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Archive for January, 2013

January 23rd, 2013

The signifier of incompleteness -Editorial illustration in the new media age

…today’s process of transition allows us to perceive what we are losing and what we are gaining – this perception will become impossible the moment we fully embrace and feel fully at home in the new technologies. In short we have the privilege of occupying the place of vanishing mediators (Žižek, 1997 p.131)[1].


In this paper I want present a particular group of editorial conditions that enable editorial illustration in newspapers (illustration in newspapers and magazines) to be successful. Editorial illustration has established itself as a distinct and integral part of printed newspapers, but it is my hypothesis that some of the enabling factors present in print are diminished or absent in online news media, the current driver of news media. I will argue that the changed structure of news stories and audience expectations have introduced a new style of management and presentation of news content which has had a major impact on the specific image/text relationship, necessary for illustration. This I see as the underlying reason for the reduction of the efficacy and use of editorial illustration in online editions. Present in print but reduced in online news media, the incompleteness of text, the overt ambiguity of the handmade image and the incomplete intertextual relationship between them, are essential for editorial illustration.

I wish to start by laying out my understanding of editorial illustration and then by describing the conditions prevailing in print media, which enable illustration to be effective. Following the new media theories of Dean and Zizek, I will show that current online news media present an entirely different set of conditions and that these profoundly affect the quality of editorial illustration.

Finally I wish to point to trends in present and developing formats, in particular the slate – the iPad and tablet readers – and the walled garden model, which may present those communication landscapes with the ability to recuperate some of the qualities and create an environment that retains the sense of incompleteness.


Editorial illustration came into being at the end of the 19th century[2] (Hoogslag, 2012) in the setting of the news periodical. Over the last 150 years it has become appreciated as a vehicle for visual commentary and aesthetic engagement. With its distinctive visual tradition, symbiotic with journalism (Male, 2007) it has become a unique and staple part of a newspaper’s make-up. Many illustrators see editorial illustration as a fundamental part of the job of illustration, but equally, as a touchstone for quality and reputation, it is invaluable for an understanding of the wider practice of illustration. (Brazell and Davies, 2011; Kraus, 2009; Male, 2007; Zeegen, 2005)

Born within the limitations of print and and set within the ideology of the newspaper, the illustration with its suggestive and dialogical power does not aim to resolve this incompleteness. Instead its power lies in the way it uses visual language to engage the reader and guide understanding of the meaning. It does this not only through representational and aesthetic means, but through the imaginative use of visual codes that bind the world of the paper to the world of the reader.

As is well known, the newspaper industry is going through an important change as traditional forms of publishing, built around the printed edition, no longer seem viable. It is now online editions which set the agenda for news publishing (Pew Research Center ‘s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2010,2012). In over twenty years of development, the evolution of news media towards online media has not yet crystallized into a stable form, but it now informs the way we read and understand news. Though founded on the same basic tasks of selecting and analysing newsworthy events, and the same core elements of text and image, nevertheless the web edition of the newspaper is a very different medium. Within the online edition traditional elements are also evolving into new and distinct forms. For instance, interactive slideshows of news photographs, video footage, live video links and interactive information graphics have all been introduced. But for editorial illustration there has been no equivalent transformation.

Illustrations in online editions are mostly republished versions of the image originally commissioned for print. Furthermore there seems to be fewer illustrations published online than in the printed editions featuring the same articles[3]. I question whether this is an effect solely of a change in commissioning structures, due to temporary financial constraints, technological limitations or style tends or whether it points to a very different but profound shift in the construction of news stories, which with its focus on providing much and continuous information, foregoes the primary conditions on which the success of editorial illustration depended, namely the conditions of incompleteness.

