Illustrations are the epitome of brand maturity. Young companies often use pre-built assets to illustrate their website. Like these “100 icons set” and other “3D Workplace Concepts” you can find on design marketplaces. As businesses grow, they begin creating custom designs, starting with their logo. And before you know it, they hire an artist to develop a complete brand system. The reason why all companies end up there is simple: illustrations are the most effective way to differentiate your brand. That’s often how people remember a brand. Think the CocaCola polar bear.
But making a good drawing is only the first step to using illustrations to your brand’s advantage. Many founders who don’t get this end up paying a lot to create illustrations they don’t use to their fullest potential. Here is how to do it right.
1. Get the answer to your “Why?”
“Why, though?” This might be something you said to a designer trying to sell you on creating custom illustrations for your brand. If you’re at a stage where you don’t see the point of creating custom illustrations, you might be too early. In that case, you should stick to pre-built designs until the time comes. At some point, you’ll end up in a situation where the need becomes obvious. It could be when you are redesigning your website… again. Or when you’re starting your company’s Instagram account. Your brand messaging eventually becomes so unique that standard illustrations don’t work anymore. That’s when you’ll get the answer to your “Why?”
Designers can imagine whole new realities using illustrations that feel familiar, yet unique. They can manipulate a design to perfectly convey your message, vision, or perspective. That freedom doesn’t exist in photography or writing. Writing is limited by the rules of language, while photography is limited by the rules of… well, physics. But illustrations have no rules. That makes them a very useful tool to convey ideas that are difficult to explain.
Illustrations can also relate complex emotions at a level that writing and photography can rarely get to. They create an instant emotional connection that surpasses language barriers. That’s why brands and movies favor illustrations to communicate with children. It makes the emotions they want to convey much more obvious. Think Hakuna Matata, animated vs live-action.
Don’t get me wrong, the live-action movie is a work of art. But the animated version does a much better job at showing how joyful and rich the world of Timon and Pumba is. The bright colors are much more in line with the song being played at that very moment.
2. Choose your style
Once you understand the purpose of custom illustrations, you need to determine your style. Asking a designer to build you a one-off image won’t get you far. In fact, it could even hurt your brand long term. The lack of an homogenous style will create confusion among your potential customers. It will also make your brand look amateurish and disorganized. That, in turn, will make people trust your company less, which may impact your sales.
So first, choose a style. Or even better, create a visual language for your brand. Gather illustrations from other artists that have a style close to the one you want. Look at shapes, color, perspective, lines. Make sure they all convey the values of your company. And once you have your inspiration, start building your brand guide.
A brand guide doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be a simple document that lists the colors of your brand and includes a set of custom illustrations and icons as examples. Here is one I made using some of Slack’s branding:
A quick glance at this document gives us plenty of information about Slack’s 2020 style. Let’s look at Slack’s mission: the collaboration hub that brings the right people, information, and tools together. You can clearly see that mission in the illustrations. The use of very different but complementary colors conveys the idea of connecting different things in harmony. That’s shown through the use of shapes that stack or assemble together as well. Slack also wants to appear relatable, with illustrations of hot coffee and smiley faces. On a more technical side, it’s obvious that Slack prefers flat design with isometric shapes. And while they don’t use line design for the illustrations, it’s definitely their preference for the icons. Let us know what else you see in the comments.
Whatever style you choose, aim for something that is distinct yet flexible. Pick colors and designs that relate your values. If your values include joy and community for instance, you’ll prefer round shapes with vivid colors. If you want to convey robustness and safety, clean lines with cold colors may work better. You can check out our article about logo design which gives more details about matching design with values.
3. Use illustrations wisely
Once you’ve figured out your style, it’s time to determine what content to create. It can be icons, spot illustrations or full-frame illustrations. Which one to choose will depend on your branding, but also how you want to use the designs. Full-frame illustrations are ideal to convey your brand values. They work well on websites, and when illustrations are a core part of your branding. See Salesforce or Stripe for example:
Full-frame illustrations are not ideal to convey specific ideas though. They’re better suited to express a “mood,” a set of character traits or a context. To express ideas, you’re better off using Spot illustrations. Spot illustrations have clear borders within which the design lives, encompassing the entire message. That makes them ideal for companies selling software and other intangible products. They’re also a great tool for social media, since they can exist on their own. Here are a few examples from Slack’s Instagram account:
These are some of the illustrations Slack shared during the Covid quarantine. Here again, the concept of seamless virtual collaboration is obvious, with a focus on Work From Home of course.
Like spot illustrations, icons have finite borders and can express an idea. But they tend to be too small to convey more than a simple concept. Most brands use icons in place of a word, usually on their website. In fact, brands that don’t use illustrations at all still use icons. Let’s take Nike for example. Nike’s vision is to “expand human potential.” Their branding relies heavily on photography of people. As a result, the only illustrations you can find on their websites are a few line icons at the top right to represent “search,” “cart” and “favorites.”
Now if your brand strategy is similar to Nike’s, icons may be enough. But for most companies, you’ll need to build an illustration set. Designers often call it a brand system. Your brand system should include illustrations of all sizes, from icons to full-frame. It will give you the freedom to apply illustrations in different contexts while keeping an homogeneous brand. Even if you’re not ready yet, start building your brand guide today. It will help you define your style later. And once you’re ready to go, you can hire a designer on the Gravitr platform to build your brand system. Take your time though! We’ll be here. 🙂