The Image Source creative team and I went to the The Media Space’s talk by Alec Soth at The Science Museum last night, to get insights into his working practices, influences and the push and pull of Documentary, Art and Commerce in his imagery.
The talk launched his retrospective called Gathered Leaves, which curates chronologically his four major books: Sleeping By the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2015).
Taught for a time by Joel Sternfeld, you can see his influence on some of Soth’s work. He also referenced William Egglestone and Robert Frank as photographers he admired – but saved his highest praise for Paul Graham.
Alec Soth calls himself “a photojournalist, blogger, self-publisher, Instagrammer and Educator” and last night he drew parallels between the avalanche of photographs taken today and the volume of music available on iTunes. He understands that today the sharing of the image can be as powerful as the image itself.
He also runs a publishing company called Little Brown Mushroom and self-finances ‘Zines and books as well as seeking funding through the likes of Kickstarter for publications and educational programmes. Interestingly, all the publications on the site are Sold Out!
His imagery is impactful but subtle. With soft colours, poignancy and considered compositions, you can see echoes of the photographers mentioned above but also a very particular vision where the images in his bodies of work connect with each other as much as you the viewer want them to. His influence in turn can be seen in advertising, on social media and in fashion editorials, where contemporary but nostalgic photography is the visual currency. There’s a timelessness though to Soth’s pictures, making him one of the great photographers working today.
1. Point of View
A distinctive point of view draws the viewer in – the caught moment and emotions feel recognisable and human. We connect with these experiences and instinctively react to them. Partly due to Instagram, Flickr, Snapchat and so on, there is a consumer hunger for point-of-view photography and customers relate to this approach because it makes them feel part of what’s going on.
2. Visceral, Tangible, Real.
To be honest, viewing imagery is like having a second hand experience. You weren’t there – but if the image can give you a feel of what it was like when it was taken; if the photograph can convey something tangible – the smell of nature, the noise of the city, the sun on your face – then we as human beings will respond positively. We need visceral, real, tactile, smelly, flavoursome imagery more than ever to counteract our digital fatigue.
3. Handmade Feel
Integrating technology into pictures where it’s a means to an end, not the end itself is really showing us the way we actually live. We’re not just using technology functionally, to communicate, we’re using it to support age old ways of earning a crust or expressing ourselves in our everyday lives – through cooking, making music, art, crafts, artisanal produce or working the land.
A retro feel has been introduced into the imagery everyone’s creating – thanks to contre-jour shooting, various filters and plug-ins you can buy and the sharing of imagery on social media. Many people won’t know they are aping Polaroid’s aesthetics or old Kodak and Fuji film stock from yesteryear. People are documenting their lives, their very existence and dialling it up visually to add individuality, character and personality. Imperfections in the imagery (again nostalgic) are part of the fun of it and make the pictures – and us, human, engagingly flawed and accessible.
5. Human Truth
How do people really behave? How do they exercise, stand, carry stuff and react to jokes? For consumers, emotion has a very powerful pull. Pictures rely on emotions, recognition and visual cues that people identify with. These small visual cues mean a lot – couple that with intimate camera angles that involve the viewer and the result is real life shot truthfully.
The soft sentimental atmospheres of Nostalgia have long been part of brands’ marketing solution to consumer anxieties around change. But how will Nostalgia play in the increasingly complicated mix of the tangible and the online?
You may have had your fill of the rose-tinted, of heritage and reminiscence, but it’s not going away any time soon. In an age where the impact of Globalization deepens, many seek a return to traditional certainties in politics, while brands from finance to technology often introduce highly developed new products with large ladles of nostalgia. In his novel The Savage Girl, Author Alex Shakar, coined the word ‘paradessence’ to describe the fact that brands and products have a paradoxical essence – they create two opposing desires for the consumer, paradoxical desires that the product promises to resolve.
Technology And Seeking ‘Simplicity’
We could class the practice of selling the future (product innovation and new technology) through the visual idioms of the past as an example of ‘paradessence’. It was a dynamic described by thinker Walter Benjamin at the beginning of the 20th Century (a must-read for anyone interested in the notion of Authenticity and why it works in advertising) where he noted that continuing technological change means people will react by seeking simplicity (see also “Teaching old brands new tricks: Retro Branding and the Revival of Brand Meaning by Stephen Brown, Robert V. Kozinets, and John F. Sherry Jr. ” in the Journal of Marketing).
