In the last few months, I’ve noticed a ton of brands integrating illustration into their corporate identities. This is an interesting (and happy) move and is perhaps related to the recent resurgence of the analog. We’re seeing old-school cameras in Urban Outfitters, the return of the Polaroid, Etsy and various DIY projects and in general an interest in the handmade. In some ways this seems a logical movement: in this era of hyperstimulation and moments constantly and continuously saturated with visual and informational culture, we as the Western hemisphere are searching for something to latch onto. This is especially true in the digital age where the tangible often ceases to exist. So might it be the case that brands are moving with this trend? Hiring illustrators, for instance, to create a sense of the real, the touchable, even the nostalgic…Basically, I’m curious to know why illustration is making a serious resurgence, where this is happening and what the implications might be.
Movement Toward Optimism
Right now there’s a spirit of innovation coupled with optimism in our culture and probably throughout the world. Some are saying that in order to be innovative, people have an actual need to work in an optimistic environment. We see countless blogs (earning significant revenue from ads) celebrating (and not critiquing) things like design, objects, the beauty of the world. Illustrator and educator Lawrence Zeegan notes in Computer Arts magazine, “A feeling of desperation has been replaced by an optimistic outlook, in that the vogue for illustration is…here to stay.” So why and how is illustration related to optimism? There’s a sense of the new, the experimental, the fresh in illustrated images, particularly in the handmade. We’re so fatigued by our own consumer culture that we’re looking for nuance. Illustration offers that. In its most essential definition, it’s evidence of a human hand and this is refreshing to our tired eyes. In other words, to look at illustration is energizing and makes us think differently. It’s right brain v. left brain. When we see illustration emerging in the branding of powerful corporations like Google or Barclay’s, we are compelled to think of how the world might look, rather than how it looks now. This is optimism.
Ubiquity of Digital & the Need for Novelty
Certainly, there are many illustrators making work that originates in vectors and pixels. But there are a growing number of creators making illustrations with, say, ink or even chalk. An interesting space opening up (or maybe already wide open) is hand-lettering: designers and illustrators are making totally unique brand identity systems via handmade typography. A beautiful example of this is the chalk-lettering of Dana Tanamachi, who works with the ever-interesting Louise Fili. Dana’s work appears in print (like Rachel Ray’s magazine), corporate offices (e.g. Google) and at various events. And Dana is not alone in this trend. (See also Jessica Hische, Marian Bantjes, Jeff Rogers, Jon Contino, Linzie Hunter and others.) This is likely related to the desktop publishing revolution, where essentially anyone can design something, or at least default design it (hello, Times New Roman). In this reality, design can become indistinguishable; hence, expert designers and illustrators are becoming increasingly essential to creating a distinct brand experience.
A strong brand engages the user, the participant on an emotional level. We might call this the human element and, as we move further into the pixelated world, we need it now arguably more than ever. (See also, Paul English’ Get Human project.) Coca Cola is an excellent example of this. (See the company’s advertising history here and a list of their slogans here.) In the latest version of Coke’s Open Happiness ad campaign, billboards feature, for instance, a kid presumably having just finished a good old American baseball game. This particular image harkens back to Norman Rockwell’s America. We view an innocent-seeming kid with a strong grip and wooden bat focused only on quenching his thirst. Note the classic glass coke bottle, the vintage uniform and perfect blue sky. We love the idea of this kid existing, of a clean game being played, of the simplicity of this existence. This ad and hyper-real illustration taps into the idea of the American Dream, which we are invariably attached to on an emotional level. So the question is: why an illustration and not a photograph? Nuances occur in illustration that cannot occur in pure photography. For instance, this kid’s hands are huge, thereby emphasizing his grip on our product. Every follicle of prepubescent hair is rendered on the billboard along with drops of sweat, undoubtedly scaled up for our viewing pleasure. The expression on our subject’s face is perfectly concentrated on Coke. In other words, this scene doesn’t exist. Probably, this kid doesn’t exist. A photograph is impossible. This is just one example of how illustration can create an emotional connection between brands and consumers.
(N.B. I was unable to find the agency and illustrator who created this billboard. Anyone know who made it?)
Everyone is talking about multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, cross-pollinating endeavors. We are in an age of bringing ideas together to see what they mean. The Ted Talks conferences are a great example of this kind of thinking, where humans from all sectors come together to share ideas. The field of illustration is no different. Today, we’re seeing writers intersect with designers intersecting with illustrators, sometimes even packaged into a brand. Several months ago, IE 9 released the Lost World’s Fair website to illustrate the browser’s typographic capabilities. (I know, I know…why mention IE anything, but it really is a lovely site.) Microsoft hired a team of well-known designers (oddly, all men, but nonetheless: Jason Santa Maria, Frank Chimero, Naz Hamid, Trent Walton and Dave Rupert) to create a website combining illustration with interesting type and web-capabilities. Realizing that the future of the web depends on strong design and, I’d argue, illustration, Microsoft reached out to the creative community thereby associating with it.
And here’s why I don’t think this trend is going away. Much of the student work coming out of creative programs incorporates illustration. (Example here.) And many of the young guns winning creative awards are a part of this movement toward the handmade, maybe even toward the analog. Of course. We live in an age where ideas are largely accessible to us via the internet. We can publish our own books, learn how to code a website, watch drawing videos online…why shouldn’t we be able to use unique typography, interesting design and handmade illustration to create a brand.