The Missing Critical History of Illustration

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By: Rick Poynor | May 26, 2010

How seriously should we take illustration? I pose the question in this potentially offensive way because I often wonder how seriously illustration takes itself.


Let me say at once that I have always gained a lot of pleasure from illustration. After studying art history, examining the illustrated image was not a big leap, and my first writing about visual communication in the mid-1980s focused on illustration rather than design. The British illustrators I met at that time were well-read, highly educated, visually sensitive, historically aware individuals who were consciously attempting to challenge received wisdom about the practice and move it forward. This permanently shaped my view of what illustration could be and gave me a set of critical expectations and standards that, allowing for changes in context, I have applied ever since.

One thing illustration has always lacked, compared to graphic design, is a strong critical framework by which to assess it. Design magazines have tended to treat it as an adjunct of design rather than a fully fledged discipline in its own right. Apart from Steven Heller, who patrols a wider territory than either illustration or design alone, one would be hard pressed to name a single highly active writer, an expert, primarily identified with illustration as a subject.

Graphic design criticism might be on the agenda these days. Illustration criticism isn’t. Very few magazines have ever focused exclusively on the subject, and there have been long stretches, particularly during the 1990s—illustration’s years in the doldrums—when few books about illustration appeared. Monographs dedicated to contemporary illustrators were even less likely to show up. Leaving aside Heller and Seymour Chwast’s Illustration: A Visual History (2008), which is mainly pictorial, no international history of illustration is now in print. This puts illustration at about where graphic design was circa 1982, before the arrival of Philip Meggs.

The crucial difference today is that there has been an illustration renaissance in the last decade. Books have appeared, but they are invariably how-to guides or visual surveys that merely aim to show what is going on. Nothing wrong with that, we might say, if such routine publishing fodder were bolstered by publications with the ambition to research and explain the field’s key issues and developments. A recent book, For Love and Money (spread, above), by Liz Farrelly and Olivia Triggs, collects some impressive new illustration, but it fails to display even a basic grasp of how to analyze images. After a cursory intro, the book settles into an alphabetical catalog of image-makers. Each artist answers the same five banal questions about place of study, inspirations, what they collect, their favorite way of working, and where they work, play, and travel. We aren’t told the nationality or location of the illustrators unless they happen to mention it themselves.

Apart from the odd T-shirt or shopping bag, all of the images are shown out of context, a standard problem when reproducing illustrations. Without seeing an editorial image on the page where it was used, in relation to headlines, text, and other images, we have no way of determining whether it was employed meaningfully or not. Showing the pictures in this disembodied manner turns them into art to be appreciated entirely on their own terms. There might be a good case for doing this, but it can only be made by writing about the images as a form of art. No reputable art-book publisher, art critic, or art historian would patronize readers by presenting works of art in such an intellectually flimsy fashion, and no one would take them seriously if they did. (The book’s publisher adopts a very different approach to fine art.) The message coming from For Love and Money and other threadbare overviews is that illustration isn’t a serious activity, so it doesn’t require thoughtful consideration by writers with a close understanding of how the discipline has evolved, and that most illustrators aren’t sophisticated enough to want this anyway.

The problems begin with the word “illustration.” Illustration is no more a unitary activity than art is. There are many kinds of illustration for many kinds of contexts and many kinds of illustrators. Some focus on branding, packaging, and advertising; some concentrate on children’s books; some specialize in technical, medical, or natural-history illustration; some prefer editorial assignments. Others seek new kinds of surfaces to illustrate: clothing, curtains, objects, hotel walls, stage sets. Some have no problem seeing themselves as service providers. “As an illustrator, my job is to solve problems visually, and to inject a ‘cool’ factor into my client’s product, service, or campaign,” says Tavis Coburn in Taschen’s 2006 compendium Illustration Now! Other illustrators strive to create individually coherent bodies of work—spanning client commissions and personal projects—that they regard as their art. Subdivision and classification of this wide field is necessary before anything perceptive can be said about a particular branch of illustration’s purpose and potential, or what constitutes a significant level of accomplishment in that area. A randomly organized, directory-style list of names could never provide this framework.

A recent development adds other complications. After many years of being split asunder, graphic design and illustration have merged anew, their remarriage brokered by shared digital tools. On the evidence of For Love and Money, many of the most inventive image-makers have come from first degrees in graphic design, communication design, or digital media, rather than illustration courses. They describe themselves as self-taught illustrators. This reunion is a positive trend, though it raises further issues of classification. Designer-illustrators often have a strong feeling for decorative type. They also show a marked inclination for abstract or semiabstract composition and a predilection for a picture plane where objects float and collide in nonnaturalistic arrangements of shape and form.

At the same time, there are still many illustrators working in a straightforwardly pictorial manner. It would be graphic imperialism to overlook or marginalize this strand of work, which tends to be grounded in narrative rather than conceptual concerns, just because it remains less amenable to graphic manipulation. The kind of smoothly engineered illustrative design offered by Karlssonwilker in New York or Build in London provides an easy out for fastidious designers who never liked messy pictorial illustration much but know they need to move with the times and embrace the latest visual fashion. This trend hasn’t supplanted more traditional methods and styles of image-making—nor should it.

The question, again, is how to disentangle these developments and find appropriate critical tools to study the aesthetic roots and recent growth patterns of these different species of illustration. A finely calibrated critical response will need to fall somewhere between design criticism and design history, with the insights they offer of the marketplace and consumer, and art criticism and art history, with the insights those disciplines offer of highly motivated individual agency. We are still some way from such a synthesis. Farrelly and Triggs recognize that “the history of image-making offers a canon of creative ancestors” available to the illustrators in their book but show no
inclination to unlock the putative “new illustration” with the keys provided by these forebears.

One ray of light in this poorly lit area comes from Varoom, a thrice-yearly magazine launched in 2006 by the Association of Illustrators in London. This was a brave and necessary venture, though the magazine’s umbilical link to a professional organization can make for conflicts of interest, and the AOI should probably rethink last year’s curiously dated redesign. Nevertheless, Varoom’s content is often excellent, providing the illustration community with engaging, well-informed, and timely commentary about contemporary departures and historical milestones. A long feature in the winter 2009 issue about the relationship between folk art and illustration had exactly the breadth of reference, command of cultural context, and seriousness of purpose (while maintaining a delicate touch) that writing on illustration now badly needs if it is to bloom.

[This article first appeared in June 2010 issue of Print.]

About the author:

Rick Poynor, a U.K.-based design critic and writer, contributes the Observer column to Print. The founding editor of Eye magazine, he has covered design, media and visual culture for I.D., Metropolis, Harvard Design Magazine, The Guardian, and the Financial Times. He is the author of many books, including Typography Now: The Next Wave (1991) and No More Rules (2003), a critical study of graphic design and postmodernism. His most recent book is Jan Van Toorn: Critical Practice. If you are interested in subscribing to Print, click Visit My Design Shop for books, magazines, and other products for graphic designers.