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Reading a graphic designers blog recently, he noted that the art of illustrating isn’t part of the Design Observer’s graphic design “categories.” Typography, photography, and art are listed, but not illustration. He opines “Is this omission a simple oversight, or does it tell us something significant about the current state of illustration?”

Fallen Art

The reference seems to be that the illustration profession has fallen in the eyes of the art world. Noted art director specializing in graphic design, Steven Heller, concurs”I am an advocate of illustration and saddened by its loss of stature among editors who feel photography is somehow more effective (and controllable).”

One can’t point the finger at a single reason for the demise of illustration’s stature, but many point to commercial world’s desire for photography instead of the interpretive arty approach of hand-created imagery. The speed of creation and ability to edit the product are also important factors contributing to the preference of photography over illustration. Current software is so advanced allowing photographers and editors to more easily manipulate the product. With the rise of illustration stock libraries, there is less need for new additional work.


Earlier in graphic design’s history, illustration played a central role in 20th century work combining with typography and image-making. There was a deep respect for the art of rendering an illustration by hand. Illustration mirrored graphic designs aim to anonymously conveying messages with personal creative interpretations. Illustration reflected the personality and style of the individual, much like pure art did.

With the onslaught of technology in the 1990s, illustration was no longer seen in the same way. Business-minded graphic designers focused on strategy, branding and finely tuned commercial messages, instead of the previous “individual style.” Even for purists, it became obvious that advanced graphic design could equal and even surpass the ideas and visual elements of illustration. The erosion of illustration’s place in graphic design was now in full decay. Only in a few sources (e.g. New Yorker) was illustration still utilized regularly.

Direct and Explicit

Graphic design’s replacement of illustration rests on illustration’s missing ‘verbal explicitness.’ Graphic design is able to more easily combine verbal signposting with powerful images. As designer Milton Glaser once said “In a culture that values commerce above all other things, the imaginative potential of illustration has become irrelevant… Illustration is now too idiosyncratic.

In marketing and business communications, words dominate. Direct language paired with vivid images are more powerful and direct than interpretive art. The marketing and advertising realm doesn’t want the consumer to ponder too long, taking in the message. The more direct, the better. One sees this in society’s endless hunger for reality television, news, graphic violence and even serious pornography.

Graphic design’s advantage is its superiority to deliver direct and powerful messages to the viewer. Thus making graphic design preeminent in a modern world. Illustration seems destined to an antiquated art form that provides a look at our past, rather than our future. Many purists rue the current state of the arts, but illustration seems destined to become a rare niche art form rather than a graphic design powerhouse.