What does this mean visually? Well in the case of HSBC, paradessence (selling the paradox that is increasing felt emotionally between a brand pitching itself as both Global and Local) it means the mythic Lemonade stalls of our childhood have shifted from concerns around getting enough cash for the latest Super Mario, to anxieties around international currency.
and concerns over global supply chains.
But it’s social networking that has deepened the impact of Nostalgia (Johannes Hofer originally coined the word in 1688 to mean a kind of homesickness or melancholy) to where Nostalgia has been magnified from the personal to the shared, from private, bittersweet sorrow to collective reminiscence.
Social Deepens Nostalgia
It’s why when Microsoft pitched its ‘Child of the 90s’ ad last year around Internet Explorer (the Slate magazine headline called it “the Definitive 1990s Nostalgia Video”) it was such a phenomenon among Millenials/Digital Natives, even though as commentators remarked, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being nostalgic about Internet Explorer.
New technology, such as social media, transforms Nostalgia into a slightly different shape. In a feature on The Drum, Angela Haggerty interviewed Buzzfeed’s Creative Director Philip Byrne, “Nostalgia is a huge driver,” he says. “As everyone knows, there are dozens and dozens of nostalgia pages on Facebook – I remember the 90s or I remember the 80s. Nostalgia is like giving people a sort of perspective on their own past through sharing; things that reflect the person you are and the person you want to be seen to be by your friends. It’s part of the story you’re telling about yourself through your social presence.”
The Aesthetic of the Ordinary
And finally (thanks to my students for this extraordinary example in their extraordinary presentation on Nostalgia) Dell mine the well of nostalgia in telling the story of technology start-ups, of the objects and spaces and rooms of Nostalgia. It’s a reminder that while we sometimes think of Nostalgia as a kind of mental clutter of the present by the past, it’s aesthetic is actually stripped-back, profoundly ordinary, it’s impact all the more intense because of the gap between the ordinariness of the object and longing we have for it. While Nostalgia has been intensified by the technology of social media, it’s unique capacity to leave us swooning is because it interrupts our present with the past in a very real way, calling to heart and mind the uncanny and unfathomable relationships we have with places, people and things.
See the Nostalgia visual essay here
Have you noticed the sudden wave in muted colour palettes? OK more of a modest shrug and nod. Art Director Sarah Perkins explains the drivers behind this trend and what it means for brands
When did ‘muted’ colour become ‘a thing’ And why? At one level it’s another line of visual thinking working with the idea of ‘authenticity’.
Muted colours are being favoured due to their ability to neutralise busy images, allowing for more depth of field and ‘imperfections.’ Whilst this aesthetic is quite often achieved in postproduction, Image Source Art Directors will intentionally use muted colours when styling a shoot.
A great example of this is the “Power Women” shoot, art directed by Siri Vorbeck and shot by reheadpictures/Leonara Saunders. By incorporating interesting angles and shooting through objects and people, the images feel contemporary and subtle, rather than sterile. In this shoot the muted colour expresses a different sensibility and mood to more boisterous business images and attitudes.
This muted colour palette is adopted by influential magazines such Cereal and Kinfolk, it’s a kind of post-minimalism that sits with an idea of simplicity while at the same time enabling texture to feature in the image.
The most striking example of its commercial expression in the UK was in the widely talked about Sainsbury’s Christmas ad where they used muted colours to provoke reminiscing, much like old photographs do.
And of course it sits on the Craft spectrum, where the notion of ‘reminiscence’ also signals the values of tradition, heritage and a the kind of humility you associate with craftspeople who respect the limits of their tools, their materials and their own power.
Firstly The New Yorker gets giffy with Christoph Niemann, then digs deep into the changing relationship of the digital and the physical
The New Yorker has been playing with the theme of Hard and Soft recently, not least with it’s October 6 “Rainy Day” cover by Christoph Niemann, which had an alternative life on the web as the magazine’s first ever gif cover (see the full story and the gif here).
The November 24 issue features illustrator Richard McGuire’s, “Time Warp” cover. He explains the image on The New Yorker website, “As I walk around the city, I’m time-travelling, flashing forward, planning what it is I have to do.” (McGuire is long-celebrated in the more cultish circles of comics connoisseurs as the creator of “Here” originally published in Art Spigelman’s Raw magazine).
