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Open to Interpretation?

Last week Mark Kingsley sent me a link to this article, as an interesting potential for a Speak Up topic. Before you go there and read your brains out (it’s a pretty long article, and worth reading), let me just summarize it for the purposes of this discussion. The article, by Jesse Sunenblick, is about the decline of pointed, metaphorical, artist-driven illustration in editorial use. It sites many examples of editors nixing potentially offensive material (including, incredibly, one where a farmer in a field is possibly flipping the bird to city-folk driving by—an illustration deemed too small too tell for sure, but causing editorial panic nonetheless), and hints at the documentation of hundreds more, indicating a growing trend to favour literal, safe and “pleasant” representation in illustration over ambiguous or overtly critical illustrative intent.

It’s an interesting article, but I was struggling with how to relate it to graphic design and the readers of Speak Up.

The next day I received my Communication Arts Advertising Annual. What struck me after only a few pages was how “radical” many of the ads were. They were sometimes ambiguous, cheeky, suggestive and risqué. I thought back to the article I’d read on editorial censorship of creative work, and I realized that much of what I was seeing in the ads would not have made it to print in an editorial context—even something like, say, a tongue being set on fire by the burning point of a magnifying glass (as on p.59) would probably have been deemed too “ugly” or offensive.

Why would this be? One of the “culprits” cited in Sunenblick’s article was Rolling Stone Magazine; and yet here in CA were Rolling Stone ads that—among other things—extolled the virtues of Satanism (p.46 “666 Pentalicious”). I could see that it was tongue-in-cheek, but why would a magazine so willing to take risks in their advertising be leary of offending people (or advertisers) with a certain illustration in their editorial?

Just as I was thinking, “Is advertising where it’s at? Is it now advertising where true creative expression can flourish?” (and “How ironic.”), when I realized … wait a minute … this is the CA Advertising Annual: the cream of the crop—and representative of what miniscule percentage of the ad industry? (If there were an Editorial Annual—and why isn’t there?—it would probably have just as many wonderful examples of boundary-pushing work in it.)

Indeed, in the same issue there is an article by Barbara Gordon lamenting the increased use of stock photography for all the usual reasons—but also because the stock starts to drive the creative, rather than the other way around and, she says, creative ideas get left on the table because the most readily available imagery doesn’t fit them. In addition, the author laments “…a time when creatives were known to take chances—sometimes risking their careers or jobs to push for a theme or campaign, that they knew would work for their clients.” I returned to the Sunenblick article and read, “All the heavy thinkers are gone. All the big ideas diminished … anything requiring the slightest abstraction of thought.” And this quote from Milton Glaser, “The corporate voice has become increasingly wary of individual expression.”

So, is it true? Is this all just a bunch of people lamenting the good ol’ days, or is there currently a fear of creative work that challenges the individual to consider and interpret what they see and read? And how about how we treat the creatives we hire to work with us—are we able to encourage the creative input of photographers and illustrators or do we find ourselves having to ask them to tone it down, or make the message more overt? And finally, are some industries, like advertising, more open to the subjective creative concept than others?

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PUBLISHED ON Jan.19.2004 BY marian bantjes
ps’s comment is:

with just reading your summary. i wonder if stock-imagery falls into the same category. one of my new years resolutions for the past few years has always been to use less stock, but rather to create well-pointed and customized imagery (but the low-prices of stock, combined with the instant accessibility seeem to make it almost impossible to get off the stock track). while the topic might be more about critical versus pleasant, i feel stock does the same thing. its safe, its okay, some even beautiful or cool, but in the end,-- to me -- it waters the design down. thats why i cannot get excited about the veers, csas, etc.

On Jan.19.2004 at 10:34 AM
graham’s comment is:

i thought illustration died about 15 years ago.

On Jan.19.2004 at 10:41 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Haven't read the article, but wanted to comment about the not-daring-anymore aspect of the post. This probably ties in also with the Sensitive Everywhere thread.

Overall, the US (not sure if it's the same case in Canada) is getting less daring. While there is more shock-TV than ever before, XBox games are getting gorier and music videos raunchier design and advertising seem to go the opposite way. Except for teen-targeted which just moves along with pop-culture. Anyway, point being, that even though the culture in general is more open businesses and corporations are not. There is this fear of upseting people (righfully so, who wants to lose customers?) and I also think it could be attributed to the ridiculous amount of people suing companies for any stupid, little reason.

Last night on the news, they had a quick report about Portland (I think it was that city), Oregon's Police instituting a no-cussing policy. If they use the f word during an arrest or something they have to file a report and explain why they had to use the f word. I mean, what the fuck? This watered-down version of humanity, from no cursing to prettier Brawny men, is a bit depressing and disheartening as a creative professional.

