"Stripes" illustration by Louis Fishauf

Looking Back to Look Forward: Illustration Styles of the Past 30 Years

By Terry Hemphill

Illustration is one of the most important forms of visual communication: it informs and observes, delights and decorates, instructs and inspires. From the first drawings man made in a cave, illustration has played a fundamental role both in telling stories and in sharing information—and it is as relevant as ever in helping us understand our modern world. Today’s artists create an astonishing variety of illustrations across a spectrum of styles and genres, informed by a rich history and extraordinary innovations in recent decades. In this article, we’ll explore some of the art and social movements that have influenced illustration over the past 30 years.

Puhs Pin poster by Push Pin Studios

Push Pin Studios led a revolution in modern illustration, by combining and reimagining styles and genres.

It’s impossible to talk about contemporary illustration without citing the influence of Push Pin Studios, founded in 1954 by Cooper Union classmates Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, and Edward Sorel. The artists at Push Pin led a revolution. “Push Pin threw everything out the window in terms of referencing style,” says Whitney Sherman, director of the MFA in illustration practice at MICA. Working conceptually, Push Pin artists freely plundered art and graphic history—from fine art to comic books—and reimagined and recombined these diverse forms, creating innovative, delightful, unexpected work.

By the late 1980s, illustrators were free to combine, experiment with, and celebrate different historical styles and methods. They were just as inspired by historical art movements as they were by the punk culture of the 1970s and the era’s New York City street art scene. Graphic design also helped define the look of the decade, with publications like The Face, art-directed by Neville Brody, leading the way with its radical use of typography and layout, which inspired many illustrators and designers.

Fast forward to 2017, and the idea of an art movement is laughable. Everything from Stone Age cave paintings to the latest Postmodernist art has been tossed into the spin cycle of popular culture and consumerism. The first picture was uploaded to the Internet in 1992. Today, more than 80 million images are uploaded to Instagram alone each day. “There’s no more ‘flavor of the month,’” says designer and illustrator Von Glitschka, referring to a term he and another illustrator coined for work that would be popular with creative directors for a while and then fade. “That doesn’t happen now. Social media has changed that; the way an audience interacts with a ‘look’ takes place so quickly.”

Chez Panisse poster by  David Lance Goines

David Lance Goines, a fine arts designer and printmaker in Berkeley, California, creates beautiful work that’s informed by a classic Art Nouveau look: rough line, subtle color, and hand-lettering. (Chez Panisse, 2005, David Lance Goines)

But still, to paraphrase a line from The Big Lebowski, “The illustrator abides.” And we’re all the better for that. Most of the influential art movements we’ll look at here developed as reactions to the status quo. So let’s find out what those rebels were up to.


An international design movement that started in England in the 1890s and thrived for the next two decades, Art Nouveau rebelled against the historical styles that had dominated design for most of the 19th century. Art Nouveau, just as its name implies, focused on innovation, and it led a revolution in modern design.

Influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement, Japanese design and woodblock prints, Celtic patterns and illuminated manuscripts, and the paintings of Van Gogh and Cezanne, and borrowing from Rococo style, the movement quickly spread across Europe.

Distinct styles emerged in each country, but a common graphic language connected them all: free-flowing organic forms, botanical shapes, fluid lines, unique display typography and lettering, and attention to fine workmanship.

Art Nouveau saw a major popular revival in the late 1960s, when it was reinterpreted in numerous rock concert posters and album covers; this distinctive psychedelic look has, in turn, influenced later generations of artists.

Jefferson Airplane

The classic “psychedelic” look associated with album covers and concert posters of the late 1960s and early 1970s can be considered an offshoot of the Art Nouveau style—it’s a “retro” look that modern artists frequently refer to.


The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899 by Sigmund Freud, explored the relationship between dreams and reality and laid the foundation for the literary, intellectual, and artistic movement called Surrealism. The French writer, poet, and anti-Fascist André Breton, generally considered the founder of Surrealism, published the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924; it it, he defined surrealism as “pure psychic automatism.”

While the impact of Surrealist poets and writers was limited; the artists and painters associated with Surrealism had a significant impact on the visual arts and film. In their art, Surrealists liked to place objects not usually related to one another together, in ways that were playful and disturbing. Nature and people might be carefully presented in a true-to-life style but placed in a dreamlike landscape.

