4.7 Digital & non-digital illustration

The purpose of this exercise was to analyse and respond to a statement by Steven Heller about the impact of computers (digital media) on illustration.

Key words from the brief:

  • Is there a clear distinction between digital and non-digital illustration?
  • Style, production or the use of interactivity
  • Picking up on Steven Heller’s quote, what is the future for digital illustration?

Is there a clear distinction between digital and non-digital illustration?

First, a definition of illustration:

Illustration is “Applied imagery; a ‘working art’ that visually communicates context to audience” (Alan Male 2007).

This definition does not make distinctions about genre, media, digital or analogue, or any other distinguishing factor, just that the visuals classified as illustration have a distinct purpose in communicating some kind of context or meaning to an audience.

In order to answer the question in the brief we need to break down and analyse the following quote:

“Can we really say with confidence that the computer will only be a silent partner? Can’t some visionary artist create an illustration form that is unprecedented? Or is illustration an antiquated art that defies change and so will vanish? Film is an integral storytelling medium that bears no relationship to painting. Can the computer be an integral medium that changes the way we perceive and practice illustration?” (Steven Heller 2000)

This quote needs to be seen within the context it was written.

In the year 2000, digital tools and technology were still in a ‘multimedia era’.

The 1990s saw the emergence of the internet and massive advances and improvements in technology, with software applications such as Adobe Photoshop first appearing and being made available to a wide and eager audience. The internet started the decade as a tool for academics or computer geeks but rapidly expanded its audience as major corporations and broadcasters started to realise it’s potential.

By the year 2000, transactional services were just emerging. Web development was in its infancy; there were no agreed coding standards, and the tiny bandwidth offered via dial-up modem connectivity meant visual designers had to use all of their ingenuity to minimise the size of graphic files. Multimedia looked to solve this problem by providing users with ‘rich’ media (video files, games and other forms of interactive experience) through mediums such as CD-ROMS, with links to the internet used where only absolutely necessary, and then only to access, collect or exchange small amounts of data.

I worked in BBC Graphic Design during this period as a Project Manager/Producer and saw the transition from analogue to digital TV and the adoption of personal computer based applications away from, or at least in addition to more specialist (and very expensive) tools such as Quantel’s Paintbox.

What was interesting was how a new generation of young graduate designers started to emerge with a set of skills and an approach that was distinctly different from the ‘old school’ generation of graphic designers who had pioneered the use of graphics on television and film using analogue techniques during the 1980s.

Steven Heller’s quote was made on the cusp of a digital revolution. Many people could see the massive potential of the internet but no one really knew where it was going. The statement “Can’t some visionary artist create an illustration form that is unprecedented” really reflects the optimism and level of digital development at that moment in time.

The way things panned out however was an exercise in convergence not divergence. Software applications such as Photoshop, After Effects, Quarkxpress, Illustrator, Macromedia Director all became tools of the trade for art students. Whist I did notice for a short period of time a very distinct difference in the work produced by this new breed of visual designer, this was short lived; most people caught up quite quickly.

So what actually happened was, rather like the development of the printing press that facilitated the need for designers to work in a radical new way, digital media required a similar change. The tools changed, the channels and audience needs were revolutionised and this opened-up huge creative possibilities for illustrators and designers. It is certainly true that style, production and the use of interactivity had to evolve to exploit up the new opportunities and digital tools and capabilities have become integrated into the practice and outputs of illustration.

So, what is the future for digital illustrations?

There is ever more demand for visual content as social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube (and hundreds of others) harness the power of the image to tell stories and visually communicate context. ‘Digital’ has become just another medium for Illustrators to work in.

The implications of this are that you have to embrace the opportunities to take advantage of them.


Male, Alan, Illustration – A Theoretical & Contextual Perspective (2007) London: Bloomsbury, Preface