The Sad Story of Illustration on the Web

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.

Words and Pictures

Search Engine Land has a very literal take on content farms.
The people in this article from Business Insider are not mentioned in the article. They’re just a good example of that joyous feeling when you really crush something.
This article from VentureBeat shows a man carrying cash. No photo of a man carrying equity could be located.
AOL News is talking about gold. See? Gold.
Mashable is talking about Facebook’s use of iFrames, so they’re showing the Facebook logo in a frame. Let me know if you need further explanation.

Time and Money

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.

  1. A List Apart always supplements their articles with the excellent work of Kevin Cornell. But otherwise, you’re spot on. Illustration (appropriate illustration) is markedly absent from our online publishers.

  2. Hi Khoi,
    I agree totally. While designers in their own capacity have started art direction and sites like Bold Italic, Jason’s (JSM) site, and in some capacity mine as well do attempt to give that unique feeling to each article any major publication definitely does not come to my mind.
    Another example is 52weeks ofUX. While the illustration are not commissioned, they are book illustrations from public domain.
    With the frequency of articles being one every hour and no idea of what the news has to be, how do you suggest a major publication solve this problem.

  3. It’s sad but true. I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to work with quite a few illustrators over the last few years and have really enjoyed what they can bring to a design and a message.

    For example, the old Blue Flavor portfolio made use of directed illustration to showcase our work, as opposed to screenshots, and I really thought that was not only a fun solution, but one that told the story of our work in ways a screenshot never could. Alas, I’m not sure everyone agreed.

    (Just realized those were pulled at some point and replaced with the aforementioned (and totally boring) screenshots. Sad. Might have to build a memorial. Some of them were really, really great.)

    To those who might be interested, there are illustrators out there who can do great work on fairly tight budgets and timeframes. It kind of depends on the work needed, but if you’re thinking about it, it’s worth exploring.

  4. While I agree, I have to beg the question: does it really matter? Maybe it does, but I’m not sure.

    Yes, a well-illustrated image with a well-crafted article makes for powerful content, but as you mentioned: not everyone has the time or money to invest in such quality. Is it worth it to invest if you can (like Mashable)? No doubt. A List Apart, as Adam mentioned above, is one of my favorite places to go to read, because you can tell right away that they put time and money (or just more time) into their work.

    But does the reader ultimately care whether an illustration is custom made or stock art? Probably not. It’s the copy that matters most, isn’t it?

    Maybe this is the wrong frame of mind, but that’s what we’re all here for right? Discuss! 🙂

  5. Tanner – I think you raise a decent point. However, finding suitable stock (it is possible) most-of-the-time takes a long time. Sure you’ll save some coin, but you’ll have a hard time finding something that meshes with your message and, in many cases, you’ll need to compromise or go very generic. I’d say, depending on what you’re trying to do, ill chosen stock art can damage or detract from your message, brand, etc.

  6. I noticed that Gizmodo experimented with original illustrations to accompany posts. I’m not sure if these artists worked for money or exposure. I hope both.



  7. I was aware of what Gizmodo has been doing but it completely escaped me when I was writing this. I applaud them for these efforts; maybe they’ll prove me wrong by demonstrating that illustration is in fact viable. We’ll see.

  8. Very sad state of affairs.Especially for illustrators but also for the audience.
    Tanner & Keith -aren’t the photos used as examples in this article, stock? Can’t be worse or more difficult to use stock illustration instead.

  9. @Tanner – I think the argument is less “custom illustration vs. stock” and more “appropriate illustration”.

    The point of the illustration (or photograph) is to illuminate a central point, or expand on the theme of the article in a meaningful way.

    The examples the Khoi used in his post are so perfect, because the imagery that accompanies each article are so banal and meaningless. They do more harm than good, and the article would have been better off with no illustration at all.

    If the illustration provides no deeper understanding or meaning for the reader, then it doesn’t belong. Stock or custom-made.

  10. Though I can’t speak directly to production and budget pressures on individual websites or pages, it seems to me that the pairing of quality illustration with well-crafted text is something that the average consumer is unlikely to miss, and the bottom line therefore becomes rather hard to ignore. In that respect, I agree with Tanner. However, the average person might also be likely to appreciate a good article with well-paired illustrations if they are driven to such pages. I believe the typical consumer’s expectations have been shaped by the lack of well-illustrated work available online (or in print, for that matter), so they are relatively unaware of just how good their reading experience could be. Of course, how do you drive consumers to quality illustrated work, especially if there isn’t much of it out there to begin with? I appear to have shut down my train of though there!

