Someone emailed me recently to point out that illustration isn't included in Design Observer's list of "categories" the list you can see below, on the right of your screen. Art, typography and photography are there, but not illustration. Is this omission a simple oversight, or does it tell us something significant about the current state of illustration?
The professional world of illustration is widely believed to be in poor shape. As Steven Heller noted recently: "I am an advocate of illustration and saddened by its loss of stature among editors who feel photography is somehow more effective (and controllable)." There are, of course, many reasons for illustration's fading stature other than the commercial world's hard-nosed preference for photography over the arty vagueness of hand-rendered imagery. The ubiquity of software that allows graphic designers to generate their own imagery is another factor, as is the rise of illustration stock libraries. Yet perhaps illustration's current status owes most to its near-total eclipse by graphic design. To understand the contemporary state of illustration, we need to look at its relationship with graphic design.
There was a time when graphic design and illustration were indivisible. Many of the great designers of the 20th century were also illustrators and moved effortlessly between image-making and typographic functionalism. Traditionally, most designers viewed illustration with reverence; many even regarded it as inherently superior to design. And with good reason: design was about the anonymous conveying of messages, while illustration was frequently about vivid displays of personal authorship. Like artists, illustrators signed their work, and some were even public figures (no graphic designer ever enjoyed the fame of Norman Rockwell, for example). As Ed Fella, a practitioner with feet in both camps, sagely noted: "Whereas graphic design is more anonymous, all illustration is sold for its particular and individual style."
But during the 1990s, illustration's "individual style" became a liability. Visual communication was colonized by tough-minded, business-driven graphic designers who gave their clients what they wanted: branding, strategy and the precision-tooled delivery of commercial messages. Even amongst more idealistic designers designers who embraced theory, political activism (no big-name illustrators signed the First Things First manifesto), and notions of self-authorship it became apparent that highly expressive graphic design could achieve some of the conceptual and aesthetic impact of illustration. The outcome of all this was that designers seemed to lose the habit of commissioning illustration, and most illustration was relegated to mere decoration.
It's a much-touted nostrum that we live in a visual world. Sure, the media landscape is saturated with images, but these images are nearly always accompanied by words signposting us to some sort of financial transaction. Graphic design's eclipsing of illustration is explained by illustration's lack of verbal explicitness. Graphic design is almost exclusively about precise communication, and its facility to combine words and images makes it a far more potent force than illustration. Milton Glaser has said: "In a culture that values commerce above all other things, the imaginative potential of illustration has become irrelevant... Illustration is now too idiosyncratic."
I was made aware of the main reason for graphic design's supremacy in the commercial world from an unlikely source. In his book What Good Are the Arts, the English academic John Carey sets out to discover an absolute measure for artistic worth. Dealing with the visual arts, Carey concludes that there is no defining yardstick: anything we choose to call art, is art. It's really a matter of personal choice. But halfway through his book Carey puts the case for literature. He sets out "to show why literature is superior to the other arts and can do things they cannot do."
For Carey, literature is the pre-eminent art form: "unlike the other arts," he writes, "it can criticize itself. Pieces of music can parody other pieces, and paintings can caricature paintings. But this does not amount to a total rejection of music and painting. Literature, however, can totally reject literature, and in this it shows itself more powerful and self-aware than any other art."
The attributes Carey applies to literature also apply to commercial communications. Words rule. Explicit language coupled with explicit images (devoid of ambiguity and nuance) is the lingua franca of advertising and marketing. We seem to have reached a point in Western culture where the abstract is no longer tenable. We demand explicitness in everything, which perhaps explains the contemporary appetite for endless news, reality television, the depiction of graphic violence and hardcore pornography.
Graphic design's ability to deliver explicit messages makes it a major (if little recognized) force in the modern world: it is embedded in the commercial infrastructure. Illustration, on the other hand, with its woolly ambiguity and its allusive ability to convey feeling and emotion, makes it too dangerous to be allowed to enter the corporate bloodstream. Our visual lives are the poorer for this.