The dark side of illustration
Discussion around Alegria and commercial stock vector continued
Everyone engaged in commercial illustration has a lot of questions on their way. These are the beginners’ “how do I start my way in illustration?”, “how do I build up my portfolio?”, “where do I find my first clients?”. Then there are the more experienced professionals’ questions like “how do I stop being afraid to ask for more money”, “how do I start working internationally”, “how should I compose my contracts”, “how do I avoid burnout”. Time gradually reduces the number of typical questions, but still there are some: “how do I work with unmotivated students”, “how do I organize an exhibition”. After that, though, such ‘how to’ questions gradually seize to exist - and that’s not because there are answers, but because these questions either do not appear at all or the answers are being seeked out outside of the domain of illustration: they are not posed in front of illustrators. For instance: what kind of concept of time and space does commercial stock illustration convey and what are the aims of these concepts? Which ideologies stand behind the ‘neutral’ and uninventive corporate vector styles, and are they as neutral as they would like to seem? If these questions arise, they are worth asking within the domain of illustration as well. Why so?
Let’s imagine you are an illustration who has already got some professional experience in the field and let’s imagine your primary breadwinning activity is drawing vector images for business presentations, websites and mobile apps. You can do that to a high professional standard and even though that occasionally becomes boring for you, you are okay with that as long as it all brings money. At this point you might already be thinking how to switch to something more engaging or how to earn more with what you already do. These are important and necessary questions, but not the only ones. A while ago there was a QUARTZ article discussing why corporate styles feel so similar (Quito, 2019). Its simple answer to that question was that adaptable simple vector style allows to save money and time. A more complex answer though was only slightly touched upon in that article, while it deserves a far more meticulous consideration. This article mentioned a quote from Lindsay Ballant, where she is clearly annoyed by the fact that she, the art director of the leftist ‘The Baffler’, constantly gets messages from illustrators ‘who do this cutesy/friendly utopian flat aesthetic’?

It’s symptomatic that illustrators started arguing that the flat vector shapes were used as far back as in Ikko Tanaka’s works and it’s not about the colors and shapes that we use but about how we use them. In other words, the essence of Ballant’s observation was left unnoticed. And the point of her argument was that illustrators rarely realize that some of the aesthetic solutions are taken over by particular markets with their policies, and illustrators rarely realize that while supporting left-wing ideas (otherwise why would they write to The Baffler?) they create a product that is deeply embedded into the work of markets that function under the flag of different political forces. Her criticism and disappointment were aimed at political shortsightedness and inconsistency of some of the practitioners. If one invests into creation of affordable corporate vector imagery, it’s worth remembering that this implies investing into the distribution of unrealistic depersonalized uniformity that aims at presenting the lifestyle of a corporation as a universal one.

Just recall the imagery on the screens inside the metro trains in Moscow, your bank or mobile operator app imagery. The similarity between such images is often criticized, like it was done on the Solar Sands Youtube channel, in “Why do "Corporate Art styles" Feel Fake?” (Solar Sands, 2021), a video with around 3 million views. Nevertheless, the criticism is mainly aimed at the aesthetic side of the issue, and the main point is the lack of inventiveness. Cliche, is, no doubt, not particularly inspiring aesthetic excitement, but why do we judge a product initially created as non-unique from the point of perspective of originality? The idea that graphic art is necessarily something created by a a unique artistic genius is irrelevant in many cases, and yet this idea - a modernism echo - is deeply embedded in our consciousness. The accusations that corporate styles are ‘banal’ ignore its essence and try to apply inapplicable evaluation criteria to them.

What is interesting about this kind of imagery is its ubiquity, vividly shown by online collections such as Corporate Memphis and Small cartoon people building big interfaces on platform. Mass spreading can be alarming, but, more importantly, it gives opportunities for analysis. The absence of uniformity and ubiquity is something that is often mentioned as a reason for the lack of academic studies of illustration, so this time we have a good case.