Surrealism’s impact on illustration, design, and visual communication has been distinct and wide-ranging. The movement pioneered new illustration techniques and showed how the world of dreams, symbols, and fantasy could be explored visually in ways that can provoke a universal response across many viewers.

Prophet illustration by Brad Holland
joker illustration by john craig

Brad Holland (left) is one of the most influential illustrators of the 20th century. Based in New York, Holland was one of the pioneers of the conceptual way of working, a method in which an idea drives the solution for an assignment, rather than an artist being told what to produce. His visually simple, often surreal work is instantly recognizable; it changed the course of modern illustration and influenced illustrators around the world. (Prophet, Brad Holland)

Illustrator John Craig (right) uses collage as his primary technique to create work for a range of publications, including Time, Newsweek, and Esquire. Craig’s images are compelling and mysterious, making connections and telling stories that resonate long after you've seen them. (Joker, 2007, John Craig)


Modernist art and the Modernism movement had a significant and far-reaching impact on illustration and design. Starting in around 1908 and lasting through the 1930s, Modernism included a series of distinct movements, including Constructivism, Surrealism, and the Bauhaus. These movements shared a rejection of historical styles, a minimalist design approach, and an original and experimental use of shapes, colors, lines, and layout.

“Constructivism, Bauhaus, and other formal, rigid, minimalist approaches to design and picture-making have lasted in various forms and can be seen in today’s illustrations,” says Richard Lovell, illustration chair at SCAD. “It’s a shape-driven aesthetic that plays well with digital media, and even motion media and animation.”


With roots in the Russian avant-garde, the Constructivist movement originated just before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Influenced by the abstract style, pure form, and energy of Cubism, Futurism, and Suprematism, Constructivist artists aimed to create a new visual language to free art, design, and architecture from conventional forms of representation. Constructivist artists created both political posters and commercial advertising, forever linking the style to political activism.

Strong geometry, flat color, simple shapes, extensive white space, and bold sans serif typography are hallmarks of Constructivist design. Photomontage provided a new illustration technique for the new age.

Pipko Tabac, 2010, Bob Staake

Shepard Fairey (left) is an American contemporary street artist, graphic designer, activist, and illustrator. His work is often informed by the visual vocabulary of Constructivism (for instance, geometric shapes and red and black color themes), and it embraces the Constructivists’ aim of creating art for social change. (Church of Consumption, 2017, Shepard Fairey)

Illustrator, designer, and author Bob Staake creates work in a wide range of styles, depending on the story he needs to tell. His Pipko Tabac poster art gives a nod to Constructivism through its use of simple geometric elements and sans serif type. But he blends this with his distinctive, sophisticated approach to color and texture to make his own unique statement. (Pipko Tabac, 2010, Bob Staake [Instagram])

Constructivism continues to influence modern graphic design and illustration, as artists combine the visual vocabulary of Constructivism with their own voices and ideas.


In 1919, the architect Walter Gropius was made director of Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, combining two art schools into a single institution, and fine and applied arts into one curriculum. A Modernist approach to design education was developed; students were encouraged to experiment and find a design voice of their own.

The Bauhaus’s powerhouse faculty included the painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, Constructivist László Moholy-Nagy, first-student-then-teacher Herbert Bayer, and architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The school explored advanced ideas about architecture, color, and form, and experimented with printing, photography, and typography.

Its contributions to modern design transcend its short, 14-year life. The Bauhaus approach to design education is the foundation for design schools today, and the Bauhaus product design guiding principle of “necessities, not luxuries”—to produce quality items at affordable prices—is seen today in stores like Ikea and Muji.

Harry Campbell creates clean, modern illustrations that capture complex thoughts with simple lines and colors. His conceptual and editorial work can be seen in numerous newspapers and publications, from the New York Times to Mother Jones. His digital illustrations reflect the isometric geometry of Bauhaus industrial design and architecture. (Vending Machine, 2017, Harry Campbell)


Developing alongside Surrealism and Expressionism was Magic Realism. First named in 1924 by German art critic Franz Roh, it described a new form of realist painting that depicted everyday life as something familiar but at the same time as something strange or unnatural.

