5 minutes with… Toby Morris
Art director, illustrator and comic Toby Morris takes big (often challenging) issues and distils them into digestible engaging visuals. Recently appointed creative director of the Spinoff, Toby’s collaboration with microbiologist and science communicator Dr Siouxsie Wiles informed us all how to stay safe and limit the spread of Covid-19. This important work was shared internationally and lead to a contract with the World Health Organisation. We spoke to Toby about the challenges of working on such fast-paced critical communications, what the pandemic changed for him, his career journey and aspirations.
Can you tell us about how your collaboration with the spinoff started?
I worked for RNZ for about three years doing a monthly comic called The Pencilsword, and illustrating a column in collaboration with Toby Manhire called Toby and Toby. After a while Toby Manhire became the editor at The Spinoff, and I really liked what they were doing there too so managed to talk my way in there. For RNZ I was really a classic freelancer, emailing in my work and while I loved the organisation, I always felt quite seperate from it, whereas Spinoff suggested I could work out of their office, and that appealed. I like feeling like part of a team. I feel really thankful that I made the move there, has felt like home.
And the path from there that lead to your role as Creative director?
I’ve been drawing for The Spinoff for about three years now. Some of that has been my monthly comic The Side Eye, then other bits are the type of things that come up being in the room with the writers – illustrating other people’s articles, doing bits and pieces of design and illustration for the site. This year I teamed up with Dr Siouxsie Wiles to make some illustrated graphics explaining the science around Covid, and they did really well, which lead some other clients including the World Health Organisation to come to the Spinoff wanting similar help, so my role started to morph into briefing other illustrators and designers as well as working on my own bits, just to keep up with demand. It’s a new thing for me to be commissioning other illustrators, I’m enjoying it.
What does a typical day at the Spinoff involve for you? (If there is such a thing as a typical day!)
It is pretty varied – some; I’m still working on my own comics and trying to still find time to illustrate stories and various bits for the site (today I drew a cover image for a new podcast we’re doing for example), and then the other side of it is taking briefs for upcoming work, briefing in writers and illustrators who are working on those, and then checking in on various other projects we’ve got going on like work we’re doing for WHO. I like that it’s always different day to day. There’s always something interesting going on in the office, everyone working on different stories, chasing leads. We’ve got people making video series and podcasts as well as articles for the site, and I love that there’s always a mix of really serious worthy topics and then weird lighter stuff too. Plus we have two cool dogs in the office, shout out to Stan and Pickle.
How do you handle the transfer of information between writers and creatives at the Spinoff?
This is still something I’m learning to be honest – every collaboration is quite different.
We are so grateful for all the important work you did to keep Aotearoa and the world safe this year! Tell us about your collaboration with Siouxsie Wiles to produce comms for the public on limiting the spread of the virus…
In mid-march as things were starting to get serious, I got a message from my editor asking if I’d want to help Siouxsie Wiles with an illustration she had in mind to go with one of her articles. I’d been reading her articles and knew that the situation was getting very serious, so I said yes and an hour or so later we were talking on the phone and working on a graphic called Flatten the Curve, which ended up going everywhere.
It was cool to work with Siouxsie, and cool to be able to use the skills I have to help out. It’s not something I ever thought I’d be doing, but you can’t say no to a situation like that. Especially those first few weeks we worked some serious hours, just trying to keep up with all the new information and new terms everyone was learning – we’d finish one and start the next one immediately. Everything else work-wise got pushed to the side.
It was a slightly different approach for me – one example is that we released everything under a creative commons license, meaning people are free to republish, rather than the usual mentality as creatives where we’re usually so protective over our own work – but the bigger picture was that we wanted the information to be spread as widely and quickly as possible, and that meant giving up a degree of control.
What was the most challenging part of developing these critical pieces of work?
The hardest part was keeping up. Things were developing so quickly and people were so hungry for good clear information that at times we were explaining things to the public at the same time as processing them ourselves. We all learnt so many new terms and so much new information, and Siouxsie was great at keeping one step ahead of it all – each day we’d talk and she’d say okay, the next thing we have to talk about is the idea of bubbles, or contact tracing, or distancing or whatever was coming next.
You produced 25+ pieces about the pandemic did you have one that was memorable either because of the response or stood out as being something you were particularly proud of and why?