So what’s the issue with this kind of illustration if we put aside artistic inventiveness? Khoi Vinh, Adobe’s designer and The New York Times art director, ironically refers to the situation as the ‘prevalence of a single, monocultural aesthetic that seemingly almost every startup and tech company and would-be industry disruptor out there has adopted’ (Vihn, 2018). Unfortunately, this idea concludes his post, - right where it seems it should have all just started. Isn’t this the most interesting thing - why is the progressivist ambition articulated with a language of ‘faceless stock art’ that rapidly vanishes into the past? How come ‘innocent’ and banal vector businessmen in suits climbing their career ladders stand right at the center of a time paradox, in the middle of a gaping hole between the future and the past? To answer this question, one could imagine an unrealistic option: a tech startup that visually looks into the future, not into the past. Imagine a company working with, say, AI, that uses Ian Cheng’s works as part of their visuals. This kind of scenario is hardly realistic, and that’s not because this won’t be understood among the audience and not because a young startup is likely not to be able to afford that. It’s probable though, that a ‘startup’ is a kind of organisation that is forced to use third-party capital and to do that they need to convince the owners of that capital that this particular startup is worthy of investments - and they need to do that using the capital owners’ language. Roughly speaking, this is a ‘Dad, can you give me some money’-type of request, when the reason specified is not ‘that’s for LOL rp’, but rather like ‘Dad, take a moment to look at the chart showing the growth of income of professional gamers in Russia in the last 5 years. And our team needs just a bit more to get to the finals!’

In other words, the issue is not the style itself, but rather the essence of the tech organisations, be those giant corporations or startups. While the former will have the power to establish aesthetic priorities and the latter will have the need to build themselves into that system, it does not matter what the aesthetic system is: flat, neomorphism or anything else - any artistic product would serve this economic model.

Addressing this kind of critique, illustrators reasonably argue: “but we have to earn a living somehow!” And this critique is not a call to reject commissions from big corporations. This is rather a call to ask questions and give account of the models within which we act, because it may turn out that we do not like these models that much. Are we really ready to draw for a corporation that officially uses images that transmit the ideas of safety and democracy, but in fact owns and sells personal data of people from all around the world? It may well be that yes, we are ready to do that, but it is important that this willingness is conscious and the consent is informed, so that it is not an unpleasant surprise for the illustrator that in fact they are investing their time and effort into the values that they are not ready to support.

These questions on the connections between graphic arts and economic systems are worth asking right now, when we are drawing yet another handshake or a watering can over a piggy bank. Joan Cornellà, for instance, does pose such questions, having successfully appropriated a 50-s version of contemporary utopian language for the purpose of creating anti-utopian messages, and his works are so popular exactly because they are immediately recognized as satire. Maybe we just need some time to pass to see contemporary ‘neutral’ flat vector businessmen start slaughtering each other so that we see that ‘neutrality’ is not neutral at all. Maybe Cornellà is consciously not using contemporary corporate language and refers to the past because the utopian nature of contemporary graphics is not yet universally recognized as such. There are exceptions though, such as vector Saturn devouring his vector son drawn by Twitter user clayohr, but such exceptions are rare and few people create those systematically.

On the other hand, the examples that do use corporate Memphis aesthetics with purposes of irony or satire do not find an unequivocal interpretation either. What is seen as irony by ones, the others see as radically rightist move against enforced diversity, where the purple-skinned characters are meant to erase the differences between people of different ethnic origin. Rachel Hawley writes about this in the Eye on Design as follows:

‘But while much of the broader disdain for Corporate Memphis is engendered by perceived hypocrisy, the mere idea of valuing inclusivity is enough to provoke certain people. Before the backlash went mainstream earlier this year, it was already a topic of discussion among a corner of the internet connected by neoreactionary politics, whose denizens include “ironically” racist trolls and committed white nationalists. Through the lens of their worldview, Corporate Memphis—commonly referred to among this milieu as “Globohomo Art,”—serves as propaganda to push multiculturalism and gender non-conformity onto an unsuspecting public. This self described “right-wing design squad” is waging small-scale “guerilla meme warfare” by creating bigoted, violent, or otherwise shocking images drawn in the Corporate Memphis style.’ (Hawley, 2021)

But the issues of ethics and politics are not the only ones posed by corporate Memphis and stock imagery. Another aspect of it relates to the notion of authorship in illustration. Stock imagery does not require being unique; in fact, it imperatively excludes any uniqueness, as what is ‘too unique’ won’t sell well. Simultaneously stock imagery creators are regularly being bullied for the lack of creativity and replication of visual platitudes. It happens so often that working with stock imagery is often perceived as something shameful by illustrators, - at least until the point when it starts generating noticeably high income. As it was already mentioned before, this criticism implies a presupposition that illustration is to be evaluated using the criteria of uniqueness and each author should demonstrate a trace of individual genius, and in case there’s none to be found one is to be condemned and accused of mediocrity. And if in contemporary art the idea of individual authorship and artistic genius is long since doubted, in illustration individual mastery and uniqueness are still rarely questioned. This does not mean illustration should follow the example of contemporary art, but it means that for some reason we apply a 100-years old modernist art criteria to contemporary illustration. This is not to say that the criteria of uniqueness should be abandoned. This is just an observation that helps us re-evaluate the ways we define illustration today and see if these definitions are helpful or hindering. Jaleen Grove writes about this in the following way:

