What is Typographic Illustration?

While hardly as provocative a question as last week, my colleague and I have been batting this around ever since we created what we thought was a simple assignment for our Typography students. It reads: Replace all photos on the front page of the newspaper with typographic illustrations.

The point of this assignment is to dive into the world of editorial illustrations, while keeping the focus on typographic solutions. This is familiar to me as most of my design years were spent working for Stephen Doyle, recent recipient of the National Design Award for communication, and a master of (among other things) what I’ve always referred to as the “typographic illustration.”

But that term has started to really bother me.

Perhaps it’s the strangeness of the word illustration. At last week’s AIGA Fresh Dialogue, speakers Keetra Dixon, Mike Perry, Andrio Abero, Timothy Goodman all discussed what they “like to introduce themselves as.” Graphic Designer, Designer, Maker, Artist? The only label that they all had a laugh about was “illustrator.” None dared to be labeled such thing, with no clear explanation.

But perhaps, also, its the definition of word typography, which in a world flooded with information, takes on a much more practical tone. Peter Bil’ak has a few definitions but most tend to specify prefabricated letters and the composition of someone else’s words.

The range of things that can be called “illustration” or “typography” is what might be affecting the difficulty in explaining the term to students. The typographic illustrations we intended the students to create could be of any medium and, most importantly, must have an idea. The student was instructed not to decorate but to illuminate. And even, if necessary, to express their opinion on the subject matter.

If anything, the only way to convey this was through examples. From Chermayoff to Lubalin to Sahre and Victore, the examples spoke louder than explanation, and our assignment was met with incredibly talented work.

Still, I wonder if you have an opinion? Do we need a new term for this type of work? Is it art? Is it typography? Has Mr. Heller written a book on it yet?

Herb Lubalin did it with logos:

Robert Brownjohn took a refined approach:

Stephen Doyle takes a photographic approach to explore materials and sculpture:

James Victore‘s Racism poster is in the Museum of Modern Art:

Paul Sahre will not stop making you think, then laugh, then think some more:

Michael Bierut uses letterforms to twist a message:

Alan Dye and internet vulgarity:

Drew Heffron tackles binge drinking:

Joon Mo Kang and the chemistry of sex:

Fogelson-lubliner draw a connection between U.S. wars:

Rodrigo Corral discusses how confusing health care is:

Oliver Munday explores equality in American universities:

16 thoughts on “What is Typographic Illustration?

  1. Pingback: Show Me… – Harriet Wheatley

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  3. Keith Webster

    I teach graphics for education within the context of educational technology. For many teachers, and those about to become teachers, this is a new way of looking at graphical communication but perhaps the most accessible tool for educational graphics. Is it art? Well, this can range from choice of fonts to simple digital manipulation to complex illustration – I’d say it’s certainly a craft at the least.

  4. Cassie Mitchell

    I describe my typographic work as simply “typography art” but I think the best of its kind naturally falls under the label of “illustration” as well. My husband and I both consider ourselves graphic artists and illustrators & feel no shame about either. After all, what do you call the creative talent who make their living drawing & painting pictures for the likes of Time or Rolling Stones magazines? Illustrators!

  5. Cindy Agoncillo

    At the very least it is art. I know I would hesitate to call myself an “illustrator” because, in my mind, it implies drawing ability, which is not my forte. I did a similar project independently where I picked one of the Newseum’s Top 10 headlines of the day and used the text to interpret the story graphically. When I described the series on my website I used the phrase “typographical art” because I didn’t know what else to call it.

  6. Marcie Dove

    Typography is nothing less than good design. Had an assignment like this 30 years ago in a graphic design class – of course, we did not have the technology back then that exists now, but we were amazed at what could be done with india ink and white posterboard!

  7. Bryan Flynn

    A nice post that is on-trend, but I’m left wanting follow-up posts addressing items like why creative pros would avoid the label, “illustrator.” I wonder how many illustrators, who use typographic elements in their work, flock to the title, “typographer” because “illustrator” draws giggles. Unless you’re developing viable type families, you’re an illustrator…say it loud, wear it proud. 

  8. Mary Ann Reed

    Refreshing, provoking.  I might have joined the masses and changed my major to this if I had had any idea of what the descriptions of it really meant.
    If the masses followed through on this and jumped the ship, one day I can envision reading”What is this thing called “teaching?

  9. Pingback: Typographic Illustration « The Department of Illustration

  10. Whitney Sherman

    You could call it illustrating with letterforms, you could call some of your examples op-ed visuals, whatever you call them when they appear in this context they are illustrations. Why the allergy to the word? Your essay hit the nail on the head with “The student was instructed not to decorate but to illuminate.” To illuminate is the straight up definition of illustration. One of the best things about illustration is it can be made from any media. How…funny…that at Goodman, Abero, Perry and Dixon’s Fresh Dialogue presentation that “The only label that they all had a laugh about was ‘illustrator’.” Three out of four for their websites used the word illustration to describe pieces of their work. And Dwell Magazine and Princeton Architectural Press seems comfortable enough with using the word illustration to describe this kind of work to include it in the back cover quote on Perry’s “Pulled” [“a range of exciting bespoke experiments that blur the lines between illustration and typography.”]. 

  11. beatriz souza

    Thanks guys!  Though I still love what I do, if I had given a 2nd thought to a 2nd career some 10 yrs back, typography would have been one of my first options.   beatriz (translating since 1978) 

  12. Elizabeth Resnick

    Steven Heller has authored several books on or incorporating ‘typographic illustration’. Kim Elam authored a book titled Expressive Typography: Word As Image in 1989 for VNR. I have called the activity of editorializing with type word play typography in student assignments included in both of my books: Graphic Design: A Problem-Solving Approach to Visual Communication, Prentice Hall 1984 and Design for Communication: Conceptual Graphic Design Basics, Wiley, 2003. Coming of age in the 1960s, I was most inspired by the typographic solutions crested by Herb Lubalin and Tom Carnese, Bradbury Thompson, Chermayeff and Geismar, and Paul Rand.