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What does it mean to be an illustrator?


Question

I have noticed people here frequently talking about "Illustrator(s)" and illustration. I have no idea what 'illustrator' means in this sense!

What is an illustrator? How is an illustrator different to a designer?

2015/04/14
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4/14/2015 6:57:00 AM

Illustrators are people who do illustration, like how designers are people who do design.

If your question is essentially "What is 'illustration', and how is it different to graphic design?", that's a good question. It's a difficult one to define. Most people just have a gut feeling for where the line is between graphic design and illustration. My understanding has always been:

  • Illustration is the art of making images that work with something and add to it without needing direct attention and without distracting from the thing they illustrate. The other thing is the focus of the attention, and the illustration's role is to add personality and character without competing with that other thing.
  • Graphic design is the art of making images that attract direct attention towards themselves and use attention for a specific, deliberate purpose. They do compete for attention with other things, and a good designer will be able to control which elements win attention in what order on a busy page.

Illustrators and designers use similar tools and have similar skills and training. Most illustrators are competant designers and most designers are competant illustrators. There's a lot of overlap between the two disciplines. It's common to see courses with titles like "Graphic Design And Illustration".

In terms of skills involved, illustration is generally more expressive, art-y, about images that create a subjective mood, and graphic design is more deliberate, science-y, about images that achieve an objective goal.

Here's some examples taken from Threadless.com, a clothing site with designs made by illustrators and also by designers:

Bike Chaos, by Threadless This t-shirt is an example of illustration. It has a really strong expressive style and creates a mood bringing to mind bikes, chaotic things and energy without you needing to look at it directly. It doesn't need your attention to work and, when you look at it directly, it doesn't try to direct your attention around itself - your eye wanders around freely.

Infinity MPG, by Threadless This t-shirt is an example of graphic design. It attracts attention to itself with a strong, clear focal image, and uses a visual hierarchy to pass attention down to the smaller image below, which carries a deliberate meaning about bikes not needing fuel. It works with your attention in a controlled, deliberate way.

Foam Monster in Emotional Reunion with Severed Limb, by Threadless This t-shirt is somewhere between the two, both graphic design and illustration. It creates a whimsical mood even if you don't look directly at it, attracts and directs attention in a deliberate set way (but it doesn't demand attention), and it communicates a deliberate message if you do pay direct attention to it.

A lot of (most?) design work is somewhere between the two like this. Illustrations often carry a deliberate meaning, usually a reframing of the meaning of the thing that it illustrates, for example illustrations in children's books which visually show the action that is being described in the text. A good children's book illustration adds depth to and enhances the very simple text without competing with it. Graphics are often designed to give an abstract impression of mood and personality (usually in a more carefully controlled, analysed and deliberate way), for example a good corporate logo has to meet a lot of very specific requirements about how it is to be used and function, as well as giving the impression of an abstract 'personality' of the company.

It's a very fuzzy line between the two disciplines.

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4/7/2012 1:48:00 PM