Editorial illustration

Today the best editorial illustration is thought provoking and contentious. Normally couched within the journalistic remit of political, economic and social commentary it challenges both popular and alternative opinion, it obfuscates and presents arguments; it poses questions and leaves them unanswered; it makes provocative statements; it also disregards aesthetics or notions of ‘good taste’ regarding subject matter or visual language; mark-making sometimes rendered with an objurgatory energy and bite! (Male 2007, p119)

IMAGE: Guardian printed spread dd 18th of April 2012 Article top left- On Fracking and Wind we are Having the Wrong Debates (text: Zoe Williams, illustration: Matt Kenyon). Illustration to the right is Steve Bell—

Editorial illustration relates to a specific category of articles; never news stories, but stories of analytical reflection on current issues and subjective opinion. They are most likely to be found in the comment or debate columns, lifestyle and review sections and also in the supplements. (Grove, 2009; Heller, 2000; Kraus, 2009; Male 2007). This is where the editorial voice is most strongly represented; these stories set the questions and suggest the answers that bind the imagined community of readers with the editors.(Kraus, 2009)

In the confines of the printed newspaper, because of material restrictions of size, paper and print and layout, and due to the limitations of the written language – the alphabet, the semantic and grammatical constructions and cultural and political assumptions and taboos, there are limits on what can be printed. In print the text can only be a selection of all the information available. What must remain incomplete in words can to a degree be compensated with visual media, but even here much information will remain absent or inferred. (Barthes,1977; Kittler, 1999)

Here editorial illustration differentiates itself from any other form of visualization, such as news photography, graphic decoration or information graphics[4]. Where a photograph aims to validate the story through the presentation of a layer of visual evidence, showing real events, real people and objects, illustration can do no such thing. As a constructed image it will always be an interpretation. Linked to the text, it can only refer to what is not said, to the incompleteness of the written text.

Although an illustration presents a self contained image where the meaning is confined within the narrative (Hillis Miller, 1992), it does this based on visual clues taken from the written story, visualizing elements from the text as well as referring to its underlying ideas. Specifically, editorial illustration aims to create meaning by interpreting the story through the creativity of an illustrator. By commissioning the illustrator, the newspaper places him or her in the role of the ideal[5] reader. The illustration represents an informed interpretation, an example for the rest of the readers to follow. It also stresses the autonomy of the illustrator (Kraus, 2009), but this is restricted within the confines of the newspaper[6], which directs the reader to a preferred meaning (Hall,1972, p. 513). This last is a term used by Hall referring to television media and the process in which the initial intended meaning is guarded in the process of creation: ‘the meaning we see before others, come from the way we order institutional, political, ideological sets of meaning.’ (Hall,1972).

According to Hall, meaning can only be relinquished where the visual codes used are understood in the same way by both the sender and the receiver – here the newspaper, the commissioned illustrator and its readers. Its entire constructed content, the style and layout, the use of metaphor and imagery, connect the reader beyond the story to the underlying values of the newspaper. With its aim to bind all expression within one editorial context, and with illustration expressing the editorial voice that lies behind the accompanying articles, editorial illustration is an instrument par excellence of a newspaper’s ideology.

Roland Barthes (1977) describes the principles of the relationship between image and text within a newspaper setting and presents them as two independent yet co-operative structures, one visual and one textual. The image is placed in direct relation to captions, headlines, introduction, body-text, etc., and the development of meaning comes from the physical closeness of the structures. The understanding of the article emerges through this co-operation of image and text. Where in the first instance the image engages and directs the initial reading, it is the text that in turn shapes the interpretation of the image. This process of understanding can come through a conscious analysis of both independent structures as well as the meaning built between them, but importantly, it equally comes through a continuous but semi-conscious awareness of the image, which directs the interpretation.

Because of the visual dominance of the image over text, it is the image that first engages and directs the decision to read, thus affecting the way the story will be read (Berger, 1972; Barthes, 1977; Hillis Miller,1992). It presents a hierarchical, symbiotic and fluid shaping of meaning, where in reading, the image loads the text, followed by continuous mutual influence of one on the other. Meaning hovers somewhere between the headline and the image and is continuously present throughout the reading of the story.

Barthes points to the presence of the caption next to the editorial image as having an important first role in verifying this image. This might well be true for a photograph or info-graphic, but in contemporary editorial contexts, an illustration does not have a caption[7]. Illustration does not verify or explain, rather it reflects and suggests.

