ICON Reax, Part 1: Is Animation the Future of Illustration?

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© Scott Gandell

So Print – as in “print” – has launched its daily blog (the good news is that it’s not called “Out Of Print.”) But what else can be said about publishing’s future? This issue was the primary topic of discussion and debate throughout the ICON 6 illustration conference. Held at the Langham Hotel – formerly Huntington Ritz Carlton – in Pasadena last week, ICON’s sixth biennial was packed with information about the business, art, and heritage of the field. There were workshops, roundtables, exhibitions, even a soccer free-for-all. And, of course, parties until the wee hours.

Over the four days, there was a Clayton Brothers studio tour and stage presentations by Kathryn Adams, Sammy Harkham, Christoph Niemann, Todd Oldham, Gary Taxali, and dozens of others: no one will easily forget Wayne White’s riveting George Jones Giant Head banjo solo.

But it was the opening ceremonies panel, “The Future of Publishing: The Great Transformation,” that galvanized the audience. Moderated by Roger Black, the panel began with Wired design director Wyatt Mitchell and Jeremy Clark, Adobe’s senior experience design manager, who were followed by New York Times art director Kelly Doe. Last up was the panel’s representative illustrator, Taschen America’s executive editor Jim Heimann.

A variety of controversial notions were proposed, such replacing the term “illustrator” with something more, um, appropriate to the times and blaming art directors for the job decline. But the tension in the room was palpable as a one-word description of illustration’s future was raised and repeated: “animation.”

Just about everyone who heard the talk seemed bursting to share their opinions. Scott Gandell even created the above illustration especially for this column, to accompany his comments, which you’ll find directly below.

© Thomas James

Videos of the discussion, as well as other ICON events, are currently being uploaded onto the Escape from Illustration Island site. EfII’s Thomas James also sent the drawing on the right, possibly his interpretation of one of several subsequent stage comments during the following days, a sarcastic remark about how the Mona Lisa would be so much better if only it … moved.

I asked a variety of professionals to share their viewpoints, and I received so many replies that I’ve divided my report into two segments. The second one, with additional commentary – including ICON presenters such as Heimann himself – will be posted shortly.

I’d love to hear reactions from others who were there, and, of course, viewpoints from those who weren’t. Additional alternative future options are also most welcome!

Meanwhile, you can find the concluding half here.


© Scott Gandell

Scott GandellIllustrator, printmaker, and president, Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles

“Oh frass,” or something to that effect was uttered silently on the lips of many of the attendees sitting in the audience during the opening keynote at ICON when the art director of the New York Times showed us the R.O. Blechman animated editorial of a stork carrying a baby and then said that this is the new direction of online editorial illustrating.

This push, towards what I call e “motion” in illustrations submitted to online editorial publications, was the conference’s hot topic. From panel discussions to conversations held in the corridors and caverns of the beautiful Langham, “Do you animate your work?” was the question heard.

I agree with the speakers that the transformation from 2D editorial illustration to an animated hybrid online is the future. When the job calls for the process, illustrators need to be capable-ready to produce an eye catching, click stopping, reader grabbing piece of genius … that moves.

Stagnant water stinks.

Rapids make me dizzy.

The motion in the ocean, for me, makes the world go around, especially if the publishers ante up for the additional efforts required.

Kathy Altieri summed it up best during the closing keynote when she said “keep learning,” no matter where you are in your career—student or professional.


© Steve Simpson

Steve SimpsonIllustrator

“The Future of Publishing” debate surely raised a few eyebrows when, at the very start of the conference, we were told everything was about to change. Our work needed to animate and interact in the new digital market, made possible by the introduction of the iPad. Wired‘s showreel, made to promote this new format, was a highly polished promotional video with thumping music. The New York Times had cruder, work-in-progress pieces of animation. With the advent of the iPad, the way our skills are utilized will surely evolve. However, I think the panel might have over-egged the magnitude of its effect on illustrators.

The ICON audience seemed split on the issue. Some thought this a great opportunity to get into animation, others were horrified at the prospect of learning new packages and skills – would the extra work mean more money? There was also the suggestion we should dump our outdated title, “illustrator,” and call ourselves visual communicators or creative visualists.

Personally I love this tag “illustrator.” If you think about it, it’s been around longer than the terms photographer, designer, fine artist, creationist, and client. Generally, I think there’s much more awareness of what illustrators are and what they do. We are even being associated more with the word “artist” than “commercial.”

