion runs is an original, according to Nosowitz’s report on Fast Company, whether it’s a graphic, a photo created or taken in-house, or “an image so manipulated by Photoshop as to not represent any real event that has ever happened.” The small graphics team—comprised of just three people—churns out roughly 50 original artworks every week. As managing editor Ben Berkley notes: “We want to make sure that we’re making our Onion-world fully realized and very real.” Says Berkley of the three member team: “Calling them artistic wizards is a disservice to their talents. ”

Nosowitz further runs down the rigorous process the Onion has for creating its famous headlines. Members of its “surprisingly small staff” pitch thousands of headlines per week, a list that gets whittled down to about a dozen, he says. When a headline is approved, it gets taken to the art department and “every image has to be in lockstep with the story it’s illustrating,” says Berkley.  As an example, he says, if it’s a story about President Obama “and the facial expression doesn’t align with the tone of the piece, then it changes or confuses the whole joke.” This is especially important in instances where the image is the entire story.

Readers are treated to examples of how the site’s mundane “Area Man” artworks are created (it “relies on interns, employees, their significant others and friends, and their apartments”) or a full-blown original illustration to accompany another successful story: “Fossilized Evidence Reveals Spazosaurus Was Largest Doofus to Ever Roam the Earth.”

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