Where modern art movements such as abstract expressionism searched for new ways of making meaning because old forms were thought to be corrupt or dead, illustration kept continuity between past and future, finding old forms were not depleted after all. [...] In modern art, originality is paramount. In illustration, innovation depends on the nature of the project and the intended audience. Sometimes the message is strengthened by adherence to tradition: think of Christmas themes, for example. On the other hand, a radical take on Christmas might be perfect for a particular audience. The key difference is that illustration does not simply value an avant-garde approach because it is experimental. Illustration also asks, “Is it effective?” (Grove, 2011)

Here Jaleen Grove points out two important aspects of illustration: our concepts of authorship and the idea of continuity in time. The idea of a modernist genius, a single indivisible self of outstanding qualities, alongside the idea of continuity in time finds reflection in the most down-to-earth illustration routine, such as building up a portfolio.
Why do we need a distinctive ‘style’ that so many young illustrators crave for? Simple answers are - ‘this is what illustrators get paid for’, ‘predictability reduces the client’s risks’. But it is much more interesting to enquire about epistemological, rather than practical, reasons why we need ‘style’ . What does its predictability tell about the ways we construct knowledge and history and the ways we support our understanding of the self?

In art studies, for instance, - in texts on the artists’ biographies - one could often see this kind of a cliche: “As far back as in the early works N was showing interest towards X”, “As far back as in this-and-that year we see the artist’s concern over Y”. It may be that for professional art studies that is some sort of an obviously harmful cliche, but its very existence, along with the clients’ demand for predictability of the work from an illustrator, fundamentally imply a demand for the integrity of the self, a demand for the possibility to see a conscious and usually linear trace of the self. Despite all the top-notch theories in maths and physics, in practice we still value a simple linear connection between the past and the present. Non-linearity ruins our concepts of the flow of history and the integrity of ourselves. It violently invades our fragile world picture, which is forced to defend itself with rather simple and clumsy, yet working market mechanisms that demand predictability. And even if in practice we need “style” to have something to eat, the very idea that its existence reinforces the time continuum and our integrity within the time flow, sounds refreshing.

The dimension of time, in fact, is built into the fabrics of the most banal illustration in lots of unexpected ways. For instance, David Rudnick, a designer, and Josh Gabert-Doyon from the Wired magazine mention ubiquitous isometric imagery on the real estate and finance companies’ websites and argue that this way of depicting space is in fact a way to exclude the dimension of time:

“Isometric perspective is interesting, because nothing recedes to a vanishing point,” Rudnick says, “and therefore it also eliminates the variable of time.” He points out that this type of design is particularly popular with fintech and mortgage companies – playing down the passage of time is particularly advantageous to firms selling financial products that you may end up paying off for years. (Gabert-Doyon, 2021)

Commercial vector imagery is far from being as simple and banal as it seems. Purple-faced characters in suits tell far more than the stories about ‘our company’s values’ or even about inclusivity. They also tell us about our concepts of time, space and individuality, let alone the fact that their conformity raises afresh the ethical questions which they were meant to eliminate.

Illustration, especially the most ‘banal’ and ubiquitous and thus unseen, is a product of societal conventions on what’s acceptable and favorable. When an illustrator questions these conventions and asks where they come from and whose needs they are meant to satisfy, an illustrator gets an opportunity to choose whether to follow these conventions or not, whether to reinforce certain world views with their works or not. Unfortunately, “why am I drawing this?” is the kind of a question that rarely gets an answer outside of a purely individual perspective. “To earn money”, “to develop my skills”, “just because it’s fun” - all of these motivations are surely good enough, but it’s equally important that there are others, the ones that are important for somebody apart from the illustrator themselves. That’s not because we have to think how to leave a trace in history or bring good to humankind. That’s because as long as we believe that illustrators’ concerns end at the point of finding ways to demand higher budgets or ways to avoid burnout at work, illustration issues remain illustrators’ own business, and we continue being hired to visually cement worldviews that are often highly questionable. As a result, the problems that have to be solved collectively on an institutional level and discussed critically in public, are being solved with a psychotherapist. Illustration urgently needs to go beyond the scope of personal psychology. And to do that, we need to ask questions that will push its limits.
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