The Case for Illustrated Visuals in a Digital Time
The way images are consumed has always been linked with its corresponding media technology. For print media, a sea change was prompted by the iPad in 2010, compelling much of the publishing industry to overhaul its longstanding revenue models. More recently, the primacy of broadcast television has been usurped by online media consumption. In particular, mobile web has surged to lead internet traffic worldwide.
“Visual search and recommendations in Google, Yandex, YouTube, Instagram or Pinterest expose us to endless images and video, while websites of major museums, invite us to browse hundreds of thousands of digitised artworks and historical artefacts.”Lev Manovich, 2017
The rise of media tech and digital platforms has spurred innumerable visual works made to exist as screen-based image data. And while some artwork may not be natively digital, this too is frequently documented, adjusted, and/or published digitally. Once within the mediasphere it is of little consequence how an image has been created; if it can be viewed on a pixel display, it is subject to the conditions imposed by the hardware and software technologies of the day. Unlike the single artefacts of the 20c., visual culture is now available at a massive scale in digital form.
Adapting to Media Tech
To paraphrase Professor Emeritus Alan Male, illustrated visuals are not made to be encountered in their original state. They are contextualised, and communicate to their audience largely through contemporaneous media. From the engraved images of late 19c. newspapers, to the offset-lithography used for printing ephemera, to 8bit computer graphics seen in early video games. Commercial practitioners have implemented techniques to make their visuals fit the media. Ergo, the skill profile of practitioners has adapted to the changes in media. As with other creative domains, the early internet beckoned greater computer literacy, setting the stage for use of today’s digital media platforms. While many illustrators might use traditional methods for creating images, the dissemination of visuals happens on screens.
“In a post‐digital world, surely we are beyond the debates about digital and analog in the production of illustration: all illustration becomes digital in some shape or form.”Roderick Mills, 2019
In 2008 former AOI Director Paul Bowman highlighted numerous shortcomings within the Illustration scene. This included what he regarded as the parochial stance taken toward emerging media. However much truth there may have been in this view, it bears mentioning that wider broadband adoption had only begun. Since then hardware limitations have diminished, and evermore online space has been opened up for multimodal visual content. Illustration may have been incubated through commercial printing, but it could not have been insulated from the far-reaching changes that swept through the communications industries. The role of contemporary illustrated visuals now lies with their emergent roles in today’s post-digital culture.