illustration: graphic design’s poor relation

(published in communication arts)

admit it.

oh, come on. everybody knows that illustration is nothing. nothing compared to graphic design. nothing compared to photography.

the first time i applied to risd, in 1973, i was rejected.  the following year (after a bizarre experience at the california college of arts and crafts) i was accepted. in california, all i remembered was doing lithographs and that i had a little white dog. photo realism was all the rage and i hated it with a vengeance. since my questionable skill as an artist had deteriorated, if anything, during that time, the reason for risd’s change of heart remains a mystery.

there i decided to major in graphic design, because i loved type. i had discovered el lissitsky, lebedev, malevitch and rodchenko- those were my gods at the time. also, it was a political decision. i came from a privileged and artistic family, so naturally the pursuit of “art” with a capital “a” i considered suspect; an indulgence only the elite could afford. surrounded by books on matisse and picasso, i vowed to create the world’s loveliest pizza box. give them art where they didn’t expect it- not on a gallery wall, but on shampoo! maybe something influenced by stuart davis. but nobody ever asked me to design a pizza box.

basel, shmazel. at risd in the ‘70’s, what i called the swiss miss style prevailed. among other peculiar assignments was a concrete book (as in concrete poetry) and i was immediately aware that i had been catapulted into an even more rarified artistic environment. “univers” was the only acceptable typeface, and then there were the grids. grids! no pictures allowed, unless they were grainy black and white photos.  here’s a word i’ll hate forever: “conceptual.”  i think it means “un-stupid.” design turned out to be even more snobbish and existential than painting. i longed for a down-to-earth project, like a new candy bar or something. besides, i missed drawing.

so i transferred to the illustration department. there, luckily, i met mahler ryder, a teacher who encouraged every possible kind of artwork, up to and including things that looked kind of like graphic design. i feel sad because he died so young. marcel duchamp, man ray, warhol and ed ruscha, were my influences. my theory will always be this: look for the passionate teachers. it doesn’t matter what they teach. of course the other illustration professors encouraged me to return to the graphic design department, since every single piece i produced included typography, and they didn’t think that was illustration, really. uh, okay. i was young and insecure. now i’m old and insecure. it’s much better!

here’s the absolute worst thing you can say to the head of a graphic design department:

“oh, come on! it’s only graphic design! it’s not like engineering! a building’s not gonna fall on somebody’s head or something because i missed a few weeks.”

they wouldn’t let me back in the department, unless i took a whole extra year. (!) ($!) clearly, graphic design is a very serious thing. it was a big deal. the choice had become such an issue, such a source of contention that the fun of making art was nearly gone forever.

there was nowhere to go but painting, where no one was minding the store anyway and i had time for a few graphic design electives. thank god for the late michael glass. he was the teacher responsible for my own acceptance of the possibility of a lighthearted and tolerant world, where illustration and design and painting could live in peace and harmony together. i brought drawing into my design work, and type into my drawings, and i’ve done that ever since, with happy results. it’s a tough sell, but what gets through can be something complete, something my own, and  not a little picture in a block of somebody’s badly-designed text.

did anyone call paul rand an illustrator? just check out his “el producto” ads. cassandre?  what about herbert leupin, bruno munari or milton glaser? some more respected names in our field include paul colin, the stenberg brothers, herbert bayer.

if you’re good, they call you a graphic designer, even if you use drawing in nearly every piece.

if this were a matter of semantics, it wouldn’t matter, but thousands, perhaps millions of students are registering as illustration majors. what does this mean?

