The Current State of Illustration and How to Succeed in 2014

The Current State of Illustration and How to Succeed in 2014

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This is a guest article contributed by Nicole Polzi.

Some say the illustration profession is in poor shape. Some say it is dead.

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For sure, illustration (in the traditional sense) has endured substantial decline (Shaughnessy 2006), but there are others that say there are many opportunities for illustrators if they just know where to look (Glover 2013)(Riddell 2012). Regardless of opinions, the illustration industry is definitely experiencing a significant change.

The Current State of Illustration & Trend Forecast

Illustration is an extremely competitive area, as there are many more illustrators than there are actual illustration jobs. Whilst there is still a relevant space for illustrators doing editorial work, album covers, posters and children’s books, this area is limited (Gall 2011). Basically, illustrators better move with the times or be prepared to get left behind. Why? Because a major shift towards the digital world is well and truly underway.

The Rise of Stock Imagery

One of the factors limiting this field is the use of stock imagery. Stock houses are flourishing, as they provide a cheaper, immediately available option, and the designer can maintain control over the look of the finished product. Shutterstock is one of the largest stock agencies in the world. They report that since 2005, designers have been relying more on scalable vectors to meet the demand for mobile and web design. The company claims that between 2011 and 2012, there has been a 134% growth in apps (buttons and icon design), a 60% growth in packaging (illustrated labels), and a staggering 525% increase in infographics (Shutterstock Infographic 2012). Accordingly, there is less opportunity for an illustrator.

Or is there?

Stock houses are just another opportunity for illustrators to sell their work. Yes, the rewards aren’t as great because it undercuts commissioned work, but illustrator Ben Sanders believes that stock imagery is used by a different market. Sanders says “…freelancers need to create illustrations of a much higher standard than what is available on stock sites… and so they should! If your average illustrator can’t produce something better than a stock image there is something wrong.”

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Ben Sanders Meanjin Cover
Illustration by Ben Sanders

Overseas Competition

Competition from overseas has contributed to the decline in opportunities for illustrators. Websites such as allow for people to bid for work, and in many cases, it is impossible for illustrators compete. The work goes to someone in Colombia or India, as their rates are significantly smaller (McWade 2011).

Maybe we need to educate the market? Inform them about quality versus quantity, keeping the work on our shores, and the various pitfalls that may await those that choose to outsource design and illustration work.

A Shift to Digital

The shift from print to digital is another limiting factor, and has been increasing steadily. Chris Riddell (2012) (Brittish illustrator and political cartoonist) agrees, “as the digital revolution gathers momentum, traditional print publishing is being forced to change”. We’ve swapped hardback novels for eReaders; we scan headlines of the news online rather than flicking through the newspaper; we search directions on google maps, we instagram, we facebook, we tweet, we pin… It’s all happening online.

Chris Riddell
Illustration by Chris Riddell

Use Digital To Your Advantage

Despite these limitations, or rather, because of them – illustrators must take advantage of the opportunities available in the digital world. Already, animation in the film and gaming industry has made giant leaps in the digital world. Glover believes it is because design tools are evolving and “creative demand for realistic and fantastic environments for games and movies is pushing technology ahead” (Glover 2013).

Additionally, as computers continue to become more powerful and hardware (such as drawing tablets) becomes more affordable – graphic design is starting to catch up with these industries (Glover 2013). It is essential for illustrators to be aware of the state of the industry and evolve and adapt to use technology to their advantage.

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Design trend predictions for 2013 included simplified geometric designs, bold and bright images, and stripped back logos (Carney 2012). These trends are all applicable to the online platform, because simple, less complicated imagery provides for more effective navigation. Finding a niche within illustration that is connected to the web or associated applications may just be the ticket to success.

IconMoon Icon Designer
Illustration by IconMoon

Skills Required As An Illustrator

The following list details the skills and attributes required for a job in illustration.

Technical skills:

Have brilliant free hand drawing skills, a unique and original style, a quality portfolio (featuring the work you’d like to be commissioned for) (Hassell 2013), and back-to-front knowledge of software – and hardware (drawing tablet) if applicable to your style.


Be easy to work with. Be punctual. Have the ability to work to deadlines; work colleagically or autonomously; and take criticism about your work. Don’t be precious or pretentious (Tan 2012).


At a time when photographic images are favored, illustrators need to ensure their work can add “visual dimensions beyond the scope of text” (Heller 2006). Simply, this means having the ability to add meaning to the image, rather than simply a collection of decorative marks on the page.

Personal drive:

There is fierce competition out there, and it can take a while to really hone your skills and style. Practice every day. Go the extra mile. Be patient. Maintain your determination (Conger 2005)( Tan 2012).

Shaun Tan Illustration
Illustration by Shaun Tan

How to get that job

The path to success is varied for each individual. And it really depends on what direction you’re headed. Do you want to be a freelancer? Or do you want to find a more secure job within a specific company? Regardless, the following list provides some key ingredients that may assist in scoring that dream illustration job – which ever your preference.