As a coded handmade image it can not offer explicit answers or clear solutions, no facts are given. It is suggestive and ambiguous, it demands interpretation by the reader and proudly so.

In order for the illustration to be able to give meaning to a news story, a core quality of the illustration, the story needs to be reflective and contained, the illustration and story should be directed at a homogeneous public and set within the distinctive ideology of the newspaper. I call these the conditions of incompleteness and I would like to propose that these are essential for editorial illustration to flourish.

I propose that the incompleteness of text, the overt ambiguity of the handmade image and the incomplete intertextual relation between them, to be filled in by the reader, are essential for an editorial illustration.

Something’s deliberately left unanswered, other than through the vagueness of the notion of belief, and trust in an ideology, present in the condition of the printed form. (Žižek, 1997)

The online information setting

When it comes to servicing our need to remain permanently informed (Newton, 2000), online editorial news media seem to be the logical extension of the printed newspaper. Online a multitude of information streams, sources and media types are available and online news media follow these ways of information distribution. They offer a wide range of sources and media types woven into a single website, into a single interface. Digital technologies brought together the network capabilities of the internet, the archiving and the computational capacities of computers and multi media techniques for collating text, (moving) image, sound and interaction. (Kittler, 1999) All this can be updated and distributed through an automated content management system which allows for the continuous flow of information. Where the aim of news media is to keep the readers informed, paradoxically, this superfluity of information has only heightened the sense of ‘unknowing’. (Žižek, 1997, Dean,2010)

On the one hand it highlights a failure of the message to reach its audience, and on the other a loss of the ability to create meaning. The message can no longer be trusted or accepted as finite and therefor definitive.

On the web, browsing or surfing can bring all kinds of unexpected information, which can be surprising and enhancing, but without first understanding its intertextual and coded cultural contexts, it can equally lead to false understanding (Dean, 2010). Jodi Dean calls this a failure of transmission – when the designated message fails to reach the designated audience. Stuart Hall (1972, p.128) described this as breaking the essential chain of communication.

A chain of communication demands that all the signs contained in one particular message are presented within one specific ideology, in order for the signs to be continuously coded and decoded in the intended way – the symbolic efficiency. It depends on the sender and receiver sharing the same codes. (Dean, 2010)

Online the direct linkage between the sender and receiver is no longer contained. It has become unclear where the information comes from, whether it is ‘complete’ and whether we have all the information and background to decode it sufficiently. It leads us to ask whether we can create a stable understanding, and whether meaning can be trusted. Online the possibility for acquiring information is a broad, continuous and open offer. The web might give us more information but doesn’t help support the formation of meaning. Whereas in a contained environment the trust is founded on a shared ideology, online trust seems to be in the information itself.

The contemporary setting of electronic mediated subjectivity is one of infinite doubt, ultimate reflexivization. There’s always another option, link, opinion, nuance or contingency that we haven’t taken into account. Some particular experience of some other who could be potentially damaged or disenfranchised, a better deal even a cure. The very conditions of possibility for adequation (for determining the criteria by which to assess whether a decision or answer is, if not good, then at least adequate) have been foreclosed. It’s just your opinion. Additionally, as the efficiency of the symbolic declines, images and affective intensities may appear all the more powerful, relevant, and effective. A picture is worth a thousand words. (Dean,2010 p.6)

Dean points to the power of the image, but images, too, suffer in this context, where their connotative relations are undermined by the same mechanisms. This is particularly true for editorial illustration, which is commissioned to be linked to a specific text and context. In editorial illustration the loss of symbolic efficiency reduces the meaning that comes from both its close link to the story and its ideological setting and with this meaning no longer fixed, the illustration is lost for words.

Online news media

With the following example of a typically illustrated article in the Guardian online I can show how these ideas from Žižek and Dean appear within the context of a news webpage and further how the editorial web conditions impact on the illustration.

IMAGE screenshot webpage Guardian online dd 18th of April 2012, text: Zoe Williams, illustration: Matt Kenyon.