The cover (headline image) echoes McGuire’s interest in how our experience of the everyday is layered with different slices of time. But the issue’s features explore the changing relationship between the 2D and the 3D. ‘Print Thyself’ explores how 3D printing is transforming medicine and features the image below by photographer Lori K. Sanders.
The caption for the image reads “A 3-D printer used by researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute creates a model vascular network.” When we still don’t know what this tech means for us, or how it will radically change our familiar systems of making and distributing, Sanders delivers a highly textural photo, of contrasting surfaces, blocks of colour and geometric shapes. The visual and design shorthand for the future has always been Kubrick and 2001, but Sanders shoots the future like Mondrian – blocks of shape and colour.
“Good Game” explores the rise of the professional cyber athlete and is accompanied by an image by photographer Jenny Hueston. The caption reads, “Scarlett [Sasha Hostyn], the most accomplished woman in e-sports, is known for her macro mutalisk style and kick-ass creep spread.”
The strange language in the caption comes from the world of gaming (strategies) and that blown out look is a great look for someone living in the in-between of the Hard and the Soft, a space that is neither and both. The kind of dazed-over-exposed visualises a kind of of jet-lag you might get as you recover from the intensity of game space. And if anyone doubts that this is a thing, the feature notes that, “As of last year, gamers of international renown are eligible for P1-A exemptions, otherwise known as ‘athlete visas.’ Robert Morris University, in Illinois, has added League of Legends, a “multiplayer online battle arena” game, as a varsity team sport, and this semester the program began awarding athletic scholarships.”
Image Source Creative Director Ashley Jouhar examines an intensely engaging ad for a Buccaneer 3D printer that explores technology, matter and memory through the notion of the Mind’s Eye
This ad by the LOLA agency in Madrid, Spain is a highly effective and affecting ad for a cutting edge product, reframing hard technology and soft emotion within a 3D printer, finding something deeply compassionate and positive within a piece of marketing.
The idea of casting blind people to talk about their memories before their loss of vision is an extremely powerful one, driving the central idea of what it might be like to have ‘Touchable Memories’. One woman talks about “Memories being like dreams; like a gust of wind.” As a sighted person, I couldn’t help but reflect on how it must be to see, without seeing. The storytelling power of the creative direction and the testimony of the people made these people’s experiences extraordinarily tangible.
This is one of those ads that lingers in your mind long after you have seen it. The ad could have shown loving close ups of the 3D printer cutting, tracing and working its incredible magic on producing a piece of furniture or something. Why? Because that’s what it can do. Such an ad shrilly says, ‘Look at me. Look how clever I am. Look at what I can do.’ What’s in it for the consumer though? The Madrid based ad agency LOLA managed to keep the consumer top of mind here by coming up with a brilliant way to demonstrate the product’s benefits and get under the skin of any and every viewer. The really clever thing is that the technical brilliance of this printer is a given because its benefits have been pointed up so strongly. “If I could touch the picture I could make the memory tangible again” as one of the women says. The virtual becomes material.
A great end line too, putting technology in perspective as a means to an end, not the end in itself. ‘Technology is just a tool. People give it a purpose.’ The virtual, the memory, becomes material and tangible in this 3D printed object , which of course is different from the vision in their mind’s eye, adding a different experience.
The November issue of Creative Review samples the ongoing craft trend, looking at creatives striking out into new areas
Our readers will have kept track of the ‘Craft’ trend in image-making and usage as we explored Provenance over the last year, so it was great to see the November issue of Creative Review investigating some great examples of craft-making and in their feature on Altered States looking at the relationship between the digital and the physical.
And the multi-layered story of Hiut jeans which tracks a unique transition in making and customer experience from the industrial to the post-industrial, from the mass production of physical objects to a moment where these objects, things have value because of the stories attached to them. The Hiut “History Tag” enables the wearer to log/upload life experiences associated with wearing these jeans.
Kind of like Our Song but with trousers. This explanation is from the Hiut website, whose content, photography and tone of voice is an extraordinary vision of how to engage people as people first and customers second.
“It’s super simple. Each jean will come with a unique number. Your unique number. You go to the HistoryTag website and register. That’s it.
Then you can upload pictures of where you went, what you did, who you did it with…to the HistoryTag website.
So those memories get saved. Not a big deal right now. But when you look back, it will become a big deal.
And yes, the History Tag is a bit like a blank iPod, but as you add more and more music it becomes more and more interesting. Or in our case, the more memories you add to it, the more fascinating it becomes.
