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  How to illustrate in a post digital world?
Nanette Hoogslag
posted on June 23, 2014 at 9:22

At a recent conference around defining the idea of Post Digital I presented illustration as an example of an old medium struggling with the present day structures of online communication platforms. This 'Post Digital' is heavily criticised as yet another one of those ‘post-whatevers’ without a content to match. But for illustration it might actually be an approach that can be positive, because it can allow for a more open and fluid approach between old and new media ideas. It does not shy from new media technologies, but works with the more relational way of communication we know from old media. The type of publishing where illustration was comfortable and enhancing, instead of the fraud fast-turnaround of formatted and info-centric stories we get online. So follow me:

illustration by Nanette Hoogslag

Illustration is the act of clarifying and explaining. And this is very useful for where we need to distinguish information as important, and need to make sense of it. To clarify or explain- to illustrate, we use whatever materialisation at hand, and then take the materials and style we believe will be most successful in bridging this message- what I think is important to get across- between me: the sender- and you: the receiver. So for example when I speak, I can use words to illustrate, and refer to something I think you can relate to perhaps I can use a convincing media-theoretical quote. (I’ll refrain)

Or perhaps I can put up a nice picture here that might be a useful metaphor. Except off course, I do no longer believe that in this particular blog context it will be of any use, which I will explain. But otherwise I could present something that not only makes clear what I say, but keeps you engaged. It is important to understand that illustration does not give new information but is a dialogical tool to sell the message.

Illustration has also become a discipline in its own right, where in books and magazines it has become a particular visual-pictorial language and culture that uses engagement and visual translation to complete the information transfer.

Books are off course fixed artefacts, objects with their own material culture and technology and the illustration within use the same technological materialisation processes. Though it might use all kinds of expressive materials to create the picture, ultimately it is expresses with the materials that make up the book itself, most likely the same printed dots and paper pages. Illustration is playing with this material expression, and responding to the whole notion of print, of layout and reading culture.

In books, in direct conversation, this fixed setting is pretty clear, but it gets more difficult when these conditions are continually changing. In an online communication setting, where content is constantly updated and moving, a static illustration that is placed as a separate entity next to the original message is problematic as soon as the text is moving to different contexts, represented as links, small headers in social media, or perhaps updated to later versions as well as moved to a different location on the website.

In theory the illustration could adapt to this continual shift, by becoming equally changing. It would be like a moving object pointing at another moving object, which I think is an interesting concept. In that case it is vital that some overarching framework, for instance the ideological remains in tact. Then the network can take on the clarifying function, then the network can provide the illustration, automatically.

Perhaps, rather than the picture at the top of the article, which is often the case in news websites like the Guardian, here the real illustration is that list of comments underneath. These comments are not to be read one-by-one, but as one a collective reflection, highlighting the essential information and it’s essential meaning and it’s the quantity of response that makes it effective.

It’s a shame however that this type of network illustration is not particularly visually distinctive or aesthetically pleasing, and does not offer an alternative kind of experience, it’s just more reading. But I can imagine, some form of real-time networked illustration being very interesting. A sort of networked version of cadaver exquis, the surrealist’s folding and drawing game, where each contribution evokes a next one and together the form a whole new drawing.

I also see illustration used as part of all kinds of media productions present on the web. Here message and illustration are inseparably bonded into one image-text-object. What is text: the linguistic message- written, oral and or even the mathematical, or what is image: the sensuous message - visual, audio and or behaviour is no longer separated. What is illustrating and what is illustrated is no longer strictly defined. Yet there still remains the sense of a message that is illustrated. Illustration is still an important notion. So in data visualisation, in game environments, in interactive documentaries and even in meme’s this image-text relationship is developing is ever more interesting ways. And here the materiality, the technologies that enable them, the networks that distribute them are all strictly digital.

Though on the face of it, these image-text-objects might appear a celebration of the digital, with interactivity, real-time response, video, social media and other bells and whistles. But even within this digital setting, even made from all things digital, I think here illustration is strangly analogue.

It’s just that it’s materialised with what’s at hand, like in books, or in conversation, and to engage it exploits the expressive language and the technology on offer. Illustration cannot be understood as a discrete digital unit, a piece of independent additional information. The way it operates is continuous, relational and reflective.

But reality is, that these image-text-objects are still quite rare when it comes to illustrating editorial ideas and the predominant way of online editorial publishing, is text and image in blog-like formats. Here its the informational that prevails over the relational. And in between info-centric units, it is hard to be the ambiguous one.

What used to be printed magazines and newspapers, the largest employment for illustration, is now a type of communication where there are barely any illustration commissions. Which is a loss of very useful tool to instantly engage, to distinguish and help us need to make sense of it.

In (what is hoped for) the development of a present post digital communication environment, the conditions for illustration are opening up again. This communication culture does no longer only point to the digital, but seeks to find other ways; and within the digital context the range of expressions is extending. Still, to illustrate successfully you need to use the materiality at hand and need to exploit its technological and material ability. And in this post-digital culture nothing is untouched by the digital, everything is now new media. To illustrate you need to consider what the computational construct can offer. Florian Cramer in his text What is Post-digital presents post digital as: new media cultural approaches, to working with so-called old media. But illustration is perhaps better described as: old media cultural approaches, to working with new media.

And let me finish with this last quote: Post-digital is not pre-techno but exploits technology for a civilising purpose, human congregation and intercourse. The money is at the gate. This must be good news. Simon Jenkins, The Gaurdian Thursday 1 December 2011

University of Sussex - The Post digital a critical response