Illustration: New Opportunities

Lawrence Zeegen investigates how illustration has been reborn for a new audience, with a new generation of illustrators who are taking it into new territories

Illustration is a force to be reckoned with. Not content to break back into a marketplace once dominated by the photographic image, illustration has fought hard, forced itself under the spotlight and stepped into the limelight. A rebirth, once attributed to the flexibility that digital kit offered, has now reached a vital second phase - a new stage of extended opportunities in the development of the discipline.

New markets for 21st century illustrators had not previously presented themselves, but today's illustrators have not been shy in coming forward and searching out new directions. A discipline seeking to reinvent itself, it has been the tenacity of those prepared to venture into new markets that has helped turn the tide, and illustration has truly and finally come of age.

Where and when this new confidence emerged is not clearly identifiable - in London, brave usage of contemporary illustration in the late 1990s by the now-defunct seminal style mag The Face could have been the kick-start. The, then, new kids on the block Jasper Goodall, Miles Donovan et al could be held responsible under illustrator-turned-art director Graham Routhwaite's guidance. It may have been art director-turned-illustrator Andy Martin commissioning cool cuts from the likes of Ian Wright at the New Musical Express almost a decade before. Wherever and whenever the starting point, it was clear that illustration had to step away from the confines of jobbing editorial work to redefine the parameters of the discipline.

With a few key art directors and commissioning designers tuned into illustration, the practice could now regroup and rejuvenate - the relationship between the commissioner and the commissioned evolved and a power struggle resolved. With art directors turning towards illustration - many making the move themselves and becoming illustrators - a renegade section of illustrators have started to turn their talents to art direction and design, with new opportunities having emerged for those on the edges of the discipline.

In New York, the art director for Urban Outfitters, Mike Perry, jumped ship in 2005 embarking on a career as a freelance illustrator/designer and setting sail for new horizons, charting a new course for his output. "I look at myself as someone who makes things happen," Perry states, "and I just happen to make illustrations. I try to approach each project as a problem to be solved and I aim to take my work into areas that interest me, rather then concern myself with barriers to new directions." This is a stance that has stood Perry rather well - he has built up a body of work that has spanned fashion graphics and fashion-wear, working on illustrated type treatments for magazines such as Dwell and the New York Times, and having won projects to create various T-shirt graphics for 2x4, as well as designing and illustrating a poster for New York City itself. Sold as a limited edition poster through nycvisit.com, Manifesto was commissioned by ad agency BBH NYC as a darker emotive take on the pulse of the city that never sleeps - here was an image that needed little input by BBH, other than a strategic brand/logo placement in the bottom-right corner of the poster. "My desire is to work directly for clients, rather than agencies," admits Perry, "and that comes about from me having started out as a designer, rather than as an illustrator - and even now I really consider myself a maker!

Commissioning Perry might have been considered a brave move by BBH - letting an illustrator loose on a project can bring a certain fear to creative teams and account handlers alike. However the printed poster, as a format, isn't exactly new territory. Digital technology, of course, has offered up new markets and formats for illustrators to apply their expertise to. Back in the UK, Jody Barton, represented by Big Active, was pulled in from his Norfolk farmhouse to work on a captivating new project for Virgin Mobile. Commissioned to create a set of free mobile phone picture messages to promote the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, Barton's brief was to educate and raise awareness through witty and provocative illustrations - his forte. The project, all fitting onto the screen of a mobile phone - a small canvas for a big project - had also to promote a related exhibition entitled Low CO2, as well as highlight Virgin Mobile's sponsorship of last year's Live Earth concert.

Live music has been a rich resource in recent years. It has also opened new doors of opportunity for illustrators - gig posters, specifically in the US and increasingly in the UK, have started to become an abundant source of commissions. Chris Watson has joined a legion of illustrators finding their own markets creating posters for concerts and events. His gig poster for The Legendary Shackshakers from Nashville captures, through his distinct use of hand-rendered type and gloriously simple yet punchy line-work, the flavour of this blues, punk and country band. "Illustration is truth and beauty," Watson claims. "It's flesh on the bones of words and music, it is about spreading ideas and it is disrespectful of boundaries." The words of a true maverick.