1. Use social media

  • Research and use social networking strategies – social media is the ultimate tool for self-promotion. For freelancers, it’s an invaluable tool to help you connect with potential clients.
  • Share your folio on as many different sites as possible.
  • Build a website and blog.

(Conger 2005)(James)

Thomas James
Illustration by Thomas James

It is important to promote your work on various platforms, even if you don’t intend to do freelance work. It a great way to get your name out there, and potential employers will get to see more of your work, and get a better sense of our style and who you are.

2. Collaborate

Collaborate with other creatives – multidiscipline design is a great way to expand your network, skills and ideas (Hassell 2013).

3. Network

Be on the lookout for relevant functions to attend and keep in contact with previous employers and colleagues.

Holly Conger Illustration
Illustration by Holly Conger

4. Try a To-Do List

Holli Conger, a children’s illustrator and licensing artist created a ‘to-do’ list to assist with acquiring new clients. The following list is useful for budding freelancers, as it details how she prepared herself and organized her time:

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  • Find 3 new addresses for promo
  • Sketch
  • Blog entry (at least a few days a week)


  • Update listing
  • Illustration Friday
  • One clay or digital illustration (portfolio quality)
  • Look at freelance job listing sites


  • Press Release
  • Update portfolio
  • Creative Latitude article (Conger 2005).

Similarly, another children’s book illustrator admitted her tips for success included sending hard copies of her images to a publisher to keep on file. She says that “they regularly peruse their collection to choose an appropriate illustrator for new projects. Once you have proved yourself to be reliable, punctual with deadlines and a collaborative worker who will work to a spec, further work will be directed to you” (Grzegrzolka 2013).


It is due to technology that illustrators experienced a decline in demand for their craft. But now – as new tools and marketing strategies are readily accessible and more affordable – it appears it is technology that could save the modern illustrator.

A new illustrator must adapt and utilise available technology to create their work; promote themselves, and find new clients. Trend predictions indicate that illustration that may be applied to an online platform is likely to be successful. Illustrators within the industry believe the most important skills to acquire include; constantly working to improve technical skills, working in context, maintaining professionalism and personal drive.

Social networking, sharing a portfolio online, creating a website and blog, and working collaboratively with others will also assist new illustrators in finding employment.

There is a balance to be struck with technology; make it work for you, not against you.

19 thoughts on “The Current State of Illustration and How to Succeed in 2014”

  1. I completely agree with your point where you mention and India. Being an Indian when I started off, I was one of them. But I soon realized what I got myself into. Because things are quite cheap over here people don’t mind lowering their rates to such a point that its almost impossible to beat it, even for me. Also the clients who hangout over there have set up these expectations spending less and getting more. When I started charging clients with standard international rates, most of them laughed at me and all of them turned me down. Sure I wasn’t the greatest designer out there, but I was fairly better than those senseless bidders on these crowdsourcing websites. I am yet to solve this puzzle and hopefully I do it very soon.

  2. I think there will will always be a market for those of us who are graphically challenged but stock graphics don’t come close to what I see professional graphic designers do.

  3. The Current State of Illustration and How to Succeed in 2014.This post is really very awesome. I really love this post. The information in this article is really unique and useful for me. After reading this article, I think I have some ideas for myself. I do follow your articles recently. Thanks for sharing this post. Hope to read more interesting information from you. Great job!

  4. Wow, Jacob You have some very good content here, and alot of great insight when it comes to using digital to your advantage.

    thanks again, glad i found your site

  5. Very good article. Man, has illustration changed since I got into it in 1980. Kind feel like the year is 1915 and I’m in the “buggy whip business”. So much info is being hurled at designers the quality artist in order to survive must be a self promo wiz, a master of time management, software aficionado, computer geek and oh yes he also needs to be really good at art. The stock image sources are a huge problem. Unless the public goes totally retro Illustration will continue to change like the rest of our culture. Amazing, beautiful and terrible at the same time… But then One EMP and SHAZAM instant retro art age. Anyway I’m trying to do my part, check it out.

  6. Just happened to bump into your article… thanks so much!! Such valuable hints! I am a graphic designer but mostly a freelance editorial illustrator and YES… time changed sooo much since I began doing this… some 17 years ago!! … the goods: fast internet!! Haha… I remember having to wait 2 hours for a big illustration to be sent to an art director!! Pheeeww!!… the bads: yes, so much competition… it’s unreal. Then there are the stock… but as you say, nothing beats a personalized illustration, and certainly not generic illustrations. Plus, it’s not like we take weeks to produce them now with the digital age… so I am wondering why clients still goes with Stock… anyway. :)… so thank you for all these, will try to remember it all (promo wise) … now redoing my website but will keep all of your info in mind… 🙂 Best,

  7. Very Interesting thank you Jacob. Most of my output is digital nowadays, after spending many years working with traditional media. I do believe Illustration is becoming more popular. The other problem apart from the great reasons you have suggested is that the professionalism has waned, the world and his dog now believe they have some talent so share constantly, this has created a fog of rubbish that strangles the professional.

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