There is no doubt that illustration is having a moment. In fact sharing examples of brands doing great work with illustration doesn’t need much more research than scrolling through the open tabs on my machine: Asana, Slack, Basecamp, MailChimp (OK, I don’t use that last one, but I like their work).
All these businesses use illustration to deliver a compelling and memorable visual brand. But they do more than just that. Illustration works hard to communicate abstract concepts that can be extremely difficult to express in any other way. Certainly when compared to words or stock photography, illustration can put in a phenomenal shift of work for the amount of real estate it occupies on screen.
Indeed illustration can do more than that. Great illustrations can convey the feeling that a product or service delivers, and as any marketer will tell you that is a huge benefit: the holy grail even.
And that’s not the only reason illustration is so popular. In a world where digital communication extends far beyond the website and across an ever increasing number of social channels and paid media advertising formats, illustration really comes into its own.
Nothing is shareable like illustration. Particularly in social channels such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and many others I haven’t heard of, illustration can communicate and lot, encourage sharing and as a result amplify mindshare for the brand. In environments where word counts are limited (and words don’t tend to be read anyway), that’s a huge benefit.
Illustration also helps communicate a cohesive, consistent brand identity across the broader online estate. That is hard to do with photography, harder still to do with words, but a piece of cake with illustration. If you don’t believe me, just look at the Twitter stream of, say, Zendesk. Nothing ties a brand together (and delivers all the benefits we associate with a strong brand) like illustration.
If you’re convinced by the merits of illustration (and by now hopefully you are), the rest of this piece is intended to help ensure you do the job right - which is half the battle.
Five Ways To Get Illustration Right
Great illustration is a powerful asset. Poor illustration communicates very little and can be actively damaging to the brand. Here’s five general and practical tips to make sure you’re on the right side of that equation:
- Start with why. Take the time before diving into the process of illustration itself to document what purpose you want both illustration as a whole, and any specific illustration you create, to achieve. It’s easy to get seduced by the visual aspect of illustration and forget this principle, but important not to! One of the great benefits of illustration is its infinite flexibility. Use that to your advantage and ensure whatever you create tells a story and serves a purpose - and plays to the strengths of illustration we discussed above.
- Start simple, and scope accurately. Illustration doesn’t have to be expensive, but it certainly can be. Make sure you are aware of the total requirement. From icons and logos to bespoke illustrations, you will want consistency in terms of visual identity (see below), which in turn means the full range of illustration coming from the same metaphorical pen. If you have a limited budget, start small and don’t dive straight into large illustrations. Build up an identity over time.
- Maintain consistency. Easy to say, harder to achieve. It can be very tempting to get carried away with the possibilities of illustration and the huge range of styles and approaches available, each of which has merits and advantages in specific situations. However, visual consistency is vitally important. The brands mentioned above may create hundreds of illustrations for a wide variety of purposes, but wherever we see them we recognise them. That’s important in a multi-channel world.
- Think carefully about responsive design and accessibility. If you are communicating something in an illustration, make sure that there are alternative ways for your audience to access that information. And remember that accessibility in the broader sense also involves the ability to consume information on multiple devices. If your illustration becomes meaningless or hard to ‘read’ on a mobile screen, consider showing something else to get the message across.
- Don’t (always) reinvent the wheel. The best illustration is usually bespoke illustration, but there’s no point pretending it isn’t expensive. If your time or budget is limited, by all means look at stock illustrations as a basis for further work. Taking this approach can avoid some of the more routine aspects of illustration development and allow you to focus on the unique touches that make any final product uniquely ‘you’.