The first thing you notice when you arrive at the primary window of the web page – the part of the page which is visible when you first open it – is the diversity and quantity of potential information. In this particular window there are almost one hundred links to information elsewhere. The links all lead to other locations, some within the same section, but many bring you to different web environments either within the Guardian or elsewhere.

Continuing down the page, the amount of visible page elements can fluctuate with every visit. This depends on personal and screen settings, as well as the size of the advertising which frequently changes. But in all cases it follows the format where the top six to eight horizontal rows of information are menu bars, including those of the browser window and advertising. From the three vertical columns, two present more selection options and advertising; only one column is dedicated to the story.

The story column presents the headline, a short introduction text, the author and the illustration. But because the layout of the page is not set, it is quite possible that the illustration is only partially visible and can even be pushed below the primary window; it can only be seen when you scroll further down. Scrolling down brings the reader to the news story and comments; once reading begins all previous text and image elements are soon out of sight.

Most news media websites are based on a strict design format implemented through a Content Management System which allows for the automation of various editorial, visual design, navigation and storage processes, such as the formatting of text, embedding multi-media, hyperlinking, metadata and archiving. Furthermore it also controls readability on the diverse range of screen standards and screen settings of the readers. This system is hugely beneficial for the linking and distribution of all kinds of content and media, and brings with it a system of reading based on the individual’s preferences and selection from the multitude of sources. This in favor over the intertextual relationships, where the particular positioning of the elements is believed to be important and meaningful.

For the image this means there are limited options for positioning, scaling and subtle interplay with the text and context. In print the placement of the image is an important design decision and the particular alliance of text and image are part of the creation of meaning. ( Barthes, 1972; Kraus, 2009 p.88, p.172) The present Content Management System cannot provide these kind of relationships. There is no longer the guarantee of a continuous intertextual relationship, neither with the title nor with the text, since on the crucial first online page it might be altogether absent or randomly cropped.

While there is no longer a guarantee that an illustration can function as an element of first attraction, it has also lost the ability to create meaning through the co-operation of image and text. The physical closeness and the fluid interplay between text and image are no longer guaranteed. To view an illustration within this editorial space will have to be a deliberate act and it forces the illustration into a more independent position, more likely to be read as a piece of associated information.

This subtle shift in position presents two particular negative effects for the traditional form of editorial illustration. When meaning coming from the intended subliminal reading is lost, editorial illustration is in danger of becoming a predominantly decorative experience. Secondly, placed in a more isolated position, its meaning needs to be self contained within the image, and so loses its ability to relate to the gaps in the text. Online, traditional editorial illustration as an aid to reflection and engagement is severely disabled.

Where the approach to content and the way it is enabled through design run counter to the necessary conditions for effective editorial illustration, it is unsurprising that in its present form it is rarely commissioned. As long as editorial media websites value the fullness of information above incompleteness[8] as the way to create meaning and understanding, editorial illustration will struggle to function.

The reflective role

Should we conclude that editorial illustration is inseparable from the printed editorial environment and unsuitable for the fast paced environment of online editorials? With the ongoing development of new media, this conclusion would be premature, especially where the entire publishing industry is undergoing an existential crisis and is searching for a more satisfactory publishing model, not only in business terms but also for the consumer’s reading experience.

Within the current arrangements and structures of web based platforms, editorial illustration can still play an important reflective role. Exploring the position of the illustration as an independent editorial option could bring a much needed reflective alternative to text and evidential image. Beyond the political cartoon and with the developing interest in authorial illustration (Braund et al, 2012) the illustrator’s potential for critical and expressive image making can give alternative insight into complex current issues as well as putting forward the newspaper’s point of view.

Online there are examples such as the experimental platforms like OOG[9] – a visual commentary platform in a Dutch online Newspaper ‘de Volkskrant’, the independent Illustration Daily[10] or individual illustrators like Christophe Niemann who tweeted a real time visual reportage of his attempt to run the New York Marathon in the online edition of the New York Times (Niemann, 2011).

