Thoughts on the future of illustration and graphic design written by students-page 3

Posted: October 31, 2012 in The future of illustration by Michael Halbert
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detail from Future Time by John Dyess

Today’s post is page three of the previous two posts which features written reports by my illustration students at Meramec Community College,on their thoughts about the future of illustration and design twenty years from now. Today’s report is written by Michael Halbert who is a professional illustrator that is taking this class.

Student, Michael Halbert — Instructor, John Dyess – Class, Illustrator II

The Future of Graphic Design and Illustration

What the profession might look like twenty years from now

By Michael Halbert

All careers in a capitalist society are subject to change. A certain design of a mousetrap, for instance, may go decades without change. Year after year it goes along catching mice with no equal or competition, and the innovator of the trap has a steady, dependable and, likely, lucrative income. Then it happens, as it always does—someone builds a better mousetrap. Suddenly, the mousetrap that had been successful for so many years is now essentially obsolete. The old mousetrap innovator is now out of work and he will have to find a new way to make a living.

The same theory applies to graphic arts. From 1880 to the present, graphic arts has gone through many changes.

Illustration—The Way it Was

A decade or so before the twentieth century, new printing innovations such as high speed printing and the halftone came along, which made the printing of images much easier and efficient. With the development of line engraving and the halftone, a photomechanical process could now convert images quickly and cheaply into a printable form. What took a highly skilled hand engraver hours to do could now be done in a fraction of the time by an operator with only rudimentary skills. Despite the protest by the engravers that hand engraving produced a higher quality product, the halftone quickly won out. The engravers were essentially out of work.

A bad deal for the engravers, but the halftone and high-speed printing was a boon for publishers and artists. These new technologies allowed for mass publication of books and magazines, which were the primary source of information and entertainment in the early twentieth century. The readers of these publications enjoyed the images that accompanied the articles as much, if not more, than the articles themselves. This created an enormous demand for illustrators and photographers.

Illustration provided a lucrative and prestigious career for many artists from 1880 until after World War II. During this time there was little distinction drawn between fine art and illustration. If any distinction were made it would be to give illustration a higher status than fine art. Moreover, the most popular illustrators of this time were given a status equivalent to today’s celebrity and with an income to match.

However, the halftone, which had first helped increase the demand for illustration, soon began to transfer much of that demand to photography. Photography was fast and accurate. The old saying, “A photo doesn’t lie,” was true back in those days before Photoshop, and that is why photography was often the preferred type of image to accompany fact-based information. Newspapers, for example, used photos because the photo showed things exactly as they were, where as illustration can be skewed to distort the facts.

After World War I there was a technological revolution. The Roaring Twenties brought about a change in American culture and innovation. The 1920s saw the purchase and use of the automobile take off, which gave mobility to many more people. Instead of staying home with a good book, folks were going places. One of those places was the movie theater. Movies got sound in the twenties, and movies soon became a primary source of entertainment. Radio is another technology that took off in the 20s. Practically every middle-class home had a radio and whole families would gather around it and spend hours listening to their favorite programs. Beyond these new versions of entertainment, the technology boom brought a plethora of new timesaving appliances.

Easy credit was introduced in the twenties to help people buy these new items. This caused a tremendous increase in consumer spending, which helped kicked off the modern advertising age. Illustrators began doing work for these advertisers, and this association with advertisers is what caused the art world to start thinking of illustration as a commercial career rather than art. Advertising brought new lucrative assignments to illustrators, but at the same time took away their status of artist.

After World War I, illustration began a slow decline in printed editorial use, reaching a fraction of its heyday.  By the 70s it reached a low and it is showing no signs of coming back. Advertising saw its heyday for the illustrator from after WWII until about 1980. Advertising assignments for the illustrator are at present very sparse.

One author writing about the current state of illustration stated that it was his belief that illustration officially died when illustrators were no longer allowed to sign their work. This practice started with advertisers. Illustrators had lost their prestigious ranking as highly regarded artists to be demoted to a ranking of commercial artist in the 1920s by working for advertisers. Then by the 70s, the advertiser took away the artist’s identity entirely by not allowing the illustrator to sign his work. The illustrator went from celebrity status in the early twentieth century to essentially a hired hand by 1980.

