The Future of Illustration: A Design Student’s Perspective

Editor’s Note: The following article on “The Future of Illustration” was contributed by Michelle Cahill, a student at the CATC Design School in Australia.

Since the earliest days of humankind, when cave walls were decorated with broad spanning murals, of ancient beasts and figures, illustration has been a medium by which people have educated, connected and shared stories with each other from generation to generation, era to era.

With its origins fortified by mud, colored pigment and stone, and its legacy spanning history, we must now ask ourselves, what is the future of illustration? Where is it going next? What will come to pass for the future of this skill, and for those who choose to pursue illustration as a profession?

The explosion of the Internet in the digital age has obliged illustrators to expand their repertoire in order to carve out their own personal niche within the digital medium.

Advanced forms of online visual communication such as blogs and social media platforms have prompted a surge in demand for hand-drawn and digital illustrations to support content. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Often required to develop cutting-edge measures in order to keep up with the ever changing digital world that their images will become a part of, adept illustrators have begun to design new and innovative works to accompany and enhance online content.

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Source | Photographer: Beata Ratuszniak | Feb 17, 2015 | Sourced from StockSnap.io (CCO Licence)

Expert illustrators are mindful of the increasing need for their work to be noticed amid the cacophony of content on the web. They must acknowledge that their work will be vying for a disassociated audience’s limited attention in this modern world which has become relentlessly overrun with online advertising, content marketing and the limits of the attention economy. This means attention is a resource, as each user only has so much of it.


“The future of illustration lies in finding new ways to visually evolve an idea to break new territory.” – Kate Sallai


As big business has accepted the need for higher quality artwork over cheaper stock imagery to capture the attention of Millennials, the illustration industry gas seen a recent resurgence. These companies seek to employ illustrators to create unique custom images that will reinforce and focus the business’s branding (Kliever, 2016).

The very act of hiring illustrators to create custom work also ensures avoiding embarrassing mishaps which can occur when companies are noticed displaying the same stock imagery as their online competitors.

A positive consequence of employing an illustrative artist is that individual companies can present a far more personalized and accessible user experience. This is by far better suited to their specific target market and reaffirms a more authentic presence for potential clientele.

Illustrations in the future will be more than purely a visual support. The constant development of advanced programming, online formats and cutting-edge digital techniques, coupled with skilled innovative illustrators is resulting in new illustrative designs which are tactile, united and interactive (Burns, 2016).

Thanks to “divergence culture,” or the stream of information across mixed media platforms and the migratory attitude of general audiences, illustrations are being modified for mobility and versatility (O’Reilly, 2015).

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Photographer: Fre Sonneveld | Sourced from PEXELS (CCO Licence)

Standalone historic illustration and conventional animation have evolved. Thanks to developments in intuitive programming, they are now a confluence of both.

Animated interfaces, GIFs and built-in interactivity are coming to the fore, now giving illustrations a novel contemporary edge. The development of interactive illustrations and animation is now breaking the barrier between the viewer and the screen, encouraging a new wave of bilateral involvement.


“Art is food for the soul… it has the power to inspire and engage people with pretty much any experience or message. …. a broad, ever evolving platform that is crucial to effective education and communication.” – Lani Paxton


An example of this would be the prize winning digital magazine Scrawl, which has been carefully crafted as a digital platform. The magazine integrates art and technology creating an entirely new form of storytelling.

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Sourced from Illustration Friday :: Scrawl Magazine | Article written by Thomas James | 10/01/2012

Parallel to this increasingly digital illustration boom is the evolution of traditional techniques. The process is now becoming more craftsmanlike with the use of 3D and amalgamated techniques, most commonly seen in the form of an effective mix of photography, illustration and typography—or the use of 3D printing technologies.

Artists are reconnecting with skills and trades of bygone eras: complex etching, collage, printing press and embroidered works are sympathetically being merged with digital techniques, creating individually memorable representations that are shaping up to become the next online hit.

This blend of techniques is being leveraged to create playful, new and interesting visual experiences, injecting a fresh dose of “reality meets fiction” into communicative projects.

Examples of artists who are advancing multimedia work in the field include Izziyana Suhaimi, who blends illustration with finely detailed embroidery; Niky Roehreke, who regularly experiments with collage; and Ollanski, a remarkable paper engineer who takes paper craft to the next level.

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Illustration + embroidery by Izziyana Suhaimi

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NYLON November Issue 2012 | Collage + illustration blend by Niky Roehreke

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Folded paper art by Ollanski

So what does an illustrator need to do in order to capitalize on these burgeoning trends? Going digital is inevitably the path leading us forward, so building on skills that will allow an illustrator to be flexible, creative and memorable in the digital age will be vital.

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Photographer: OVAN | Nov 26, 2015 | Sourced from PEXELS (CCO Licence)

Learning new skills in animation, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and similar programs will be essential tools for illustrators looking to forge new ground. Additionally, many Illustrators agree that further developing preexisting skills can be more important than amassing more new skills. Devoting yourself to the refinement of your craft allows you to develop your personal style and stand out from the ever-increasing crowd.


Going digital is inevitably the path leading us forward, so building on skills that will allow an illustrator to be flexible, creative and memorable in the digital age will be vital.


A savvy, forward-thinking illustrator will be sure to keep a graphite-laden finger on the pulse of the design industry by signing up for workshops and training alerts via websites such as AGDA, the Loop, or AIGA.

Illustrators should constantly be seeking inspiration, learning and evolving. This can be achieved by utilizing access to online tutorials, reading topically specific books, going to exhibitions, seminars and signing up for short courses or further education via a university or an online provider. Keeping in touch with mentors, skilled professionals within the field and fellow illustrators are simple steps that can be taken towards achieving goals and becoming one of the best in the business.

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Photographer: Dave Meier |  Sourced from PEXELS (CCO Licence)

Illustrators who wish to become successful within the industry must now embrace a global mindset in lieu of focusing solely on building a local network. This can be achieved by keeping abreast of what is on trend within international markets, networking on a global scale or collaboratively working with others internationally on the web.


“If one wants to become a successful illustrator in the world today… you have to think internationally.” – Ollanski


The Power of Illustration

Illustration has an extraordinary warmth that can be inserted into what tends to be an overly-impersonal digital world. In turn, this ties us to our childhood sense of wonder, discovery and magic. Illustrations allow us to connect with our inner child by motivating us to reminisce, imagine and reconnect with the earliest creators in history.

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Photographer: Fre Sonneveld |  Sourced from PEXELS (CCO Licence)

Within a modern world that is overtly digital, illustration can implore us to take a second look, pause, reflect, think, connect and/or interact. As humans were are so easily able to simply close our eyes and imagine the very place in time in which an illustration was created. This allows us to—in a sense—become time travelers. We can visualize the very hands of the artist working by studying the techniques and styles that each artist has employed.


“There is no line between fine art and illustration; there is no high or low art; there is only art, and it comes in many forms.” – James Gurney


There are few other art forms that so readily adapt to modern technologies while connecting us with history, thanks to the many clever and talented individuals who are not afraid to learn from the past and embrace the new. Illustration never forgets its beginnings while forever embracing its journey.

Michelle Cahill is an Australian Artist and Graphic Design student. Alongside other projects she has worked with Australian band Evoletah to create the cover art for the bands 2011 CD EP release “Draw your gun” and has also produced the cover art and design for The Quiet Room debut album “All the Frozen Horses.” Michelle is passionate about creativity and loves to explore new ideas, technologies and techniques.


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