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Conceptual Image

Sensing that traditional narrative illustration did not address the needs of the times, post-World War I pictorial modernism reinvented the communicative image to express the age of the machine and the advanced visual ideas of the period.

In a similar quest for new imagery, the decades after World War II saw the development of the conceptual image in graphic design. Images conveyed not merely narrative information but ideas and concepts. Mental content joined perceived content as motif. The illustrator interpreting a writer's text yielded to the graphic imagist making a statement.

Instead of scooping a rectangle of illusionistic space from the printed page, this new breed of image makers was often concerned with the total design of the space and the integration of word and image. In the exploding information culture of the second half of the twentieth century, the entire history of visual arts was available to the graphic artist as a library of potential forms and images.

In particular, inspiration was gained from the advances of twentieth-century art movements: the spatial configurations of cubism; the juxtapositions, dislocations, and scale changes of surrealism; the pure color loosened from natural reference by expressionism and fauvism; and the recycling of mass-media images by pop art. Graphic artists had greater opportunity for self-expression, created more personal images, and pioneered individual styles and techniques. The traditional boundaries between the fine arts and public visual communications became blurred.

The creation of conceptual images became a significant design approach in Poland, the United States, Germany, and even Cuba. It also cropped up around the world in the work of individuals whose search for relevant and effective images in the post-World War II era led them toward the conceptual image. In the most original work of the Italian graphic designer Armando Testa (1917-92), for example, metaphysical combinations were used to convey elemental truths about the subject.

Testa was an abstract painter until after the war, when he established a graphic design studio in his native Turin. His 1950s publicity campaigns for Pirelli tires had an international impact on graphic design thinking. Testa called on the vocabulary of surrealism by combining the image of a tire with immediately recognizable symbols.

In his posters and advertisements, the image is the primary means of communication, and he reduces the verbal content to a few words or just the product name. Testa effectively used more subtle contradictions, such as images made of artificial materials, as a means of injecting unexpected elements into graphic design.

During the 1950s the golden age of American illustration was drawing to a close. For over fifty years narrative illustration had ruled American graphic design, but improvements in paper, printing, and photography caused the illustrator's edge over the photographer to decline rapidly. Traditionally, illustrators had exaggerated value contrasts, intensified color, and made edges and details sharper than life to create more convincing images than photography.

But now, improvements in materials and processes enabled photography to expand its range in lighting conditions and image fidelity. The death of illustration was somberly predicted as photography made rapid inroads into illustration's traditional market. But as photography stole illustration's traditional function--the creation of narrative and descriptive images a new approach to illustration emerged. A primary wellspring of this more conceptual approach to illustration began with a group of young New York graphic artists.

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