I know, and kind of understand, why this happens but you would think that being 2004 we would be over this kind of stuff. But no.

Sorry, what was the question?

On Jan.19.2004 at 10:47 AM
graham’s comment is:

there will always be a lament for the former golden age, no matter how much a figment of an addled, ego-drunk mind it is.

i suppose we're talking about dissent in some way here, and as far as it goes the oppurtunites to make dissent visible/audible/tangible are greater than they ever have been. more of the crowd have joined the lone voice.

in terms of design-the best way to address any of this is start your own thing. then (in the first instance at least) it's all up to you.

On Jan.19.2004 at 10:51 AM
marian’s comment is:

Graham, although the original article is about illustration (in an editorial context) I'm really asking about "creative ideas" in general. For instance I used to have a client who, even though you could initially sell her on photography that was, for example, motion-blurred to convey energy and activity--but ultimately what she really wanted was crystal clear shots of people doing something that related directly to the copy on the page. She was in the education market, and she somehow believed that unless there was a classroom shot, people wouldn't understand it was about education.

Another example: for years I have worked with a really great photographer. He does his best work when I give him e.g. an article to read, and he brings me some ideas then goes off and shoots something. His solutions are always a bit ambiguous, and open to interpretation--and they're always great. Once I was working with a client and he suggested an image for the cover of a company magazine; I found a stock shot that was similar, then we got our photographer to create a specific shot (it was of a cake we had made with the company's logo on it). It was the worst photo I ever got from him, and in the end I wished I had just said, "It's the company's birthday--let's talk about some ideas."

So the question is, are you under pressure from your clients to be literal? Do you, as described in the article, have to push your photographers and illustrators away from ambiguous, "ugly", potentially misinterpreted imagery or styles?

I'd love to hear from people who work in editorial as well, or book publishing, or advertising.

On Jan.19.2004 at 11:07 AM
graham’s comment is:

marian-sorry, i didn't read your topic properly (monday, bit hungover) so sorry sorry again.

i think the pressure to be literal is and always has been endemic, and sometimes being really really literal can actually square the circle and become very interesting; but then, it's a queston of what you leave out.

a concrete example of that was something that was my ultimate dream job ever (carte blanche for some people whose work has been an inspiration to me for twenty years or more). i wanted to do something very simple, direct and sort of obvious, a pictorial journey through as many of the important places in their lives as i could visit and photograph given time and budget. the thing that made it interesting (i thought/hoped) was that none of it was captioned, leaving a sort of conceptual ambiguity, some kind of a puzzle.

so-and this is far too simplistic, but-it's a question of approach. these things don't need to be overt, and i wonder if there are examples of things sneaking into more corporate work that would be considered to either extend or enhance a corporations message in a transcendent way or even perhaps to undermine that message in a socio-political way? i'll see if i can find any examples.

On Jan.19.2004 at 11:18 AM
graham’s comment is:

actually, there is this-but . . . maybe have a read;


On Jan.19.2004 at 11:22 AM
graham’s comment is:

btw, be sure to click on the link to the eye magazine article at the bottom.

On Jan.19.2004 at 11:23 AM
eric’s comment is:

marian, just a quick post (i'm in SF for an Art Fair and a bit distracted.)

i agree with graham on illustration having dropped off the editorial agenda about a decade ago.

As you point out, perhaps it's more that the older venues have dried up and the place to look for creative work is in different souces. I've noticed that there is a lot of "illustration" in the european art/fashion mags. mostly it's bad drawing used to fill up the page than a carefully thought image.

On Jan.19.2004 at 12:08 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Marian, I'm wondering why the CA Advertising Annual is

"the cream of the crop"?

On Jan.19.2004 at 12:49 PM
marian’s comment is:

Marian, I'm wondering why the CA Advertising Annual is

"the cream of the crop"?

That's a legitimate question. Perhaps what I should have said is that the work represented in Annuals is not necessarily indicative of the state of advertising work as a whole; that what we see there is a very small slice of all advertising done throughout the year, chosen as "the best" for whatever reason. We -- I assume that given the gazzilions of entries they must get, that the final cut represents "the cream of the crop." But you are right: which cream, whose crop? THAT, however, is another topic.

On Jan.19.2004 at 01:05 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Jason, word on the street is that the CA Design annual is one of the tougher judged ones. Not that that says anything about the creamness of the crop… but you never hear the winners of say, Print's Regional, to be the cream of the crop.

