What is Brand Illustration?
At Underbelly, we do a lot of work refining and developing brands. We also create a lot of illustrations for clients. These two fields— branding & illustration, are my favorite areas of design, so I thought I would share some thoughts on the crucial relationship between them. The term “brand illustration” describes imagery or diagrams that help make something clear or attractive in a style that reinforces the larger brand story. A well-constructed brand guide will consistently address everything needed to express your corporate identity across all applicable mediums. Brand guides typically include a logo, colors, fonts, voice, tone, and photography - often overlooking illustration. Your brand could benefit significantly from defining a brand illustration style.
Why It Is Important to Define an Illustration Style
We live in an age of abundant content. Consumers have the luxury (and burden) of sifting through a sea of options. Illustration offers a means of expressing your unique brand identity across different platforms. A distinct illustration style can be an effective way of standing out from the competition. Additionally, illustration can help to clarify complex ideas at a glance. It does not simply decorate— good brand illustration should augment other content and elevate every brand story.
A situation that would benefit from a visual aid will likely arise— a blog article, onboarding flow, or social media post. Without a defined illustration style, your team will have to come up with solutions on the fly. This puts misplaced liability on the people creating these designs and leads to inconsistent and inappropriate brand decisions.
Illustration Is Not for Every Brand... Or Is It?
A brand's personality should dictate the role of illustration in the larger system and the style of illustrations used. Showcasing artwork front-and-center is not the best decision for a lot of brands. If a brand's tone is more professional, mature, or high-end, colorful cartoons are probably not the right fit. However, brands may still find the need for illustrations in some capacity. Having defined parameters and guidance on usage and style can reduce a lot of friction down the road. Illustration can be as varied and versatile as language itself— maybe more so.
Examples of Brand Illustrations in Use
Here are some examples of brands that use illustrations to distinguish themselves within their respective markets in entirely different ways.
Headspace, for instance, uses colorful, geometric characters to break the stigma around meditation by injecting whimsy and joy into their brand.
LIFEWTR focuses heavily on contemporary artwork to create a sophisticated and eclectic aesthetic for their premium bottled water line.
Adobe developed a system of highly abstract brand illustrations. This style of imagery allows Adobe to convey complex concepts and feelings without having to be too literal or specific.
Create Your Brand Illustration Style
Ideally, illustration styles would be defined as part of a larger branding project. A team of stakeholders would partner with brand experts (like us) to refine or create the company’s identity. Once we understand the brand's vision, mission, users, market, and personality, we can craft the elements needed to bring it all to life. Your illustration style should work holistically with every other aspect of the brand to achieve the larger goals. We like to create mockups using different elements to ensure that everything is complimentary when designing a brand. Some additional things to consider for brand illustrations are where and how they will be used. Knowing this helps eliminate wasted efforts and creates a more straightforward path to success.
Now Go and Do and Make and Illustrate
With some parameters and guidance people are empowered to tell compelling stories and create impactful designs. For smaller brands, this can be accomplished by including illustration styles in the brand guidelines with examples, descriptions, dos & don’ts. For larger brands, we recommend building out an illustration system; a library of examples and resources for the team. Like any aspect of a brand, illustrations should be specific enough to be distinct but flexible enough to be usable, and everything should evolve to meet the brand's needs. Most of all, have fun with it. they’re just pictures, after all. ;)