Ode to Illustration
Ode to Illustration
Ode to Illustration
By Steven Heller March 18, 2004

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 ways:

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 illustration.

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.

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