Fri 25 Feb
I’ve argued that you can’t design for digital publications the way you design for print publications, but that doesn’t mean that what we leave behind in the print tradition is not missed online. One of strengths that print designers have long brought to their publications is illustration, where artists are commissioned to create visual translations of an article’s most salient or provocative concepts. Print publications have a long, long history of truly great illustrations that became indelible companions to the content they accompanied. Not so much online.
In fact, in digital media, illustration is missing in action, and its absence is palpable. I can’t think of a single, regularly publishing, large-scale digital publication that uses original illustrations prominently, much less pays illustrators a working wage for their efforts. By and large, digital publishing traffics in photographic images, most of them literal — an article about President Obama will be accompanied by a photo of President Obama. Occasionally, when the subject matter of an article doesn’t inspire obvious photo selections, a bit more imagination becomes necessary. This is where, given different economics, digital publishers might turn to illustrators. Instead, they turn to stock photographs, usually with awful results. Here are a few I found this morning.
It’s true, not all of these articles are probably worthy of illustrations. What’s even truer is that the publishing cycle for these sites makes the time and trouble of illustration next to impossible. The act of commissioning an illustration is not rocket science but it’s more complex and time-consuming than makes sense for the Web: an art director has to read the story, select an appropriate illustrator, confirm her availability, allow her time to develop ideas, run the ideas by the editors for approval, wait for a first pass at the finished product, ask for any necessary changes, receive the final art, then integrate it elegantly into the layout of the article. All on a very tight deadline.
It’s foolhardy to think that a publication like Mashable — which, as in the example above, actually goes a little bit further than most in trying to inject a bit of illustrative wit into their art selections — would have the time, expense or motivation to undertake such an involved process. Not even Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily tries to do this, and they seem to have little compunction about going to ridiculous lengths in pursuit of print-like satisfaction.
The inability to commission illustration is one key reason why art direction is fundamentally incompatible with digital publishing. I’ve described it here as a problem of time, but really, at its root, it’s a problem of money. As bad as illustrations like the ones I’ve collected here are, they don’t adversely impact the bottom line. Which is to say, having better illustrations wouldn’t make these publications any more profitable — nor would they make these pages perform better, as digital publishing is increasingly being measured for profitability on a page-by-page basis. That’s reality. It’s unfortunate, because it means as content consumers we’re deprived of a really valuable mode of communication that has been a longstanding partner of some of the best content that publishing has ever produced. But it’s reality.