Blog Post

Researching for Illustration Makes all the Difference

Emily Loughran – Junior Brand Designer
June 19, 2020
Researching for Illustration Makes all the Difference at Sweepr

After finishing design college and starting my career in a tech startup, I had no idea what was coming my way. The other designers on my team gave me a welcome but unexpected task: create an illustration strategy for our company.

Illustration fascinates me; a specialised area where art and design meet. And before I knew anything about design or illustration, I was consuming it. Not ashamed to say I've always skipped through things to look at the pictures first.

I was kind of astounded to be given the responsibility to create an illustration style, system and direction for Sweepr; Such an important role to be given to someone just starting out.. and I was not trained in illustration, per say. So no pressure!

Illustrations can be both a heavy lifting and joyous addition to a brand. They can:

  • Help someone to understand a heavy concept quicker.
  • Communicate something in a universal language.
  • Create an emotional response that’s desirable for a brand.
  • Build a narrative for a product or service with its users.

Who knew a few pictures could do so much?!

I started my task with research but found, to my great surprise, that not only was illustration widespread in the technology field, but it was also alike. How some very different companies had come up with very similar illustration styles had me thinking and questioning. It’s good to look like a tech company, but tech is broad so there’s plenty of room for differentiation.

But what’s the problem? The problem with creating a generic or trendy illustration style, is that it can risk aligning your company with other companies, or being mistaken for another company.

Firstly, such confusion may not be desirable, and secondly, it’s definitely not desirable. Most of all, having a unique approach to the elements in your design system makes you more trustworthy.

Illustrations are visual assets most people will see first, so the impression your brand makes and the identification of your brand can be quickly determined by your illustrations.

When the surge of illustration within tech companies’ design systems came about (recently enough), it was time to get with the times and modernize brand systems. This time pressure, along with the inevitable globalisation tech has induced, could have attributed to the homogenisation of tech company illustrations styles.

But it seems when the pressure’s on, a lot of the time, sadly, the part of the design process that suffers or gets sacrificed, is the research. This is probably because there is an idea that research is invisible in finished work.

*Above is some research done for this blog post illustration, consisting of a mixture of all sorts of things; from diagrams of lenses, photographs of lenses, Pop Art by Warhol, Brutalist architecture, paintings by Mondrian, an impossible scape by Escher, and a vaporwave collage.

So coming from an empathetic place to an illustrator or designer, tasked with something similar to me, I'd like to share some advice.

Do good illustration research. Here’s how you can improve it, from my experience.

Look outside of illustration

Look at architecture, nature, sculpture, photography, film, fashion, painting, even performance....look too closely in the illustration and you’ll end up copying styles blindly without even knowing it.

Looking outside can inspire great ideas and unique styles.

We can see design principles common across so many branches of design, so a lot of the time, something used in one area of design can be translated into illustration...Looking only at illustration won’t give you any shortcuts.

Trace it back

The further you go back, the more you will see the purity of idea and expression in the beginnings of visual culture. Everything made now, be it trendy or innovative, contains movements, symbolism and art direction which can be traced back....way back, or not too far back if you think of more recent or contemporary visual innovations.

Your job as an illustrator will be made easier when working from the roots of these successful works, instead of relying on their imitations over understanding the principle idea. Your work will be richer, better, and clearer.

Coming from a visual communications background, we were always taught to find the original piece of work when researching. I know Pinterest is easier sometimes, but to get the best design results, you should try to work from the original source.

On trend, on purpose

Trends get momentum so quickly, that it’s hard to know what is really working and successful about it, unless you discover for yourself.

Critique why a trend exists and why companies use it. Does it perform well in a certain way? Can you adopt the part of it that can work for you, while rejecting the rest and use it in conjunction with something new and unique?

Think “there must be a reason all of these companies are using this style”...so if you can find it and it’s a worthy reason, then go for it. But dissect it out and use it with intent.

How you use research is as important as how you conduct research

So as you look at your final illustration work, look at it beside your research. Like what was said earlier, there’s an idea that research should be almost invisible in the finished work, and this is not exactly true.

Your individual sources from your research should be invisible. But by paying close attention to your research, you can actively use and combine elements, ideas, or styles you see, but ultimately using those in conjunction with your own ideas and style to create something new.

Emily Loughran is a visual and brand designer who works at Sweepr, a technology startup based in Dublin. Keep your eyes on this for more on how we approach the creative process, here at Sweepr.