The freedom and power of illustration

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.One of the many cogent observations that Susan Sontag makes in her 1977 collection of essays entitled, On Photography, is...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

One of the many cogent observations that Susan Sontag makes in her 1977 collection of essays entitled, On Photography, is that photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.


As counterpoint, she also states that ‘handmade’ visual statements such as paintings and drawings are seen as mere interpretations of reality.

A stroll through any supermarket today confirms the prevalence of these popular misconceptions. Photography rules the shelves, while illustration continues to fight for a place in the shopping cart.

Depiction of reality

It is hard to argue with the contention that people accept photography as a depiction of reality.

Why else would the supermarket tabloids persist in showing us photos of u.s. President Bill Clinton shaking hands with space aliens (‘Clinton Meets Martian Ambassador’) and surreptitious snaps of a jowly Elvis in his mid-50s (‘King Eschews Chin Tuck’)?

Before you chastise us for going to extremes, consider the average cake mix.

A typical shelf configuration yields a collection of impossibly perfect pieces of cake, platonic wedges that seem to have been fashioned by the hands of a god.

Both layers of the cake are of uniform thickness throughout (as if measured with a micrometer) and the surface of the icing is whipped into a consistent pattern of geometric precision.


Compare this with the reality of making a cake from one of these products and it becomes hard to accept the argument of photographic ‘realism’ without becoming deeply cynical.

As any brand manager knows, the best food photography is an elaborate fabrication, an exquisite lie, anything but real.

Consumers aware

It is also likely that the average consumer has been aware of this fact for some time. So why do we continue to rely almost exclusively on the device of straightforward photographic realism to sell products?

The answer can only be that the consumer is not, in fact, buying reality, but fantasy. There is a willing suspension of disbelief at work here: we buy the cake mix in the false hope that the next cake we bake will be one step closer to the platonic ideal depicted on the package.

If we accept this argument, it must be admitted that we are no longer operating under the cold light of truth, but in the realm of the imagination. And the problem with straightforward product photography is that it leaves so little to be imagined.

Ted Ridout, director of design services for Nestle Canada, provides us with a case in point.

When faced with the choice of using photography or illustration to depict the product on the Laura Secord chocolate packages, he and his colleagues chose the latter. Why?

‘Illustration not only forces buyers to interpret the image – it gives us complete control over what it is we want them to interpret,’ Ridout says.

He points out that illustration can often elicit an emotional response that straight product photography cannot.

‘It’s like the difference between getting your picture taken, and having your portrait painted,’ Ridout says. ‘It shows that you care enough about the product to say that it is something really special.’

The strategy worked: sales were so encouraging that Nestle repeated the technique on its Laura Secord ice creams.

The evocative power of illustration can also be used to convey concepts that would be utterly impossible to capture on film.

The Watt Group’s recent designs for Nabob coffees (this year’s winner in the Strategy Package Design of the Year awards) has immense emotional appeal precisely because it depicts the imaginary.

Sense of history

To boot, the style in which the illustration is executed reflects a sense of history and tradition that photography could never convey without looking contrived.

Ironically, photographers have responded to this need for the evocative image by making their own work more illustrative, relying on new lighting, propping and backgrounds to go beyond the prosaic limitations of the straight product shot.

Though illustration is still much the underdog, there is mounting evidence it is gaining strategic ground, especially in the area of private label branding. Here, the huge success of President’s Choice has set the tone as competitors scramble for market share.

The lively graphics of Oshawa Foods’ recently introduced Our Compliments products are a case in point. As well, Oshawa’s mid-level iga brand relies exclusively on figurative and still-life illustrations to depict lifestyle and product.

It will be interesting to see how national brands respond to this trend. Will they leap into the realm of the imagination in their search for stronger emotional appeal ? If they do, they may find that while straight product photography rules the shelf, the illustrative approach rules the heart.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.