Summer 2009

Schism and reunification

Adrian Shaughnessy
Illustration: brands

Where there was once discord, there is now harmony, as design zealously embraces the made image. Adrian Shaughnessy analyses 'this new hybrid - type-based yet infused with fluid and expressive qualities' 

There was a time when graphic design and illustration used to sleep in the same bed. Look through any design annual from the 1970s and early 80s – Graphis, D&AD, the New York Art Directors – and much of the work on show has drawn imagery as its main ingredient. During the fizzy, go-go 1980s, however, something happened to the relationship between design and illustration. Design was promoted to the front line of commercial life: professionalised and strategised, it took ownership of identity and branding within the corporate world. Not long afterwards designers discovered that cheap technology and reduced repro costs allowed them to use photography where once they might have relied on illustration; they also discovered that new digital tools enabled them to make their own images, collages and visual effects. Illustration, on the other hand, clung onto the notion of autonomy of expression and refused to learn the language of strategy and branding. It was banished to the sofa



At its simplest level, the re-emergence of the designer-illustrator means that the words Graphic Design and Illustration appear side by side more frequently than they once did on the websites and business cards of designers and illustrators. But it has also coincided with a much bigger change within the visual communication landscape. We are seeing the forging of a new expanded definition of illustration. Today, illustration is now any sort of made image – and by ‘made’ I mean an image that has been created, manipulated, melded or fashioned. It can be virtual or physical; it can be interactive or static; it can be made by a human being or by a computer laden with smart software; it can be model-making; it can be found in three-dimensional environments; it can even be made randomly by processing software. The consequence of all this is that illustration is beginning to catch up with fine art, which long since species-jumped out of the canvas into a new frame-free zone where anything goes. It is hardly surprising that designers – and illustrators – are embracing this new freedom with zeal.

Of course, not all the work produced by design’s remarriage to illustration produces meaningful work. Much of what we see falls into the honey-trap of mere prettification and space-filling; often pleasant but rarely engaging. Yet what tends to snag the eye in the visual communication firmament is the work that fuses the precision of graphic design with the floating-world abstraction of the illustrator

Designers featured in this article include: Dust; Alex Trochut; IWANT; Karlssonwilker;

Build; Universal Everything; Airside; and Grandpeople.


First published in Eye no. 72 vol. 18.

EYE 72 cover 1000 pixels

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