the FACTopia! series: a blog by Andy Smith
Created: 4th September, 2023

Q&A with Andy Smith, illustrator of the FACTopia! series.


What motivated you to begin a career in illustrating? 

When I left school knew I wanted to do something to do with art but had no idea what. At art college I tried a bit of everything but was drawn to illustration as it felt like an art form that could be fun and humorous (I thought the people doing fine art etc were all a bit too serious!) I like the way in illustration you work to a brief so it’s kind of like trying to solve a problem. You figure out what you need to communicate and then try to do it in an interesting way that pleases you and the client. It might be you are advertising a product and making that look good or telling a story, every job is different so it never gets boring.


There are now five titles in the FACTopia! series, what has made this project different to other projects you have worked on?

I work on all sorts of projects, so advertising posters, magazine illustrations, packaging, books etc. But it’s often just one project for a few weeks and then its done and I’m on to the next. Factopia is the biggest and longest running thing I have worked on by a long way. It’s meant I have been able to establish a way of working that I can really settle in to and once this has happened everything seems to get easier and quicker. Its important that the illustrations are accurate in what they are depicting and they are carefully checked by Britannica and I think that's made my style a little less sketchy and I’ve become a little more careful with what I am doing. Before Factopia I would often draw people with eyes and a mouth but no nose. Now I've added noses so I am advancing my style!

How does the process of illustrating a FACTopia! work? Any favourite/memorable parts?

I get given the manuscript and off I go! Almost every fact is illustrated in some way (thought some are photographs) and there are 400 in the book. On each page I try and pick one fact that will be main element that will grab the viewer a bit like I’m designing a poster rather than a book. Then I usually arrange the rest of the facts roughly on the page to support it. I’ll also select a few photos from picture library that we could use as we usually have at least one photo on each page to accompany my illustrations . Next the page gets passed to Lawrence Morton the designer who I work with on the book. He will then add in all the text and move and resize my illustrations and the photos so that the page flows nicely. He also adds the trail that connects every fact in the book. 

Once the page is approved I work up the final artwork. It’s quite a fast process and we try not to fiddle around with the design and images too much. I think my illustrations work best when they are quickly drawn out. Sometimes if an artwork is laboured over and redrawn several times it loses the energy. I have done several pages when I’ve worked up a fancy final artwork and then realised the original rough looked better so I’ve use that instead. 

Some pages do have a lot of information and it requires quite bit of organising by Lawrence but occasionally there's perhaps one or two facts on a page and they are gifts as you just know that page will work great. In the first Factopia book there's a fact about how Chimpanzees smile to apologise and we just had a chimps large grinning face filling the page, when we did that page I knew this project was going to be a lot of fun to work on.

Do you have any tips on how young illustrators could start their own FACTopia! or find inspiration for illustration in facts?

There are some facts that are so funny that you think that will make a great illustration. For example In Factopia Animals there's a bulldog named Tillman who likes to ride a skateboard around Times Square in New York. But sometimes it’s the facts that seem a little dull or odd that are the best to illustrate as you can give them something extra that comes from you, maybe add some humour or tell a little story with the fact. For example in Return to Factopia there's the fact ’The moon is shrinking’. It felt a bit difficult to illustrate that but I came up with an image of the moon wearing an enormous pair of trousers like in one of those weigh loss ads. So you can shoot off at a bit of a tangent sometimes.

Who are your favourite illustrators past and present and why?

When I was young the first illustrator who I really became aware of was Massimo Berlardinelli who was a cartoonist for the comic 2000AD he used to do very complex strange drawings that I thought were amazing. I liked the madness of Albert Oderzo’s Asterix books and the zany humour of Don Martin from Mad Magazine so suppose it was comics that introduced me to illustration. I remember spending a lot of time copying from comic books and trying to get it just like the original.   More recent illustrators that come to mind that I like are Chris Ware and Olympia Zagnoli but there are far too many to mention.


And finally, were there any books that had a lasting impact on you as a child and why? 

I quite liked illustrated books and comics. I seem to have bypassed a lot of the classic kids books and I don’t remember having any Ronald Dahl books with the Quentin Blake illustrations or Where the Wild Things are etc. But I had few Richard Scarry books that I really liked. The drawings of things like Lowly worm in his apple car have stayed with me! I also really liked Raymond Briggs books. I remember at school for a project I wrote him a letter as one of the teachers knew he lived nearby. I not only got a reply but it was on special Fungus the Bogeyman notepaper. Perhaps I should make some Factopia notepaper, someone might write to me!


HISTORY FACTopia! Follow Ye Olde Trail of 400 Facts by Paige Towler, illustrated by Andy Smith is out now in hardback (£10.99, Britannica Books)