Ahead, Nicole O’Toole, the creative director at John Brown Media U.S., shares the nuts and bolts of her job—and how to make smoky pork tacos and grilled drumsticks look ultra-summery in the dead of winter.
What’s your role at John Brown Media?
As our U.S. office’s creative director, I oversee the look and feel of the content we create for the brands we work with. It’s part graphic design, part art direction, part detailed logistics, and part big-picture planning.
We wanted to create recipes that involved zero oven time—the kinds of food you want to be cooking and eating out on your patio—and that meant grilling, but we actually create the magazine in the middle of winter in Boston, so ours were covered in snow! We worked with a recipe developer in a warmer part of the country, who could develop and test items outside on the grill. To create an environment to photograph them in that felt true to summer, we relied on a rustic picnic-table wood as well as a bright, summery peach surface, and props like sweaty beer bottles and a citronella candle. We adjusted the studio lighting setup to mimic the look of late evening summer shadows. And there are the true-to-life details: some crumbs on the table, drink rings on the surface, the food has been scooped into, all of which make it look and feel like a real backyard picnic table in July, even when we’re shooting on a snowy day in March.
Citronella candles add a summery touch to this photo shoot, shot on March 15, 2019, in New York City.
What’s the importance of imagery when it comes to conveying food and recipes?
Imagery is what inspires us to cook and what guides us to how it should look. I have a rule that I don’t buy cookbooks unless they have a picture for every recipe! It’s tricky though because, as we’ve all experienced, sometimes the most delicious food doesn’t actually look good, and something that looks amazing might actually not taste that great. It’s a fine line that we walk as we develop recipes and plan how we’ll photograph them: They need to entice the reader visually, but not at the expense of taste or by making the recipe more complicated than it needs to be. We want the reader to want to make the recipe, but also make sure that when they do, it looks as good as the picture! I’ve been surprised and thrilled at how many emails and posts we get from readers who’ve made the recipes and were proud of how they came out—that’s the best confirmation that we’re hitting the mark.
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Picnic photographed for the July/August issue of Hannaford fresh magazine by Andrew Purcell; food styling by Barrett Washburne; prop styling by Courtney De Wet.