Varoom (Issue 23) - Illustration After Illustration

It was in Cape Town that the penny (or should that be the rand?) dropped. In late February / early March of this year I attended Design Indaba – a South African design experience / conference / event of epic proportions. A gamut of global design stars presented their latest and greatest projects to an adoring audience of design students, design professionals and design fans. Amongst the glitterati – Paula Scher, Sir John Hegarty, Steven Heller, Seymour Chwast, Ben Terrett, David Adjaye, John Maeda, to name but a few, was for me, the stand-out presentation of the three-day event – Christophe Niemann. And it was within moments of Niemann taking the stage that it all became crystal clear.

I’d interviewed Niemann before – a few years ago for one of my books on contemporary illustration and had felt that I had got under the bonnet of his mind, worked out what made him tick and presented him, as he presents himself, as a supremely dedicated, some say workaholic, talented and versatile illustrator – as formidable formulating an idea as he is defining one with a pencil. Following his art and design education at the Stuttgart Academy of Fine Arts in Germany, he left his native country for the US moving to New York City in 1997. Of course, his work has appeared on the covers of The New Yorker, Wired and The New York Times Magazine, he has won awards from AIGA, the Art Directors Club and The Lead Awards and his clients include Google, Amtrak and the Museum of Modern Art. He has done pretty much everything for everyone, and some, and then Niemann chose to move back to Germany to get a better life/work balance.

So given that I know Niemann’s career fairly well, what could he bring to the Indaba stage for show-and-tell that would show and tell me something new? The answer - Petting Zoo. It is unlikely that you’ve got this far into 2013 without a working knowledge of Petting Zoo but for those of you late to the party – this is the app that has typified the statement ‘less is more’ and has defied the logic that states that you must give the people all singing / all dancing applications. Niemann created 21 beautifully drawn simplistic bbut characterful animals that you pet. It really is as simple as that; you can pat them, push them, prod them, stroke them. My penny-dropping moment was during Niemann’s demonstration. He gave a mini potted history of Petting Zoo’s origins; how sitting with his sons playing computer games was his crunch point and the demo’ed the app. My own crunch moment came when I realised that this was the point that nothing would ever be the same again.

I’d had a hunch (along with a fair few others, I hear you say) a few years earlier that the days of the lone illustrator working to elucidate another person’s words through the creation of a single and static image, reproduced in print, was likely to become a distant memory for a future generation of illustrators. We were finally at the point of no return – that interactivity was the only viable future for the craft of illustration, that the single stand-alone image was dead, or at least dying. The printed image would go the same way as music, film and literature have been going for years – digital dissemination would soon be the primary format and that whilst print might soldier on books would go the way of vinyl; collectible and sought after but certainly not the norm.

If I’d been at all unconvinced of my own theory (and I wasn’t), a few months later and back in London a visit from Walter was all I needed to glimpse at a future without static illustrations residing within static books. Picture Walter, just three years old, the offspring of one of the UK’s leading illustrators and illustration academics and his wife; a prominent fine artist. Walter’s Illustrator Father has a collection of illustrated literature to rival the best of them – from Ladybird books to illustrated encyclopaedia and back again, and Walter’s Fine Artist Mother has a vast collection of fiction. Walter has not come into this world to been plonked in front of a screen. He is a kid nurtured on culture, a kid who has been surrounded by books, by pictures, by the products of yesteryear.

I fired up my iPad, taking it upon myself to be the person to introduce Walter to Petting Zoo. He played with it. He loved it. He turned sausage dogs on their heads. He made big fish eat smaller fish. He showered an elephant in the bath. He blew dry a lion’s mane. He played an alligator’s teeth like a xylophone and he twisted a giraffe’s neck. But most of all, he got it. Within 10 minutes he had Petting Zoo cracked and continued to enjoy it for the next 30 minutes. Here was interactive illustration being interacted with. Illustrator Dad and Fine Artist Mum looked on vaguely disapprovingly. Taking the hint, I switched off the iPad and Walter’s books came out. What did Walter do next? He listened to a story being read to him, he looked at the pictures and he absorbed. And then he placed his finger on a figure in the illustration and dragged his digit across the open page. Try telling a three year old that running your finger across the printed page won’t produce the same results as doing the same thing across the digital screen.

At London College of Communication, where I am the Dean of the School of Design, we have recently restructured the school putting three core disciplines at the centre of three core programme areas. Within the Graphic Communication programme area of courses - BA (Hons) Graphic Media Design takes centre stage as the core subject, whereas in Spatial Communication it is BA (Hons) Spatial Design at the heart, and in Interaction and Visual Communication it is BA (Hons) Illustration and Visual Media that the other courses rotate around. Sitting alongside our flagship illustration course resides new degree courses in Animation, Games Design and Design for Interaction and Moving Image – as well as masters courses in Interactive Media and our new soon-to-be running MA Illustration and Visual Media. New illustration practice at LCC is leading developments across our digital domains, spaces previously inhabited by techies.

I think that we, at LCC, understand the importance of putting illustration at the centre of new digital and interactive experiences – we get why the curious and observant mind of the illustrator will advance new thinking and new practice. We recognise that those that look at the real world through the eyes of the illustrator will instinctively understand how to make the digital world more real, and I don’t mean more realistic. Illustrators tell stories, through a single image and through narrative sequences. We understand how to make stories move and to make stories that move. More importantly though, we believe in illustration as a core discipline; not simply a satellite of graphic design as many models dictate, nor a satellite of fine art study as often is the case in the US. Illustration must be the fundamental platform from which other 21st century disciplines launch.

Walter is only three years old, but where would he want to study right now, if he were six times older, I wonder?