I’m a English freelance illustrator who’s been working in the Irish market for the last 15 or more years. Prior to that, I spent ten years working in animation. I’m also a founding member of the illustrators Guild of Ireland. This was my first ICON. I traveled from Dublin in the hope of gaining a firsthand insight into the current state of the US market – and making the most of the excellent networking opportunitie
s – while mingling with peers and heroes. I really hadn’t expected to spend so much time talking about animation.

Nobody can say how all this will pan out in the long run. It is another format to work with and will offer exciting opportunities to some. For those worried about having to learn a new skill, I wouldn’t fret about it. From both a financial and a deadline point of view I imagine, in most cases, the movement and interactive elements will be done in-house, in much the same way the design and layout is. An animation compositor will take your digital files and, based on your directional notes, produce an interactive illustration.

Whatever it’s called, I really hope it’s not called animation! Animators are primarily focused on telling a story through movement and are aided by sound effects, music, and voice. It’s usually a collaborative process, and often takes months and years to finish a project. Illustrators are very much individuals: one-man shows that can effectively communicate ideas via mark-making alone. Two very different skills and mind sets.

I would hate to see a scenario of animators being handed beautifully illustrated work that encompasses textured paper, organic brush strokes, and obvious spontaneity, only to remove all that is unique by straightening the wonky line and rounding the edges: basically turning original illustrations into CGI clones. Don’t get me wrong, computer generated imagery has its place; when replicating the real world, for instance. But recently, I’ve seen examples of great illustrations where, through CGI treatment, all originality has been sucked out of them, leaving little more than a lifeless shell. We must fight against that and aim to set a standard where any movement added to our illustrations should replicate the style and feel of the artwork.


© Aileen Holmes

Aileen HolmesIllustrator and designer

Upon hearing that animation as a possible future of illustration, I had a strong visceral reaction of “Oh no!” I had painful flashbacks of trying to learn Macromedia Flash … pre-Adobe. However, after reflecting and discussing with other illustrators, I’ve come to take “animation is the future” not so literally.

Technology offers exciting opportunity and new ways to offer illustration to the world. Movement is one possible avenue for innovation of the millions not even conceived yet. Still, the public craves raw visual images created by the human hand. Art transcends time and will always be desired.


© Jaleen Grove

Jaleen GroveIllustration historian and artist

The discussion provoked controversy because it suggested that if illustrators didn’t embrace change and make their work move and groove, then they might as well retire now. But illustrators have been told to reinvent illustration with every new advance in technology. And each time, that’s what they have done.

If the industry and business folks want us to buy and learn new software, then that’s what we must do if we want to take advantage of the new opportunities that new tech always opens up. However, history also shows that the old forms don’t disappear. In fact, they remain necessary because the marketplace always needs diversity – not everyone wants to take the same approach.

And, because we are still in a culture “gimme now – gimme fast!” there will always be a need for the single image that gets the idea across at a single glance. We don’t all have time to watch or read sequential images.


© Barbara Kosoff

Barbara KosoffIllustrator and designer

Must illustrators move towards animation as was suggested by some on the panel? Fortunately from my perspective, there were several panel discussions and speakers over the next two days who inspired many illustrators – myself included – because they still believe in the power and magic of the “static” image. Should we consider animation? Of course. In fact, in my own work, I have already begun exploring a series.

Perhaps the opening ceremonies might have been better as a discussion later in the conference – not on the first night when many illustrators are looking for and expecting to be inspired and wanting a more positive message and tone to set the entire event..

© Nargol Arefi

Nargol ArefiIllustrator

In the world of illustration, new technology is opening new horizons by providing the possibility of animated books of all kinds. As much as this sounds exciting and alluring, we should be cautious. New technology has its costs. In this case, I believe the cost is to deprive future generations of a sweet experience.

“Reading” an animated story, even at its best, resembles watching a movie, a much more passive behavior. But reading an illustrated story actively involves each reader’s unique – and limitless – imagination.


© Katy Betz

Katy BetzIllustrator

Expecting the ICON opening keynote presentation to be inspiring, I was shocked to find myself crying out, “O, maranatha!” After all, one can’t help but think about the end of the world when talking about the future – especially “The Future of Publishing.” I agree that we are living in one of the most exciting times, and that never before in history has there been more opportunities for illustrators. But these so-called opportunities aren’t necessarily profitable. As with any kind of human advancement, there is always much to gain and much to lose.

