Drawing conclusions

Has there been a worse time to be an illustrator? Less than ten years ago annual reports, packaging, magazines and advertising acted as galleries of superb illustrative creativity. Corporate and commercial expression was taken to a new level by business-minded art directors and designers working with confident and daring illustrative image makers.

Those days now look like a last great flowering. The new breed of designers think illustration is dull and prefer to use photographic, computer-generated, televisual or purely graphic imagery. And they are right to think that way. More than ever before, the audience for design work reacts instinctively and instantaneously to the visual style of an image, and their reaction to conventional illustration is a mental yawn.

Bright clients know it instinctively. Most successful companies and organisations seeking to position themselves as contemporary, intelligent and customer-focused are not using illustration in their communications.

Designers and art directors are not to blame for the anaemic state of illustration, illustrators are. As audiences have become more sophisticated, illustration has allowed itself to be confined to prison-like boxes within uninspired layouts. It has failed to inspire designers to think of illustration as more than a visual diversion on a page of text. Whether through a crisis of confidence, laziness, lack of ambition or confusion, illustration has sunk into a subservient role, with just a few mavericks fighting the good fight. Average illustrators are now the serfs of the design industry, trudging the roads between portfolio viewings like desperate and disenfranchised painters-and-decorators of picture boxes.

Take a look at the illustrative contribution to the design work you have seen in recent years – I have. Not only is there so little of it in comparison to photography, but much of what does make it to the printers is conceptually vacant and visually retarded. In contrast, photography has become a many-splendoured thing, reinventing itself daily across the pages of everything from corporate brochures to new magazines. Aesthetic and technological developments have been incorporated into creative approaches – not without difficulty, but definitely with some engaging results. Just as important, photographers also have the passion and focus to take their work out into the world and find places for it to live.

Perhaps illustration is focusing its passion elsewhere? The Internet is a fascinating barometer of how a sector of business reacts to change – is illustration thriving on-line? Hardly. Search engine Yahoo! responds to the key words “illustration” and “UK” with a paltry 15 website links. Those sites are pretty conventional – some images and a client list – but at least they’re there (respect to 3D illustrator Biggles at www.biggles.uk.com for having a great site and producing a piece of work called Edible Chess).

Here is a medium which thousands of art directors and designers access every day; a medium where someone can create their own site – a place to introduce new thinking, show personal work, invite comment and to be your own client.

With download times affected by the complexity of imagery, it’s also a medium that technically prefers illustration to photography. So why aren’t more illustrators doing brilliant things on-line? Are they incapable of having a good idea on their own?

There are, of course, some notable exceptions to all this. One of the best things I’ve seen recently is Paul Davis’s new work – it demonstrates that illustration can be brilliant, funny, unique and very contemporary. And then there’s CDT Design’s extraordinary first day cover set, designed by Mike Dempsey and Simon Elliott in conjunction with Royal Mail to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium. The 48-set series is an example of what immaculate commissioning and exceptional illustrating can achieve.

Such brilliant work shows that illustration can have a powerful effect on today’s audience. Unfortunately, it also underlines the generally appalling state of much of the other stuff out there.

There is no room for conventional illustrative imagery any more. The world has moved on and illustrators – like designers – must find inventive ways to be part of what design and the world is now. A terrible time to be an illustrator? Only if you’re prepared to accept serfdom.

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