So if in the future, your jeans get handed down, or end up in a second hand jeans shop, their memories will go along with them.”
It does address some of the questions raised by Brendan Dawes in his interview around memory. Founder David Hieatt gave a talk at the Authenticity event at the Point last year, and while ‘Authenticity’ has clearly been a commercial trend over the last decade, the problem with it is that it is a conversation-stopper – for each brand there’s always a specific need Authenticity is responding to in advertising or branding projects. In Hiut jeans, the ‘Authenticity’ of the company’s roots and mode of production, disguised a couple of more innovative trends – how consumer products are transformed into personal things through a web of storytelling relationships and archives.
It’s also a different way of designing the idea of Sustainability into the product and getting a customer becomes a virtuous circle of business Sustainability. It’s not that the age of the Hard Sell has disappeared, its just that smart brands understand the longer sustainable game of the Soft Sell.
How are brands pitching the emerging world of the internet of things? Some interesting new directions in ads for domestic appliances and a twist on an old story from Apple
As a young kid, the Future mapped out by TV was one part The Jetsons one part the hi-tech craft of Gerry Anderson’s swivel-eyed heroes of International Rescue. I’m not sure which narrative of the future this smart kettle fits, shown on the prime space on the back page of a newspaper supplement. By their choice of name, the Smarter kettle not only boils up the water, makes a refreshing brew but it occupies a whole product area, a whole new chapter in how we will live – nice work! It’s like an ISP calling its company “The Internet”. Brash and bold in its naming, the photo is an elegant visual-lesson for folks in what a smart kettle is, the proximity of the iPhone to the kettle functions as a primer for consumers in ’cause-and-effect’.
One visual direction in these new internet-enabled products is the minimal product shot, the still-life of the machine age. There are two constrasting drivers of this, on the one hand, pared-down minimalism has always been the aesthetic of futurism in the still image (in terms of narrative, collage is the aesthetic, think Richard Hamiliton’sJust What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?). On the other hand brands are still trying to find a visual language, a familiar visual shorthand to explain the functionality of the Internet of Things and shots of the product make it tangible.
Nest for example, in pitching their internet connected smoke alarm, highlight one of the themes we will be exploring in the next couple of months – colour. Like the traffic light system, the alarm glows different colours as a way of signalling information. Great graphic device in this execution on a billboard on the London Underground.
On a different but related note, Apple’s current ad campaign plays with the classic contrast between technology and nature, between the hard machine of industry, and the soft machine of nature – but delivers it in a fascinating execution. These two images appeared in a recent New Yorker, the inside back page featuring the stainless steel back of the iPhone 6,
On the outside back there’s a carefully chosen image of a flower, close-up, with the kind of symmetry and patterning signalling the engineering of nature.
Apple not only own the front and back page, they own the in-beween, transforming the mundane act of turning he page into a very tangible experience of playful communication.
And in the execution below the message is even clearer, as we are intended to make the visual and conceptual connection between the framing of the phone by the white space and the framing of the delicate design of nature in the leaf.
You could call this kind of photography “Still Life Plus”, where certain tech brands are using the visual detail of the natural world to make associations with the sophistication and simplicity of the product.
In the Age of Hard and Soft we will see more of these kinds of contrasts and connections between photography and products as brands and consumers navigate their way into uncharted territory, with different relationships between people and things, between physical space and digital space.
We’ve entered a dramatically different relationship with technology, an age where machines talk to each other, where we’re developing new rituals and routines and where advertisers and brands tell stories about the soft benefits of hard technology. And it will change our relationship to images. Welcome to the Age of Hard and Soft
The conversation around technology is already changing, slowly, discreetly, the network has become ‘pervasive’, ’embedded’,’wearable’ – it’s in the ‘cloud’. You get a sense of the prevailing winds when in the UK the BBC’s The Apprentice features a task to design wearable technology, amid anxieties over privacy, and despite one of the products looking like a jacket with added gaffer tape one retailer ordered 250 because they “like to be early adopters of technology”. Welcome to the age of Hard and Soft, the age of the internet of things where machines start chatting to each other, an age where we human beings fold ourselves into the network, and where objects communicate, inform, talk to each other. “Hello” says the milk bottle to the fridge, ‘I am empty”. The Fridge (the star of all Internet of Things conversations) adds milk to a shopping list which uploads to the supermarket site who tells the staff to deliver an extra carton to Bill at 42 Acacia Way. “Oh” says the fridge, “and print a cake and a candle on the packaging, it’s Bill’s Birthday.” Business inventory and logistics will become even more time-sensitive reducing waste of all kinds. But most of all the age of Hard and Soft will subtly shift our relationship to things, to places, to ourselves. The difference between the digital and the physical world will get more complicated, and as technology gets more customized, targetted and functional, advertising and marketing will seek to tell softer emotional stories. Likewise the institutional and corporate power of hard quantifiable data will only serve a purpose when delivered through softer storytelling (read psychotherapist Peter Kramer in the New York Times on the necessity of storytelling in an age of medical big data). And in other words, the age of Hard and Soft is about a changing relationship between Art and Science, in sectors such as technology, healthcare and education.
