Express, inform, enchant

The magic of illustration

GETTING people to read is the goal of plain language. Sometimes, nothing works better than an illustration. Long before humans invented writing, they were expressing themselves in pictures. The astonishing paintings in the Chauvet Cave of France are testimony to this basic human need. With the arrival of digital technologies, today's images play an increasingly prominent role in how we communicate.

Something new in the world: the 32,000-year-old paintings in the Chauvet Cave mark the appearance of the first human illustrators.

The particular pleasure afforded by illustrations comes from the brain's own use of images to keep track of things. An illustration, by drawing on memory, stands for something and makes it vivid and present in a way that even a thousand words cannot. Even abstract art, like music, can bring to life impressions and feelings we have stored in memory.

Illustrations and text

After ancient Egyptians began writing, they lavishly illustrated their hieroglyphic texts with pictures. Both Judaism and Islam forbade the use of human images but often decorated their texts with other illustrations.

A woodblock page from the 15th-century Poor People's Bible

The Chinese invented paper in the second century A.D. and soon after began using woodcuts to print text illustrated with pictures. Printing with woodcuts on paper reached the Middle East in the 8th century and Europe by the 12th century. Medieval Europe eagerly embraced illustrations in Bibles and stained glass.

In the early 18th century, William Hogarth, an English painter, printmaker, and editorial cartoonist, pioneered western sequential art. His work ranged from realistic portraits to comic-strip-like pictures called "modern moral subjects." By the late 19th century, woodcuts had brought into households of Europe and America a range and quality of illustration—and a consciousness of illustration—that no society had ever experienced.

During the same period, photography, lithography, photogravure, and rotogravure all arrived. Printers snapped them up and made newspapers, mass-market magazines, and illustrated books the dominant media of public life.

Illustrated children's books

Cover of Sing a Song For SixpenceOne of Caldecott's famous picture books: a perfect marriage of text and pictures.

The revolution in printed graphics helped transform children's books from moral probity to madcap fun. Leading this revolution was Britain's Randolph Caldecott, who was followed by other famous children's illustrators and writers such as Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, Kate Greenaway, Leonard Leslie Brooke, and Beatrix Potter.

What they achieved was a perfect marriage of text and pictures. Viewed serially from page to page, they had a rhythmic progression, what Maurice Sendak called "a sense of music and dance." In the United States, the American Library Association named their annual award for best picture book after Caldecott.


Cover of Spiderman comicsA Spider-Man cover: a boon for teachers and expanding our definition of literacy.

Swiss teacher Rodolphe Töpffer and Britain's Punch magazine are credited for creating the comics.

Töpffer wrote that to make a picture story, "You must actually invent some kind of play, where the parts are arranged by plan and form a satisfactory whole. You do not merely pen a joke or put a refrain in couplets. You make a book: good or bad, sober or silly, crazy or sound in sense."

Although many still regard comics as juvenile, junk literature, educators have long recognized their importance. Increasing the range of texts available in the classroom can lead students into a lifelong habit of reading and learning.

Children are not the only ones reading comics. They remain popular among a wide range of people, from young males in their twenties and thirties who read the superheroes to a rapidly growing audience of manga readers, especially among adolescent girls. A quarter of seniors in college still read comics.

Stergio Botzakis wrote about what adults get out of comics in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. He says,"Comic-book reading is an example of out-of-school activities that enrich our definition of literacy." Botzakis found that adult readers of comics were gaining meaning, expertise, connoisseurship, mental development, and enlightenment. They were taking part in mental exercises that are part of the "arts of existence."

The world of manga

Example of manga pageA recent manga cover: getting people to read the world over.

Manga refers to the Japanese black-and-white comic books. Modern manga originated in Japan during reconstruction after World War II, a time of intense artistic development. Since then, manga has become increasingly popular all over the world.

In Japan, everyone reads manga, young and old. They cover many subjects including action-adventure, romance, sports and games, historical drama, comedy, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, horror, sexuality, and business. In Japan, manga sales constitute almost a quarter (US$5.2 billion) of Japan's annual publishing sales (US$22 billion).

In Japan, manga are published in large magazines. They often contain different stories that run in episodes from one issue to the next. If the series is successful, it can be released as an anime film or republished in book form as a graphic novel.

Reversely, manga are often based on popular films such as Star Wars or classic books such as Alice in Wonderland and Anne of Green Gables.

Most manga artists in Japan work alone or with a few assistants. They seem to have an innate ability to tell an excellent story.

Film and text

Mutually reinforcing: the release of the 1938 film won 10 Adademy Awards and lifted book sales over the 2 million mark. It has never been out of print.

The invention of moving pictures sealed the strong connections between images, language, sound, and text. Invading the lavish world of theater, motion pictures richly draw upon the the brain's resources and memory in a way no other medium can.

Film itself can be an inducement to read. An award-winning film can boost sales of the book on which it was based. Margaret Mitchell's 1936 Gone with the Wind. Written at a popular 7th-grade level, it was a best-selling novel and inspired a film that became the highest grossing film of all time, with over $1.5 billion in sales.

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (also written at the 7th-grade level) was read by so many adults that it dominated the New York Times best-sellers list for two years. The paper finally had to create a new category to dislodge it. By 2007, the book had sold 107 million copies world-wide, making it one of the top-selling books of all time. The complete book series, also boosted by the related films, has sold over 405 million copies.

Digital technologies

Picture of drum setTechnical illustration: creation and upgrading made easier with digital technology.

Since ancient times, designers and engineers have been illustrating texts with pictures. Illustration and narrative play a critical role in technical manuals. New digital technologies now make technical illustrations easier to create and update.

Those same technologies have brought full-color illustrations not only into advertising, newpapers, and magazines, but also textbooks, cookbooks, travel guides, restaurant menus, and instructive manuals of every kind,

Digital technologies have also promoted the sales of niche magazines, which focus on a single topic and are becoming increasingly popular. They appeal to specialized interests from poker playing to horse people, from interior design and decor to wedding titles, from dog lovers to golf players.

Publishers are also looking closely at the rising sales of video-illustrated and interactive ebooks. One thing they know for sure, that ebook sales will depend on the tight integration of images with a good story, plainly told.

Type of Publication (U.S.) Annual Sales
(US $millions)
Comics and graphic novels 417
Ebooks 431
Children's books 546
Young-adult books 694
Romance fiction 1,358
Textbooks 8,170
Other adult fiction and non-fiction 11,784
Total U.S. books 23,340
Total U.S. magazines and periodicals 43,000

Plain language in the news

New plain-language mandate for health insurance: http://tinyurl.com/6u6o3dg

Federal agencies to tackle health literacy:

River-site advisory board wants plain language: http://tinyurl.com/6wkeps5

Plain-language disclosures do change financial behavior: http://tinyurl.com/6vf6c8k

Gobbledygook in council letter: http://tinyurl.com/82ze9fw

Bureaucrats designing signposts: http://tinyurl.com/778y2er

Five professions excelling in jargon: http://tinyurl.com/7oor7x9

Government jargon and unemployment: http://tinyurl.com/6tf2mtr

Child development and language skills: http://tinyurl.com/7kzpfpe

Women with low literacy suffer more than men: http://tinyurl.com/896df87

Doctors and health instructions: http://tinyurl.com/6lrce8a

Promoting literacy in prisons: http://tinyurl.com/7atso9h