Chris Buzelli creates his richly detailed oil paintings for a wide roster of clients, crossing the boundaries of commercial and fine art. While his work is often more surreal, with enchanting—and sometimes scary—animals and characters, this piece, Amazon, was created for the cover of the New York Times “Travel” section. (Amazon, 2013, Chris Buzelli [Instagram])

Magic Realism found traction in the 1940s and ’50s in the Americas. Painting in a detailed, realistic style, the movement’s artists imbued their work with symbolism and a dreamlike, mysterious quality.

For today’s artists and illustrators, Magic Realism provides a unique approach to storytelling: with its roots in the real world, in realism, “magical” elements can intensify the viewer’s experience of the image or idea in unexpected ways.


The term Art Deco refers to the famous Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), a large fair held in central Paris during the summer of 1925. Also called Style Moderne, the movement included art, architecture, and the visual and decorative arts: essentially everything that is included under the umbrella of design as we know it today.

In the visual arts, Art Deco’s distinctive graphic style was represented by simple, clean shapes, and often, in its later period, aerodynamic curves. Contemporary illustrators and designers have explored and reinvented the shapes and typography of the era to create stunning, vital designs.

Bornholm Poster 2015, 2015, Mads Berg
952 Vincent Black Lightning, 2017, Daniel Pelavin
Il Fornaio Corporate Identity, 1988, Michael Mabry

Mads Berg (left), an illustrator working in Copenhagen, interprets the look of classic poster art through a Danish minimalist design sensibility for a broad range of clients and applications. Lightly referencing the geometry of Art Deco, Berg evolves those shapes into flowing, layered abstractions, with luminous colors and textures. (Bornholm Poster 2015, 2015, Mads Berg)

Daniel Pelavin (center) is an accomplished illustrator, letterer, and typographer working in New York. In his piece 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, Pelavin interprets the streamlined language of Art Deco to evoke speed and precision, perfect for capturing the essence of what was the fastest motorcycle of its time. (1952 Vincent Black Lightning, 2017, Daniel Pelavin [Instagram])

Michael Mabry (right) is a graphic designer, illustrator, and educator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has created award-winning designs for corporate identities, package designs, and logos for a wide array of international companies and organizations. In his identity for the El Fornaio Italian restaurant group, he references the geometric shapes of Art Deco and the advertising posters of that period, but combines those elements with unique colors and textures, as well as delicate script typography, to create an original design. (Il Fornaio Corporate Identity, 1988, Michael Mabry)


The Memphis Group was a collective of young furniture and product designers led by the acclaimed Italian industrial designer Ettore Sottsass. Launched in 1981, Memphis ruled the early 1980s design scene with its Postmodernist furniture and textiles. Vibrant and experimental, Memphis delighted in pattern, color, and bold geometry. In 1988, Sottsass dismantled the group, but while Memphis the group may no longer exist, its energy and irreverence have had a lasting impact on illustration and design, showing that it’s OK to ignore the constraints and established rules of design and explore the intersection of fun and functional.

Shop magazine cover by Lauren Rolwing

Lauren Rolwing is a Nashville-based illustrator who creates thoughtful, shape-driven designs featuring bright colors and patterns. “I am very inspired by the Memphis movement,” says Rolwing. “The idea for my self-initiated project If I Lived in Ettore Sottsass’ Neighborhood actually came from a dream I had after spending the day before studying the Memphis movement.” (Shop magazine cover, 2016, Lauren Rolwing [Instagram])


Initially an underground art movement in Los Angles, Lowbrow and Pop Surrealism art developed in the late 1970s outside of the traditional gallery and museum scene.

Gary Baseman's

Los Angeles–based artist Gary Baseman works in fine art, illustration, toy design, TV animation, and film. He is known for his playful, smart, and often devious creatures, which show up throughout his work. (New Yorker cover for Mother’s Day, 2002, Gary Baseman [Instagram])

Lowbrow draws inspiration from a wild and wide variety of sources: tattoo art, underground comix, rock and punk music, skateboarding, figurative art, Surrealism, and pop culture. Lowbrow artists create paintings, drawings, objects, and media art full of vigorous details, combining styles, characters, and narratives into vibrant, dynamic art. Lowbrow style evolved from raw and unpolished into more painterly and refined, but it maintains a unique, often subversive edge to its craftsmanship.

The groundbreaking La Luz de Jesus Gallery, which opened in 1986 on Melrose Avenue in Los Angles, is considered one of the first galleries to feature Lowbrow and Pop Surrealism artists. “It really changed things,” says Mark Heflin, editor and director of American Illustration. “It blurred the lines between illustration and fine art.”

