Don't Call It A Comeback: Illustration's Next Stand
In the earliest days of advertising, illustrations were the primary visual medium relied on to tell a brand’s story and sell its wares. However, its initial widespread use in the 19th and 20th centuries was more functional than aesthetic: still photography had yet to be widely adopted and the expense of this burgeoning technology was incredibly cost prohibitive for most advertisers and publishers. Enter the “Golden Age of American Illustration.”
Illustrators of the day flourished. The mainstream American consciousness was introduced to the likes of Charles Dana Gibson, Norman Rockwell and J.C. Lyendecker. There was an abundance of prolific commercial artists reflecting the real world back to us in timelessly compelling and beautiful ways. It was the dominant commercial art form, finding its way to advertising, cover art for magazines, product labels, fashion editorials and more. Brands and publishers clamored to outdo one another and find the next big name or own a new stylistic expression.
But near the middle of 20th century, everything changed. In 1943, National Geographic released its first issue with a photograph on the cover. The first ever photograph of Earth was taken from outer space and shared with the world in 1946. Camera technology was simplified and commoditized for amateur use. And an industry, once singular in its focus to celebrate and elevate the medium, left illustration behind for something shiny and new: the still image.
It’s the kind of work that makes you stop, laugh and remember what it was like to be a kid. It’s the kind of work that lingers in hearts and minds.
Though no longer the first media of choice, illustration techniques continued to evolve away from the eyes of fickle advertisers and publishers. With photographs left to cover “real” life, modern illustrators were able to push conceptual limits, playfully creating whimsical new worlds or reimagining our existing ones. Advancements in digital software allowed artists to express themselves more freely, providing endless possibilities in textures, brush strokes, color, use of negative space and so much more.
Today’s illustrators are transcendent, fully integrated art powerhouses, blurring the lines not just of art and commerce, but using their work as vehicles to push new ways of thinking, tell interesting stories woven into other forms of creative expression such as music or writing. Consider the color‑forward minimalist pop art of Malika Favre. Or Polly Nor’s grungy femme satire. Or Brian Edward Miller’s ethereal, modernized nostalgia. Even Mari Andrew, who combines her talents as both a writer and illustrator to share essays of the peaks and valleys of navigating adulthood with her childlike autobiographical drawings.
And as the caliber of talent swells and techniques continue to shapeshift, the pendulum of interest from the industry is swinging back. The New Yorker has long carried the torch for illustrators since its inception; but now other publishers – from Vogue to Refinery29 to Lenny Letter to Remezcla to The Atlantic – seem to be catching the wave, prominently featuring illustrations on their platforms in the last two years.
Brands have been working their way back as well, albeit at a much slower pace. Inventive illustrated campaigns have shown up most consistently amongst disruptor brands like Seat Geek or Lyft. For example, Casper – the $300 million mattress startup – has been consistently rolling out variations of a quirky, unconventional illustration‑centered brand campaign featuring humorous copy and inventive drawings. Their latest hijinks? A gamified surrealist out‑of‑home campaign, where viewers can spend their commutes finding “the elephant in the room” or “more hours in the day.” It’s the kind of work that makes you stop, laugh and remember what it was like to be a kid. It’s the kind of work that lingers in hearts and minds.
We are living in a time where attention and share of mind are commodities. It’s fostering a return to the basics with easy‑to‑grasp storytelling that stands out. And while the photograph will always be an industry cornerstone; illustration can be the difference between being drowned out in the limited real estate of human attention or standing out from the crowd.