The Number One Thing that Made Me a Better Illustrator...

In college I was lucky enough to be a part of a design and illustration program that focused more on ideas than software.


But still, I often found myself struggling to understand what “good illustration” really was.


I was told that it's all about having a good "concept".


This is true.


But to me it's only half of the story.


Saying good illustration is conceptual, is only telling the story of what it should be. It's not telling the story of why it should be.


So Here's the number one thing that made me a better illustrator: understanding the "why" of illustration, not just the "what".


If you are like me, you have to see the big picture before you can care about the details.


It's like trying to learn guitar, and learning all the chords first, instead of just mastering the few chords it takes to play one song.


Chords on their own don’t make sense, I have to understand what we are going to do with them, what the purpose is to these details.


Before you can convince me that good illustration is conceptual, I need to know why.


So, let's take a step back and look at an even bigger picture: why illustration at all?


For me this clicked with a specific aha moment: getting into the band Vampire Weekend.


Before their first LP dropped I'd heard one of their singles "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa". Honestly, I didn't know what to think of it at all.


Then I got the album, again it just wasn't making any sense.


Today they're one of my favorite bands. The moment everything changed for me was this: watching a video of them playing a song live.


It just clicked.


The "why" of illustration for me is this: presenting information in a visual way to enable that "click” for the user.


Information only makes sense with context.


I had no context for Vampire Weekend. At the time I had never really listened to much Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel. I just didn't really know what this was that I was listening to.


When I saw them play live in that video, and I could literally see they were these preppy looking dudes, with a string section, creating this tightly orchestrated pop music, it just clicked.


To me this is illustration’s job, creating this "click" moment for any given set of information.


This made me get over the word "concept" which sounded like it meant something specific, but actually it can mean anything that does this job.

Another way you can think of it is looking at what it means to illustrate something, without visuals, here's a definition of that:


to make clear or intelligible, as by examples or analogies; exemplify.

to clarify one's words, writings, etc., with examples.


An illustration's purpose is the same purpose of a verbal illustration, to help information "click" with a story or analogy. The only difference is that we use visuals.

Understanding and embracing the why behind illustration was such a breakthrough moment for me, and although it's sort of an obvious observation, I hope it helps you too.


Come on, share with me, what breakthroughs have you on the path to be a better illustrator?