Out of the picture

Adrian Shaughnessy laments the demise of illustration and urges designers to seek out pioneering work that shows the discipline is still going strong.

As a young graphic designer in the late 1970s I took part in a bizarre weekly ritual. Every Friday I would skip lunch and, with two older designers, both male, both hardened pros, set off to visit a market stall in Victoria. It was an odd market stall. It only sold out-of-date porno mags: Playboy, Oui and Penthouse. It might have sold others, but these were the only titles we were interested in.

We’d buy armfuls of the stuff and head back to the studio. We’d rip out key pages and bin the residue without giving it a glance. The pages we tore out were transferred to scrap books and folders for closer inspection later.

What did we keep? Perhaps not what you’d think three males might be expected to keep. We kept the pages that featured – and you’re going to have trust me here – the copious editorial illustrations by the greats of late 20th century American and European illustration that were such an integral part of all three magazines.

And what illustrations! Wonderful work by Wilson McLean, Christian Piper, Dave Willardson, Robert Grossman, Patrick Nagel and others.

I was reminded of these trips to Victoria by my involvement in a new magazine devoted to illustration. I’ve recently taken on the editorship of a magazine funded by the Association of Illustrators and launched with the aim of improving the perception and status of illustration. And although in many ways illustration has never been more popular – I’m thinking of everything from Banksy to computer games – as a force in contemporary visual communications it’s a shadow of its former self.

When we ripped out illustrations from girlie mags in 1978 it was because we felt that design and illustration were part of a seamless continuum. We liked both equally. But from the 1980s onwards, graphic design and illustration went in different directions. Design asserted its supremacy over illustration and established its position as the dominant force in the commercial marketplace; it yoked itself to the juggernaut of big business and became its well-paid ally. This generation of business-focused designers preferred photography to illustration, and new software meant that designers could do many of the things that they previously needed illustrators for. Illustration got left behind.

It would need more space than I have here to discuss all the ramifications of illustrations’ ebb and flow over the past 30 years. But it is deplorable that, within contemporary visual communication, illustration has been downgraded to the status of an occasional decorative add-on. And while it’s undeniable that illustrators have been poor at asserting their value, the lion’s share of the blame for this situation rests with unadventurous designers and art directors who ignore illustration, or who are content to commission copycat work or, worse still, rely on the dismal offerings of stock illustration agencies.

But the situation is far from hopeless. There is some wonderful work being done – it just tends to be done by people who don’t regard themselves as traditional illustrators. It’s being done in nooks and crannies by people who are not interested in the old demarcation lines between graphic design and illustration. It’s being done by people who understand the emotive and conceptual power of illustration.

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