Perhaps you’ve already noticed, but not all brands are the same. Some brands are able to make the most convoluted idea seem a breeze. They are able to form a unique attachment to their customers and they resonate on a deeper level than most. But how do they do it? What’s their secret? How do they morph a marketing schedule into creative possibilities that excites their audience? If you didn’t know it, it would seem like these brands have a superhero in their midst. The truth is, they do; and its name is Illustration.

Maybe you’ve never given much thought to using illustration when it comes to your brand or organisation. Maybe there’s a part of you that cringes at the word, with thoughts of quaint clip-art cartoons sullying your brand. But let me suppose that illustration isn’t just a cute add-on; it is a super-charged form of visual communication. It’s reality but with a bit more adrenaline, whimsy and excitement to stimulate your audience. It can not only strengthen your brand identity, but can become as central to how you are perceived as any fine logo or apt marketing copy. With this in mind, let’s head to the wardrobe.


So what is illustration? Is it just drawings and paintings? And why would your brand need it? To answer those questions let’s start by shining a light on the term’s origins. In Latin, illustrāre means ‘to make light’ or ‘explain’ and is based on the word lustrāre which means to ‘purify’ or ‘brighten’.1 This is different from the process of drawing. Instead of capturing everything, illustration seeks a clarity (within a designed space) to reveal a purposeful message. Therefore, if you’re an organisation that needs to clearly explain anything, illustration is a perfect torchbearer to illuminate your message.

As well as explaining anything through illustration, you can explain everything. No idea is too complex, no image too fantastical, no character too surreal and no object too ordinary. For this reason, illustration is probably the broadest, most cost-effective form of visual communication and the reason why so many big brands (Google, Coca Cola, Unilever to name a few) adopt it to convey a big idea on a modest budget.

The gamut of illustration styles and techniques also means that it’s a dynamic source of inspiration for consumers. In contrast to photography, which broadly adheres to a still image within reality. The look of what you might class as one piece of illustration can drastically differ from each piece to the next. One style may be realistic and computer generated, another messy and handcrafted, and still another 3D and sculptural. As well as these broad benefits, like any good superhero, illustration has a set of built-in superpowers which help it to excel in communication.

1. Complexity-shrinking

The first superpower you’ll have seen but may not have realised is that illustrations are notorious for communicating complex concepts and intelligent ideas. Perhaps your business is a bit technical, in fact…very not visual. Or you provide a client service and the use of photography of people ‘on the job’ or ‘working’ does your expertise a disservice (people at desks with computers is only so inspiring)…

‘As you’ll see, this is a computer.’

Fortunately, complexity is something illustration specialises in, providing a window into the inner workings of your organisation or products. For example, the accounting software Xero uses an entire vector system of ‘Xperts’ to illustrate its Cash Flow Resource Centre2.

The Xperts

The crew of Xperts represent the little people ‘inside’ the Xero product, delivering speedy messages, searching the books and parachuting in with lost receipts when needed. The effect of this resourceful group of characters is twofold – it humanises a data-rich web-based product, and converts intangible tasks into relatable and even enjoyable visual escapades.

An Xpert Illustration System

An illustrative system3 or style (such as the Xperts) is also an invaluable toolbox when needing to create rapid content in a range of media and sizes. Assets such as the vector shapes that make up the Xperts can be quickly reconstructed to fulfil a near unlimited amount of concepts in a short space of time. These can then be rolled out across video, display ads, blogposts and email campaigns, retaining your brand’s consistency with ease.  

2. Reality-bending

The second secret superpower of illustration is its ability to bend reality. Sometimes reality ain’t fun. As humans we like a break every now and then, a moment of whimsy or fantasy to break the norm. It’s this leaning that illustration exploits to great effect and can skew what might seem like a very ordinary product into something exceptional. Take Unilever’s Lifebuoy Bish Bash Bosh campaign as a recent example. A relaunch of a brand that hasn’t been on the shelves for two decades, Unilever, MullenLowe Group and partners decided to opt for an illustrative approach to update this classic brand. The campaign seen below isn’t just a commercial for hand sanitiser; it’s an upbeat interpretation of the everyday.

Think how much less energy there would be in this campaign if real photos of hands were used. Or how off-putting it would be to use a photo of someone actually ‘picking it’. But it’s here – the power of illustration shines through turning grimy ordinariness into lovable chubby handed-ness!

Instead of dull accurate finger shapes, we’re treated to grown-up baby fingers bishin’ and bashin’ their way through the day’s tasks. This opens the brand up to a plethora of age groups as the illustrations exude playfulness and crafts a truly memorable campaign.

3. The Shape-Shifter

The last secret superpower is truly a secret. It is the fine line illustration straddles between art and design. As a miniaturised, simpler form of art, illustration carries with it a delicacy that resonates with viewers on an emotional level, and as a piece of design it can achieve the iconic/symbolic status that lingers on the mind. Both of these facets allow illustration to shape into an enduring and memorable form of communication. Take for example the New Yorker cover Twin Towers below by Gürbüz Doğan Ekşioğlu.

It’s a remarkably quiet piece that was created 2 years on from 9/11. A first glance doesn’t do it justice. In fact, it’s a piece aware of your ability to read the New York skyline without really thinking about it. It’s only when you pause and begin to really look at the illustration that you feel the sadness of the two missing irreplaceable buildings. This effect is closer to studying an art piece. The communication is hidden and all the more memorable for it. Once you realise it’s a cover about 9/11 it lingers in your mind. Whether it’s an editorial work like this one with hidden metaphors, an iconic image for your brand rollout or richly detailed piece for your audience to keep returning to, illustration can provide a remarkable depth of visual experience.

So there you have it – the secret superhero for any brand. The next step is up to you. Don’t let this creative crusader pass you by! If you have a brand or project in need of a super-charge, then get in touch – we’d love to hear from you. For more of our recent illustrative work click here.

Written by Mike Ridley, Graphic Designer and Illustrator at Sublime.

Mike has been designing and illustrating for Sublime since 2017 and loving it ever since. When he’s not working on making ideas come to life you’ll find him either running through the streets of Hove or struggling to decide what to buy inside your nearest sweet shop.

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