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Matt Pascoe

Senior Conceptual Designer

How Has Digital Illustration Evolved Through The Web?

Whilst still at university, I saw a guest lecture from legendary illustrator, Jasper Goodall. At the time Goodall's work was everywhere, his sizzling silhouettes of glamorous women were leading the way for a new generation of digital illustrators. I distinctly remember Goodall saying how he wanted to infiltrate the fashion world but despite his best efforts, he hadn't managed it. Mainly due to the way the fashion industry thought.

Fast forward ten years, and Goodall’s talent and perseverance has paid off. Illustrators have become a prominent force amongst printed and digital media. People such as Jack Hughes, and his intricately drawn brogues, have managed to make that step into difficult industries such as fashion. So much of this illustrative progression seems to be down to technology’s transformation of our lives, and the way we transfer and consume data. In the last few years, It has become a common sight to visit a web page and be greeted with sophisticated illustrations. Obviously, I love seeing the wide variety of work on display, but I do find myself asking the question: “How did digital illustration become so popular?”

The Golden Years

It dawned on me, that as with many things in life, if you look to the past, it won't take long to find a time when today's cool was previously in vogue. Back in the 1950’s, graphic illustration was used across all design in popular culture. Saul Bass is a standout example of how an illustrative design style can influence generation after generation of designers. His iconic film posters still shape the thinking of today’s designers. However, in recent decades, even the movie world started to lean towards photography led design, with illustration being reserved only for special edition re-releases.

So, what caused the shift in design focus? With the advancement in camera technology, it has become far easier to take a great photo. Tools such as Photoshop have taken this to the next level, allowing any photo to be digitally touched-up to perfection. Photographers are now no longer constrained to a camera’s quality, but instead can artificially create beautiful imagery at the click of a button. With such a huge leap in technical advancement, you can see why photography has dominated, but where does this leave illustration?

A Step in the Right Direction

One of my first illustration jobs was a series of promotional materials for the BBC Orchestra of Wales. My agency at the time were presenting ideas for a photography based campaign but needed some of my sketches to get the idea across. The client loved the sketches so much, that they wanted to use them to promote three special performances. The idea of illustration being reserved for special occasions seemed to have become a common theme.

I always wanted to draw for a living, but until recently drawing wasn't always welcomed by clients or creative directors. Apart from special occasions, illustration had a set perception amongst the design community as a medium for children or niche productions. When the internet first became popular, websites were a very static, informational medium. Due to slow connections, imagery didn’t really emerge until the late 90s and even then, it wasn’t driven by true designers.

Birth of Web Design

Classically the internet had it's affiliation with the ‘nerdier’ members of society - basically those who had the patience to find out how to make something work. This was reflected in the design of early websites. Poor usability, mismatched colours and extremely awkward copywriting plagued the majority of web pages. Gradually, as digital tools became easier to utilize, true designers started to grab hold of the web.

In the early 2000’s, websites started to move away from the realms of the developer, and became a far more artistic ordeal. With improvements to internet connection technology (broadband), people started consuming the web on a far greater scale than ever before. This caught the attention of businesses across the globe, with web design becoming a huge part of that. To stand out amongst the web masses, designers turned to a more unique style. Suddenly, illustration was digitally reborn.

An illustration was classically deemed a visual accompaniment to text that enhances the reader's understanding of the content. Now, it would seem the meaning of the word illustration has shifted and has taken up it's place alongside photography and other traditional creative mediums as a genuine art form.

Do What You Love

I am privileged enough to do what I love for a living and so much of that is down to the way modern web sites have evolved. With the switch to 'flat design' the web seems to have spawned it's own illustration style, one that uses simple pure shapes, themselves designed to be user friendly and engaging. Google's creative style guides are a perfect example. This seems to already be evolving with more individual illustration styles flooding the digital space.

Although it has taken a long time for illustration to breach the mainstream media again, we are now in exciting times for those of us who spent our childhood doodling. My dad (a cartoonist himself) brought me up with pens and paper, and I never thought I would one day spend months crafting whole websites with just illustration. For me, it is a learned skill, practiced over and over… and I am still learning everyday. The surge in digital illustration gives me the perfect platform to practice what I love. Long may this illustrative renaissance last!