Two Very Different Kinds of Illustration

In late December The New York Times published “The Year in Illustration,” a round-up of the dozens of commissioned illustrations that adorned their pages in 2017. Most of the work is really great and a little of it is not so great, but in any case this overview does a valuable service in highlighting just how much illustration is a part of the organization’s writing. These highly idiosyncratic, unpredictably organic, invariably witty artworks add a vital dimension to Times journalism by facilitating the conveyance of complex concepts, both in current events and the world of ideas.

I found this one particular graphic from the overview worth noting. It shows, at a high level, the richness of approaches to illustrating a single subject, albeit a widely influential one: Donald Trump.

Trump Illustrations from The New York Times’ Year in Illustration

The expressiveness on display here is impressive, especially just for a single subject: we have pieces done with watercolor, pencil sketches, vector drawings, collages, cartoons and more, plus almost every hybrid of the above.

In fairness to other art directors, this level of variety is about par for the course for editorial illustration and there are tons of other publications that could boast a similar heterogeneity. But it’s worth comparing this range with the kind of illustration we see in digital products. For some time now, I’ve been collecting screen shots of illustration usage in apps, web sites and related collateral on this Pinterest board. Here’s a snapshot:

Monoculture Illustrations

Even at reduced, thumbnail scale, it’s pretty evident that the range of expression here is much, much narrower. Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive inventory, but over the past year or so that I’ve been maintaining this board, I’ve tried to capture every product-related illustration that I can find. In my experience, the vast majority of them are quite similar in their aesthetic: the colors range from primary to bright pastels; the figures are cleanly drawn and almost always rendered with vectors; the details are highly abstracted and shading is geometric if it appears at all; the compositions are generally minimal and only occasionally feature very limited background elements.

Step back and you might mistake these as excerpts from a children’s book, except that they depict grown adults doing ostensibly grown-up things. One could argue that they effectively infantilize their intended audience, as if the drawing style is predicated on the assumption that users of digital products can stomach only the most child-like and, maybe, most computer-like visuals.

It’s not even that I dislike this aesthetic, either. Sometimes this look can be quite beguiling, and if nothing else it’s more often than not expedient—it’s not a style of illustration that gets in the way of the users. But it is worth taking a step back to examine the way our products use illustration and trying to understand why we’ve all settled on this particular approach.

The simplest answer, of course, is that it’s the most economically pragmatic method of adding a moderately more human element to digital products. The style is simple, it’s efficient, and it can usually be done in house. It probably wouldn’t be far off-base to assume that a lot of these illustrations were done not by professional illustrators but by product designers who also have some illustration talent themselves. They designed the app and while they were at it, it was faster and cheaper to just have them create the illustrations too.

And that may be the unifying thread that ties all of these illustrations together: they can all be executed with the tools that a designer has at his or her disposal—a vector drawing app and an image editing app. There’s none of the unexpectedness that editorial illustration prioritizes and that professional illustrators spend years mastering—no photostats, no Rorschach patterns, no sculptures, no halftones, no unruly blotches of ink or paint. Everything in these illustrations is very carefully controlled and moderated, with nothing left to chance. That, whether intentional or not, says a lot about these products.

To be clear, I’m certainly not arguing that illustrations for products should even look like the kind of editorial illustration that The New York Times commissions. Product illustrations are there to make the user’s experiences easier; editorial illustrations are there to make the reader’s experience more interesting—even more challenging. But looking at the former and the prevalence of a single, monocultural aesthetic that seemingly almost every startup and tech company and would-be industry disruptor out there has adopted, it’s worth wondering if there’s some other voice—or even a different modulation of this same voice—that could be appropriate. Not all of these have to look so interchangeable with one another. In fact, it might actually be desirable for some brands to look, y’know, distinctive and unique.