Why editorial illustrations look so similar these days (article)

  • SVS OG

    An illustrator friend posted this article and I thought it was interesting, so I'll share it here to see what you guys think:


    It talks about low pay, but we knew that already, didn't we?

    What is more interesting to me is how economics and above all, technology, affect style. Here's a quote by artist Alex Eben Meyer:

    β€œI think it is less about an artist working in a particular genre and more about having a strong point of view, ideas, style, and craft,” he explains. β€œFor me personally, color (regardless of depth) and humor are some of my most important attributes.”

    In short, he doesn't care about the style issue. To me, this is almost a throwback to a medieval sensibility in which the technique was a given and the variety came within a limited set of choices. The fun part about medieval illustrations is the particulars of what the figures are doing. And I do like the illustration of his that the article shows.

    But I also think it's very different from a children's book sensibility, and very different from my own. I think I spend too much time wading through style issues. Of course, I'm a beginner and he's not.

    Also, brings to mind how often Will, Jake and Lee remind us to come up with a good concept. That's especially important in editorial illustration.

    Somewhere there should be a good mix of all the above that is also doable economically! What do you guys think? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

  • @LauraA said in Why editorial illustrations look so similar these days (article):


    I feel like the visual trend is also a bit like fashion, they come and go. It tends to influence many fields at the same time. The software industry is certainly having this "Flat aesthetics" during the last couple of years. In 2015, Google released a new visual guideline for its web-based software which made all their interface elements flat. Apple also removes all the semi-transparent drop shadows on their buttons.

    Children's book to me is a fine balance between fine art and commercial illustration. The fact that every book is like a little universe that a maker can explore makes the medium very special.

    • With editorial illustration, you typically get to do one or a handful for an article. A book, however, gives readers the whole experience of the world the artist created.

    • Making visual choices for software in Google and Apple, you have to think the application in so many different places across different devices, time, location. It adds lots of limitations to the visual choice you can make. A children's book is a fairly closed system, this allows the creator to take a lot more freedom to explore within one book. I know some illustrators make several books that have a completely different look. Charles Santoso is one of them. I also found very fun to see the list of best sellers in the new york times or the list of Caldicott winner books - there is no one unified look to them, they go from very realistic rendered to almost stick figures. I guess that is why I fall in love with the children's book world.

    I have very little to say about the economy of being an illustrator. This is the second most difficult thing for me to figure out how. The most difficult thing on this journey so far is "show up, and do it every day." it helps with a community like SVS πŸ™‚

  • SVS OG

    @xin-li Yes! I totally agree that the main thing for us is to show up every day, and a community helps, especially as we may not have a local one.

    I liked your thoughts about about graphic artists having to use the same style across applications, whereas children's book illustration is like a little universe. I think that's what I like so much about children's books. Style does matter, because it gives subtle shading to the story and becomes a part of early childhood emotional experience.

    I am curious about how editorial illustration, specifically, is different. I read the NY Times regularly and so I note the illustration trends there and how they flavor the articles (the writing has a notable style as well). I still think editorial illustration is much closer to software graphics than to children's book illustration, and like you said, it's much more trend-oriented. But I would really hate to see all illustration, in any field, start to look homogenous!

    Thanks! This is just the sort of thing I was hoping someone would bring up!

  • @LauraA just a quick thought reflecting that editorial illustration starts to look homogenous?
    Maybe the business model of the editorial illustration is contributing to that: very very short deadlines.

    I think I might be naive, but I think illustrators who can pull off different looks quickly should be popular in the editorial world because articles come with all sorts of topics that will require a different look. But I think in reality (correct me, if I am wrong), illustrators stick with the same kind of look tends to be more successful because art directors know exactly what they are getting when they hire this type of artist.

    Maybe there is also a big change in how we consume and value art due to the social media algorithms and "Like" culture. Before social media and the culture of constant validation, artists have a bit more space to try out edgy stuff without feeling being judged. But now it seems that we(as a collective art consumer) value more on popularity, rather than uniqueness. Unique is terrifying, and are very often unpopular to begin with.

    We also consume more content that is already similar to our taste (due to all smart social media algorithms recommendations). This probably contributes to some degree on illustrations look homogenous.

    I really trying hard to keep a physical sketchbook and made a decision to not post stuff I do there on social media. But I confess that I am definitely very biased by social media likes. I sometimes find myself making decisions to follow an artist or not by looking at the number of their followers, consciously or subconsciously.

  • SVS Instructor Pro

    Great article. Need more time to properly digest. I don't work in editorial market, but always aware of it's issues and impact. It could be argued (to a point, and I'm not sure it's a hill I'd die on) that children's books have a similar "style" issue. Arguably for much the same reasons.

  • Illustration falls somewhere between graphic design and fine art and I think editorial illustration falls somewhere between graphic desigh and illustration. Where illustration falls on that spectrum depends a lot on whether a product is being sold or a story is being illustrated. Here is an article that compares graphic desigh to illustration. I just want to say too, that if you flip through a magazine from any decade, you will see similarities in the artwork for illustrations selling products. The 70's is a good example. So I don't think we should expect that to necessarily be any different in the 2020's.


    Very interesting topic! I went to school to study graphic design years ago. I thought I would be learning more illustration. I did not enjoy it at all. I enjoyed the problem solving aspect, but missed the creativity of traditional art. For me, digital art has brought that enjoyment back. Right now I am still sketching my inital drawings with pencil and paper. I am getting better at sketching digitally and may switch for some work eventually.

