The Evolution of Illustration in Web Design

Did you know that the art of illustration dates back to the times of mammoths and cave people? If you are a curious web designer, it will be interesting for you to know more about history and evolution of illustration in web design.

Do you remember the stages of illustration art development? Would you like to know what happened to it as time passed by? Read these and many other information concerning illustration and its role in web design in our blog post. Get to know the roots and reasons of illustration decay. The entry is supplied with vivid examples of website designs containing old-school and contemporary illustrations for you to compare.

Do you often use illustrations in your designs? Of course you do, as even now, when huge HD photos are on the peak of popularity, illustrations still don’t lose their relevance. Nevertheless, they have altered greatly during the long period of web design development.

Brief History and Definition

Have you ever thought how old the art of illustration is? Its history goes back to times out of mind, when primitive men scratched scenes from their everyday life on the walls of caves they lived in. Yes, it also was a kind of illustration. Because, according to the term definition an illustration is a visualization or a depiction made by an artist, such as a drawing, sketch, painting, photograph, or other kind of image of things seen, remembered or imagined, using a graphical representation. The word has Latin origin and derived from ‘illustra’tio’, ‘illu’stro’, meaning enlighten, irradiate.

Below you see one of the first illustrations made by cavemen. It depicts their everyday activities.

The First Illustrations Made By Cavemen

The aim of an illustration is to elucidate or decorate a story, poem or piece of information providing visual representation of something described in the text. Illustrations can be executed in different techniques, like watercolor, gouache, ink, oil, charcoal chalk or woodcut.

Speaking about current web design, illustrations are created with the help of digital means like Photoshop or a combination of both manual and digital techniques.

But let’s come back to the history of illustration. Since medieval times they played an utterly important role in explaining authors’ thoughts and viewpoints to the reader. First woodcut illustrated books became available in 15th century. During 16th and 17th centuries main processes used for reproduction of illustrations were engraving and etching. But by the end of the 18th century, lithography technique allowed even better reproduction of illustrations. Early to mid-19th century, illustrations were widely used in satirical and straight-fiction magazines. Illustrators of that time were mostly busy drawing caricature characters who symbolized social types and classes. Gradually, in 20th century, these comic illustrations turned into sophisticated topical observations.

The so-called “golden age of illustration” lasted from the 1880s until shortly after World War I. Newspapers, magazines, and illustrated books had become the dominant media of public consumption. Improvements in printing technology allowed illustrators to experiment with color and new rendering techniques. Those days, a gifted group of illustrators became really rich and famous.

Illustration in Web Design

If you are a mature web designer, you certainly remember the times when illustration was an integral part of quality, professional web page. It was not so long ago, at the dawn of web design, in 20th century. At that time, illustrations were combined with typography and image-making and everybody was satisfied with the result. Illustrated websites were highly appreciated like the form of art done by master’s hand. Illustrations in graphic design were aimed to convey messages with personal creative attitude and interpretation. Illustrations rendered personality and individual, unique style of website owner and designer, similar to the pure art.

With technological breakthrough in 1990s, illustration lost its preferred position. As the proverb goes: “Give a lark to catch a kite“. So, unique, individual appearance of a website has been changed for practical, business-oriented strategies, branding and commercial messages. It became absolutely obvious that advanced graphic design, focused on particular purpose is much more appropriate than dreamy visual elements of illustration, no matter how beautiful they are.

The probable reason of illustration decay in web design may be the lack of its verbal accuracy. Graphic design is much more apt in combining verbal indices with powerful imagery. In our present life, commercial interests rule real and virtual worlds, so there is not much space left for fairies, fantasy and idiosyncrasy. Marketing laws dominate over all modern websites. Concise, direct words and call-to-actions enhanced by high-resolution images have more powerful impact on the user than artistic interpretation. Average consumers don’t want to waste their time guessing what you are trying to say them. That’s why marketing and advertising campaigns use short, easily readable and digestible messages. Quick tempo of our lives deprives us of the luxury to contemplate the beauty of objects if we entered a website with concrete, trivial purpose (just to buy something for dinner, for instance). That’s why, all we need onsite is user-friendly navigation, competitive prices, quality product images, large “buy” buttons and simple checkout process. Just agree that from this standpoint, illustrations look like something from the past as they just distract our attention and take our time. That’s why, finally, illustration took its place among the niche arts destined for other purposes, like comics, movies and cartoons.