There were other changes that effected the way an illustrator worked, such as: artist representation, cheap long distance calls, fax machines, local delivery services, over-night cross country delivery, 24 the 1-hour photo processing, and more. However, the biggest change for Illustration came with the Twenty First Century, and digital revolution.

Computer technology came into use for the graphic arts by the last couple of decades of the Twentieth Century, but it wasn’t until about the year 2000 that the technology became developed to the point that nearly all graphic work is now being done with the aid of a computer.

If photography was a bitch slap for the illustrator, the arrival of the digital era was a heavyweight uppercut for the non-digital illustrator. Illustrators who refused to adapt digital methods were routinely passed over for assignments. Many illustrators who had spent years developing skills and building reputations using traditional methods of illustration (artwork created by hand on a tangible surface), were reluctant to give up their traditional methods and begin a new way of creating illustrations. Some simply refused to adapt to digital methods and soon had no work. Many of these illustrators had to give up illustration and make a career change—some took retirement.

Other illustrators, especially new college graduates, adapted well to the digital methods and survived—some even thrived.

Illustration—Where It’s Going

It’s a lot easier to see and understand what happened in the past than to see what will happen in the future, but reminding ourselves of what has happened before my help us predict what is to come.

One prediction that can be made about what illustration will look like twenty years from now is that it will all be digital. An illustration may start as a tangible piece such as an oil painting or clay sculpture, but it will end up digital. However, I believe most illustrations in the future will be created digitally from the beginning. Even today, illustrators working on the computer are making images that are indistinguishable from traditional illustration methods. With this, the question is often asked, “If the results look the same, then why not do it the tradition way?” The answer is that working digitally is much faster, allows more options, and offers more flexibility.

One argument that illustrators make against doing digital art as opposed to making tangible pieces of art is that you can never have a true piece of original art with work created digitally. This is an issue for the illustrator, but not for the client who is buying the illustration. The clients for commercial assignments are not buying work to hang on a wall. They are buying work to be printed or to be used in video or film. The illustrator of the future will have to decide if he is a commercial artist or a fine artist.

Digital illustrations can be created much faster than hand-made illustrations. That alone will likely lower the amount an illustrator will be able to earn for an illustration. However, there are other factors that could lower illustration fees.

Digital cameras have made everyone a photographer. With software such as Photoshop and a decent digital camera, even the amateur photographer can make artistic images suitable for commercial use. 3D software is another super image making tool. An artist can setup a 3D model and render one unique image after another, changing the perspective, lighting, and view with each render.

Add to that that these illustrations don’t necessarily go away after they have been used for their initial intended use. Many of them will be used as stock illustration (illustrations that can be resold to new clients for new uses). The inventory of stock illustration is going to grow exponentially over the next twenty years. Tie that with search services like Google, and these stock illustrations will be used for many projects that in the past would have required the commission of a new illustration. This will also bring down the need and fees for new commissions.

The single static image is likely to be less valuable twenty years from now, but by working digitally the illustrator will have the option of making the still image into something more. Digital matt painting is one example. With matt painting illustrators creates an image that will be a scene in a film or video and then separate key elements in the scene and place them on different layers. This layered image can then be animated. Digital matt painting may be a lucrative source for future illustrators.

Another argument that can be made is that illustrations of the future need to move. There will still be a need for still images, but with most publication moving to electronic distribution the demand for moving images will increase. Magazines will be illustrated with videos and animations instead of only static illustrations. This is already happening to an extent. The freelance illustrator can now afford to buy video equipment and software with capabilities equal to those of yesterday’s Hollywood blockbuster movies.

Illustration twenty years from now will all be created in a digital form. More over, all information will be delivered in a digital form. The savvy illustrators of today will keep up with all digital advances, and examine each new innovation with the thought of How can I take advantage of this. When an advantage is perceived, then the illustrator should exploit that advantage to the full extent.


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