The Evolution of Visual Storytelling

An Interview with Communication Arts Chair at Virginia Commonwealth University, Robert Meganck

If you don’t know Robert Meganck, then you should. In 2012 Robert became the chair of the department of communication arts at Virginia Commonwealth University. If you don’t recognize him from his work at VCU, then perhaps you know him from the vast number of impressive accolades (more than 300) he has received from the art world over the past 30 years as an illustrator, graphic designer and digital artist.

I recently sat down with Robert Meganck to hear his thoughts about the evolution of visual storytelling and how designers and illustrators can adapt to the high demands of an ever-changing industry.

Q: You’ve been a graphic designer, illustrator (both traditional and digital), professor and president of a design firm. Do you feel that having a background in graphic design has influenced your digital illustration style? If so, how?

A: Absolutely. I see my illustration as image designs. I rely heavily on the use of graphic compositional shape when I’m composing an illustration. I see the process of solving an illustration problem as a design process – the illustration is simply a visual expression of that process. I actually moved into illustration through design. When given a design assignment, I would simply gravitate to an illustrative solution. The separation of graphic design and illustration (or drawing) in schools is a relatively new development. Going back 20 years, all graphic design students had to take drawing classes, and all illustration students had to study graphic design.

Alternatively, I believe that it would be advantageous for designers to begin their assignments through drawing.

Q: For the past 35 years you’ve been a professor of illustration and design at Virginia Commonwealth University. How have you seen the illustration landscape change, especially over the past 10 years?

A: Going back 10 years, many illustrators looked at digital work as antagonistic to creative process. There was a fear of what they didn’t understand. If you look at the process from thumbnail sketch through published illustration, 100 percent of all published work today ends up digital. Where 10 years ago, the digital conversion might have been reserved as a final step, the digital impact has been encompassing more and more of the process with many illustrators now working digitally entirely from thumbnail sketch to finished art.

Our current students see no difference between working traditionally and digitally, they simply see them as different media. Where 10 years ago, an illustrator might have chosen to work in gouache or oils, they now choose to work traditionally or digitally, and that may switch from one assignment to the next.

Q: With the ever-changing landscape of multimedia, how do you think digital illustration has maintained and grown within this industry?

A: The media landscape has evolved to one dominated by multimedia communications. Sixty percent of all graphic design projects are produced for a digital delivery platform. And, that percentage is steadily increasing. As a profession, we are simply responding to the communication needs of our audiences.

Q: What are the advantages that an art director or an agency can gain from hiring a digital illustrator for a project?

A: Basically, they gain time and flexibility. With digital illustrations, communication between the AD and illustrator is done electronically and seamlessly. Required changes to a project (compositional, color shifts, etc.) can be completed in a fraction of the time and effort that would be required of a traditionally produced illustration.

Q: We live in a very visually based society these days, especially with the growing use of social media platforms to tell a story. At PadillaCRT, we produce a large number of digitally illustrated infographics for clients that want to share data, statistics or other information with large, varied audiences. Why do you think these visual tools are popular and what are your predictions on visual story telling in the next couple of years?

A: Infographics have been a popular way of presenting abstract data for a long time. They display complex information effectively, in a way that is more easily understood. Moore’s Law states that the computer processing power doubles every two years, and with it the amount of available information increases. With this increase in available information, there is a need to rely on tools that make this information more easily digested.

Like infographics, storytelling has been a primary venue for delivering moral, ethical and historical information since before Guttenberg published his first Bible. I see nothing on the horizon that leads me to believe that this will change.

Q: I’ve read a lot lately about illustrators mixing their tools and techniques and not allowing the capabilities of digital software to dictate their style. Do you face this in your own illustration style? How do you manipulate the software to work with you and not against you?

A: Although my illustration style has evolved from traditional media to digital and has been evolving digitally since I first moved in that direction, I believe that I am in control of the medium and not the other way around. I’ve created specialized brushes that work the way I want them to work, and closely mimic my traditional work. Computer programs are like puppies, you have to let them know who is in charge, although you have to understand that you don’t always win the battle. With that being said, you have to accept that they may be more like cats, and you have to just learn to live with their shortcomings.

Q: This past year, you came out with a book, “The Story of the Three Little deSwiners: A Creative Process.” What prompted you to share your thoughts on this topic and what can folks gain from reading it?

A: As a designer/illustrator and a professor of communication arts, I have frequently been asked to lecture on the creative process. After receiving numerous requests for my lecture notes, I decided to put them together in book form. Hopefully, readers will discover the absolute joy that I have found from working – and I use the term “work” loosely – in a creative field.

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