Eddie Alvarez, art director at The Washington Post

Artistic skills, winding path lead to successful career

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Artistic skills, winding path lead to successful career

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
University of Miami alumnus Eddie Alvarez excels as a newspaper designer and is now an art director at The Washington Post.

When Eddie Alvarez was a student at the University of Miami, honing his graphic design skills while spending any free time holed up painting in his studio space, he never imagined he would end up in the news business.

But Alvarez, who graduated in 2003, is now an award-winning art director at The Washington Post, utilizing his art skills to both supervise and illustrate design for the Arts & Style section, while also working on breaking news at least once a week. He even got to design the front page the day after the Washington Capitals won the 2018 Stanley Cup and last week when National Guard troops rolled into the nation’s capital ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

“I never considered newspapers at all,” said Alvarez, who majored in painting and graphic design. “But I am thankful for the winding road that got me here.”

Upon graduating, Alvarez hoped to design branding and logo images for companies by putting his art skills to use in a marketable way. And he did, while working at The Weinbach Group, an advertising firm that has done brand design for medical companies and charities, as well as the University. Yet, after working in Coral Gables for a few years, Alvarez kept itching to return to the northeast, where a portion of his extended family lives, and where there could be more opportunities to exhibit his paintings. He moved back to New Jersey, where he was born, and lived close to family while doing freelance graphic design.

A few years later, he met the woman who would become his wife, and started working at the Gannett Corporation in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The company was starting a design studio to support a group of newspapers in the northeast. Alvarez had no news experience, but his supervisor, Tim Frank, noticed Alvarez’s passion for creative design and hired him anyway. Soon, Alvarez was responsible for producing the sports pages for 15 different papers.

“I had no journalistic training, but Tim saw my potential to be a good designer,” he said, adding that Frank taught him quite a bit and was crucial to his career.

Two years later, Alvarez’s supervisor left Gannett for the Washington Post, so Alvarez took his place and became a manager overseeing 12 designers. Shortly thereafter, an opening at the Washington Post came up, and Alvarez’s name was floated. The management had seen his work online and liked his eye for design, so when he was offered the job, Alvarez took it. In 2015, he moved with his family to Washington, D.C. to join the storied newspaper. He now lives and works in Maryland with his wife, Jackie; daughter, Kylie; and son, Adrian.

Since joining the newspaper, Alvarez said the newsroom has allowed him to be more creative than he could in the past. He has been able to illustrate some of his own graphics, such as one he did of Paul Ryan and President Trump’s former spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, for a story about Generation X, while also art directing photo shoots in novel ways. This included an idea he and a photo editor had to visit the Sesame Street studio and dress up the characters in black tie for a piece about the celebrated children’s show earning honors from the Kennedy Center on its 50th birthday.Eddie Alvarez with Oscar the Grouch

Alvarez has also been able to delve into digital and interactive design at the Washington Post, which was always a goal. A few years ago, he had an idea to create a fun holiday search similar to the popular “Where’s Waldo?” books. Now it is an annual tradition, where the newspaper’s readers can challenge themselves to find reindeer or gingerbread menin an interactive puzzle featured just before Christmas. He also worked on a recent project to create a COVID-19 guide for parents. And for a feature in 2018, he helped create augmented reality experiences of wildlife, like bison at Yellowstone National Park, for the country’s 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites. At times, Alvarez also gets to work with another University alumna and art director, Katherine Lee, who helped produce a graphic novel of the Mueller report. 

The newspaper’s art team is pretty flexible, Alvarez said, so designers are often able to find an area  they are passionate about and produce more for that space. Since Alvarez still paints in the contemporary, figurative style, and appreciates performance art, he quickly gravitated to the Arts & Style section.

“Once you find a niche and show you have a capability, you’re given the opportunity to do that,” he said.

Still, Alvarez credits his University professors in the studio art program with helping him gain a foundation in design that helped him excel professionally. In particular, he recalls his weekly critiques in his painting classes from his peers and his professor, Darby Bannard,  as key to helping him develop a thick skin needed for the news business, especially since he was not trained in journalism.  

“I learned on the fly, so I would often do a lot of things wrong, but [because of those critique sessions] I’m not discouraged when I get something wrong,” he said. “And usually, I exceed my own expectations when I get it right.”

According to Alvarez, the foundation he gleaned from professors in the art department like painter Kyle Trowbridge, and former professor Tom Gormley—who passed away in 2005, but was a classmate of Andy Warhol’s—were a great springboard for his career.

“Once you understand things like composition and typography and what that can do to draw the reader or viewer in, it’s incredibly powerful,” he said. “The other stuff can be learned.”

His advice to current University students? Take a variety of courses because you never know when that knowledge will come in handy.

“Don’t be too focused on one thing. It helped me a lot to take extra credits and just see what those other departments had to offer,” he said, mentioning that he once took abnormal psychology and found it fascinating. “All those classes have helped me in ways that it’s hard to vocalize, but the school has so many great departments that it’s crazy not to take advantage of something that is not in your realm.”