> Is it now advertising where true creative expression can flourish?

Oh please no.

On Jan.19.2004 at 01:18 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Oh, goodness gracious . . . please, no.

The differences between advertising and design studios, and then illustrators, is just that. Differences. Anecdotally, advertising tends to be edgy, at least that's how it's described amongst the design folk; and design tends to be neat and clean, according to the advertisers. Then we have illustration which tends to be its own animal.

And these boundaries (differences) make for some great competition, and wonderful collaboration. They're always trying to one up the other or work together towards greatness. I don't believe that one delivers greater creative expression than another. It's a competitive arena, and for those out there claiming advertising is where its at, chances are they're trying to revive their business or the industry as a whole.

If anything, we're not in a creative slump, we're in a creative revival. I believe more chances are being taken, with an increase in using rhetoric as creative force. Ethos, pathos, and logos will be tested and pushed. And of those devices, pathos (emotion) will be exploited the most as a creative tool -- with humor ever-present.

On Jan.19.2004 at 02:03 PM
Tan’s comment is:

You know, graphic design has two camps of thought -- visual development and concept development.

Labels for a line of microbrews or a can of soda is more about visual development -- how to differentiate, increase brand presence, fortify brand personality, etc. The communication is more about image, and less about content. Now an annual report for IBM is more about concept development -- the graphic nature of content delivery is key, as well as the ideology, wit, format, experience, etc. Communication is more concept driven, rather than how many ink units were required to print it, ie. how "pretty" it is.

One doesn't necessarily discount or devalue the other. Concept isn't always king, and neither is graphic beauty. It all depends.

I'm a big believer in concept, and it's more akin to the nature of corporate work I do, and lemme tell ya -- it's a constant struggle to push the need for concept, and raise the level of expectations in clients. I don't think that's ever been an easy thing for anybody-- clients rarely, if ever, give you a design carte blanche to go off the deep end. You have to earn that trust and permission. Or don't ask permission, and just fucking give the client no other choice -- and risk the perils.

I don't believe that it's easier for editorial or advertising work than it is for graphic design. Thats' a cop out. The medium may be different, but the challenges are the same.

So to answer your question -- yes, it's a gamble to work on the edge. Yes, it's always been next to impossible to convince a client to buy it. Clients will almost ALWAYS choose the literal over the ambiguous because it's safer. That's why so few designers are able to generate that kind of work. And why CA will always be tough to get into.

Not sure if my rhetorics answer your question -- but I'm not sure there is an answer Marian.

On Jan.19.2004 at 02:05 PM
marian’s comment is:

Well, in the spirit of Speak Up, I'm not looking for a definitive answer--because there isn't one--but to elicit opinion, observation and experience.

On Jan.19.2004 at 03:32 PM
eric’s comment is:

marian, curious if you consulted the Soc of Illustrators annual or American Illustration as counter-balance in creative trends?

On Jan.19.2004 at 04:03 PM
Jason’s comment is:

God, please. Let's not have any answers, definitive or otherwise. I'm with Marian on that issue . . . opinions, observations, critiques, experiences, etc.

On Jan.19.2004 at 04:52 PM
marian’s comment is:

Sorry Eric, my post is not as well researched as it could be. It was more of a pondering, that I decided to throw out here and see what others thought.

And ... stop thinking illustration! I'm trying to get a bigger perspective about concepting in general.

On Jan.19.2004 at 06:06 PM
Tan’s comment is:

hey, watsa matta w/ being definitive?

seriously though, I know we're just discussing here -- I didn't mean to discount your question or suggest that it's futile.

I agree -- there's a lack of courage in the work I've seen recently. ARs are all pretty dull lately -- nice looking, but dull. Lots of derivative, safe, literal executed designs in many of the annuals. Good wit, smart, but not necessarily dangerous.

But question -- is a "safe" concept not just as valid as a "dangerous" concept? If it's accomplishing business objectives for the client, does a design execution have any less merit because it's dull on purpose? Why push the unexpected and bizarre when literal is the order of the day? Is it a self-serving interest for designers?

I'm not advocating the issue, just asking.

On Jan.19.2004 at 06:56 PM
marian’s comment is:

I always prefer design that makes me think. Yes, straight up, good looking design that conveys a message may serve the client just as well, but I think that work that captures the un-obvious or hints at more, or is just plain unexpected (be that bizarre or whatever) serves the audience better.

I think maybe this is why I seem to see more of this concept-driven kind of work in advertising. Advertising is so conscious of the audience--so focussed on engaging an unfocussed "out there." They have a need to shock, or to make people pause and wonder "What's that supposed to mean?"

