What Makes a Good Illustration?

I was going to link to the AIGA site but the article seems to have been taken down. I have a copy of it however so I will repost the piece. This is written by Alan Webber and was originally posted March 15 2002. It raises some very good points, the most important I feel being that illustration should never be intentionally cryptic because the whole point of illustration is to deliver a message. So without further ado! Here it is.

What makes a good illustration?

by Alan M. Webber
March 15, 2002

Since editors are by nature a cranky sort (and since I am, by nature, cranky even by editor standards), let me turn the question around and tell you what makes a *bad* illustration. An illustration is, by definition, bad if it is intentionally cryptic, self-referential, or so “deep” that you have to read the article to figure out what the illustration is doing there. This is called “trying too hard” and earns an immediate vote of no confidence. An illustration is bad if it is fussy, prissy, pretentious, or requires a magnifying glass to find and identify the internal elements. This is called “trying to soft” and creates an image where the effort to look at it is disproportionate to the satisfaction that the image delivers.

OK, now that I’ve got that out of my system, what makes an illustration good? Well, take a look at the two illustrations by Brad Holland in the February 2002 issue of Fast Company. The accompanying articles ask two questions: What is courage? And whose business is national security? What Brad Holland has produced are strong, compelling images that connect immediately and viscerally with the reader, that complement the articles perfectly, and that are so striking and evocative that they are also powerful stand-alone works of art.

The question of courage is a timeless one; the piece is an interview with a book author who has traced courage from the days of the ancient Greek warriors to the battlefields of Vietnam. The image that Holland has produced immediately suggests the history of courage (in the suggestion of a Greek-styled helmet), the individuality of the warrior (in the light in the soldier’s eye), and the underyling question before us concerning courage (in the question-mark like shape of the opening in the helmet). It’s full-page, full-bleed, arresting, dark, and textured.

The second illustration-the one that accompanies the piece on security-has the same kind of energy. The image is again timeless: To me, it suggests both a cave painting and a drawing of American cavalry troops riding across the prairies. The texture contributes to this effect: It could be on a rough surface or a weaving. It is subtle, suggestive, but again, drawn strongly and powerfully, with a presentation that suits perfectly the tough topic of national security.

These are both dramatic, energetic, compelling illustrations. You look at them and immediately you know what territory you are in. They help to sell the articles. They fit the magazine. What can I say? I love them!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s