I think we lose more than we gain if we stop calling ourselves “illustrators” and turn to the title “visual artists.” What a meaningless, nondescript label!

I think we lose more than we gain by abandoning the printed page in favor pf animated illustrations on mobile phones and iPads. Active imagination will be numbed by passive entertainment, and the contemplative moment killed by bells and whistles.

And again, I think we lose more than we gain if the Orphan Works bill is passed (and it was predicted that it will). It could be hell on earth trying to track down images that are being transmuted freely across the internet.

Which for some reason leads me back to thinking about the end of the world …


© Carolyn Endacott

Carolyn EndacottIllustrator and designer

While I agree that the publishing industry is going digital and reaching a larger audience in new, innovative ways, I believe there is still an important place for the “printed magazine” and the static – non-animated – image. The dynamic relationship between image and text is pure magic and, quite simply, brings our messages to life.

In a world of constantly moving images and “in-your-face graphics,” the beauty and strength of illustration lies in the idea-concept and the ability for a moment, however brief, to have the viewer pause and think.

There is a place for both the digital and static image. And quite possibly, a relationship may develop where the two strengthen each other.


© Anne Wertheim

Anne WertheimIllustrator

Publishing as it used to be does not exist anymore. Magazine publishers are trying to adapt by putting the content of their publications online – often for free. If I can get so much information for free, why should I pay for it? I find answers to whatever question, from many different sources.

Times will continue to get rougher for most magazines. The next generation of readers is growing up with the web, iPads, and other online reading devices. They are used to doing their homework and researching online. I do not think they will, at some point in their lives, discover that printed magazines are still out there. They are just as hooked to reading about “whatever” online as they are hooked to social media.

On the other hand, there are certain publications that will never be able to be as rich and informative as the printed edition. It is difficult to remember what you have read online and where. To get the full value and beauty out of certain magazines, you have to be able to hold them in your hand and browse through them. You have to be able to put them in your bookshelf and pull them out at times to reread certain portions. The same is true for children’s books. The printed book can be such a beautiful piece of art that an iPad will never be able to interact with the reader as much as the book can.

I believe publishing will continue to be challenging – for magazines as well as book publishers. Publishers, together with their illustrators, will have to come up with some very innovative and smart ideas to stay in business. A lot will have to be worked out over the next few years.

There will always be publishing. It will change, though. More people will be able to publish on their own. That could be very exciting.


© Ken Smith

Ken SmithOwner, Ken Smith Illustration

I was particularly disturbed by the idea of motion illustrations for Kindle and iPad-style reading devices, without a clear idea of pricing and delineation of duties.

Are publications going to pay extra for the additional expertise illustrators will need to acquire in order to turn still images into animated ones? For some very talented artists, this will be like learning to drive an 18-wheeler on ice-slicked roads.

I already know Flash, so it’s not a big deal for me to perform that sort of conversion. What I don’t like is the prospect that my fees for these animated images and the additional usages will end up being not much more that what I would have gotten for still images alone. Media companies will always find a way to fudge the numbers to save themselves some bucks.

I won’t even delve into the appropriateness of motion illustrations for certain articles, and whether this type of illustration will end up being a fad, used strictly for its own sake during its brief lifespan. “Everybody else is doing it, we need to do it, too!” I’m concerned about being financially compensated for the extra work involved, both in creating these whiz-bang image files and in troubleshooting the inevitable file-compatibility issues. “Ken, we dropped in your file, and it’s showing up as a gray box.” “Ken, your files keep locking up in the latest version of the Kindle OS. Everybody else’s files work just fine. What are you doing wrong when you save?” Been there, done that, gobbled the Valium.

As for illustrators becoming more savvy salesmen and tougher negotiators, as one panelist suggested, good idea. Let’s go even farther. An illustrator/photographer labor union that would expose certain business practices to public outrage, especially where work-for-hire and orphan works is concerned. Now THAT would be any media company’s worst nightmare.


© Teri Farrell-Gittens

Teri Farrell-Gittins Illustrator

This discussion sparked a lot of debate among the ICON attendees. It was suggested that illustrators needed to learn how to animated their illustrations, or be left in the dust, so to speak. I responded strongly to this suggestion. First, I felt a little fearful and overwhelmed. I’m tired of learning and starting from the beginning. As another attendee said, “I just want to push the start button and work.” I’ve been a freelance illustrator, on and off, for the last 15 years. Now that my son is older, I can get back to it full time. I felt a bit put out that I may have to learn animation to stay competitive.