Image of the Physical
The material and immaterial worlds are connecting and combining in unexpected ways. Not least in the recent free download of U2s Songs of Innocence, whose booklet (whatever about the marketing) wasn’t at all innocent. In the absence of anything physical, the digital booklet displays an image of the vinyl version: the sleeve indented by the record, ‘U2’ stamped and faded, and the letters ‘LP’ written and circled in felt tip. The representation of this old physical technology now has serious soft power though it has little ‘hard’ commercial power in terms of actual vinyl sales, The Telegraph suggests vinyl records are largely bought as collectors items, as desirable non-functional objects. Nevertheless the cultural power of U2s black and white vinyl, its ‘authenticity’ is magnified and mirrored by the black and white photo of the band opposite.
‘Like’ is Hard
But perhaps this strangest blend of the worlds of hard and soft, where the signs of the digital and material ghost into each other’s universes came from a recent ad for C&A by Brazilian agency DM9éDDB in Contigo magazine. The virtual sign, the icon of the digital age, the Facebook ‘like’ icon is transformed into a material button. The magazine contains a chip so when the reader presses the icon the ‘like’ is immediately registered on their Facebook page. The fashion model is her own subject in the selfie, the catwalk has expanded colonizing any space there is a smartphone camera.
The coming technologies around the internet of things and health apps where information becomes both tangible, and synchronized with the human, are the big drivers. So when Apple (a brand which consumers have accepted as a conduit for the future into the present via lifestyle products) launch their new iWatch, this new new relationship between hard and soft, between information and flesh feels like it has made a leap into mainstream consciousness. The human arm transformed into an interface in a world where we are never offline, software as a kind of active Tattoo, where the borders between the physical and the intangible have become transparent.
It’s a familiar image in the culture as the conflict between the Hard and the Soft, technology and culture, is periodically played out, most resonantly in Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man (a set of stories around a tattooed man), where his remarkably prescient short story The Veldt is a must read for planners seeking frameworks for how the internet of things will also shift our relationship to images (see also Project Underskin by New Deal Design).
Interestingly, The Tattoo, is fast becoming a staple of stock photography where once it was airbrushed out regarded by mainstream society as a kind of cultural deviance. This acceptance by the wider culture, was arguably driven by the sharing of stories and feelings in the digital world, and made it ok for this form of coded storytelling on the body, defining significant relationships, people and events.
The visibility of the Tattoo, has become an expression of soft power, the signifier of a transparent emotional honesty. Which brings us back to Apple’s shift in communications from the hard sell of hardware and technology to the soft sell of sentiments. These soft benefits are quantified as experiential, emotional and very much shared. (Image Source photographers can read Creative Director Ashley Jouhar’s in-depth visual analysis in the recent briefing)
Sustainability, Backstory and the Cute
This warm feeling around our emergent relationship to technology, objects and space will also be powered by bigger issues such as sustainability. Take our example of milk in the fridge earlier, instead of being an afterthought, sustainability will be dynamic, as products feedback to us and talk with each other. There will be less waste, as the sensors on the carton of milk tells the fridge that I need more milk, which updates my online shopping list, which means I won’t buy more than I need. Eventually these machines which talk to each other about us, our behaviours will enable us to have a different, more acute relationship with time, with the future. By telling me about their production, tabulating their environmental costs, they will enable me to make informed choices or make me feel guilty about making bad ones. These objects and the information they immerse us in will place us in the future, helping to make us think about the future impact of the choices we make, for this reason we will have an increasingly complicated relationship with objects and things. And with time. In terms of products the internet of things, and the imagery surrounding is likely to be driven by the hyper-soft emotion of ‘Cute’. We might be a little wary of new technology that will become part of us, and will create different kinds of objects that are animated by information and knowledge about us, but the best way of getting the foot in the door is through puppies. Take for example Lowe’s DIY stores in the US introducing smart objects into its range of customer offerings. Business magazine INC.com uses a classic image of a puppy to illustrate the feature- smart. “The PetSafe pet door from Lowe’s is among a series of new devices that the company introduced this week, all of which can be controlled on one single platform, Iris. With the Iris app installed on your smartphone, you can keep track of your puppy’s movement when you are out shopping or working. Together with a collar sensor, the door also allows you to identify your own pet so that a neighbor’s cat won’t sneak in to steal food.”
