Fellow travellers

Graphics and illustration were closely related disciplines up until the 1970s, but the branding revolution of the 1980s saw them experience diverging fates. Adrian Shaughnessy senses a possible reconciliation, inspired by an American innovator

Steven Heller is one of graphic design’s great evangelists. He is the author, or at least co-author, of more than 100 books (the number grows by five or six each year). He is especially evangelical about design history, and finds value in sophisticated German typography from the 1930s, as well as in primitive matchbox labels.

In his view, graphic design and illustration are fellow travellers. He flits between the two subjects without missing a beat, and it’s appropriate that he should have written a book with Seymour Chwast who, with Milton Glaser, founded Push Pin Studios, and presided over one of the most successful fusions of graphic design and illustration.

Since Push Pin’s glory years of the 1960s and 1970s, graphic design and illustration have had an uneasy alliance. Graphic design is seen as a serious-minded and suitable partner for big business; illustration, on the other hand, is regarded as ephemeral and decorative. Graphic designers deal with important matters such as branding and identity; illustrators are left to fill holes in editorial spreads or add a dash of fizzy style to ads for mobile phone tariffs and cosmetics.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. We need only look at Push Pin, or the current Alan Aldridge exhibition at the Design Museum in London, to see how illustration used to rule the roost. In the 1970s, when pioneers of the new design seriousness, such as Michael Peters, were forging an enhanced image for graphic design, illustration was used extensively. To be a Playboy illustrator in the 1970s meant big fees and lots of prestige.

But a schism was on its way. As Michael Johnson, a designer who frequently uses illustrative elements in his work, notes, ‘Back then, the distinction between being “a designer” and “an illustrator” was much more blurred, probably because people like Chwast and Glaser were so comfortable moving between the two and mixing them up, in the way British equivalents like Alan Fletcher were also doing. But, as graphic design “grew up”, it started to treat illustration and photography as separate disciplines, so then came the great divide.’

This division widened in the 1980s as graphic design found a ready audience in the boardrooms of big businesses in thrall to Thatcherite and Reaganite economics. In this new strategy-based creativity there wasn’t much room for illustration. Even in the 1990s, with the rise of radicalism and an anti-corporatist spirit in graphic design – not to mention the arrival of the computer which allowed graphic designers to function as image-makers – illustration continued to slide off the agenda. Illustrators became disillusioned, and many retreated into isolationism, allowing the craft to become a cottage industry.

Yet today, as mainstream graphic design becomes increasingly anodyne – leading to a subset of I-speak-your-weight branding strategies – illustration is being revitalised. We might quibble at calling him an illustrator, but Banksy is many times better known than any graphic designer; we need only look at the way mainstream media have responded to the Aldridge show to see how illustration has the power to create emotional ripples.

Suddenly, illustration seems like commercial visual communication’s last best hope. And, oddly, the source of much of this optimism is coming from a new breed of hybrid graphic designers. ‘I think a newer generation of people like Non Format, Alex Trochut and Kate Moross probably see themselves as image-makers, and the distinction has begun to get fuzzy again,’ notes Johnson.

You could add lots of names to Johnson’s list. There are a growing number of young graphic designers – groups like Universal Everything – which combine illustrative elements in their work, producing some of the most engaging and visually effervescent work around.

Few set-ups exemplify this fusion better than Non Format. ‘We’ve been happily defining ourselves either as illustrators or graphic designers for decades,’ says partner Jon Forss, ‘but in the past ten years or so, technology has made it possible for anyone with an aptitude for image-making, or typography, or photo-manipulation, or a combination of them all, to get stuck in and, thank goodness, make a decent living at it.’ Forss even has a name for this new school, arguing that, ‘I somehow can’t imagine graphic designers suddenly deciding to call themselves illustrators, so what should this new generation of Adobe-fuelled graphic designers/illustrators/typographers call themselves? Adobots.’

It seems clear that the coming together of illustration and graphic design in the hands of a new, smart generation of hybrid graphic designers is one of the great causes for optimism in visual communication. The work of this emergent generation – many of whom are currently studying on university courses that mix design and illustration – is brimming with energy and fire. The spirit of Push Pin lives on.

Illustration: A Visual History, by Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast, is published by Abrams next month, priced £19.99

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