N vision


How Illustration Works: Exploring a Model of Editorial Illustration in Print and Online Media

Book Editor(s):

Alan Male

First published: 28 March 2019

This paper presents a hypothesis of a fundamental and theoretical description of the role of illustration. Through a proposal and discussion of a constellation of four key attributes it presents a model of illustration that underpins the expression and agency of the illustration within all structures of editorial publishing. Such a model gives insight into the significant role of illustration, and the way illustration is shaped and the manner in which it shapes the communicative texts and contexts of which it is part. This model presents illustration as a mode of communication, which can be expressed through a wide differentiation in appearance, defined by the maker, social practices as well as the material qualities of the publishing technology. Rather than as a particular image-based artefact, illustration is shown as a pictorial narrative and a process of revelation. Where in print media this can be expressed as drawing on paper, within online media formats, it can present through various expressive multi-media and experiential modes.

The proposed model is discussed in relation to two main reproductive forms, namely print and online reproduction and is presented through four main groups of attributes, namely: Translation, Reflection, Engagement and Manifestation as well as the constellation they form together. I bring to the fore that the constellation itself enables a further key quality of illustration namely that of Deliberation, a quality enabled through the process of reflection, which is inherent but equally deliberately embedded in each illustration.

 Keywords: editorial illustration, illustration, editorial publishing, material semiotics, constellation of key attributes.



Over the last thirty years in my practice as editorial illustrator I have witnessed the technological changes that have moved illustration from analogue to digital, from printed magazines to online platforms. In my own practice and in illustration practices around me I have observed the development of new creative methods and expressive forms which seem to present a radical departure from the traditional understanding of illustration as a constituent of editorial publication. However, over this period of time the general practice might have changed, and the use of illustration has gone through ebbs and flows, the demand for illustration as the “handmade” visual interpretation and part of the editorial language is still very much present. Illustration is still intuitively recognisable, but as it migrates across the various technological platforms it is one thing to recognise a notion of illustration, it is quite another to understand how this notion is indeed fulfilling the same role, with attributes adhering to the same qualitative distinctions and fulfilling the same communicative needs. Understanding how illustration is able to change radically in its appearance, yet be continuous in its core attributes shows not only the core values of editorial illustration as a specific field within visual communication practices, but the ability of this field of practice to sustain and progress.


Editorial illustration, the illustration of written articles, came into being within a long tradition of printed news and current events publications. Here, through pictures connected to particular written texts and using the opportunities provided by print technology and print culture, illustration developed its unique and distinctly relational role within the printed publication.

In most mainstream online editorial publications, this notion of illustration might seem unaltered. But take the fact that these images are created in ones and zeros and are shown on light omitting and pixel-based screens this already makes their expressive structure fundamentally different. Furthermore, increasingly online images deliberately use the specific capabilities of the digital, multimedia and networked environments as an intrinsic aspect of their expressive capability, including not only the obvious, such as movement and audio, but also generative computation, modularity and interaction. Readers can actively intervene in shaping the appearance and circulation of these images. Boundaries between the primary story and its illustration are no longer sharply defined, and in many ways, these illustrated media works appear to break with the conventions of illustration. The digital illustrational experience might be less obvious when following established illustration conventions, but as will become clear in this paper describing the attributes of illustration, they are clearly present.

To explore the on-going role of editorial illustration and gain insight into this wide differentiation of appearance, I present a model of key attributes, which I argue underpin illustration and its forms of agency within all structures of editorial publishing. This model is based on four main attributes, namely: translation; reflection; engagement and manifestation. I propose that these attributes are present within each individual editorial illustration and can be found as a constellation with varying degrees and relations.

This model demonstrates the continuation of the essence of editorial illustration and offers a coherent framework from which to investigate how each illustration operates.


The foundations of this summarising study into editorial illustration are drawn from the core findings of my PhD thesis ‘On the Persistence of a Modest Medium’[1] which finds its epistemological construction based on a model of relational materiality, developed within Actor-Network Theory (ANT) based on the work of Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law[2]. ANT allows for the material and semiotic – objects and signs – to be seen as parts of the same system and in this system each element, known as actor, has its own influence, ‘agency’, on other elements. Rather than fixed objects with defined connections, both actor and agency consist of a continuous series of processes, influencing and influenced by each other. These agencies do not have to be of the same order, they can be technological, semiotic or metaphysical, come from human, abstract or material practices, and in so doing avoid a dualism between technology and society[3]. ANT allows for the complexities of illustration, its material structure, its creative processes, its relational expressing and ideological positioning to be illuminated from within the complexity of publishing culture. It permits the emergence of a concept of the illustration as a relational procedural work, which both acts and is acted upon.

Important is that illustration is understood and described as a textual object and the notion of ‘textuality’, the indication of communicative content, as an essential component of illustration, which makes it equally ‘readable’ as the other, written components of the article. The textual object is always materialised in some form whether this is words, sounds, experiences or pictures. Illustration does not always need to be materialised as a visual object, but can be created through any expressive mode. At the same time, the illustration should be understood as an independent pictorial narrative, always conjuring up an exemplary depiction. Richard Wollheim describes pictorial representation as containing visually constructed narrative content that depicts actions or the suggestion of actions. Even if this depiction or action is not presented or enacted in the image itself, when suggested, it is the intention for the audience to ‘fill-in’ by using their imagination[4]. W.J.T. Mitchell[5] describes the picture as ‘revealed to be linguistic in its inner workings’ and consisting of graphic, optical, perceptual, mental, and verbal forms of materialisation. In all its expressions illustration presents itself as a pictorial narrative, and should not only be seen as gaining its meaning through its relation with the story, but as an independent construction read for its own narrative content.

As all components of the article are represented through some mode of ‘text’, in order to avoid confusion, in this paper, I use the notion of the ‘primary story’, to mean the text to which the illustration is directed (in print this is most often the written text or typeset copy, whilst in digital media, this no longer need to be the case), with ‘illustration’ (in print this is most often an hand-made image, again in digital media the expression can vary) I mean the text which directs itself to the story and the concept, and the ‘concept’ to mean the non-materialised components of the story, such as the core idea, the assumptions, the presumed knowledge and all that what is ‘read between the lines’.


Understanding illustration as a complex relation of material, social and semiotic processes allows for the complex work that illustration performs to be illuminated from a theoretical grounding that is based on material and relational semiotics, media theory and audience reception, which is further contextualised by popular understanding, and findings from personal practice and field research. Whilst this paper by no means aims to be exhaustive, the above frameworks should be understood as an indication of the depth of the discussion, which give insight into the complexities of the model of illustration.

Before I introduce this model I first want to give a brief oversight of the cultural and technological context through which present understanding of editorial illustration has developed.


[1] Nanette Hoogslag, “The Significance of a Modest Medium” Varoom, winter 2012 2011.


[2] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[3] ibid

[4] Richard Wollheim, “On Pictorial Representation,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56, no. 3 (1998): 217–26.

[5] W J T Mitchell, “What’s in an Image,” New Literary History, Image/Imago/Imagination, 15, no. 3 (Spring 1984): 503–37, 529.