Open up a newspaper, survey your movie options on Netflix, scroll through Instagram—pick any particularly Pandemic-suited pastime—and you’ll no doubt come across some works of illustration. It’s not a new medium in marketing and editorial design—in fact, it’s one of the oldest—and even before the pandemic, illustration seemed to be enjoying a resurgence of sorts. But amid COVID lockdowns, art directors found themselves relying even more on illustrators and their somewhat solitary artform over the logistics and expense of a photoshoot. Count it as one of the many trends that was catalyzed, if not directly caused by, the limitations of the pandemic.
At New York magazine, art director Stevie Remsberg says this period was proof of concept that illustration had something to offer a historically “photography-driven” publication. When on-site shoots became impossible, illustration offered an alternative option to relinquishing control to the subject via a remote shoot. “If you can’t do real photography, how are you going to elevate a story and still make it eye-catching?” says Remsberg. “There’s only so much stock photography I think the world can handle, or that I can personally handle.” One of the most visible of these switches from photo shoots to interpretative illustrations is the magazine’s Grub Street Diet, a column that recaps a week in the eating life of a notable person. The diary used to be accompanied by an original photograph of the subject, often shot in one of restaurants mentioned in the article, but in late March, the column’s photo editor Megan Paetzhold started commissioning illustrated portraits, which she’s still doing today.
Beyond the practical benefits, Remsberg also sees commissioning illustration as a way to add another perspective to a story. “It broadens our reach to be able to go out to people who have a connection to a subject matter,” she says. Remsberg points to The Cut’s recently launched advice column ¡Hola Papi!, which features illustrations by Pedro Nekoi, as a recent example of art as a means to “double the value” of a story. While attractive art may seem like a necessity for sharing stories on social media, Remsberg says that up until lately, her team hasn’t had the bandwidth to develop a social-first strategy when it comes to illustrations, though she hopes to be able to focus on that more soon. Remsberg says she’s always wanted to feature more illustrations in New York magazine’s digital and physical pages, and the constraints of the past year gave her the opportunity to do just that. These days, both her budget for commissions and buy-in from the larger team have grown. Editors, she says, “are much more likely to ask for an illustration to go with a piece now than they were previously. I don’t think that’s just because of the pandemic, I think that they are seeing some of the value involved.”
For Martina Ibáñez-Baldor, designer and art director for the Los Angeles Times, illustration has always been part of her work at the paper, but over the past year it started to appear in new places. The standalone Food section, which Ibáñez-Baldor works on, was revived in 2019 and headed by former Lucky Peach editor Peter Meehan. After Meehan resigned over the summer, his visual style, which leaned on illustrations, especially for print covers, still influenced the look of the section. Last February, just a few weeks before Los Angeles locked down, the paper launched a Plants section (along with a dedicated Instagram account) that also heavily features illustration, along with memes and comics.
Ibáñez-Baldor says that as the need for lifestyle content grew throughout the year, designers became more involved in pitching stories and projects. “We’re working more collaboratively with editors and reporters and producing our own content, too,” she says. This past year, she designed the LA Times’ first ever zine, about the 50th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium, which was followed by three more on pandemic-friendly subjects: plants, cooking, and a beginner’s guide to Griffith Park.
Movie poster illustrator and designer Akiko Stehrenberger sees the increased demand for illustration over the past year as an extension of a trend that she ties to the rise of streaming services. She cites the practice of personalized thumbnails on Netflix titles, which show different images to different users based on viewing habits and profile, as particularly fruitful. Designing images meant to appeal to a variety of viewers makes room for more commissions and more high-concept ideas. This past year, Stehrenberger created the official secondary poster for Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which was used digitally when the film was released on Netflix in September. “They already had their first poster that was photographic,” says Stehrenberger, “and so for the secondary one, they were definitely willing to take more chances.” (The poster, which features a seated young woman half covered in snow, matches the off-kilter tone of the movie.)
Twenty years ago, Stehrenberger, says, illustrated movie posters were mostly reserved for indie films. More recently, they have become a way for studios to diversify their marketing campaigns. “Whereas maybe pre-pandemic it was more of a way to entice new audiences, during the pandemic, it was kind of just problem-solving,” says Stehrenberger. With shoots on pause and promotion budgets narrowed following theater closures, illustration filled a need. Stehrenberger says the lower stakes of sharing a poster on Instagram rather than paying for a billboard has made it easier for studios to take risks, and she expects that attitude will continue to spread. “The other thing that’s amazing about illustration is that there’s a million ways to say something,” says Stehrenberger, “I think because illustration has been an ongoing, growing voice throughout the year, people are now getting smarter with them—they’re not just painting a portrait of the actor, they’re adding some kind of a concept or some kind of a technique that brings something new to a poster.”
Across industries, illustration has become a way to interpret the world rather than to simply document it. In a stream of photographs, a representation of an object or a person stands out. In a bottomless page of content, an accompanying illustration grabs your attention just long enough to read a lede. The recent kick of illustration is one part necessity, one part novelty. Neither of those ingredients will last forever, but if digital culture remains as image-laden as it is today, illustration will likely stick around as a way to make whatever is on screen a little easier on the eyes.