When we design brochures or ARs or magazines we are speaking to an already semi-captive audience. Books are a bit different because book covers are also the advertising for the book.

I dunno, I totally talking off the top of my head here.

As a related aside:

There's a magazine called The Sciences. I haven't picked up an issue in a couple of years, but I used to buy it occasionally for the art. Yes, the art. Whoever was the creative director (and I really should have a copy in front of me to write this, but--sorry, no time) was a genius at choosing images of existing art to illustrate the story. One I remember was an article about freon--they used a photo of this complicated sculpture made from copper tubing and fittings. It was kind of weird, but in the context it totally worked. They were always like that: the art was not necessarily illustrative of the topic, but it forced your mind to make this little leap and somehow managed to say more about both the article and the art at the same time.

On Jan.19.2004 at 07:26 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> They were always like that: the art was not necessarily illustrative of the topic, but it forced your mind to make this little leap and somehow managed to say more about both the article and the art at the same time.

I finally had the chance to read the article you linked Marian. Brad Holland, in one part of the article mentions that "leap" you are referring to — illustrations or photographs, or concepts for that matter, don't always have be to so literal.

Concepts go through many levels of approvals starting with the design firm and ending with the consumer. If somebody along that process is not willing to make a "leap" with a concept either because they don't like it or because they don't get it then it is harder to get it produced, but I'm not shedding any new light here. The problem starts when creatives don't try to make that leap, and it happens more and more under the excuse that the client will never go for it. The (positive) flip side of this is that seasoned creative directors can filter crappy concepts and avoid embarassing the firm and ultimately the client.

But it's all in the leap… somebody has to be willing to take it.

> I think maybe this is why I seem to see more of this concept-driven kind of work in advertising.

I'm going to disagree a bit here. I don't consider advertising to be more concept-driven than design at all. Story-driven is a better way to describe it, I think. And you also have to consider that many of the advertising campaings we tend to refer to (i.e. HP+) tend to create this appearance of wholesomeness and overall dominance because we see them everywhere: TV, the web, newspaper, buses, whatever. So it appears that it is so more well thought out, when in reality it's just quantity. With an annual report you get one single flipping, that's all you get to express a concept — and that only if somebody picks it up. Whereas in advertising the concept is drilled into you by repetition. And then some.

On Jan.19.2004 at 10:21 PM
Jeff G’s comment is:

Because my "studio" is just me & most of my clients are pretty small, not as many people have to make The Leap before a concept is approved. But there is something that I hear quite a lot, especially with new clients: "Yeah, I get it, but I don't think most people will."

I think a contributing factor to the fear of dangerous design is that most people think they are smarter and probably more tolerant than all those other people out there.

On Jan.20.2004 at 03:49 AM
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

actually, there is this-but . . . maybe have a read;


Damn it Graham, that Bettler piece is what I was looking for for this post. Brilliant.


On Jan.20.2004 at 09:16 AM
Greg’s comment is:

Jeff G-

I read an article on sci-fi author David Brin's website that goes along with what you're saying, sort of (actually it starts out about The Matrix, but moves into a deeper discussion of society in general). In brief, it talks about every generation's belief that they are the "original rebels," and that no one else has thought of it before...basically that they individually are smarter than everyone else. Also stated is that society encourages this belief through pop culture and mass communication.


I agree that people individually are smarter than they are given credit for, and could handle a more abstract concept when it's given to them, it's just that no one thinks that anyone else is at their level of thought.

On Jan.20.2004 at 09:57 AM
Jeff G’s comment is:

I don't know where this originated, but I once was told: A person is smart, but people are stupid. I think it holds some truth - think of how mobs behave. Maybe humans tend to think of everybody else as a big, dumb mob.

Greg -

Interesting article. I'll have to take time to read it this eveing. For now it's back to the coalface.

On Jan.20.2004 at 10:14 AM
eric’s comment is:

M: Re The Sciences, i should remember. I used to sell usage rights to the AD for the Fanny Brennan estate. Her work is reproduced in litho via Chalk and Vermilion... tiny little Magritte like compositions - like Guy Billout (illustrator) but obviously much earlier. Anyway... i think the Sciences folded a few years ago. Mostly they were supported by an endowment.

Re getting away from illustration... you write a thread that describes illustration and point to an essay about illustration and don't want to discuss it even as a metaphor? A problem with relating illustration to graphic design is that radical illustration still serves as a window in a box. radical design reinvisions how you interact with the object. Radical and well thought design continues to be on the rise, even if somewhat stagnant in mainstream media.