But after rolling it around in my brain for a bit, discussing it with other attendees, and listing to the other speakers, I no longer feel panicked. I now agree with the point of view that the web, iPad, iPhone and whatever else that’s invented that needs visual communication, just means new and more jobs for creatives. It’s not going to limit illustration or get rid of books. It’s going to open more opportunities. I think there will always be a need for static illustration as there will always be a need for two-dimensional books and traditionally created artwork. How and why we use them may change, but they will not disappear. Not all illustrators will need to be animators to be competitive.

I may dabble in animation, but I won’t be spending a lot of time learning a new application to be competitive. If a company needs my art animated, they can hire an animator. To me, it looks as if there will be more work for illustrators and animators. Technology is a visual world; this is a great time to be visual story tellers. As my teen would say, “Bring it on!”


© Cliff Cramp

Illustrator and educator, CSU Fullerton

The discussion dealt with the topic of how new technology will allow for new ways of information/content delivery. This may affect the way in which illustrators work, but not necessarily. Wired and Adobe presented their collaboration on delivering Wired via new media, specifically on the iPad. During their talk they showed multiple possibilities and formats for visual content. They showed how motion could be used.

Some conference attendees seem to have latched on to the term “motion” and missed the overall point. Questions arose concerning whether illustrators will now need to learn to animate. Clark and Dadich again pointed out that new methods in content delivery are going to open up many more opportunities for both the illustrator and animator, with motion being only one option. The visual problem of a specific job determines the visual solution. Where motion is needed, it will be used. When motion is not needed, it won’t be used. Unfortunately for some, the misunderstanding train had already left the station.

Motion is not synonymous with traditional animation. Ken Burn’s documentary “The Civil War” employed motion over static images and told a powerful story: moving across an image revealing only part of the information at a time, or pulling out to reveal the whole, or pushing in to reveal a specific detail or expression. iMovie has even labeled one of their effects, “The Ken Burns Effect.” The original production of the photograph or painting did not change, but the method of delivery did. Monty Python took static illustrations and used stop motion to make them move. Again, the illustrations were produced as flat art. We can now do this with Adobe After Effects.

The static application icon at the bottom of my computer moves when I launch a specific program. It’s delivering information as it bounces and it tells me that the program is launching. The original vector art did not change with the movement.

The key word for me that night was “possibilities.” New technologies provide varied possibilities for the delivery of our content. The fax machine allowed illustrators to fax comps to a client rather than drive them over. Product Illustrators produced line art of merchandise for wholesale companies so that catalogs could be faxed to retailers. The Internet has allowed the illustrator to have a global audience, shrinking their world while broadening their possibilities. Email and social media have allowed the illustrator to have more opportunities to connect with their peers. For some, new technologies will mean new ways to produce art. For others, new technologies will mean new uses for their art.

Transportation has changed over the years. I have multiple options. I can get in my car and drive to my neighbor next door to get my kids, or I can just walk over there. One option is a better solution than the other.

Modes of communication have changed also. Again, I have lots of options. I can curl up on my child’s bed at night and read one of the many picture books that I purchased at ICON or I can stay downstairs and open iChat and read it to them that way. Once again, one option is a better solution than the other.

The first ICON was held in 1998. At the time, there was slower Internet, no iPhone, no Facebook, no Twitter, and no iPad. Yet all of those technologies were used in force at ICON. Things change. The future of publishing will change as technology changes. Ultimately, art directors will decide what problems need to be solved with which technology. They will also contact the artist that is the best fit to solve that visual problem.

The opening keynote address left me with a positive impression on how technology is impacting content delivery, particularly in publishing. There are many new ideas, which may open the door for new options and choices. Some may have focused on the term “motion” and missed the entire context of the panel discussion.

New technology will allow for new ways of information/content delivery, which could mean more usage – print, web, smart devices, etc. More uses could mean more money.

As an illustrator, I’m excited about the possibilities of new venues for my work. As an educator, I’m excited to convey to my students new possibilities for creating work.


Jim Heimann, Wyatt Mitchell, Jeremy Clark, Kelly Doe, Roger Black at ICON 6. Photo by Michael Dooley.