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The question whether or not
illustration is a valuable communications tool should be evident to
everyone. Of course it is; at least when it accomplishes what
illustration does best. What might that be, you ask? Let me count the
1. When it adds an additional dimension to a text.
Illustration can conceptually synthesize the essence of a story in such
an acute way that the ideas therein are illuminated beyond the facility
of words. The best illustrations supplement rather than merely
compliment (or mimic) the text.
2. When it draws the reader into a story through a fusion of form and content.
An illustration must be engaging at first glance, or require a double
take, which is often a function of style and composition. A work that
fails to pique the eye has little hope of triggering the mind. But
surface is not an end in itself. An illustration must deliver the
conceptual punch through pun, metaphor, allegory, or symbol.
3. When it invites the reader to decipher a message.
Given the traits mentioned above, an illustration is a puzzle or brain
teaser waiting to be interpreted. To efficiently stimulate the reader it
must include blank spaces; it cannot tell a literal story but rather
provide something of a riddle that must be solved, and that takes time.
4. When it serves as an icon. A single image is a
concise amalgam of various notions fused into a visual idea. Rather than
an easily forgotten decorative trope, a successful illustration leaves a
mental “cookie” or mnemonic that enables recall of a story through
conjuring an image that starkly summarizes content. The best
illustrations are memorable signposts.
5. When it stands on its own as well as in close proximity to a text.
Keeping an integral distance from the text without tearing the
connective tissue is the most difficult task for any illustrator. An
illustration must function as artwork as well as visual modifier. This
does not mean inherent timelessness, but it does suggest that an
illustration is understandable with or without its accompanying headline
and story. It is not always possible to achieve the ideal
illustration. Often committees intervene and good ideas are compromised
as a result. Sometimes truly strong concepts are neutered because they
are too demonstrative for the editorial context. Other times the
illustrator simply fails to achieve the right conceptual balance between
original thinking and universal language, and clichés result. Moreover,
there are many times when a good illustrator is paired with the wrong
story. But when everything is in alignment—when the illustrator acutely
understands the subject—then magic happens with the result being
phenomenally profound, incredibly witty, and decidedly memorable
As an art director I have given many illustrators difficult themes
that I personally find impossible to visually interpret. I rely on the
illustrator to conceive ideas and am beholden to their sleight of hand,
which is an imprecise way of saying the neurological hardwiring that
enable these conceptualists to discover ideas that are inaccessible to
other mortals. By way of example, below are two such images that I used
as cover illustrations for The New York Times Book Review.
The first by Mirko Ilic (fig 1) represents the dangers involved in
temporarily abrogating certain civil liberties by legalizing such
intrusions as surveillance. Rendering the American symbol for justice in
such a realistic, Oscar-like manner invested power into the image (a
pen sketch would not have been as startling). By adding the cameras to
Justice’s head Ilic transformed the symbol into a memorable icon that
telegraphs danger more effectively than most words.
The second by Christoph Niemann (fig 2) illustrates the overarching
concept of violence without resorting to horrific clichés. The power of
the black and red (an unforgiving color combination) being carved into
the paper by fierce saw blades sums up the violent nature of mankind.
And yet the image has beauty. Like Ilic’s illustration, the reader is
invited to contemplate rather than be repulsed by the image, allowing
for an even more profound understanding of the theme.
When illustration is spot on, there are few better means of communicating ideas and interactively engaging with an audience.
Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand celebrate Design Observer’s tenth anniversary, discussing how it was conceived and what the future brings.
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