Container Plus /  Image Source / IS09AJ8MM
Container Plus / Ikon Images / IS09AJ8MM
The surge in popularity in illustration began in the mid 1990s, taking people to magical places. We explore some of the benchmark moments and look at the most popular ways illustration is used for effective communication

It’s the month that Lawrence Zeegen and Caroline Roberts’ epic Fifty Years of Illustration gets published by Lawrence King, a book filled with illustration classics such as Klaus Voormann’s Revolver cover to Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster. But if we telescoped down to 15 years and some thumbnail sketches of drivers and moments here are five ideas as to why illustration has got so popular since the late 90s.

1. How Toys Became Pioneers For Emotions

It’s easy to forget that there was a moment when by the mid 90s, illustration had such low visibility compared to the pervasiveness of the new, hyperreal digital photography and photo-shopping. And then towards the end of the decade people/art directors/clients felt they had had their eyes filled with enough futureslick, highly-produced photography that the new technology seemed to demand. In truth, those who remember, a lot of this imagery paralleling the dotcom boom had headed off into the world of bad illustration. There was a slice of commercial photography in the mid-to late 90s that was trying to adjust to its new body in a world of technological possibilities, stretching and elasticating itself like Jim Carrey in The Mask (1994)

Strangely enough the move away from photographic hyperrealism, heavily manipulated imagery that wasn’t quite illustration, came from within illustration and was best captured in 1999 by illustrator Kate Gibb’s playing with photography in her sleeve art for the Chemical Brothers album Surrender.

Sleeve Art by Kate Gibb, 1999
Sleeve Art by Kate Gibb, 1999

But one hugely underestimated driver of a new sensibility among adults was Pixar’s Toy Story in the middle of the decade. So while the kids were still wigging out on Ren and Stimpy, and Beavis and Butthead,

Toy Story gave adults permission to enjoy animation (illustration’s close moving cousin).

The heady nostalgia of childhood, narrated through Buzz, Woody, Andy, Mr and Mrs Potato Head and the rest of the gang enabled mainstream adults to appreciate again visual forms they had long left behind, and freely submit to a vast well of sophisticated sentimentality. The whole Toy Story concept is still being squeezed for its bottomless emotional appeal in this ad for the 3 mobile network in the UK by Smith and Foulkes for Nexus Productions.

Toys and character art have become a whole business and design sector, explored by groups such as Pictoplasma and  designers such as Kidrobot. And in the liquid forms of an illustrator like Alex Trochut, Toys really do take on a life on their own, even new life-forms with a candy-fuelled charm that also captures Bling’s cartoonish exaggeration.

The Liquid Heat of Alex Trochut / IKON images / IS09AJ8IJ
Alex Trochut / IKON images / IS09AJ8IJ

2. How Illustration Soothes The Anxiety of New Technology

Nat Hunter formerly of the now defunct Airside, now Co-Director of Design at RSA once told me that Technology clients love commissioning illustration and animation because it makes potential customers less fearful and threatened by new technology. It’s why when she was at Airside they wrote a feature article How To Do How To Movies, images by Malika Favre.

And a simple ‘How-To’ film by Wonky animation, shows how to use a SmartWatch aimed at people suffering with diabetes.

Illustration, as a primary tool of our socialization as toddlers, has been the medium of addressing fears, of visualizing socially acceptable behaviours and role models and of course a safety valve for picturing funny, socially taboo-breaking chaos.

So energy companies in the UK such as British Gas, ease in the customer who might not be so keen  on using a new app (just because its different) for bills and monitoring energy usage.

Or Transport for London who are bringing a new kind of contactless payment, so commissioned Job, Joris and Marieke at Jelly London.

Or even UK bank TSB, which like most companies in the financial sector post-2008 credit have a negative halo simply because the perceived behaviour of large banks. These beautifully drawn animations from Studio AKA, with character design by Steve Small are both charming and funny. Two core features of illustration. I’m charmed, I laugh, job done.

Like the image below from Shotopop, the world of the virtual and the physical has become blurred, a scary thought for many, and for tech clients illustration seems to be the soft-landing for consumers in a fast-changing world.

Shotopop / IKON / ISO9AJ9B4
Shotopop / IKON Images / IS09AJ9B4

3. How Drawing Became The Signifier of Creativity

What’s quite remarkable over the last decade, perhaps even a shorter timespan, is how illustration as a kind of image-making, became the default visual signifier of creativity, especially for showcasing new technology, where the ‘street’ (the sensibility of skater culture and street art) is the living spark, the force that animates the code and steel of new technology. As in this piece commissioned by Intel and Vice magazine for their Creators Project – augmented drawing.

4. How Illustration turns Bling into Luxury

The flow of Illustration into different sectors has been astonishing, but this is partly because these sectors have been transformed by technology – by how products are being marketed differently and where the marketing needs to appear. So as well as having the “down-to-earth” flavours of the ‘how to’ communication, whether collage or the brands showing the performance of drawing has become a key tool for signalling luxury and craft. As in this piece for Swarovski showcasing the drawing of illustration duo Good Wives and Warriors.

Like the surface of this gorgeous image by Andy Bridge, scratched as he paints onto wood or metal. The handmade has always been a feature of a certain kind of luxury products, shift is in how the distressed and marked becomes a sign of taste.

Andy Bridge / Ikon Images / IS09AJ8UN
Andy Bridge / Ikon Images / IS09AJ8UN

5. How Illustration Maps New Possibilities

In the age of information, in the age of being awash with information, it turned out illustrators were best placed to give some order to the chaos of unlimited data. One high profile moment was at the launch of The Guardian’s new Berliner format in their G2 section. Supplement editor Ian Katz (now BBC Newsnight editor) commissioned Grundini (Peter Grundy and Tilly Northedge) to create an information graphic. As Peter Grundy suggested the limits of his ability to draw figuratively enabled him to simplify in quite sophisticated ways. “In a way I was simplifying things to make it possible for me to be able to draw them. In the end that simplification became the thing that people wanted. They liked the actual simplification.” Information graphics really did become a ‘thing’ by the end of the decade, sparking popular debate about whether it expanded debate or simplified arguments.

Then of course was Cognitive Media‘s hand drawn accompaniment to the Royal Society of the Arts events, in particular  Sir Ken Robinson’s speech on Education.

It’s viral popularity almost single-handedly put mapping conversations, meetings and live events on the map – so-to-speak.

But the strength of illustrators, whether through conceptual work or mapping, is the the fact that they dance to their own tune. An imagination that fuses the possible and the impossible, the material and immaterial, the conceptual and the narrative, beauty and beast.

Click here for the IKON collection at Image Source

Container Plus / Image Source / IS09AJ8MO
Container Plus / Image Source / IS09AJ8MO






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