  • @LauraA I think for sure that the concept and substance is more important than technique or style.

    But I also think the reason I think those illustrations look so similar is because imo Adobe Illustrator lacks the tools to allow artists to create the range of styles you can achieve in Photoshop or traditional media. I work in both Photoshop and illustrator for work, and I have used adobe illustrator to create art that is supposed to look more organic and natural and it is like fighting against the purpose of the program. It is very hard to get an organic line because it tries to fix it for you. If you use texture it takes a crazy amount of memory. However, like the article said, it is SO EASY to make quick changes, scale to any size, easily change colors or move things around. And it is ideal for creating art in a really short time period and since magazines tend to work on really short timelines in makes sense that they would value that. Which is very different to children's books which take much much longer.

  • SVS OG

    @carlianne That's a really interesting point that Illustrator pushes artists towards a particular style. I haven't used it, so I can't say, but I can see how it might be the case.

    @deborah-Haagenson I read the article and can see the difference, although there may be overlap, especially with book covers.

    Like you, I originally went to school to study graphic design, because I was interested in book illustration, even long ago. But I was quickly persuaded to change to painting, and despite the total impracticality of my degree (my professors were mostly abstract action painters or conceptual artists), I do think it prepared me better for illustration in the long run, especially because the technology of graphic art has completely changed since then. It's easier to learn new technology than a completely different way of thinking.

    @davidhohn I think you're right. There's a strong animation influence in children's books, especially in camera angles and lighting, and also a strong, though more primitive, flat-and-decorative streak with a lot of plants and people with big eyes Γ  la Emily Hughes. If you have to time think this over and would like to add something, I'd be happy to hear it!

  • @LauraA I agree! Having had my traditional art background, I feel like I have the foundation to be able to create digital illustrations, but the transition is not easy! I do feel like I'm improving each month though. My issue seems to be transitioning from realistic to more animated/cartoonish. I'll create a tree that I'm happy with that is more cartoonish, but then I'll draw a boy who looks too realistic. I wonder if SVS has a course that would help with this?

  • I went to an illustration workshop last year and it seemed all the artists who were getting work were the ones with this graphic Illustrator (Adobe) style. It really put a dent in my confidence as an artist who's always liked using lines: line is out, shape is in. But that's just what the market wants in this era. It may change to something else but I don't see the end of that happening soon. There is some personal style in how the artist gets to that flat shape style, like hand-made textures and of course a particular idea or presentation of an idea. So there's that too.

  • Interesting article, and I love reading everyone's thoughts here.

    I think I would generally agree with the idea that in any kind of creative space, you have this sort of gravity around trends and styles and everything "looking the same".

    I think of music for example. Whenever you talk to someone who doesn't listen to a certain genre of music that you might really love, I think it's common to hear, "Oh it all sounds the same". There are certain conventions and a kind of vocabulary that grows up amongst the practitioners which is what makes it the "genre". These conventions change over time because of technology, economic factors, etc. But I think its necessary for things to "look the same" in a sense.

    I see it actually as a kind of encouraging sign, because then it gives us as artists something to react to and potentially differentiate ourselves with.

    As far as the financial question, I think the good concept is important, but it's also important to innovate in how we make money. I mean, perfect example all three of the SVS guys, they're all doing all sorts of different and innovative things with their careers. SVS being one piece of their portfolio. I think, unfortunately, we're in an age where it's really rare to be someone who makes their entire living from one creative channel (editorial, children's books, etc). But the good thing is that we have all these means to design our OWN creative path.

    Anyway, my two cents!

  • Hi @LauraA! What an interesting article! Thank you for sharing. It seems that you are curios about the choice of style (or the lack of) in editorial illustrations - is this because you are having some struggles with defining a particular "style" for your children's book ideas?

  • SVS OG

    @Qi In fact, I am struggling with style, but I don't think that's why I posted the article. If anything, I like too many styles, and yes, I take too long to finish a piece! But aside from that, I mostly think it's interesting how the medium and the working conditions influence the resulting images.

    @robgale You make a good point. In music there are many genres, but within those genres there are fairly strict limitations and the creativity comes within them. I'm sure someone has tried crossing Irish fiddle with rap (to name two genres with fairly strict conventions), but I'm not sure the result would be recognizable! Maybe "flat style" is one genre of illustration, and there are several acceptable ones, but with so many style choices available, there is a certain homogenizing tendency within each genre in order to flourish within it. Does that make sense? In fact, when I look at the NY Times, yes, there is a lot of the flat style, but there are also others. It's more in straight graphic design that there are strict trends.

    @NelsonYiap I like line a lot too, and painterly strokes. I think we have to just do what we do and find a market for it, and it's probably not either all compromise nor all stubborn individualism, but a natural mixture. In fact, the SVS guys have talked before about the danger of working too much towards a specific market. You may get hired for it and then find yourself having gone out of style! If you follow your own temperament, at least that style can mutate honestly.

    @deborah-Haagenson I don't know of a specific course that would help with a tree vs. a figure, but if you follow the curriculum, you develop your skills across the board and it can't help but develop a consistent style eventually, because you have more visual vocabulary and choices.

    Do you have to transition to a more cartoonish style? I think I have a little, but much less than many people, because I come from a portraiture background and I love figure drawing. I struggle more with concepts, backgrounds and style issues instead. And no, the anatomy in my figures is by no means perfect, especially as I start to exaggerate for gesture, but I find such beauty in individual people that I want some of the particulars to remain. Maybe you feel the same?

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