  11. Maybe there needs to be a new position created for web-publishing: someone who is art director AND illustrator. They could be on hand to produce artwork in-house, and be in charge of the overall design of the site, and also be on hand to commission art from other artists when time permits. Some of the larger sites could easily afford to pay for such a position.

  12. Perhaps illustrators have to produce their own content, rather than accompanying or illustrating other content. The New Yorker and the Atlantic often feature a “gallery” or “sketchbook” section where the illustration works beautifully in and of itself- without any relation to the content that surrounds it on the page.

  13. Daniel: whether or not illustrators should do what you’re suggesting is a good idea or not, I’m not sure. But even if they did, it wouldn’t be illustration in the sense of what I’m talking about: another way of telling the story. That, specifically, is the mode of communication that we’re missing out on.

  14. One of the things about illustrations is that they don’t just add punch or pop, but help communicate information and make concepts easily remembered. So much of our brain is devoted to processing visual signals, which if the stories written about were illustrated, they would be understood, remembered and recalled easier. Adding an illustration makes the concept more concrete as opposed to just copy, which is fairly abstract.

    You’d think that a company whose main product is content would want the content to be understood and recalled, then passed along to others. But like Khoi points out, time and budgets don’t allow.

    However, as someone who’s both a visual designer and content creator, I’m guilty of using screenshots (or worse–stock photography). Any visual is better than no visual. But, this will definitely prompt me to improve by creating more illustrations.

  15. Excellent article. In our small capacity, we’ve been striving to publish original illustrations with our articles at Story Matters Magazine. It certainly adds to the time investment, but the richness it brings is absolutely worth it.

    And to echo what’s been said above — ALA is always an inspiration.

  16. Great post. While I agree with your point that the main factors are time and money (also factors in art direction for print design), another contributing factor is that the vernacular of design for the web has never really included illustration.

    While illustration has been an integral part of print design since the time of Gutenberg, the explosive commercialization of the web in the mid 1990s never included illustration as part of it’s visual vocabulary. If you are going to sell books or shoes online, a photograph will do. If you want to engage in the continuously updated world of news and commentary, photography is looked at as essential.

    The online examples that I can think of that do utilize illustration as part of their digital brand experience, Slate for example, are outliers. It is difficult, if not impossible for illustration to get a seat at the table, whether it be on a desktop, phone, tablet or mobile device of the future, when this powerful form of visual communication has been chained up outside and ignored.

    Thanks again for the insightful post.

  17. Slight tangent… Remember They were a pretty influential online publication starting well before the web was even considered a mainstream phenomenon (published 1995-2001). I still remember the wonderful custom illustrations Terry Colon produced for their articles. It’s a shame they didn’t spark a wide tradition of custom illustration on the web. Their archive is back online after disappearing for a while; go browse it. Looks like Terry has been at it all along, too…

  18. Over at Ars we employ the amazing Aurich Lawson to make original artwork for as many articles as he has time to do.

    People really, really appreciate it and it often adds a lot to the stories that our writers are trying to tell.

  19. This seems like not a sea change, but just another step since the 60s started the cycle of speedier time-to-press enabled by technology.

    It also might be good to consider this as a broader discussion of appropriateness of all the content. Along with the article text, additional content has to add something to the total communications:
    – Photo
    – Illustration
    – Infographics

    I even see a lot of print that puts in photos because this article deserves a photo. But how does e.g. a file photo of the president help this really?

    And to extend the illustration crisis, online is often moving so fast I see terrible things like unformatted tables in text. How does that help me understand, quickly, what is happening?

  20. Is copy really better off with no illustration at all? I don’t think so. As Scott Mioduszewski points out: “any visual is better than no visual”.

    Also: how much real value good illustration adds when you think of search engine optimisation?

    Me too, I’d love to see smart illustrations accompanying articles instead of stock pics, but I don’t think it’s possible in every online publication we consume.

  21. While I will agree that it’s absent from online blogging and news excerpts I’ll have to disagree that it’s absent in its entirety. I’m a strong follower of various web-comics, online portfolios, and I am a digital illustrator myself. It’s true there’s nothing fully digital in this age that you can get paid for. But…that sort of makes sense. Not many people want to pay for something so intangible as something online. Hell, there are still grandmas and grandpas out there still stuff their mattresses or stock-pile money over putting it into a a bank under an account on the web because there’s no physical evidence of it’s existance, just a digital number. I CAN think of one place where digital illustration is paid for though. Places like Gaiaonline, Subeta, World of Warcraft, Neopets, and other gaming websites that revolve around subscription or else buying special items for simple aesthetic effect or an upgrade make constant money. But if you want to go into semantics I guess that this sort of thing would be classified under “developer” over “illustrator”.