Rituals, Gestures, Etiquette
Just as the dawning of the internet age generated a wave of character art shared online (like friends guiding us through this strange technology) expect a further growth in the imagery of ‘cute’ (see our feature on The Double Take an early version of some of the themes we address here, and our briefing exploring visual definitions of cute – Cute 22). Objects and things are already changing us physically, shaping how we exist in space. Dan Hill, former Interactive Designer for the BBC and Monocle, writes on a visual research project for conducted at Art Center College of Design, that “The Network is still spoken about as if it were somehow something separate to Us, as if it is an ethereal plane hovering above us, or perhaps one we might be increasingly immersed in but separate to our bodies, to our selves, nonetheless. This doesn’t feel accurate now. There is no separate world, and this list indicates how we are even changing what our bodies do in entirely emergent, or at least unplanned, everyday fashion, in response to The Network’s demands.” Curious Rituals, Gestural Interaction in the Digital Everyday is a project that is astonishingly sharp about new behaviours, and whose credibility and emotional resonance is shaped by the diagrammatic aesthetic.
The authors write that these images of behaviour are the kinds of ‘B-Side’ of the images put out by tech companies which are generally futuristic. “The curious habits described in this book can be seen as ingredients with which technological objects are domesticated by people, integrated into their own daily routines. Fixing strategies, nervous tics, device juggling or courtesy postures, to name just a few, are not only peculiar interaction habits, they reveal how people normalize so-called ‘futuristic technologies’ or what seemed magical and complex at first.” We think that this new wave of ‘Hard’ machinery will be accompanied by images that aren’t constructed around traditional codes of utopia, that envision a space with a minute different to the present, but in that gap the age of Hard and Soft begins to talk – in Colour, in Small Moments, and Rituals. Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design at MOMA in New York wrote in the 2011 introduction to Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, “Talk to Me explores this new terrain, featuring a variety of designs that enhance communicative possibilities and embody a new balance between technology and people, bringing technological breakthroughs up or down to a comfortable, understandable human scale. Designers are using the whole world to communicate, transforming it into a live stage for an information parkour and enriching our lives with emotion, motion, direction, depth, and freedom.” While objects have always talked to us (or maybe it was just my special relationship with Teddy) we are entering a new age where we devolve responsibilities to objects. In the next few months we will be exploring in more depth the increasing importance of Colour in shaping the image of this new space where people and things talk and check in with each other. We will be exploring visually our changing relationship to ‘things’, to Home, to public space, and in the visual trend of ‘Raw Nerve’ a world where hardware increasingly relies on the soft power of imagery as a way to translate how this new world might work. In the meantime, we can say with a degree of certainty that there is a new visual icon for this age. Just as the light bulb was the metaphor for the idea in the electric age, the domestic refrigerator is the sign of the new age of talking objects. “Hello Things!”
The surge in popularity in illustration began in the mid 1990s, taking people to magical places. We explore some of the benchmark moments and look at the most popular ways illustration is used for effective communication
It’s the month that Lawrence Zeegen and Caroline Roberts’ epic Fifty Years of Illustration gets published by Lawrence King, a book filled with illustration classics such as Klaus Voormann’s Revolver cover to Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster. But if we telescoped down to 15 years and some thumbnail sketches of drivers and moments here are five ideas as to why illustration has got so popular since the late 90s.