The one I’m probably proudest of is the simple transmission tree where you see the downstream collective impacts individual choices can have. It’s very simple but illustrates a concept that’s actually really difficult to explain in words. That one ended up being taken and adapted by the official government public health campaigns in Australia, Germany, Argentina, Scotland, Canada and a bunch of other places. Millions of people saw it which is quite a surreal feeling.
And how did you feel seeing your work being used worldwide?
It’s pretty strange. In a way it’s really validating – I’ve always been a huge believer in the power of visual communication, so it that way it’s great to have some proof of that, but honestly, we were working so hard and I was so tired that it actually mostly just felt quite surreal. I’d get screenshots sent to me from mates showing someone famous – Ryan Reynolds or Richard Branson or whoever – sharing bits of our work, and after a while it just became impossible to fathom the scale so it.
Your work often takes on big issues, but given the scale and uncertainty of the pandemic how did you feel personally working on these pieces? Did the gravity weigh on you?
Yeah, that was the flip side of that. By three or four weeks in I was so tired that I was starting to hit a wall personally – it was a stressful scary time and I had my own family stuff going on like everybody else so I was just an emotional wreck some days – but it was really hard to stop or slow down because it was important work. I started to get emails form all over the world asking me to work on illustrations for other organisations, but I just couldn’t say yes to everything, and that weighed on me. There was one for a big humanitarian organisation where I remember very clearly they said ‘if you do this job you will save a lot of lives’ but I just couldn’t do it – I was shattered and had a huge backlog on, and I felt like the flip side of them saying that is that they were also saying ‘if you DON’T do this job a lot of people will die’ which made me feel sick and I lost sleep over.
Luckily at that point my editors and bosses at Spinoff could see I was struggling, and stepped in and started to build more support around me – that job, for example, we briefed in to another animator and I oversaw it, so it all worked out ok.
Has the pandemic response (and your work on the COVID comms) changed anything for you personally? How have you adapted? What will you be doing differently?
I wouldn’t be doing this new job as Creative Director, and I certainly wouldn’t be doing work for the WHO. So it’s been weirdly life-changing for me which feels very strange. In terms of my approach to things, I’m not sure yet. I’m definitely washing my hands a lot more.
What advice do you have for illustrators who want to follow a similar path toward creating this meaningful and important work and to combine artistic practice with social good?
I absolutely encourage everyone making any kind of creative work to say something with that work. Not just in the content, but also in the types of approaches you take, or the voice you talk in, or the little choices you make on jobs. I worked in advertising for years and I don’t wanna rag on advertising at all – but all along the way whatever job you’re doing you make all these little choices, and I think we have to ask ourselves each day ‘am i helping or making things worse?’. That’s super earnest and preachy, but it’s true – I just want to help, or at the very least, not make the world shitter.
You studied politics at university did you always aspire to combine the two interests?
It wasn’t something I really thought about it with any great plan, I was just interested in understanding politics really. after high school I didn’t get into design school and wasn’t sure what else to do so went and studied politics and english, which have, in the long run, come in handy now.
We loved your recent cartoon coverage of election night! What do you enjoy most about this rapid fire visual journalism?
I’m a politics nerd, so I always look forward to election night, it’s always such a strange mix of exciting and super boring. I’m a big fan of the quirks of the wall to wall live tv coverage, where they’re trying to pad for time or things get weird, so I thought at the very least if I tried to do some quick on the spot drawings on the night I’d be able to draw up some of that. As it turned out, there was plenty of action so it was a busy night – I think I did eleven illustrations over about four hours. I think by themselves they’re probably a bit messy, but as one aspect of the Spinoff’s coverage of the night I hope somewhat like that can add a bit of colour – or something different at least among the straight news reporting. A visual perspective. It’s really tiring working that fast – I’d go nuts if I always had to do that all the time, but a good challenge to have a go at occasionally.
What are the professional or personal goals you are working toward?
I’ve got a new book I’m working on, slowly but surely, and that’s been a big goal to make a bit of time for some longer personal work. The main goal at the moment though is getting my head around this new role at Spinoff and really try to see what I can do there. I also have a longstanding goal to create a classic sunglasses-wearing product mascot which has just slipped through my fingers a few times, am always waiting for the perfect brief to be able to tick that one off.
Finally, where can we see more of your work/connect with you?
The Spinoff is the best place to go, or my insta or twitter I usually share what I’ve been – @xtotl