The Making of a Podcast Cover

A behind-the-scenes look at the process of how I created the cover illustration for the Washington Post’s first long-term investigative podcast. This essay was originally published on November 9, 2020 on LinkedIn.

Ariel Sun
4 min readApr 18, 2022

A few months ago, I was commissioned to create the cover illustration for The Washington Post’s first long-form investigative podcast: “Canary”. One of the most rewarding independent projects, this is also the first illustration I’ve done for a podcast cover, so I thought I’d give you a behind-the-scenes look at the collaborative process, if anyone’s interested or curious about what it’s like to creation illustrations in the editorial world.

First of all, the objective of the project — the cover seeks to create a compelling visual representation for the story by the Post’s reporter Amy Brittain, based on her 3-year investigations into two sexual assault cases that link back to a high-ranking figure in Washington DC’s criminal justice system. The podcast, launched on October 1, 2020, tracks Reporter Amy’s investigation, and explores how an unlikely connection between two strangers reveals the scope of sexual assault and its spiraling effects.

When Projects Editor Courtney reached out and briefed me about this cover, I learned that the story was about two brave women, many years apart in age and hundreds of miles apart in location, who decided to come forward with their devastating stories as sexual assault victims, along with the social and emotional challenges they grappled with as they brought the truth to light.

During this initial briefing call, I also learned that I was not able to listen to the Podcast: it was to stay under wraps until the launch. So throughout the creative process, I worked off of a summary of the plot.

In the concepting stage, one of the major decisions was how to represent the podcast’s namesake, which was inspired by the metaphor of the “canary in the coal mine”. Five sketches of different concepts were submitted to the WP editorial team, offering more and less literal representations of the canary. The concept chosen by the editorial team was the one that featured the most subtle representation of the set: a single feather in the female figure’s hand. This figure also features a prominent shadow, which can be interpreted as a reference to the “second woman” who comes forward after being inspired by the first. In the initial concept, the illustration ended right below the eye line of the female figure. In the development into the final version, we decided to add the full head, with billowing hair to symbolize “change is in the air”. Subsequent iterations focused on fine-tuning the woman’s body language, particularly the position of the lips to portray both the initial hesitance of the character resolving into the decision to bravely step forward.

Capturing this tension between fear and hope, loss and newfound strength required careful attention to color and composition. The link between our choice of bright yellow and canary’s bright yellow feathers was obvious. Orange became the color that represents the darker parts on the feather, and the brighter parts on the character. The muted blue was chosen for sharp contrast to bright yellow-small doses of bright yellow against a solemn, muted backdrop, matches the story of how truth eventually came to light.

Composition-wise, ensuring the versatility of the artwork across platforms was a critical objective. This required a simple, but striking illustration, that would work well across the varying sizes of podcast covers displayed on different interfaces on podcast platforms.

The podcast was featured #1 in Apple Podcasts’ “New & Noteworthy” category on its first day of launch, and has since received praise from diverse critics. It was a great pleasure to have played a part in the success of this important journalistic endeavor. Most gratifying of all, though, was to hear from one of the women who was the subject of the podcast that she felt that the illustration did justice to her story.

Any questions? Please let me know in the comments!

Listen to the Podcast here.



Ariel Sun

Currently: Global Product Design @Dexcom. Ex-Wix, NYU, Medly