Illustrated News with the Rapid Response Unit

Printed news is in fast decline with all streams of breaking news now accessible through social and digital media. For satirical illustrators like dot-art artist member Phil Disley the art of political cartooning and illustrated news has found a new online presence, having to adapt to fast news, fake news and the short attention spans of the average reader.


The Rapid Response Unit, a new-wave news hub based in Liverpool’s St John’s Shopping Centre, has set-up shop to house a variety of creative residents; artists, musicians, illustrators and poets, each aiming to reinterpret the way we read and respond to news as and when it breaks, putting art and culture firmly at the centre of the news agenda.

dot-art artist Phil Disley is one of Britain’s foremost illustrators having been featured in The Times, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Spectator and more. Phil was the RRU’s first resident to rehash the daily news alongside digital artist and animator Jane Farley from First Take. For this project, with support from Jane Farley and the RRU team, Phil transformed what is traditionally 2D news into animated digital feed which included GIFS and utilised an augmented reality app to get their animations onto the streets as well as onto peoples devices.

We met with Phil to ask him about his week with the RRU and life as a news illustrator.

Gang of Four by Phil Disley

How was your week with RRU News?


It was a weird week really, it reminded me of when I used to work in daily news and having a ‘9 til 5’ job as opposed to freelance weekly projects. When I worked with The Guardian and The Independent I got into the routine of drawing articles everyday and the pace of it.

I find when working on daily news that you need a broader understanding of current affairs and it’s essential to prep a lot more to ensure that what you’re illustrating is relevant and that you include points of reference within your drawings to help it make sense. It was really nice having a team around me at RRU, it’s a challenge to do things in a day completely by myself and so having a team made it much more fun.


Did you see a difference in the way people have been responding to the breaking news through the RRU platform?


It was a challenge to gauge really. Before social media came about, which is exploding now, no one had a direct or fast outlet to respond to news, so the RRU platform is really an extension of social media and that immediate response you get from digital news and so it encouraged people to have a voice or opinion whereas traditional news seemed to just feed people information in a unidirectional way.


Did anything take you by surprise during the week?


I found that with digital animation once you set a basic story design in place, you can then come up with shortcuts to create the animation as fast as possible once the news breaks by either deleting or adding layers, this is more difficult with freehand illustration where you’d have to start over completely if the news angle changed.

I was surprised by how fast digital animation is compared to freehand – I held the misconception that digital would be much more complicated but I did have a fantastic team with me (Jane Farley, Digital Artist and Animator) so perhaps that was why!


ken dodd sketch by phil disley

What was your favourite news story to illustrate in the week?


Definitely drawing Ken Dodd, you just smile when you look at him, it was a nice tribute – I’m not even sure if we used the sketch as the news of Stephen Hawking passing away broke shortly after! The actual image composition I liked best was the Cold War scene with Boris Johnson, it was good to have a little laugh at him sliding across the top of the screen on a zipwire and layering over the sound of squeaking wheels. (See video in page footer.)



Stephen Hawking by Phil Disley

What made you become an illustrator and how have you developed your own visual language?


Initially I wasn’t into politics at all, but the illustrations I liked just happened to be political; Ralph Stedman and Gerald Scarfe from The Sunday Times. I was looking for work after college and the constant output of news just worked with my style of drawing so that’s how I got into illustrating news and it seemed the best route for me at the time.

My first job was at The Evening Standard in the 1990’s so I’d fax roughs of my work over before the deadlines and then send it by special delivery post and that was for weekly news so there was always a risk that the story would be dead by the time it got to print! When email was born, that’s when I moved on to daily news illustrations, the pace was just so much faster.


What’s your advice for anyone who wants to work in illustration?


  1.  Always draw want you want to draw, follow your passion and find a way to make it work without compromising too much.
  2.  When I was studying I allowed myself to focus purely on my own style because I had generous deadlines and therefore you have the luxury to explore your own style – just draw and draw until it becomes as natural as handwriting and your style will evolve and develop with each project you do.


Do you find it challenging not to show bias when choosing who or what to illustrate or do you have complete freedom of expression?


It’s impossible not to be biased, everyone has a preconceived idea for something in the news depending on which news outlet you follow so it’s difficult not to incorporate bias into your own illustrations. Your drawings have to have an opinion I think – neutrality doesn’t work with illustration especially in the news realm. People read illustrations either because they like that person, or they strongly dislike that person so a polarised view will work either way.

Ironically, despite having worked a lot for left newspapers, the centre-right wing media have published illustrations of mine which poke fun at people with right political beliefs. It’s all a bit of fun and you have to laugh at yourself.



You can follow the Rapid Response Unit and their creative take on daily news and events via Twitter @RRUNEWS and Instagram @rrunews.