  22. It’s tough enough for illustrators out there to get work (and to get paid for it). If you’re hiring (or getting favors from) artists to make your page look and read better (so you can brag about it), you need to credit them, zbryant.

  23. Maybe it’s a time thing. Or, rather, a misperception of time thing. And implications of same.

    Instant everything, twenty-four hour news cycle, do it yesterday, one second attention span — the usual bromides. As long as that’s what drives digital production, even those few illustrators who can work on a tight timeline will have problems.

    Those opposed to illustration will argue the all that, both on the production side, and also guessing about readership. I.e. “our readers are too time driven to take the time to look at, let alone think about, illustrations.”

    Lurking underneath all of it is my suspicion that these same people would never have cared about illustration in Old Media, either.

    That is, with significant exceptions (noted in other comments here), web “publishing” caters not only to people’s worst instincts, but also to a class of mental pygmies who inhabit an aesthetic vacuum. Not only caters to, but elevates and idolizes them.

    The same people don’t see why it matters to use apostrophes in punctuation correctly, or to have real em-dashes. They’re taking the last vestiges of civilization and running over it with their pagan wheels.

    Alas, I wish I saw a solution, but I don’t.

  24. Khoi,

    You’ve brought up a subject that rings very near and dear to my own painted heart. For this, I thank you.

    Anyone that knows me is probably all too familiar with my groaning about the state of illustration on the web. It’s one of my favorite topics to gripe about (especially among designer friends). But things are getting better, albeit slowly.

    In defense of illustration and its impact on context, I like to use the analogy of cereal boxesЁ

    Think of your favorite breakfast cereal. Now, think of the generic version, in the plain white box. For all we know, the contents of both boxes could be identical, yet a happy little illustration of a bee whipping honey around gives us a stronger sense of bonding with what we have in our hands. Obviously, this delves into marketing and getting consumers to pay more money —аbut on a subconscious level, the meaning of what illustration does for us emotionally still applies.

    Granted, it’s not a perfect analogy, but it does get the brain working.

    Thanks again,

  25. Thanks for the great post, Khoi.

    If anyone reading this thread is an illustrator and interested in working on news-related content, please reach out. I’m in the process of developing a venture specializing in explanatory news. We plan to be regularly collaborating with quality illustrators.

    You can check out our first video here:

    I can be reached at jkalven (at) gmail (dot) com.

  26. This is a rare and much needed discussion – thank you Khoi.

    I like Phil’s suggestion above – makes me think that a resurgence of in-house illustration could work. It would be a time saver – better communication and immediacy in getting the work done – and paying the illustrator a fair staff wage w/benefits seems enticing… Offering a regular column to an illustrator for periods of time could help as well.

    Of magazines and newspapers, one thing that stands out for me from the reader’s perspective is the ritual or habit that accompanies the action. Online readers are a challenge in this respect, so I suppose it depends on the depth of what you need to relay? What kind of audience you’re trying to grab?

  27. I agree with Julia, online readers have no emotional attachment to websites. Today Mashable is providing content the reader likes, tomorrow it will be some other site. Its hard for websites to justify the cost and time when they are trying to pump out as much content as fast as possible, to get readers to come back.

    Factor in that more and more readers and visiting sites on mobile devices where the size of the screen would make the illustration too small. Maybe the popularity of the iPad and other tablet devices will reverse that.

  28. Khoi,

    I keep on referring to what you did with A Brief Message as the best example of art direction and editorial guidelines applied to the web. That it has vanished from people’s memory is baffling, it truly is a landmark in the history of web design.

    There are other websites where they take that kind of things seriously, the Bold Italic and Pictory for instance, but you are right: they are survivors in a sea of ugliness.

  29. Thanks for this great article and the subsequent discussion!
    I’m an illustrator and I think any writer or “content creator” who publishes on the web should try to form personal ties to a few illustrators and explore creative partnerships. The consistent look of this approach will offer a unique visual branding to the site. As a relationship is explored, the elements of the perceived expense and time-consuming nature of commissioned illustration will probably fall away.
    I have done many illustrations for mainstream magazines and newspapers where the turn-around is a few hours (and the expense is probably quite affordable for on-line publishers too).

  30. Time and relevance, the currency of the digital realm. These two things alone make it difficult for creative directors and art directors to reason with editorial teams that need to crank out daily content. So the only respite for those who desire and produce relevant illustration are monthlies or preplanned features that give the illustrator time to practice his craft. And yet, for every lament there is hope. Check out PROJECT magazine from Virgin ( yes that Virgin of Airline, Music and Cola fame) on the iPad — and you’ll be pleasantly surprised that illustration still thrives.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.