But other than in the web editions of editorials, at the moment the only real opportunity to extend the relational qualities of editorial illustration is most likely to be found in the development of newspaper and magazine editions for the slate – iPad or tablet readers – made available through a mobile app. Though still in its infancy, it is hailed by the magazine industry as a possible way forward (Pogue, 2012) and offers a more reflective experience as Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, stated at the launch of the tablet edition (Guardian, Anon, 2011). It follows the so-called walled garden model, a publishing model in which the users access to internet content and services is controlled. This move, however, is also not without controversy, given the extended control held by the publisher over access, content, media and platform (Arthur, 2012).

The tablet echoes the content, design and production cycle of print, but allied with the material and technological qualities particular to this medium including multimedia, interactivity and haptic navigation, it holds the potential for a fluid relationship between text and image, extending that of print. With this model based on the deliberate setting of limits and boundaries and setting the richness of the reading experience as a primary concern, it can offer a solution for the intrinsic need for reflective space to be filled in by the reader, and I suggest that illustration might be its guide.


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[2] In earlier research I found that the shift in printing technologies of the late 19th century periodicals was crucial to the moment editorial illustration became distinct. The change from wood engraving to halftone printing brought not only the reproduction of photography but also a direct copy of the illustrators drawing into the papers. This brought an end to the tradition of translating the illustrator’s sketch onto a wood engraving and led to the birth of the illustrator as the individual expressive visual contributor. (Beegan, 2008; Benjamin1936; Carrington, 1905; Hutt, 1973, Reed, 1997; Ruskin 1872; Sinnema, 1998)

[3] Based on a sample study of the Guardian in April May 2011 and 2012. Further from dialogue and observation presented in the workshop Think Editorial Illustration November 2011. To fully confirm these details a more thorough research will be needed

[4] Though very much part of the editorial tradition and sometimes overlapping in form, content and qualities, I wish to make a distinction for the political cartoon as a separate category with its own distinguished history and use of visual language (Male; 2007). Where the editorial illustration is related to a specific text, the cartoon is seen as a independent contribution of the illustrator as author.

[5] This use of the term ideal and ideology perhaps needs some further definition, where it is not referring to a political idea, but to a psycho-analytical concept comes from the term Ideology defined by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (Lacan, 1949; Žižek n.d.). It refers to an instilled desire to become the perfectly imagined – ideal – self, which Lacan calls the Other. This sets our values, ambitions and boundaries. Outside ourselves this Other is present in the culture we inhabit, and the values to which we relate. This in turn determines our actions, builds our ideas, judgments and (visual) language.

It is language that allows us to connect with the Ideal and we use this index of subconscious references, codes and signs to create meaning, to verify and understand what we see. It’s through the media we choose, including newspaper and its images, that this Ideology is continually reaffirmed and updated.

[6] No matter how controversial the image might seem, ultimately the illustrator commissioned and the illustration approved are consented by the editors and therefor representing what the paper stands for. (Kraus, 2009; Holland 2000) The amount of control by the art director and the artistic freedom are much debated issues amongst illustrators and often referred to in terms of quality of the newspaper and art director .

[7] In Victorian newspapers where illustration held an evidencing task and still in some contemporary (children’s) literature, where illustration refer to a precise phrase or event described in the text, captions are used. In present editorial context captions can be present, but are part of the illustration and have a deliberate connotation function (Hillis Miller,1992, p.66).

[8] The issue of too much information, ‘information overload’, and the problems of the loss of control with the internet and computer as operative tools is widely recognized and discussed. In the Plague of Fantasies, Slavoj Žižek (1997) disseminates these issues and presents the risks of the internet and the computer as all consuming information systems. He pleads for the importance of a mental space left open, not filled with (virtual) experiences and information, but something that is deliberately left unanswered, other than through the vagueness of the notion of belief, and trust in an ideology ; he makes a plea for the importance of incompleteness.

[9] http://www.hoogslag.nl/curatorial-practice/oog

[10] http://www.illustrationdaily.nl/