The Power of Illustration


The illustration I did in Maya's workshop.

Illustration = communication = representation, says Maya Zankoul, a graphic designer who (if you don’t already know) keeps a comics blog about Lebanese daily life at Maya’s Amalgam. It’s not just for kids or a childish act, she affirms for the skeptics in the room. It requires right-brain thinking, the kind of thinking that will allow 1 + 1 to equal 3.

She showed us three basic shapes—o, ^, |—and thought about all the variations they could yield, depending on who was looking at them. For some, the circle was a donut, for others infinity. Illustration can be as simple as a stick figure, and you don’t have to know how to draw. It can also be a way to deal with frustrations, like an art therapy.

This was Zankoul’s introduction to the Saturday workshop she gave at Nasawiya. Next was the assignment: Thinking of something bothering you and illustrate it.

The first step was to come up with a character of ourselves (mine is above) and then to add the detail. Some used pencil and paper, others drew à la Zankoul straight into Paint or Illustrator.

At the end of the session, we shared the results, which Maya also shared on her blog.

I wanted to attend this workshop not just to explore my capacity for illustration as a means of self-expression, but also as a first step in incorporating more illustration into our trainings. We communicate with a lot of diverse audiences, with a lot of diverse learning styles, but somehow simple illustration seems to rise above the rest when it comes to transferring messages quickly and clearly. Just look at the Common Craft videos that explain social media (on admittedly American terms). And Zankoul’s video explaining the English-Arabic conversation site Meedan that was based on the LeFevers’ style.

Granted these are more animations, but still it’s the illustration that lets complex ideas be shown in a few strokes requiring little or no language at all. That means language can be less of a barrier.

Of course, cultural references can be tricky, something that Lebanese design firm PenguinCube addresses with its free dingbat font Steretypo, released last year.

The dingbat font Stereotypo by PenguinCube
The Stereotypo font includes an assortment of steretypes associated with Arab people, places, and actions. Users remix the fonts to create social commentary.

Stereotypo is a “collection of symbols and icons representing stereotypes commonly associated with Middle Eastern people, places and actions,” it says on the PenguinCube site. Instead of typing a word with it, you type an idea—or you can use the pictures independently of any sentence structure. According to the font’ s Facebook Page, it was “inspired by a bomb-decorated Beirut and the terror-monger, post 9/11, Arab image” and has been cooking for 4 years.

With the release of Stereotypo, PenguinCube encouraged downloads, mixing, and uploads to the Facebook Page. You can also see results on the True Tales page at Stereotypo.org, which include remixes of Nancy Ajram music videos and, of course, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

We’re not sure why humans respond so readily to illustration. Maybe it has something to do with being able to see the hand at work (even when you’re using a mouse). Shaky lines and curves rather than rectilinear edges. Or maybe it’s an affinity produced by our time, where so much media aims to reproduce reality, that illustration becomes a visual rest and a way to explore corners of our minds that can’t yet be photographed.

Either way, we hope to see, and now make, lots more.

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