The erasing of the lines between commercial and fine art is one of this movement’s most significant contributions.

Sensing Needs, an illustration by the Clayton Brothers

Brothers Rob and Christian Clayton worked together on painting, sculpture, and installations in their California studio from 1996 to 2016. Rob and Christian used a unique creative process: they didn't work on the same piece at the same time, nor did they talk about their projects while creating. They took turns adding to, altering, and reworking the art until they both agreed it was complete. The results are organic, vivid, visual conversations, inviting the viewer to create their own narrative. They are both faculty members at the ArtCenter College of Design. (Sensing Needs, 2007, The Clayton Brothers [Instagram])


A political illustration is a picture that makes a point. It delivers a message. It might take a punch at a politician, reveal incompetence, or uncover deception. Political illustration uses caricature, humor, satire, and metaphor to produce true visual journalism that succinctly sums up complex political situations and challenges commonly held beliefs.

Accessing a rich history going back centuries, contemporary artists create political illustration work across a wide variety of artistic techniques, from simple pen and ink to finely crafted painterly styles.

Steve Brodner is an illustrator, graphic artist, and political commentator based in New York—he is one of the most influential and widely read political illustrators working today. His work can be seen in magazines, websites, books, TV, and newspapers—illustrating journalism by himself and others. He has won many awards and continues to push political, artistic, and technical boundaries in his work. Brodner also teaches illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York. (The Court of Donald I, 2017, Steve Brodner)



By the early 1990s, the digital revolution in the creative industries was starting to get real. Before that time, “the discussion around digital design was as if computers were aliens marching into the studio, attempting to take over,” says Whitney Sherman. While the cost of hardware was dropping, the price of entry was still high, and the learning curve for the software was painfully steep. Graphic designers more eagerly embraced the new technology than illustrators, but it was a scary leap into the void for all.

Craig Frazier is an “illustrating designer,” blurring the lines between graphic design and illustration, who lives in Mill Valley, California. His work has received numerous awards and is recognized internationally for its unique, conceptual style. Starting with thumbnail sketches, Frazier then cuts out forms in Amberlith and moves those shapes to the computer to colorize them. In this example, he adds animation to extend the narrative in his art. (Bookfloat, Sonoma Valley Authors Festival, Craig Frazier [Instagram])

A new breed of illustrator began to emerge in the mid-1990s. Some were fresh out of art and design schools, with new ways of looking at the traditional roles of designer and illustrator. They reimagined themselves as graphic artists, working across design and illustration. Others were established artists eager to experiment with the new tools and capitalize on new technology. These artists created work on the computer and were proud of it, and a new digital aesthetic emerged.

By the end of the decade, the world had changed in ways no one could have imagined. The computer and software had become fast and sophisticated, with new tools that enabled the look of “natural media”: the pens, pencils, and brushes of traditional illustration. New filters and techniques provided exciting new ways to manipulate imagery. Illustrators could choose to work traditionally or digitally, or to mix the two  as needed. Whitney Sherman characterizes this as a “transmedia/hybrid approach that combines both traditional and digital aesthetics and ways of working.”

Moving into today’s world, with our powerful smartphones, tablets with high-resolution screens, and pervasive fast Internet, illustrators can leverage animation and VR to extend the narrative and deliver sequential and interactive storytelling.

Combining past forms with modern technologies, illustrators are forging new forms and styles of visual communication—all of it resting on a foundation that is thousands of years strong.

Christoph Niemann is an illustrator, designer, artist, and author working in Berlin. His work has appeared on the covers of the New Yorker, Wired, and the New York Times Magazine (among others) and has won awards from AIGA, the Art Directors Club, and The Lead Awards. Niemann is at heart a great visual storyteller, always trying new things and pushing limits. My Trip to the DMZ is an experimental 360-degree sketchbook (click on the image to watch). (My Trip to the DMZ, Christoph Niemann [Instagram])

Louis Fishauf is a Canadian graphic designer, art director, and illustrator who has created award-winning work for a wide array of international companies. Fishauf was one of the first to use the computer and software as design and layout tools. His current illustration work focuses primarily on the creation of digital collages. (Stripes, Louis Fishauf [issuu])


March 10, 2017