The Sibling Rivalry Between Visual Art and Illustration

There are good and bad aspects to everything. The truth is somewhere in between.

Sweet: Illustration featured in Print’s 2004 Regional Design Annual

While I often check out the websites of firms and designers I’ve heard about, Print’s Regional Design Annual is one of my main sources for inspiration when I’m in a slump. As a solo in-house designer, I often feel cut off from the more creative world of editorial and advertising designers. And especially those mysterious characters who seem to have enough money and time to produce imaginative work that would never be accepted in the corporate world. Whether a piece sparks off an idea I can use for my day job or just gets me excited about being a designer, it’s a resource that’s valuable for years to come.

My initial reaction the flat fire escape route themed cover with the baffling script font in the corner was disappointment. Following the path of one of the walking figures, it seemed he’d vaporized through a couple of walls and was running towards the edge of the page as if to escape the terrible cover design he was trapped in. It seemed completely meaningless, which design should never, under any circumstances, be meaningless or arbitrary. Such a curious choice of artwork for a prestigious graphic design magazine. If I could find it in myself to give Print the benefit of the doubt, or just provide a conspiracy theory, perhaps the bland cover was contrived to belie the vivid color and wonderful tactility of much of the featured illustration work, similar to what you can see here.

Illustration, especially among the younger set of designers, is going through an interesting phase right now that’s in a misty gray somewhere between fine art and mere visual description or decoration, even outside of metaphor. Rather than providing a reference point, the artwork could potentially stand on its own as fine art in a conventional space like, I don’t know, say, a wall (where else do we put 2-D art?). Yet this style of work is more of a statement about applied art[i] as fine art: t-shirt designs, concert posters, CD covers, zines, fiction covers, stickers, embroidery, fabric, wallpaper. Things that rely heavily on visual art, but because the venue combines it with innumerable contexts (structure, selling points, size, brand, materials, manufacturing, environment, and so on), pure art is not the intended final result.[ii]

A discussion of these issues about fine art and illustration and media requires mentioning the Dada movement. The transience of what the Dadaists declared to be art seemed radical nearly 100 years ago because for millennia, art has been our link with the eternal and thus must depict eternal things. But art is also a refraction of our current world. Dada documented the emerging nihilism of the modern consumer economy and everything it ushered in. We are still undergoing those changes today, with technology tweaking it up a notch. So if the experience of visual stimulation through advertising, fine art, photography, film, etc. is even more fleeting in the social consciousness now than it was for the Dadaists, shouldn’t there be artists out there interpreting, developing and reacting to this reality?

The answer is yes, but you won’t find it in an art gallery. To reach any sizeable audience, it’s now necessary for artists to make use of the most short-lived shorthand of communication: advertising. Even if it requires combining visual art with the name of a band or brand. Thus art’s unexplored expression in the realm of illustration and graphic design is hard for many designers to swallow. “It seems to me a disproportionate number of the pieces were posters and the majority of those could be further reduced down to posters for rock bands. Where were the annual reports, packaging, trademarks, direct mail pieces, brochures, catalogs, and corporate identity programs? These are the projects that real designers do to solve real problems for real clients,” a Houston art director complained.

But as one designer from L.A. said, “underground street design is becoming more mainstream.” Another partner at a firm in North Carolina observed that “the seismic shift by clients towards tighter strategies and more distinctive branding efforts reflects their response to a tougher marketplace, increased global competition, and a growing general interest in design from consumers, fueled by success of design-driven retailers like Target. The Wal-mart mentality has subsided with the bigger clients since consumers are becoming a little more sophisticated.”

Despite its shock value to the business side of advertising and even some designers, the illustration work in Print is still conservative in terms of what is expected of the viewer. The fraternal twins of fine art and illustration have similar goals: to fulfill the desire to see something familiar that hasn’t been done before, or to see something new through a means that has already been used.[iii] With Dada, graphic design crossed the line separating it from visual art. In Print’s 2004 Regional Design Annual, art sloshed over its boundaries into its sibling’s territory. It’s likely we will see a backlash to more traditional-looking art direction from all of this, but luckily the magazine was savvy enough to notice this whitecap on the sea of design.

Shameful: Illustration featured in Print’s 2004 Regional Design Annual

“Clients want conservative design.”

“Clients want edgy designs.”

Despite all the quotes from designers expressing completely different trends, much of the work featured in Print was one-sided. The heavy emphasis on illustration and visual art was not sufficiently explained by the jurors. They did not express their own thoughts on the pieces they chose, but relied almost exclusively on quotes from the entrants. Is that not was a juror is expected to do? Just as editors “cut the fat and keep the meat” (to use and expression of my writer friends) for their publications, so jurors chose choose what, in their knowledgeable opinion, is good work and explain why.

At first, the illustrations seemed quite striking, but there was page after page of the same style utilizing woodcuts, brown paperboard, letterpress, silkscreen, stencil, and stamping. Most pieces even featured the same imagery: hands, teeth, birds, woodcut flourishes, pointy objects, skulls, children, deer. (Although I admit I went through a bird and tree phase myself all of last year). I know there are personal and business connections of mutual respect between the houses that specialize in this kind of work. But this unfortunate regurgitation of themes grew less evocative as it was repeated in each regional section.

I say this was a mistake on the jurors’ part, not the individual designers who happen to be successful doing what they love. Print’s jurors should have just picked five of the best gig art posters from each region and left room for other work like annual reports and logos. Or they could’ve just made the magazine smaller, because after awhile, it seemed like they were just filling space because the pieces looked cool. A magazine of this eminence should know that design is the opposite of filler. It’s extremely important to recognize good work and accomplishments in newer and traditional forms of design.


[i] In her introduction to the Annual, editor Joyce Rutter Kaye discusses changes in what designers are working on: “designing wallpaper and carpeting, creating limited-edition t-shirts, selling t-shirts online, and most ubiquitously, printing silkscreen and letterpress posters for arts events, bands…”


[ii] One could argue that either traditional forms of advertising (TV commercial art direction, movie branding, print ads, environment design, billboards, websites, signage) have not caught up yet or are not applicable to this hybrid form of art/illustration. I would say that cable TV is the exception to the rule in terms of high art motion graphics and logos. MTV and VH1 are obvious choices, but even TLC and the Discovery Channel have some interesting self promo spots. I don’t know – I don’t have cable.

Other note: You have to wonder when so many of the “mysterious characters” mentioned above are selling their personal silkscreen prints of gig posters for $40. Is the poster design’s purpose to sell itself (i.e. the illustration) or sell the thing that it’s selling? Is the price the most accessible selling point to young art collectors or the artwork as a statement about the buyer? Is the audience observed/researched as it would be for a typical ad campaign or is it produced by the artist as fine art, self-pleasure, self-expression, a personal message? I’m sure different designers all have their own perceptions, but this is definitely what is known as a niche, for now anyways.


[iii] “Designers are making more work that doesn’t look like it was made on the computer,” observes Brett Stiles of GSD&M.

Leave a Comment