How Gawker Site io9 Is Using Art to Engage Readers

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Fans of Gawker sci-fi site i09 should brace themselves for some out-of-this-world illustrations, thanks to a partnership it's struck with Oscar-winning visual-effects and production studio Framestore.

Beginning next month, readers will begin seeing Framestore-rendered images crop up on the site, particularly in connection with a regular feature of the blog called the "concept art writing prompt." Usually running on weekends, it's one of the most popular features and a major traffic-driver for the site, wherein an image -- think along the lines of an intergalactic voyage, alien or futuristic city -- is posted and readers are invited to submit a short piece of fiction inspired by the artwork.

"We are totally in love with concept art; it's one of the things that makes science fiction great," Annalee Newitz, the blog's editor-in-chief, told Ad Age. "This is all kind of an experiment, and we're going to see what comes of it."

The near-term goal is to use the images rendered by Framestore to boost engagement with io9 readers. The site falls somewhere in the middle of the pack of the Gawker Media titles when it comes to readership, with 3.2 million monthly readers. That's larger than Kotaku, Jalopnik or Deadspin, but still significantly smaller than Gizmodo or the flagship Gawker. It's almost neck-and-neck with female-oriented Jezebel. I09, however, claims its demo is 82% male. The bulk of its readers -- 45% -- are between 25 and 34 years old.

Another goal is to get writers and artists talking to each other more. "We're hoping it will be kind of a dialogue between our readers and the [creators] of the art," said Ms. Newitz, adding that she envisions that eventually the Framestore art department will produce images in response to the types of tales that io9 readers submit.

"One of the things that the io9 community loves more than anything is concept art and they're real aficionados of pop culture in that community," said Nick Hooker, who's responsible for creative development at Framestore. The shop was introduced to io9 via Mr. Hooker's friend, Gaby Darbyshire, who is Gawker's chief operating officer.

For Framestore -- which has never worked in this sort of capacity with a media site -- it's a chance to market the talents of its visual department, which is about 20 people strong, based in London. "The irony is that the work they create is never seen by anyone other than very rigorously controlled movie studios," said Mr. Hooker. He noted that the work the team does is often in the form of "beautiful renderings, paintings and watercolors that no one ever sees," yet it's what inspires the visual and emotional DNA of so many movies.

Some of the studios Framestore works for include Warner Brothers, Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Universal.

Longer-term, that experience with movie-making could come in handy. Said Ms. Newitz: "Our readers are fantastic writers, so we have high hopes. ... Our fantasy is that we would get a story or images that could be turned into a movie."

Other ideas that are being floated are the creation of a compendium of the images and writings in the form of a book or allowing the pieces of art to be collected and purchased by io9 fans. It's not the first time the site has experimented with trying to export the io9 brand to other offline media channels; earlier this year, it began experimenting with its own branded TV show.