Optimism and Diversity – A view from ICON by Roderick Mills

AOI board member Roderick Mills attended ICON10 The Illustration Conference in Detroit, Michigan USA in July 2018.  He shares this thoughts here.

July 2018 saw the latest incarnation of ICON10 The Illustration Conference, held in the city of Detroit Michigan USA. Held every two years the conference has grown in statue to cover 5 days of conference, workshops and related activities.

Of all the growing conferences happening around illustration it is ICON with its split between both academic research and the industry that position itself on the crossroads of where arguably the profession currently resides. Detroit or Motorcity, the birthplace of Motown was suitably the venue this year, a city that has had its fair share of economic ups and downs, with the conference split across the two venues of the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel and Detroit College for Creative Studies.

I was fortunate to speak during the Educators Symposium at the start of the conference, where once again there was a growing number of international delegates and speakers discussing how educators are reacting to the changing nature of illustration, both in terms of careers, the challenges of technology, but also the social political situations that illustrators find themselves.

As in the previous conference in Austin Texas two years ago there was a palpable air of celebration, of a profession evolving as an ever increasing number of creatives are calling themselves illustrators.

The illustrator Robert Newman likened it to a ‘golden age of illustration’, with the illustrator no longer confined to the page, and what we know of as illustration greatly expanded.

This diversity of those moving into the profession was very evident at ICON, with a greater range of speakers bringing new perspectives to the audience during the 5 days the conference. There were talks on the reclaiming of images for minorities, feminist voices in comics, the politics of working in VR, and self promotion for gay illustrators, all added to great range of topics and agendas that demonstrates the change of illustration discourse from those of the past that centred purely on the industry.

The illustrator and academic Gil Ashby commented that illustration is more about ‘a way of thinking rather than learning a set of skills’, there is a genuine shift for illustration to a sense of advocacy, that it has an inherent quality to engage with communities beyond the traditional routes of commercial work.

Alongside this sense of optimism, conversely the importance of defining yourself from a legal point of view when dealing with clients or the very software that we use was also pointed out. In the complex world of corporations understanding the difference between freelance, contractor, or employee becomes ever more essential – knowledge and education would seem vital in sustaining a career in the future.

Attorney Chuck Cordes gave one of the most thought provoking talks on copyright and how the artist/industry relationship is changing, suggesting that illustrators need greater confidence in asserting one’s rights, and the bargaining power that a visual image maker inherently has, one of the best professional practice talks that I’ve heard.

The energy and enthusiasm of ICON is extremely infectious, they certainly know how to do conferences in the USA, but on a wider point it perhaps is also reflective of the buoyancy of illustration worldwide?

Roderick Mills


7th December 2018
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