Comic relief

The current illustration craze is finding its home in ad campaigns, says Jim Davies

Just a couple of years ago, the pages of the upmarket fashion magazines were saturated with high-gloss photography. It was difficult to distinguish which pages were editorial features and which were advertising pages, as the ad agency art directors (as usual) played keep-up with their magazine counterparts, using the predictable elite band of photographers – the likes of Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchellier, Nick Knight and Bruce Weber.

Today, ads and editorial remain indistinct. But the aesthetic slant has changed; photography’s stranglehold has loosened. Championed by cutting-edge magazines such as Wallpaper and Dazed and Confused, a new kind of loose, elegant, funky illustration has shoe-horned its way into the visual reckoning. Often it looks vaguely unfinished or deliberately crude, like Simon Brown’s sporadic outline drawings for GQ, or Liselotte Watkins’ elemental illustrations, which occasionally lighten the pages of Vogue. They all owe something to comic-book art and a lot more to the computer.

“It’s almost as if photography has played itself out,” says Adrian Shaughnessy, creative director of design group Intro. While researching his latest contemporary music graphics book Sampler 2, Shaughnessy noticed a significant upsurge in illustrated CD covers. “You’d get 300 pages of magazine stuffed with photographs and reach a point of visual exhaustion. Illustration is a way of re-examining the visual mix. It’s no coincidence that the predominant style of illustration is exaggerated rather than realistic, a kind of angular, ‘fashiony’ style.”

Tony Chambers, art director of GQ, has different ideas. “Photographers have become more illustrative,” he says. “The two media have met halfway. Figurative imagery is very much in vogue – it’s the kind of thing that becomes cumulative and then snowballs.” Jasper Goodall typifies Chambers’ point – much of his work is a compelling digital amalgam of the two styles.

It didn’t take long for the advertising magpies to get in on the illustration act. Casio, Adidas, BTCellnet, EuroStar, House of Fraser, BT, Orange, Virgin Airlines, JVC and Canon have all embraced illustration, taking on the edgy style that they found flicking through their “reference” magazines. Press ads and posters were followed by commercials, as ad agencies discovered they could get more past the advertising authority if they eschewed live action for animation.

Just think about it – a playboy with a gigantic sack dangling beneath his legs plays blindfold games with a nubile young woman who ends up with cream smeared across her top lip. But the fact that the playboy is a cartoon cow, doing his bit for Boddingtons somehow renders it harmless fun. Similarly, a Virgin Cola commercial which featured skimpily clad women toting guns and the endline “you can taste our love every time you swallow” was considered to be less risqué because it was an illustration, not a photograph. They’re just lighthearted cartoons by Jamie (Tank Girl) Hewitt.

Tim Ashton, creative director of the communications agency Circus, turns the progression on its head, asserting that it’s the current animation craze driving illustration in press and poster advertising. “TV is being translated into press. You just have to look at recent campaigns for Compaq and Orange to see that. But what really clever animation production houses are doing is going to illustrators to animate their work. It looks fresh as animation, but also works well as static illustration,” he says.

For Angus Hyland, a partner at Pentagram, who has just finished work on a book called Pen and Mouse – Commercial Art and Digital Illustration, the upsurge in advertising illustration is mainly cyclical: “It had been dead for a long time, and like any area of fashion, it has come around again.”

Hyland also believes that the extensive use of computers by a new generation of illustrators has had an influence. “The software has only been able to cope with the demands of illustration for the past two or three years,” he says. “It’s so much easier to work at speed now that designers are prepared to take the risk of commissioning illustrators. If something’s wrong it can easily be edited. They’re used to using the same sausage machines, so they have come to understand each other more.”

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