1. lower pay

2. compromise. the hierarchy of an advertisement, a page in a magazine, any piece of design goes something like this:

a. the client

(he that pays the piper names the tune, especially in the usa)

b. the agency bigwig, the magazine editor

c. the creative director

d. the art director

e. the designer

f. the photographer, or

g. the illustrator

but you knew that.

when i was teaching at parsons school of design, the vast majority of illustration students were women. i have the sneaking suspicion that illustration has become something that nice girls do. illustrators usually work alone, outside the collaborative environment of a design studio or ad agency that supports their profession. it can be a lonely road, and it takes a great deal of self-motivation to survive in a field that is fiercely competitive.

in america, the two departments (g.d. and illustration) tend to be separate; at camberwell in london, and many other european art schools, they combine them under names like ‘communication.”  that seems reasonable. certain things can be learned in art school, i guess. warm colors come forward. cool ones recede. good kerning, and what “flush left” means. stuff like that. also, art schools have the best parties and all the coolest musicians come from there. if you want to be a musician, i recommend a major in industrial design, with some sculpture and photography electives.

frankly, i think anybody with good taste, common sense, drawing skills and a mac can be an illustrator or designer. if you have painted and drawn all your life and possess an original mind, perhaps a great one.

there are so many good things about being an illustrator. nothing compares with the thrill of seeing your name in four point type in the gutter of a magazine for the very first time!  putting sarcasm aside for one moment, i love to be an illustrator. autonomy is a wonderful thing. it means freedom, sleeping late, and drawing pictures for a living. for anyone that loves to draw, it’s the cat’s meow. for one thing, it’s really easy. the hard part is the marketing, the bargaining and the business side. a degree in business wouldn’t hurt.

it’s having a degree in illustration that makes no sense to me. illustration is just drawing with intelligence to someone else’s specifications.

an art director gives you a brief. if one has a brain, it’s no challenge to follow it. a personal style, a way of communicating through drawing develops over time. all of the illustrators i know have been passionate draftsmen since childhood. many of them have majored in architecture, art history, or  (unsurprisingly) comparative literature. what can you do with that? their common passion is drawing, and they have discovered that drawing can bring food to the table.

a good art director has chosen you because they feel confident that your particular visuals will fit the project like no other. of course a bad art director will force you to compete with three other illustrators for little or no money, and end up using a photograph, blaming the whole thing on the client, where in fact he or she didn’t fight for their choice.  in fact, photography supplanted illustration the instant daguerre made it possible, and for good reason. in recent years, technology in every sphere impresses us, speed equals modernity, things that are time-consuming seem old-fashioned. drawing takes time. in addition, if an accurate portrayal of a person, place or thing is required, illustration runs a distant second to the camera’s art. photography is considered more of a science, and science equals respect. americans also feel that the closer something is to reality, the more value it has. once a japanese client suggested to me, “can’t you make it more abstract?”  imagine that.

there is no question in my mind that is the reason, over a hundred years later, that major magazines routinely pay double or triple the page rate for photographs versus illustration. once when i was jonesing  for more money, the client said, without any shame, “but that’s almost what we pay for a photograph!”

in art schools, illustration departments have relatively few men. illustration is considered girly.

the decisions about the point and focus of any piece of design will rarely be with the illustrator. you have to fight the urge to live a lifetime making deadlines, an arm for hire. a friend of mine once complained “i don’t want to die being able to say i did a lot of exercise drawings for self magazine.”  one wants to make some kind of a point, no? the whole idea of work for hire kind of sickens me, in spite of the fact that much of my own career has been exactly that. the part that makes it all worthwhile are the projects where design, humor and drawing combine to make a statement that is truly my own. i make sure that these moments happen more and more.

a diverse education, life experience and drawing make a good illustrator and more importantly an interesting human being: one with something to communicate. better to see the world.  life is too damn short to waste three of them in the illustration department. okay, maybe a little design training and a lot of good books. i learned more in the strand bookstore than in four years of college. that’s where i found “caractere noel”, the adventures of tin tin”, sasek’s “this is new york”, william steig’s “lonely ones”,  steinberg’s “passport”, halsmann’s “jump book”, “how to wrap five eggs”, “the most of s.j. perelman",  and an obscure paul rand volume from japan.

to understand what i mean, all you have to do is look at rand’s work. all mature artists and designers draw on a wide variety of tools to communicate, and technology sometimes makes it easier to do so. sometimes they make it too easy, and then things get really ugly. in any event, these clear divisions don’t exist in life, so why should they in school?

to segregate illustration as a separate department from graphic design was a mistake made by art schools a long time ago. at that moment illustration became graphic design’s poor relation.

©  laurie rosenwald