The comeback of illustration

The comeback of illustration

I recently stumbled across a list of design trends for 2015 and noticed that one shaping up to be a major contender was the idea of Illustration triumphing over stock photography, or photography in general.

This has been a long time coming and, as someone primarily trained in illustration, this is quite big news. Don’t get me wrong, I like to dabble in photography too but as it has become so mainstream and accessible, especially with the popularity of Instagram, somehow photography has become so much less exceptional than it once was, and that’s what makes illustration so refreshing.

Just a quick timeline recap – naturally, illustration has been around a lot longer, used commercially since the 15th century but around 1930 or so, photography made a takeover, a trend that has continued ever since. In the publishing and editorial world, photography has been paramount, becoming an overused medium for the past several decades with illustration taking a backseat until recently, where illustration has come full circle and ended up making a major comeback.

So why has this happened and what does it mean for the communications industry?

Photography became so popular within communications for a reason. It is visually very easy to understand, relatable and communicated with a viewer on a direct level because photographs depict aspects of a world that we are familiar with. Until the rise of Photoshop it was also considered to be very truthful – a photo doesn’t lie – and therefore especially popular in advertising. This reflection of reality is probably also one of the reasons for its recent fall from popularity in a world where increasingly abstract ideas are being communicated, and realism is being combined with fictional conceptions. Illustration does not need to be a literal or realistic representation of concepts and can combine multiple ideas together or showcase scenarios, which are not yet in existence - infographics are your friend! Especially when it comes to editorial work and skirting around political correctness, illustration has become more versatile as it can be made more generic and global, not needing to feature specific people, cultures, countries or scenarios.

I can’t decline to mention the age-old pixels vs. vectors debate. The adaptable nature of vectors is making digital illustration (digital versus hand-drawn illustration is a whole different discussion) more popular in an increasingly digital era where it can be customised for film and animation and scaled infinitely for ease of print. Not only is it more versatile but, it is also easily modified and can be used for a more cohesive set of branded images using specific styles and colour palettes, based on distinct brand guidelines whilst having the ability to be altered based on changes to these guidelines. Illustration is also great for narrative, making ideas appear quirky, funny or more engaging, and has that distinctly unique quality that photographers find it difficult to create. On this level, it can also be made strikingly bespoke, tailored to feature anything and everything required.

These two mediums of communication aren’t mutually exclusive either. Photography and illustration can be very effectively used in cohesion and there will always be projects where photography is a more appropriate and effective communication tool. 

However, I for one am rejoicing at this shift in thinking and the chance for more creative illustration projects where I can take the pen or pen tool out and get stuck into some good old fashioned drawing.

How long will this trend last? Who knows. With advances in technology both photography and illustration could well be replaced with a new graphic medium but as the oldest and longest lasting form of communication, illustration seems to be here to stay.


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The comeback of illustration
Written by Katie Giblett

Designer at 20/20 Productions

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