002: When does illustration become design?

An illustration of a 16th century naval vessel. The illustration is split into two halves representing the difference between illustration and design. The left side is a colourful and detailed framed oil painting representing illustration. The right side is a detailed blueprint complete with mathematical values representing design.

002: When Does Illustration Become Design?

There is an age-old argument in the creative industry about what distinguishes a design from an illustration. This boils down to the purpose or intent of the work in question.  Illustration is a subjective field, meaning it is open to interpretation and influenced by personal feelings and opinions.  On the other hand, design is absolute. There’s a science to it. Directions on the creative process are determined by facts and research.  This doesn’t mean that illustrations can’t be formed from similar process though.

Here’s how I’ve come to understand the difference between illustration and illustrative design.

I’ve crafted illustrations for a client where the soul intent was for it to look nice on the wall of their restaurant.  In that case I was approached because the style of my work appealed to the restaurant owner and he felt it added to the experience of his customers attending his restaurant.  The brief given was to create a set of inspiring pieces of artwork depicting a certain subject and using specific colours the client had in mind.  This brief was for a pure illustration project and the outcomes are considered subjective.

There’s been other business’s who’ve approached me for projects that require more thought and consideration in the creation of the artwork.  For example, when working on a logo project there are a far many more things to consider than a personal preference on what simply looks good.  Although a logo may incorporate illustrative elements into it’s appearance, it is, and always should be, a product of design.

The purpose of a logo is to create a memorable mark that represents a brand and appeals to a defined customer base.  Some of the things to take into consideration when creating a logo are the goals of the business, the needs of their target audience, the message being conveyed and what colours and graphic styles appeal to that particular target audience.  All of these elements influence and effect the process and final outcome; ultimately defining the outcome as a design.

For the reason of purpose alone, this is why my work cannot be described as purely illustration. Always taking into consideration who I am creating a piece of work for, the meaning and intent of the piece and conducting researching into the history and culture of the particular subject; I apply fundamental design principles to every single illustration.

Even with projects that appear to be pure illustration commissions (such as the restaurant illustration I explained earlier) I still do my research and include whatever contextual meaning I can apply to the work.  This may take the form of an ornate pattern in an illustration, inspired from reading a book or watching a documentary relating to the subject. It may include elements or details from a person’s history or achievements. This extra consideration where you sometimes go beyond the brief can advance a piece of work to the next level.  Therefore, I call my own work illustrative design.

The principle of design always comes first.  It influences and inspires the illustrative aspect of a project, always helping shape the final outcome.  An argument against this approach to illustration is that the design aspect can constrain and suffocate the creativity of the illustration.  I beg to differ.  The constraints and rules you create for a project is what allows the creative process to be so successful.

Let me put this another way.  I went on a city break to Rome last year with my girlfriend.  We visited the Trevi Fountain on a hot day and got drawn into one of the enticing gelato shops lining the piazza.  When we walked up to the counter we were confronted with hundreds of flavours staring back at us.  There were so many we didn’t know what to choose!  Eventually (after A LOT of careful thought) we whittled it down to some select flavours we’d be satisfied with.  Even though what we had was great, I still wondered what other flavours were to be discovered in that magical gelato counter.  There were no rules or constraints.

If only we could have filtered our choice through some careful planning and organisation like we had done when booking the holiday.  We set some parameters for our trip. We decided that we were only going to travel on a specific set of dates, to a certain continent and with a specific budget in mind.  These rules helped us plan what we could afford, when we could go and what exciting things we could get up to when we were there.  Sure there were other options and other adventures to embark on but by establishing these rules, they helped us choose the results that best suited us.

Design is the rules.  Illustration is the adventure.  When you are given a brief and embark on the creative journey you’re giving yourself a set of rules to explore with.  Imagine that sitting down to create an illustration is like standing in front of that gelato counter.  There are hundreds of different flavours to choose from, so where do you begin?  If a client came to you with a project saying they simply wanted an illustration by you but didn’t outline any goals or preferences, where would you begin then? I know that I wouldn’t even take on the project!

Setting rules for your own work before you even start drawing is a great way to explore new paths of creativity and discover new styles of illustration.  To some that may seem ludicrous, but think about the trip to Rome.  In the beginning I didn’t know where we were going on an adventure to.  By setting some rules it allowed us to decide.  Approach projects by only allowing yourself to work in one medium such as paint, charcoal or collage.  Try working with only geometric shapes such as circle or squares.  Define the perspective, the colours palette, the canvas.  There’s no reason why you can’t amend the rules later on in the project if you need to.

Having an understanding of design principles is a very valuable thing.  It will help you give context and understanding to your work, ultimately helping you provide even more value to your clients along the way.

Give purpose to your work and keep hustling.