Illustration and I

Early encounters with children's book illustrations sparked Alan Dye's appreciation for the art in his work as a creative director.

I’ve never forgotten the troll illustration in Ladybird’s Three Billy Goats Gruff. The power of that illustration stayed with me – and I suspect many other people of my generation – for a long time. Basically, it scared the shit out of me and I banned it from my tiny library at the age of six. The magical elegance of Maurice Sendak’s pen work in Where the Wild Things Are that transformed Max’s bedroom “into the forest all around him” set my imagination alight and made me realise that illustration can make anything possible. At age six, my love of good illustration had begun.

I was lucky my old art college, Maidstone, had an incredibly strong illustration course. I was studying graphics and like most graphic designers, I can’t really draw, but I knew what I wanted and starting commissioning my illustrator friends in the first term of my first year. Some people called this lazy; I totally disagreed with them – and still do. Seriously, unless you have Abram Games, Alan Fletcher or Bob Gill’s talent, don’t waste your time.

Graphic designers trying to draw are like those irritating actors who think they can sing. 

I know that if I was sitting in a damp French cave in Lascaux, 17 500 years ago I would be asking my illustrator buddy Ogg to move that hand print up a few inches, add some more red ochre to that bison and burnt amber to the background. And have you thought about adding a spear to that man?

I say work with people who can really draw or take beautiful photographs, or who can write great copy. You are the conductor; the person who has had that gem of an idea, so get the best talent you can afford and work as team. The illustrator, photographer or copywriter will always take your thought to another dimension, and that takes you, the job and client to a much better place. 

Trust lies at the heart of this: Choose well, go with your gut and be brave.

Some of the best work NB Studio has produced in the past 17 years has been collaborating with illustrators.

Illustration has added another dimension to the stories or brief that we are trying to solve. Like the bed growing into the forest all around Max, illustration creates a splash of magic and makes the viewer interpret the work in a very personal way. Illustration can humanise complicated subject matter and, of course, can make something that is rather dull sing.

I picked this little book up last week, Illustration: Aspects and Direction by Bob Gill and John Lewis, in my local Oxfam, written in 1964. The introduction sums it up perfectly: “Illustration is a lot of things. It can be considered as a work of art or as a visual answer to a specific problem. Or it can be both. It can provide information, or elucidation. It can be a means of social comment or it can entertain.”

Alan Dye is owner and creative director of London-based branding and communications agency NB Studio. This article was originally published on NB Studio's blog.