1. How Toys Became Pioneers For Emotions
It’s easy to forget that there was a moment when by the mid 90s, illustration had such low visibility compared to the pervasiveness of the new, hyperreal digital photography and photo-shopping. And then towards the end of the decade people/art directors/clients felt they had had their eyes filled with enough futureslick, highly-produced photography that the new technology seemed to demand. In truth, those who remember, a lot of this imagery paralleling the dotcom boom had headed off into the world of bad illustration. There was a slice of commercial photography in the mid-to late 90s that was trying to adjust to its new body in a world of technological possibilities, stretching and elasticating itself like Jim Carrey in The Mask (1994)
Strangely enough the move away from photographic hyperrealism, heavily manipulated imagery that wasn’t quite illustration, came from within illustration and was best captured in 1999 by illustrator Kate Gibb’s playing with photography in her sleeve art for the Chemical Brothers album Surrender.
But one hugely underestimated driver of a new sensibility among adults was Pixar’s Toy Story in the middle of the decade. So while the kids were still wigging out on Ren and Stimpy, and Beavis and Butthead,
Toy Story gave adults permission to enjoy animation (illustration’s close moving cousin).
The heady nostalgia of childhood, narrated through Buzz, Woody, Andy, Mr and Mrs Potato Head and the rest of the gang enabled mainstream adults to appreciate again visual forms they had long left behind, and freely submit to a vast well of sophisticated sentimentality. The whole Toy Story concept is still being squeezed for its bottomless emotional appeal in this ad for the 3 mobile network in the UK by Smith and Foulkes for Nexus Productions.
Toys and character art have become a whole business and design sector, explored by groups such as Pictoplasma and designers such as Kidrobot. And in the liquid forms of an illustrator like Alex Trochut, Toys really do take on a life on their own, even new life-forms with a candy-fuelled charm that also captures Bling’s cartoonish exaggeration.
2. How Illustration Soothes The Anxiety of New Technology
Nat Hunter formerly of the now defunct Airside, now Co-Director of Design at RSA once told me that Technology clients love commissioning illustration and animation because it makes potential customers less fearful and threatened by new technology. It’s why when she was at Airside they wrote a feature article How To Do How To Movies, images by Malika Favre.
And a simple ‘How-To’ film by Wonky animation, shows how to use a SmartWatch aimed at people suffering with diabetes.
Illustration, as a primary tool of our socialization as toddlers, has been the medium of addressing fears, of visualizing socially acceptable behaviours and role models and of course a safety valve for picturing funny, socially taboo-breaking chaos.
So energy companies in the UK such as British Gas, ease in the customer who might not be so keen on using a new app (just because its different) for bills and monitoring energy usage.
Or Transport for London who are bringing a new kind of contactless payment, so commissioned Job, Joris and Marieke at Jelly London.
Or even UK bank TSB, which like most companies in the financial sector post-2008 credit have a negative halo simply because the perceived behaviour of large banks. These beautifully drawn animations from Studio AKA, with character design by Steve Small are both charming and funny. Two core features of illustration. I’m charmed, I laugh, job done.
Like the image below from Shotopop, the world of the virtual and the physical has become blurred, a scary thought for many, and for tech clients illustration seems to be the soft-landing for consumers in a fast-changing world.
3. How Drawing Became The Signifier of Creativity
What’s quite remarkable over the last decade, perhaps even a shorter timespan, is how illustration as a kind of image-making, became the default visual signifier of creativity, especially for showcasing new technology, where the ‘street’ (the sensibility of skater culture and street art) is the living spark, the force that animates the code and steel of new technology. As in this piece commissioned by Intel and Vice magazine for their Creators Project – augmented drawing.
4. How Illustration turns Bling into Luxury
The flow of Illustration into different sectors has been astonishing, but this is partly because these sectors have been transformed by technology – by how products are being marketed differently and where the marketing needs to appear. So as well as having the “down-to-earth” flavours of the ‘how to’ communication, whether collage or the brands showing the performance of drawing has become a key tool for signalling luxury and craft. As in this piece for Swarovski showcasing the drawing of illustration duo Good Wives and Warriors.
Like the surface of this gorgeous image by Andy Bridge, scratched as he paints onto wood or metal. The handmade has always been a feature of a certain kind of luxury products, shift is in how the distressed and marked becomes a sign of taste.
Then of course was Cognitive Media‘s hand drawn accompaniment to the Royal Society of the Arts events, in particular Sir Ken Robinson’s speech on Education.
It’s viral popularity almost single-handedly put mapping conversations, meetings and live events on the map – so-to-speak.
But the strength of illustrators, whether through conceptual work or mapping, is the the fact that they dance to their own tune. An imagination that fuses the possible and the impossible, the material and immaterial, the conceptual and the narrative, beauty and beast.