The New Era of Illustration

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How today’s design trends are opening doors for digital illustrators

When people hear the word “illustrator,” they usually tend to summon the classic definition, that is, someone who draws pictures for children’s books, in their minds. While those illustrators certainly do still exist, the move into the digital world has meant that many people assume the role of “illustrator” is all but dead. The reality, however, is quite the opposite. More and more these days, you can find illustrators leaving their marks all over the internet. You just have to know what to look for.

Consider, for a moment, the terrorist attacks in Paris last November. While it was an unspeakable tragedy of a global scale, one of the resounding responses to the attacks was a symbol of hope, the Eiffel Tower peace sign sketch that went viral within hours of the attacks. The image was created by French artist Jean Jullien, a noteworthy designer and illustrator who has done work commercially for many major companies around the world. In an interview with Slate, Jullien made an interesting remark regarding his ink-brush response to the Paris attacks: “I do graphics commercially for a living, but when I get affected by things, when something happens in the world, I usually communicate online with my drawings.”

Jullien’s comments speak to a larger trend afoot in the digital world: the need for a touch of the human element in our online presences. This phenomenon isn’t exactly new, nor should it necessarily be a surprise, given the huge spike in artisanal industries in other sectors of the economy, but now, more than ever, there is room in online design to find illustrators doing some really unique, groundbreaking work.

The main question is, why now? If illustration was presumed dead by many, what exactly is bringing it back? The answer is not perfectly black and white, but one major reason there’s more room now than ever for illustration online is because of the prevailing trends in web design that dominate the current market. Put simply, there are a number of web design principles that are prevalent in almost all “good looking” sites these days, and it’s resulted in a trend in which a lot of popular websites look and feel very similar to one another.

Some speculate that this uniformity of web design is a result of Web 2.0’s movement away from high user customization and toward general homogeneity, citing the general messiness of MySpace in comparison to the neatness of, say Facebook or Twitter. Others say this trend is a result of a much simpler phenomenon rooted deep in the realm of human psychology: there are, generally speaking, shapes, colors, and designs that just look better to the human eye than others. Why do you see so many websites with a predominant blue-and-white/gray color scheme? Because that combination of colors triggers a sense of dependability and calmness in the human brain.

Regardless of the reason, the overarching trends in web design mean that there is a great deal of uniformity across the internet today. While this phenomenon is good for the user in terms of ease-of-use, it does make it hard for a new website to get a foot in the door and stand out from the rest of the crowded field. This struggle for uniqueness in a homogenous field has created a new need for digital illustrators, and it is through this need that you can find illustrators making their mark online.

A good digital illustrator these days will most likely have extensive training in other areas of web design, specifically User Interaction (UI) and User Experience (UX), meaning that the best illustrators are well equipped to apply the uniqueness and human element of their illustrations to the limited frameworks of popular design trends. One need look no further than the Google home page for the perfect example of this intersection of design and illustration. Indeed, the Google Doodle team consists of illustrators whose job it is to apply unique, eye-catching, immersive illustrations and animations to the standard framework of the Google logo. The number of times a simple alteration to the otherwise standard Google homepage has gone viral is probably too many to count these days, so it’s safe to say that these illustrators are clearly onto something.

As our online presences continue to grow and our lives become increasingly wrapped up in the digital, there will always be a need for a touch of the human element on our desktops and smartphone screens, and where that need exists, you can find illustrators plying their age-old trade. Illustration, it seems, is far from dead. It’s just moved online.


Catalin is the founder of Mostash - a social marketing boutique - and he's always happy to share his passion for graphic design & social media.