Nevertheless, the increased competition with digital photography motivated illustrators to be more creative and conquer the new heights. As a standalone art, illustration has more chances to be captivating than a photograph because it is not restricted by reality. An artist can express anything he/she wishes in a drawing and we will be fascinated by the scenery.

Examples of Illustration in Web Design

Below you will see the examples of old-school and modern websites containing illustrations. You will be able to see and compare the changes happened to illustrations in web design and decide yourself whether you like them or not.

Examples of Illustration in Modern Website Design

Finn Naermeste Hybrid Her

Illustration in Web Design - Finn Naermeste Hybrid Her

Note how light, outlined and trendy the illustration on this page is. It focuses user’s attention and makes the content more visual.

Marcello Pisano

Illustration in Web Design - Marcello Pisano

This illustration resembles comics we used to read in our childhood. A smart designer’s trick, isn’t it?

R & B Research

Illustration in Web Design - R & B Research

Subtle combs impart the website a serious, trustworthy look.

Unabridged Software

Illustration in Web Design - Unabridged Software

Schematic animated illustrations on every website page are very interesting to watch.


Illustration in Web Design - Dunlop

An unobtrusive illustrated winter landscape helps to convey main site message to the visitors without distracting them from the advertised product.

Yeti Spotter

Illustration in Web Design - Yeti Spotter

Are you afraid of Yeti? This one looks rather friendly and cute with a chequered scarf round his neck.

Part Media

Illustration in Web Design - Part Media

Please note how the author managed to create the atmosphere of underwater world with all its flora and fauna with the help of simple illustrative elements.


Illustration in Web Design - RSQ

This is a great example of modern website with an accent on simplicity and minimalism.


Illustration in Web Design - R2I

The upper slider makes good use of illustrative elements which make this website unique. This feature is highly appreciated on today’s web.

2nd Floor

Illustration in Web Design - 2nd Floor

This background with carelessly drawn devices is really incredible. It’s a spice of this website.


Illustration in Web Design - Streamline

Nothing can tell about company services better than contemporary, humorous illustrations.

Startup Turkey

Illustration in Web Design - Startup Turkey

Rotating polygon illustrations on this website create an unusual optical illusion of geometrical volume.

The Zebra

Illustration in Web Design - The Zebra

Sketchy buildings, sketchy street, sketchy cars moving along it and this zebra dressed in shirt and tie – all these looks very clean and business-like.

Lynx 18 Years of Africa

Illustration in Web Design - Lynx 18 Years of Africa

This website proves that photos and illustrations mixed up together can make a pungent cocktail.

Kasra Design

Illustration in Web Design - Kasra Design

Look at these snowy peaks, trees, deer, mountain river with ship and boats sailing hither and thither, they are amazing.


Illustration in Web Design - Exsus

Would you like to have a nice drive in this red car? Come on, you will meet numerous attractions on your way.

Make Your Money Matter

Illustration in Web Design - Make Your Money Matter

A good sense of humor is a huge benefit for any designer. We are sure that the story told by the author of this website will be memorized by all its visitors.


Illustration in Web Design - Hochburg

People portraits in slider of this website can be called artistic without any exaggeration.


Illustration in Web Design - Fixate

This pattern consisting of different objects, shapes and ornaments can’t be called trivial, and everything that stands out from the crowd always grabs users’ attention.


Examples of Illustration in Old Website Design

Leg Work

Illustration in Web Design - Leg Work

The designer even took the trouble to draw hairs on the guy’s leg shod in sneakers with loose laces.

The Pete Design

Illustration in Web Design - The Pete Design

A ribbon together with combination of retro and bizarre handwritten fonts, beige and brown colors make this website look vintage.

Made by Tim

Illustration in Web Design - Made by Tim

Very interesting graphics making the user ponder over its meaning.

Tokyo Illustrators Society

Illustration in Web Design - Tokyo Illustrators Society

Here you’ll find illustrations fitting various aesthetical ideas.


Illustration in Web Design - Yipori

These funny, smiling characters and bright, juicy colors lift up the mood of every visitor browsing the website.


Illustration in Web Design - Hugs

Don’t you think that this illustration looks monster?

Tijuana Flats

Illustration in Web Design - Tijuana Flats

Here is a grungy, comic-style website with one-armed bandit in the center that looks very realistic.