On Jan.20.2004 at 10:18 AM
marian’s comment is:

don't want to discuss it even as a metaphor?

No, I didn't mean "forget it completely" I just thought that some people were getting overly distracted by the illustration aspect of the post.

radical illustration still serves as a window in a box

That's just crazy-talk and you know it. Designers have the ability to work with and direct other creatives to create something that is of a whole--the designer may even envision a piece that is entirely executed via illustration or photography.

that no one thinks that anyone else is at their level of thought

This is an interesting idea that I hadn't thought of. I have never assumed this about people (and I'm not exactly, um, all-embracing when it comes to the intelligence of others) but it's exactly the kind of thing I could imagine someone in a corporation thinking. And it would explain SO MUCH ... K-Mart, Zellers, cleaning products, cereal boxes ... Hmmm. Hmmmm....

On Jan.20.2004 at 12:39 PM
eric’s comment is:

sorry M, i call bullshit on the following:

That's just crazy-talk and you know it. Designers have the ability to work with and direct other creatives to create something that is of a whole--the designer may even envision a piece that is entirely executed via illustration or photography.

there's nothing in your comment that doesn't point to the illustration still sitting at the call of the designer. nothing liberated or radical. nothing new for illustration to perform.

to say that illustration isn't more constrained than design by its very nature is nothing short of hyperbole dressed up in a contrarian's argument. "the designer" might be able to reenvision a format for illustration and therein be groundbreaking (i can't think of anything that seems challenging off the top of my head... can you?) but the illustration still sits there in its box... nothing wrong with that but illustration is far more conventional than a designer's ability to use illustration.

the movement of illustration in a creative sense is limited to iconography, storytelling and allegory. And i guess you could argue that iconography isn't illustration in its modern sense, but then this isn't a discussion about illustration. ;)

On Jan.20.2004 at 01:25 PM
marian’s comment is:

Eric, I suspect we're talking at cross-purposes. Actually, I confess to being a little confused. (Perhaps your message is too ambiguous for me to "get" ;) )

nothing new for illustration to perform.

Is there anything new for design or photography or art to perform? Nothing's seldom really new, and "newness" is so hard to imagine until we see it and we know it's new ... or we think it is, until we find out it's not.

But I really do fail to see why you insist on this heirarchy with the designer at the top of the triangle of creative concept (or did you think I was insisting on it?). It usually works that way because the designer usually is hired by the client and manages the whole project, but I don't think it always works that way.

I do think that illustration (photography) is not necessarily more constrained than design, and I'm not dressing up as anything. I think that all the creative input is equally constrained and equally capable of breaking the bounds of constraint. I think that given the right combination between creative partners there is huge potential to create really unusual work. Unusual not as in weird, but as in un-usual.

I'm not saying that unusual work must come out of such a union, only that it can, and that even if the designer (or the illustrator or the photographer) is the creative director, that doesn't negate the possibility that one of the other disciplines might come up with the thing that makes you stop and think, or makes you say "Never seen that before" or even, "How the hell did they get away with that?".

On Jan.20.2004 at 02:11 PM
freelix’s comment is:

Eric: i agree with graham on illustration having dropped off the editorial agenda about a decade ago.

eric, sitting in the stale offices at Penguin yesterday I came across a wonderous yet risque Shakespeare illustration in Pages Magazine. Youre busted.

Marian, youre right on- Like everything else, illustration is a knarly beast that tamed with watercooler focus groups and spineless art directors.

I could make better money drawing kittens.

One point to add to your comment on CA is that the illustration annual cover was a complete and total rip off of brian cronin which set off a shitstorm at the Illustration Conference this year in Philly. We're still reeling from it.

Anja Kroenke was ripped the previous design annual a month after she was on the cover. My letter to the editor was met printed but met with a shrug. This years' photography cover was stock.

Want to be an illustrator? Learn to law before you draw!

On Jan.20.2004 at 07:48 PM
eric’s comment is:

I came across a wonderous yet risque Shakespeare illustration in Pages Magazine. Youre busted.

i confess to be completely baffled by this? somewhat in support of Marian's thesis, i agree that edgy illustration has been pushed to the margins. I don't know that an illustration in Pages Magazine is a bellwether for AD trends from Conde Nast/Time Warner et al. you tell me. do you want to post it Felix?

M: i see design as having more visceral control over how the object is handled and interpreted. because of that you could print something on sandpaper, backwards and in braille. from a communication standpoint i consider that further up the foodchain in its ability to dictate the form of the message. Mind you, i love illustration.

On Jan.21.2004 at 12:22 PM