The List Goes On: One Reason To Reconsider Illustration Listicles

Tucked in the beak of a bewildered homing bird, a hand-written list is flown through the air
Homing Bird (2023)

The List Goes On: One Reason To Reconsider Illustration Listicles

Given how SEO influences online publishing, the list article has become all too commonplace, and illustration is not exempt from its reach. One needn’t look far to find posts that itemise tools, trends, and must-have skills in the field. Conversely, it can be noticed that ‘listicles’ of this sort are nowhere to be found among reputable illustration organisations. It is unlikely that industry professionals are without pertinent views on this topic, which raises the question… Why does this commentary seldom come from relevant experts? And moreover, how valid are the illustration listicles that are being posted?

  • 10 Illustration Trends for 2023
  • 10 Tools to Supercharge your Artwork
  • 10 of the Hottest Styles in 2023
  • 10 Essential Tips to Improve Your Portfolio
  • 10 Illustrators you Should Follow
  • 10 Courses to Boost your Illustration Skills
  • 10 Dos and Don’ts for Recent Graduates
  • 10 Steps to a Lucrative Career in Illustration
  • The List Goes On

These listicles are usually easy to recognise, as they are often short descriptive summaries, and can easily be interspersed with any salient themes of the day. What is problematic is they are often penned by creative-industries personnel who do not actually work in the field. Meanwhile, illustrators, agents, educators, and industry experts are conspicuously absent. A media-literate reader would rightly question if there is adequate domain-specific knowledge to underpin such industry-wide commentary. And while quoting an active practitioner might sure up an article, it is no substitute for meaningful research.

A Question of Credibility

Potentially informing creators and commissioners alike, listicles regularly speak of illustration as though it were a homogenous bloc, a preconception with no basis in reality. Furthermore, the major illustration markets each have their own distinctive needs. Editorial publishing, creating children’s books, gaming, entertainment, the comic book industry, advertising, and making saleable goods are not one and the same. In spite of all the insights being claimed by illustration listicles, this basic market segmentation is rarely mentioned.

“In a temporal world, when references are immediately commodified as the latest trend or fashion, it is ever more important to understand your own practice as an illustrator – to appreciate one’s status of being beyond simply that of an image maker […]”

Former AOI board member Roderick Mills, 2019

As illustration moves further into professionalisation, wide-ranging reforms are being influenced by meaningful debate among educators, academics, researchers, and practitioners. The surface-level commentary that is typical of the aforementioned listicles is too often reductive, and ultimately counterproductive to the cultural and economic future that illustration is striving to build. In light of how SEO now influences online publishing it may be unrealistic to discontinue posting trend listicles. But perhaps a different tack ought to be considered, one acknowledging illustration as being a multifaceted field of practice. And in turn, the work of illustrators deserves to be meaningfully contextualised by authoritative sources.

A Dash of Colour: The Palette Shared by Visual Art and Illustration

A floral assortment emerges from an artist's palette and paint brushes.
A Dash of Colour (2021)

A Dash of Colour: The Palette Shared by Visual Art and Illustration

Above all, the task of an illustrator is to communicate something particular. It is a practice which crafts images to be seen by specific audiences. In History of Illustration (Bloomsbury), the first peer-reviewed textbook of illustration history, Professor Susan Doyle suggests it is an illustrator’s intent that distinguishes their works. For example, many pieces considered as visual art are shown to be illustrative images, striving to influence perceptions, opinions, and consumer choices. A reasonable argument could be made that illustration’s status can benefit from this critical mapping of it’s domain-specific history.

What has certainly contributed to the ambiguity between visual art and illustration is having shared the same means of creation. Drawing and painting was undertaken to make saleable works of fine art, as well as images intended for commercial use. Today’s illustration practice has seen the wide adoption of polygenous digital methods, spurring the ubiquity of images online and IRL. These are means to an end. But the output continues to be rhetorical images that resonate with the public psyche. Similarly, the lauded illustrators of the past were painters who also served the major markets. This commercial activity saw the distribution of their images via the packaging, media, and communication industries of their day.

Finding Meaning

Within the rapid technological and social changes of this new century, illustrated visuals have remained relevant. If considered in terms of semiotics, they convey meaning with signs that the audience can already understand. As in the past, the illustrator communicates what the onlooker is able to comprehend, which oftentimes happens with little more than a glance.

“Visual communication is always coded. It seems transparent only because we know the code already, at least implicitly […]”

Kress & Leeuwin, 2005

Within today’s attention economy, the fleeting moment to consider images places importance not only on pictorial clarity, but the clarity of ideas which are made visual. In short, it is this communication of ideas that gives purpose to the crafting of illustrated visuals.