Should illustrators be treated like designers?

19 November 2015

There’s a new breed of illustrator emerging: one who’s ready to be commissioned like a designer now would – for research, ideas and strategy – while still using their drawing skills as part of their process.

I spoke about this belief at Varoom’s illustration conference in Birmingham the other week, which took the theme Visionaries – a fitting title in a time when change seems to be bubbling away in the illustration community. After the talk, a guy came up to me and said that maybe being an illustrator could be like studying maths at university. When you graduate with a maths degree you have a variety of career options available to you because employers understand your level of intelligence and skills, which can then be applied in different environments. It comes down to employers really understanding and valuing your skill set, and this is something I think we need to focus on helping illustrators to achieve—make people aware of what else you can do other than draw!

If I’m honest, a lot of the illustration conferences and talks I’ve attended in the last few years have been fascinating but I often go home wondering how we can actually move forward as an industry. Visionaries was different though, thanks to a heated panel discussion between the day’s speakers Derek Brazell and Andrew Kulman from the AOI (Association of Illustrators), Graham Elliott, Chloe Regan, Andy Davies and myself.

At first it felt like a lot of the audience were ready for things to change in the industry, whether that’s how illustration is priced and licensed, or how we can embrace new ways of working. Then we moved on to discussing how illustration is commissioned for its outcome—the image. At the moment, the focus is on the end point rather than everything leading up to it. 

After all, that’s what illustrators are paid to do. And of course there are successful illustrators who have no need or interest in being employed for anything other than their artwork. But there seems to be a lot of people who are looking for a different route. 

We were taught to develop a “visual language” not a “style” on my illustration degree at Kingston University; we were encouraged to focus on what we want to say with our work, not just on how it would look. We honed a process that would allow us to transform an idea, a body of text, a song or a story into images that communicate. A process that involves hours of observation and finding the elements that will populate the image. Hours of connecting nuanced dots and of constant re-working. We are trained to be expert communicators who see the world through a lens of intense detail. 

What if illustrators were employed for this usually unseen process and way of thinking, not just for their images? The time has definitely come for the illustration industry to show everyone what it’s really capable of. Now more than ever ‘grey area’ creatives, i.e. people who sit in between disciplines, are being sought after. A designer can now do strategy, research and even dabble in a bit of illustration, all under one comfortable title. Why shouldn’t we do the same? Illustrators, let’s not get left behind.

Let’s reveal what’s usually left in the sketchbooks and in the plan chests and celebrate illustration beyond the end image. 

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About the Author

Alice Moloney

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