It’s amazing what you find when you’re moving studio. In an archive box from the nineties we’ve just rediscovered a series of editorial illustrations depicting the digital future by Piction Media’s very own honcho Matt Kay. Did we really think we would all be wearing virtual reality helmets by now? The brains at PC Review magazine clearly thought it was a possibility and Matt’s illustration of their feature article predicted we would be so engrossed in our virtual worlds that the real world around us would be immaterial, abandoned and destroyed.
Around the same time as Matt was envisioning a virtually entranced 2010, Apple were bringing out their first colour laptop computer. However, illustration was still largely a paper and board-based, with digital illustration just about to take-off. Desktop Macs were still largely the territory of typesetters and publishing houses because their graphics capability wasn’t fast enough for illustration purposes. You couldn’t view full colours on screen or use paint and brush tools in Photoshop. Any kind of full colour printing practically required a supercomputer and a mortgage.
The year 1994 saw the rise of the digital design and illustration industry. It was painful for some but it transformed the way artwork was commissioned, produced and delivered – a brave new world indeed. For a start, editorial illustrators no longer had to lug giant portfolios around on the Tube. Now they just had to burn their images onto an optical disk and wait for the courier bike to whizz it about town – probably faster than broadband frankly. Also, illustrators were now using the same equipment as the designers and could cross genres more easily, harnessing typographic tools and 3D renders. Although the computers were very basic and the processing speeds were very slow, illustrators like Matt were able to come up with digital illustrations that were not aesthetic compromises or diluted artistry.
We’re now reaching the mid-nineties in our virtual tale. Traditional editorial illustration was really starting to struggle by this stage. The design industry’s love of the machine meant that many magazine art directors were opting for inexpensive photo stock imagery and quick in-house Photoshop compositions. The stock imagery was still on transparencies but, critically, could be viewed and selected on-line easily. From the art directors point of view, this was great for a late Friday deadline. No more did they have to dredge through the columns of stock image catalogues to replace the illustrator. Now they had the beginnings of the fast-food versions of visuals. Illustrators were feeling the financial pinch as they lost out to stock images but digital illustration had also opened up new opportunities for them in the design and branding sector. A new breed of digital visual practitioner was emerging, the ‘visualiser’. This specialist digital artist was a hybrid – part creative illustrator, part technical draftsperson, part techno-junky. Brand packaging agency JKR was a trend-leader when it hired Matt Kay to set up one of the first visualising departments in a UK design company.
Visualising is still going strong today but in true Hollywood movie style there has to be a darkest hour before dawn and this came in the shape of the Millennium bug. Also known as the Year 2000 problem, this event horizon issue looked likely to stop the digital stampede in its tracks and was described as the electronic equivalent of the El Niño by John Hamre, United States Deputy Secretary of Defence. Matt was commissioned to create an illustration on this topic for the Financial Times magazine Investors Chronicle in 1998. This illustration was a matching of topic and tools; a true editorial illustration in that it communicated the idea in the feature article but one entirely created and rendered using the visualising skill-set.
And here we are in 2010. Many of us not only work in digital worlds but socialize in them too. Unlike the character in Matt’s illustration ‘Do not disturb until 2010′, you may not be reading this wearing something akin to a motorbike helmet with deely boppers (or perhaps you are!) but there’s no doubt that some element of your working like has you hooked up to the virtual world, whilst the real Earth around you…
Ali Kay, 2010