Malika Favre

Illustration in Web Design - Malika Favre

A nice collage of vintage illustration, isn’t it?

Ferocious Quarterly

Illustration in Web Design - Ferocious Quarterly

Illustrated background, illustrated content, illustrated everything – a good sample of how much designers used illustration art for their projects.

Cascade Brewery Co

Illustration in Web Design - Cascade Brewery Co

This is our last example bristling with old illustrations, we hope now you can easily trace the evolution of the latter in web design.


Summing it up, it’s safe to say that today’s realities are as follows: the quantity of fully illustrative sites has significantly reduced. Actually, their number is almost next to nothing. However, this doesn’t mean that web designers completely ceased to use the power of illustration in their projects. In comparison to previous years, illustrated elements have undergone great evolution changes. Now illustration technique is used mainly in IU, logo and elements design (in other words – minor details design). Web designers stepped away from skeuomorphic type of illustrations as copying real objects looks outdated and even incongruous on modern sleek web pages. We can say that the art of illustration in web design has adjusted to general trends. Illustrative elements became cleaner, flatter, more outlined and minimalistic. This simple, elegant, intuitively understandable style perfectly blends with current virtual reality. But this does not mean that illustration stopped to exist as a separate art form. On the contrary, with incredible possibilities of contemporary software and its continuous development, illustration wizards became almost omnipotent. Now they are able to create the whole worlds enchanting us with their miraculous landscapes and fairy inhabitants.

Here is an illustration from “Alice in Wonderland” movie website. The author’s technique makes our hearts skip a beat, so fantastic it is.

Illustration from Alice in Wonderland Movie Website


Dear readers, if you liked our brief insight into evolution of illustration in web design, please let us know what you think about it. Do you believe that illustration popularity decrease positively affected web design in general and e-commerce sites in particular? Do you use many illustrative elements in your designs? Maybe you are a talented illustrator yourself willing to share your creative experiments with the community. Please, don’t keep silence as your opinion is very precious to us. Speak up! Comment section is here specifically for the purpose.

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  1. Yes! I think we can web design in illustrator. We can all WEB work in illustration with other interesting things.

  2. This is kind of an odd article. There isn’t really an evolution of illustration in web design. Illustrations have always been used in web pages since the early-mid 90’s. There are plenty of sites that use illustrations in their designs today. There are actually more sites using illustrations today than ever before, because…there are more sites.
    I guess I am not sure what the purpose of the article is?
    “Get to know the roots and reasons of illustration decay.”
    There is not really any such thing as illustration decay. Illustration is used or it is not used in web design. If you are going to use the word “evolution” you need to cite the first website that ever used illustration in its design. That needs to be the base of your article, not cave paintings which have no bearing on websites.

    • Looks like you didn’t get the point. Cave paintings were used in the “Brief History and Definition” section…as for me, they are an integral part in the evolution of not only illustrations, but the fine arts in general.

      Putting it bluntly: illustrations started from those wall drawing dating back to 30000-10000 years b.c. Don’t you agree?

    • Tim, I’m really thrilled with your feedback. Thanks a lot for reading and sharing your thoughts on my blog post. This article is my personal viewpoint based on research and analysis of web community members’ considerations as well as obvious facts. They say: “From the clash of opinions emerges the truth”. I carefully studied your comment and believe that it’s great that my modest entry stirred the desire to argue. I respect your standpoint and I wish I had more such attentive readers like you.

    • As for me, the word “evolution” is directly associated with cave paintings. I think (and not only me) that this theme is perfectly developed in this particular article. But fouling in the comments section never makes anyone happy, let’s stop at that, Tim. By the way, good job, Helga!

      • The article has a great list of websites that incorporate illustration. I like a lot of them. However, the word evolution is misleading, because there is no such thing as an evolution of illustration in web design, as I said before.
        The title should just be, “A List of Websites Incorporating Great Illustration” or something along those lines.
        Anyway, I did enjoy looking at the sites you’ve found.

  3. People quickly understand the meaning of image with small description.

  4. Hi,
    Thank you for sharing such a great article with us,it’s a very informative article for me….

  5. thanks for this informative article. can you provide some information about windows 8 activator??These days it’s really hard to find a working windows 8 activator since almost all of them are already outdated as well as unable to bypass Microsoft’s latest security update that preventing windows from offline activation. windows 8 activator

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