Illustration and Visual Communication

May 29, 2020

The act of drawing is an act of visual communication. In every drawing there will be at least one entry point where a viewer might access a window to the message or meaning embedded in a drawing. Sometimes this message or meaning might be quite clear; at other times, the drawing might cloak its meaning in metaphor or narrative.

An illustration is also a form of visual communication. In terms of graphic design, it is this visual representation which provides definition, emphasis or a visual accent to a given text. The piece of writing and the illustration work together to offer meaning or comprehension of an idea. This can be seen in so many ways, and the act of marrying illustration with text is all around us. Consider the packaging of consumable products in your home. Look in your pantry for a start – you might see a cereal box with an illustration of a cartoon-style animal digging into a bowl of cereal. The illustration combined with the typography selected to exemplify the name of the cereal gives us a visual representation which is like a code that tells us something about the cereal’s appeal to the consumer (that’s you!).

I know for certain that when I am in a supermarket, my artist/designer brain looks to images first. I am attracted to visual culture and this translates in the supermarket to being drawn to the visual formatting of packaging – especially that of illustration. I will use the illustration as an entry point for understanding the product’s purpose. In this instance, the text comes second, supporting the work of the illustration.

Are some cultures more attuned to graphic representations, and others to text? This is a really interesting question. Cultures do have distinctive learning style patterns, but it might be too easy to generalise here – perhaps a better question is: how do we, as individuals, view our construction of the world in which we live? Do we relate to graphics as a means of communicating instruction, or do we read text to absorb instructional meaning? Something to think about in relation to your own learning style.

Now let’s look at that flat pack piece of furniture in pieces all over the loungeroom floor. It’s a universal design that can be purchased all over the world. How does the company convey the instructions for assembly to people from a variety of different countries, cultures and language groups? Enter the illustrated instructional leaflet – graphic design illustrators have grappled long and hard with representing step-by-step instructions as road maps for constructing a bookcase, bed, chair, set of drawers – the list goes on. But, are these forms of visual communication always successful, let alone even useful? So many people, right around the world, have so many opinions to offer on this one simple question!

Historically, illustrative graphics were used for communicating a message or story long before written text.

Graphics have a deeper impact across cultures due to their ability to create their own meaning from the picture not words. Although words may be a part of the Graphic, the images themselves produce the desired response or understanding in the intended audience.  -lumenlearning

Maps are perhaps one of the most visually alluring and immediately recognisable forms of graphic illustration. Take a moment to look online, or if you have reference books at home, at maps of early sea explorations of our world. These illustrated antiquities – especially those that cover the 250 years of exploration from the 1600s to 1800s – are exceptional examples of the fusion of text, image and location. They are complex documents, rich in illustrated homage to all that is new and strange. Map makers had to synthesis this strangeness with what is culturally a part of their known world. These extraordinary documents still beguile people today because of their peculiar beauty. Our experience of the world now is so vastly different, yet we intuitively comprehend these maps as ways of looking at our place in the world that goes beyond mere historical reference.

Small children love illustrated story books. The Guardian Australia describes children as “astoundingly flexible visual readers”. Writer Jenny Uglow comments:

[Children] can follow adventures in silhouettes against bright backgrounds and turn without a flicker to the comic-like abstractions of Mr Men. This openness is on a par with their acceptance of magical transformations, upside-down houses and flying through space, and their tendency to anthropomorphise everything, from rabbits to trains and from dinosaurs to umbrellas. They know no boundaries. They also linger over pictures, with a time-defying immersion that grown-ups tend to lose.

Isn’t this one of the best testaments to illustration that you could ever read? Picture-language is important to all of us – it’s just that we may forget its essential significance from time to time, and the fact that it is all around us, and has been for thousands of years of evolution in cultures as diverse as the stars above us.

It’s funny, even though I am not particularly into fashion, I love contemporary fashion illustration. I find that it can so quintessentially express the very moment of the fashion designer’s creative process that came to define the collection being illustrated. The more adventurous and abstracted the illustration, the more exciting the conceptualisation becomes. Fashion illustration has a long history. As this form of illustration has moved into contemporary practice, it seeks to tell stories about our relationship to self-expression through clothing. This is where editorial illustration for fashion magazines makes its mark. Often, the illustrations are more conceptual – expressing abstract ideas about how fashion behaves on a body located within a three-dimensional space – ideas of movement become important. Representations of textures, textiles, draping, folds, opacity and transparency of fabrics, and structural construction of garments are all important aspects of fashion illustration. Once an illustrator has developed their definitive style, these representations can become quite experimental and uniquely expressed through their fashion illustrations.

Christine Garner, in her online article The Power of Illustration to Communicate Complex Ideas, cites five different contexts for using Illustration: knowledge, persuasion, identity, fiction and commentary.Could you contextualise a genre of illustration that would fit each one of these contexts? It makes for an interesting exercise.

There’s so much more that could be said in this blog in favour of illustration as a form of communicative expression. Let’s conclude this blog then, with stained-glass windows. Could they express the ultimate window into the complexities of culture and belief within the western world? Could we determine a stained-glass window as a form of illustration? Given what you have read in this blog, what would make it so?

Answers on a postcard please… [now, there’s a whole other genre of historical illustration that’s worth looking into!]

Wendy Muir

Art Eye Deer Teacher