I like to say that illustration is a combination of representation and suggestion. The average person may not realize it, but all design (including illustration) is reliant on the audience to connect the dots. Luckily for me and all designers everywhere, our brains are already equipped to “read” visual elements of color, shape, and composition. Human beings are in fact ingrained with associations with certain visuals. Let’s take colors for example – deep red is associated with blood. Blood is associated with injury and death, so deep red may induce a feeling of caution. Light blue is the color of a clear sky, the telltale sign of good weather and the absence of storms. Blue, therefore, can be associated with stability and trust. By using these associations, artists of all kinds create messages that reach into our subconscious minds to make suggestions.
But what makes illustration such a powerful communications tool? One word: impact. A good visual will convey message, mood, and intention in an instant while transcending spoken language. That means that you get your message across to practically anyone who sees it in a matter of seconds. In my own personal vernacular, it would be a design that “smacks,” as in “smacks” the audience with the message. Aggressive? Yes, a bit. But when you have all of two seconds to get your message across, you’d better make sure your audience gets it. How else do you expect to understand a road sign when you only have two seconds to read it?
Or, another perfect example: hazard symbols. This is the Jolly Roger. You might have seen him around. What do you associate him with? Pirates? Poison? Halloween? But what if you lived under a rock and didn’t know what any of these things were? You would probably associate him with one universal human experience: death. And since it’s perfectly natural to avoid death, the Jolly Roger has been used as a symbol to warn people of toxins, radiation, and all manner of lethal substances.
So yes, illustration has been used as a tool for a very long time. Now, more than ever. Our digital landscape is starting to become populated with constructed images – round, friendly vector illustrations of people, places, and things in limited color palettes made to accompany text. Why? Because words only go so far. Humans have only been reading for so long – the act of silent reading (reading without speaking the words out loud) became popular in the 1700s, which means human brains have been decoding symbols into words into meaning for about 300 years. That’s not really a lot of time on an evolutionary scale. But pictures? We’ve been communicating with those since the stone age.
So don’t be afraid to add some visuals to your content. Your message will come through loud and clear, and your audience will thank you.