Illustrating the future, an artist’s perspective

Post by John Miller

The Yahara 2070 scenarios can help us better appreciate how our decisions today can affect our long-term future. Early decisions both shape future possibilities and limit our options as we move forward. This is true of everything we do.

It was certainly true for me, the artist for Yahara 2070, in shaping the look of the scenarios’ illustrations. There are countless ways to make images, countless styles and techniques. I’m writing here to explain what went into the illustration process.

As an illustrator, I first seek the big-picture understanding of project goals. What is the purpose of the project? How can the illustrations mesh with and serve the essential content? My intention with illustrations that serve any technical mission is to help make content clearer and more accessible.

Illustrations and other graphics can be an oasis in written material and bolster understanding, while supplying a bit of a breather to an overworked brain. This doesn’t mean anything is dumbed down. On the contrary, the brain is complex, and we can think simultaneously with many contrasting regions. Graphics can enhance understanding by serving as a way to shift mental gears while still moving forward. Visuals can pack in a lot of information and sometimes make relationships more instantly clear than text can. If the graphic is both pleasing and informative, we attend to and remember the information more easily. If the graphic bores us, our attention is dulled, and the content has less of a chance to speak for itself.

The development of the illustrations was progressive and collaborative. Figuring out how to work together with the writer (Jenny Seifert) and the lead scientist (Steve Carpenter) was an incredibly important early step. We established our collaborative process fairly easily, but also allowed the process to evolve. Jenny wrote the narratives and would send me the story along with a list of illustration priorities. We’d engage in back and forth communication—I’d work up a rough sketch, and with the rough to react to, we’d work together to refine it.

Through this process, I encountered several challenges.

Illustration by John Miller

Illustration by John Miller

Illustrating uncertainty

Visuals can be powerful, since they make ideas concrete. However, in our context, this presented risks. Making an abstract concept, such as the future, concrete while also trying to preserve the idea of the scenarios as non-predictive, contrasting possibilities was an incredible challenge.

The scenarios explore big-picture themes about the future. Thus, we tried to avoid suggesting with implied certainty that things such as architecture or vehicle design would trend in a particular direction. We had to stick to creating a visible world that emphasized the big picture–the project’s intent—without getting bogged down in distracting details.

This is where illustration butts up against the boundaries of art, moving from description to suggestion. We were operating within the realm of ideas, yet these ideas had to seem real enough to be taken seriously. The images had to supply concrete context while also allowing for ambiguity.

Illustrating Neutrality

Illustration by John Miller

Illustration by John Miller

Our mission was to also present four storylines that could be contrasted with one another in a fair and balanced way. There could be no clearly superior choice for the future. Thus, all of the illustrations had to also appear balanced. No set or even single image could stand out as clearly more appealing than the others.

Even within one story, a mismatch of illustrations can upset the important relationship between the reader and the information in the tale. Images have to mesh with content, not be overly descriptive, and be balanced with each other.

To illustrate, Abandonment and Renewal, the disaster scenario, involves the most devastation to humans. So, from my perspective, this story served as the lowest emotional common denominator. I couldn’t make its illustrations pretty, and therefore no other set of illustrations could rise above these in terms of emotional appeal. I had to tamp things back emotionally, which contrasts with my normal illustrative style of using color in an upbeat manner. (If you view examples of my other work on my website, you can quickly get a sense of this contrast.)

Illustrating to scale, technical and temporal challenges

Illustration by John Miller

Illustration by John Miller

We didn’t know exactly what future life this project would have, and so we couldn’t define the many ways that images might be used over time. The display possibilities—e.g., printed, projected, or viewed on the web—all involve technical production challenges. To be ready for anything, I created the images in a vector art illustration program.

Vector art is created within the computer. Every shape is a separate but scalable form. Another term for this is object-oriented illustration. Images are in essence stored as calculations, rather than as a limited set of pixels, which are resolution dependent and can thus become blurry or chunky when scaled up. With vector art, the final result is independent of resolution, so the imagery will remain clear regardless of the size to which it is scaled and displayed.

While the finished product was digitally created, I still maintained a human touch on the illustrations. I would draw my images by hand first and then scan them, so that I could redraw them in Illustrator. I think the human touch helps supply an intellectual perspective to these images, making it clearer that these are possibilities and not an attempt to fool the eye or brain into believing the future will look like the images.

Illustration by John Miller

Illustration by John Miller

But how does one envision a future clearly enough to depict it in pictures? A logical approach for me was to look first at how the world has changed in an equal amount of time before the present day (50 to 60 years ago). I turned to the web and compared images for cars or people in 1958, for example, looking for how much things have both changed and stayed the same. It became apparent that the inner workings and, perhaps, the scale of things had changed most dramatically. For example, the kinds of people involved in business have changed more than the way people have dressed.

In Abandonment and Renewal, the images were relatively easy since, in a sense, time goes backward in this story. People have to depend on their own resourcefulness more than on advanced technology.

The most challenging scenario to illustrate was Accelerated Innovation, in which technological innovation is the main driver of change. The anticipation of this future involved the greatest visual risk. In my review of the past, I found there were dramatic changes with technology, such as the telephone or personal computer, that would be impossible to anticipate with any degree of certainty. As stated earlier, we tried to steer clear of predictive images as much as possible by focusing on the big picture.

I always learn while I illustrate, which is a wonderful part of this work. You can’t depict things that you can’t understand, nor can you overplay an image if it doesn’t serve the content. Illustrating can be like harmonizing—you have to know the tune, but also be able to enrich it with your own special thing.

John Miller is the illustrator for Yahara 2070 and an artist based in Madison, WI.

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