Daniel Zender remembers looking at Communication Arts when he was a student at MSU.
The international journal, which covers graphic design, advertising, photography, illustration and media, inspired him.
Now, Zender is inspiring others: He has been featured in Communication Arts himself.
A story in the November/December 2018 issue showcased his work as a go-to freelance illustrator for major clients in New York City.
It’s among just a few of his accolades and accomplishments.
- He’s earned a Young Guns award, a top creative achievement.
- Each year for about nine years, his work has been part of the annual Society of Illustrators exhibition.
- He designed a wall mural for Adidas in Brooklyn, where he lives.
- And he’s teaching students at Queens College, City University of New York.
Finding encouragement at Missouri State
Zender always knew he wanted to study art.
He was drawn to typography, found images and experimentation. Those came together in his graphic design major.
Cedomir Kostovic, Missouri State professor of art and design, first noticed Zender’s dedication.
“I like to observe students when they are on breaks,” Kostovic said. Some fixate on their phones. Some talk casually.
Zender was the kind of student who would flip through the materials related to art history, design and visual communication.
“I said, ‘OK, this is a good sign.’ In class, he was curious. Always asking, questioning,” Kostovic said. “That was one of the first things that made him a little bit different. He was braver. He was always really open to feedback; it didn’t matter if it was positive or negative.”
Eric Pervukhin, another of Zender’s design professors, said he was original, independent and brought great energy to class.
“He was one of the students who was not just a pleasure, but a big help, to have in class.”
It was no surprise to them that Zender had the drive to start his career in a big way.
“They always encouraged me to get my work in front of people,” Zender said, so that’s what he did.
He stayed in Springfield for two years after graduation in 2010. He worked at a coffee shop, but all the time he was cultivating freelance clients in New York City.
“The teachers at Missouri State instilled a work ethic that I think maybe some schools don’t. I sometimes think that work ethic is more important than the work itself.”
Because of his hustle, when he moved to NYC in 2012, he already had a client base in a competitive city and career. He knocked on doors to find even more work.
“This field is always walls, walls, walls, but he never gave up,” Kostovic said. “Sometimes he goes around the wall, sometimes he goes through the wall. Now, all his struggles are paying off.”
Working in many mediums, including digital and paint
When Zender first moved to New York, his plan was to go to graduate school.
He earned a master’s in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in 2014.
That degree allowed him to take a teaching position at Queens College. He teaches one illustration course and one design course.
The rest of his time is taken up with freelance jobs and creating his own work.
“I’m lucky that I’ve been successful enough to afford a shared art studio in Brooklyn.”
He tries to go to his studio two days a week for at least six to eight hours. There’s no Internet there — nothing, he said, to prevent him from getting lost in his work.
“It’s just where I go to play around and paint and experiment with different mediums.”
He works on his digital illustrations for clients at home, and fits in visits to galleries and museums where he can.
“I pride myself in not sticking to one medium, just so I don’t get locked into a specific way of working.”
Blending horror, humor to depict complex topics
No matter the medium, Zender has a recognizable style.
“That’s a big thing at MSU: The professors taught us to use our own interests and inspirations, instead of copying other people or mimicking other styles.”
He works from a color palette that typically sticks to black, white, red and yellow, with some sky blue or an eerie green. There are a lot of thick, black lines. Eyes are usually white or black circles, no irises. Backgrounds may drip, smear, spike or splatter.
He balances a sense of foreboding with a sense of humor to illustrate journalistic stories. His recent topics include waking up during surgery, artificial intelligence and global cybersecurity.
“For me, horror creates a visceral response that can be applied to political and social things. I see a lot of relationship between horror movies and things that are happening in the world that are real. So, I think that’s an easy connection to make visually. Humor helps alleviate that tension a little bit. I like to mix the two because it doesn’t make the work just dreadful or depressing, which I think people are already inundated with, again, in the real world. To me, infusing humor in it allows people to engage with it.”
Young Guns award means “he’s among the greats”
Zender’s style is his signature, said fellow creative Louie Jimena, a partner at We are Friends studios in NYC.
“He has that idiosyncrasy a real creator has. (You can say) ‘I recognize that work; it’s a Daniel Zender.’ ”
That appealed to the selection committee for the Art Directors Club of New York Young Guns award. Young Guns is an annual juried competition for creatives from around the world who are 30 and younger. Thousands of people may enter each year.
Jimena was the Young Guns manager until 2018.
“To be accepted to win this award really means a lot, because previous winners choose you,” Jimena said. “Once you’re in, you’re in forever. They help each other out, they build this community that understands each other. They do projects together all over the world.”
Zender was chosen for inclusion in 2015.
“He won in the most competitive year of the process,” Jimena said. “We only chose 19 that year, and we usually have 30. Now, he’s among the greats.”
“It’s just where I want to be with my career”
Even as he becomes a firm part of the New York creative scene, Zender gives back to MSU.
He is one of “a colony of our former students in New York,” Pervukhin said. “We keep up with our contacts there.”
Zender has been a resource for Kostovic, giving current MSU students real projects so they experience working with a professional art director.
When he comes back to Missouri to see his family — including his scientist sister Abby, a fellow Bear — he may visit campus.
“A year ago, he came here and gave a beautiful talk and worked with students,” Pervukhin said.
Zender still feels “a little bit surprised” when he realizes he is a successful illustrator.
“I’ve been lucky that people are consistently hiring me. I hope the feeling of excitement doesn’t go away,” he said.
“Every time the New York Times emails me and I have a job to do for them in six hours, I do a little fist pump. It’s just where I want to be with my career. It feels extremely good. It’s high-brow stuff, and they have people reading all over the world, and so the fact that they trust me … it means a lot to me.”
Where you may see Zender’s work
His past clients, or platforms where his work has appeared, include:
- Bloomberg Businessweek
- Boston Globe
- “Broad City”
- Columbia Journalism Review
- Fast Company
- L.A. Times
- MIT Technology Review
- The New Yorker
- The New York Times (he’s done almost 90 illustrations for it)
- Scientific American
- Vice Media
- Village Voice
- Warby Parker
And many more.