Often, as with Watson's work for the Shackshakers, the motivation for the illustrator isn't financial reward, the main aim being to get new work out into the public arena, whilst breathing visual life into an aural passion - music. For many, music and illustration are inextricably linked. Brazilian-based illustration studio Mopa was commissioned by Orouni, an independent French musician, to create promotional material for a special one-off gig in Paris, where Orouni was to appear alongside two bands - Kawaii and Lewitt. The marriage of type, image, composition and colour all combine together to create an intriguing, yet upbeat poster for the gig. It may well be a small-scale event, but the team at Mopa put as much energy and passion into the project as they would do any other. "Illustration is about having fun while getting paid,' they jibe. "But seriously, what we do is make everything more visually comprehensible."

From one-off specialist gigs through to large-scale events such as music festivals, now very much part of the live music landscape for bands and fans alike, there is work to be had. Festivals have exploded onto the scene, from relatively few large-scale events such as Glastonbury and Reading, to a growth that couldn't have been predicted a few short years ago. Barely a spring/summer weekend now goes by without a major festival kicking off in a field or two somewhere across the UK, and increasingly the rest of Europe. Hamish Makgill, ex-partner of Red Design in Brighton and a one-time senior designer at BB Saunders, is now creative director of Studio. Makgill tackled the design requirements for the launch of a new festival, Brighton's Beachdown Festival. "I have a long history and association with Brighton," he explains, "as do Beachdown's organisers and many of the acts booked to play. There is a real Brighton vibe and spirit about the festival and I was looking to capture that with the design."

And capture that spirit Studio Makgill did, through a unique collaboration with local boy-turned-successful illustrator Steve Wilson, no stranger to working for music-related clients. "A design agency always needs more voices," continues Makgill, "and so commissions third parties, illustrators and photographers, to extend and expand their own visual range.

"I'd had Steve in mind for a while," admits Makgill, "but had been waiting to work with him on the right project. His 1960/70s influenced psychedelic approach was just what this project needed. I wanted something that reflected the vibe - from the festival's location you'll be able to watch the sun setting over the sea. It's a special place!"

What marks this project as a truly extended opportunity has been the extent of the range of applications covered - from printed flyers, posters and press ads, to the digital applications of emails, website and animated 'virals'. No festival would be complete without a product range of merchandise too; T-shirts, badges and limited edition prints will all soon be available. Marketing a festival to a media-savvy audience is increasingly a full-on, full-time, full-service agency proposition, and illustration demonstrates it has a role to play in helping develop a unique brand identity. "Illustration was really the only option for ensuring Beachdown had a certain something about it from the start!" Makgill adds.

Studio Makgill and Steve Wilson's collaboration for Beachdown Festival represents a fresh update to an old-school approach in the collaboration between design and illustration. Many others are following a new model however; Mike Perry and Mopa are increasingly choosing to work directly with their own clients. Richard Hogg, an ex-Airside designer, is another art director/designer turning his skills towards illustration. A recent poster for the Design Museum's Family Day event used his skills as both designer and illustrator, able to design, illustrate and resolve production issues as a solo practitioner. Hogg's expertise also recently extended to creating a large mural for the reception area of digital design agency Acknowledgement; once again Hogg single-handedly designed, artworked and oversaw the project.

For an increasing number of practitioners navigating their career path through illustration, there is now a sense that two's company. Gluekit, based in the US, Maki in the Netherlands, and Kapitza in the UK all take a similar stance to business practice: the power of two. Each studio set-up or outfit consists of two members, bringing the solo illustrator out from a lone existence and creating the mini-illustration studio. This approach allows for greater opportunities; each duo can be more adaptable, take on larger and more lucrative projects, and begin to make in-roads into working directly with clients. Illustration can be a two-player game.

With an increasing number of illustration studios setting up shop, many designers and art directors are now shutting down their own shops to re-emerge as illustrators themselves. And with a healthy crop of projects spanning advertising, publishing and the flourishing live music scene all now demanding the attention of today's elite, opportunities in illustration have never looked better. As illustration steps out of the wings and takes centre-stage, it's clear that the final curtain won't be pulled anytime soon!