Drawing a Connection


In 1940, a teenager and his dog stumbled across thousands of prehistoric paintings in a cave in Lascaux, France. Archaeologists estimated the ancient depictions of hunting and animals to be 17,000 years old. The accidental discovery was a stunning archaeological find.

When I first learned about Lascaux in one of my art history classes, I remember being absolutely gobsmacked by that figure. For 17 millennia, humans have been using images to communicate. It’s difficult for us to comprehend even a single millennium but humans have been illustrating for 17 times as long. Lascaux’s paintings aren’t even the oldest known drawings! But they predate writing by a mere 14,000 years. And yet, an eternity after their discovery, we understood the information our human ancestors were trying to convey. I think that’s a true testament to the power of illustration.

What makes illustration so effective as a communication device?

One is its capacity to distill information into a format that is globally understood. The fact that the human experience is largely the same for all people contributes to the visual literacy we share across vast cultural divides. Take the skull, for example. There are a number of ways to visually represent the skull but no matter which way one chooses to do so, it will be interpreted the same way. The knowledge that a set of bones is what we become when we die has been passed down through humanity’s existence until it becomes part of our visual lexicon. Skull = death.

The same applies for a number of universally understood symbols. I think that’s why we’ve seen such a resurgence in illustration as a communication devices (think emoji and memes). In an era of diminished verbal communication, humanity has gone back to its roots of using drawings to communicate quickly and efficiently.

Take one of my favorite illustrators, Sebastien Thibault for example. Some of his best pieces are his editorial illustrations. They often combine two different elements to create a beautiful, complex visual metaphor that summarizes (or at least hints at) the content of the forthcoming article.

That’s an amazing feat, to summarize the content of a given article with a single image.

I think the ease and elegance with which illustration communicates is why we’re seeing more and more of it in design applications. Humanity has never been more inundated with advertising and messaging. Our challenge as designers is to find a way to cut through that noise and convey a specific message or idea to an audience, and illustration has the power to do that.