image of woman painting

When to Use Illustration in Your Creative

Illustration is everywhere. The practice has become a major part of brand design and only continues to grow in popularity. As more brands explore adding illustrations to their creative portfolio it is important to know when to do so because using them incorrectly can waste time and resources.

As a designer and illustrator, I’m constantly weighing the pros and cons of using photos or illustrations. Through my experiences, I’ve come up with a list of times when illustration has proved to be a great solution: 

When you need to be imaginative 

Stock photography is limiting and photoshoots are expensive, but illustration gives you the freedom to create imagery of anything. If you have a fantastical idea that you want to show, executing through illustration gives you the ability to do so. It eliminates the boundary of realism, which is an inherent part of photography. 

You’re communicating something abstract 

There are some things that you can’t capture through photography because a specific image doesn’t fit or it simply does not exist. Abstract themes and values are better visualized through an illustrative treatment because they can bring it to life or make it more engaging. 

A good example of when this typically happens is within blog posts. Blogs communicate fresh perspectives and themes that benefit from custom illustrations that are inspired by the words of the author. In Amy Small’s “Why Commodifying Creativity Hurts Us All” Ida Persson created a custom illustration that perfectly introduces the concept of the blog post. 

(Ida Persson 2021) 

The art direction requires a specific look and feel

The look and feel of a project drives the art direction. When trying to evoke certain emotions with look and feel, illustration is a great tool. A few directions that would fall under this category are playful, handmade, and vintage. Here are some examples of projects where we used illustration to create these feelings:

For the American Kennel Club, I illustrated playful ad creative to match their brand voice.

(Maggie Rakovic 2021)

For the Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School (CBOB), Ansley Luce designed a guide decorated with her organic illustrations to give-off a handmade feel.

(Ansley Luce 2021)

For the Yosemite Conservancy, Lori Chinn created a set of illustrations inspired by the look and feel of vintage park maps. 

(Lori Chinn 2022)

The project needs to stand out

Today there are very few stock photos that are usable. Staged stock photos feel ​​disingenuous and some of the same photos from high-quality stock sites are beginning to get circulated by similar brands. One of the only ways to make sure your creative truly stands out is by commissioning custom illustrations. 

You want to visualize data

Through data visualization, illustration can be a great tool for making data more accessible and engaging. Data visualization is a practice that translates data into a visual context that makes it easier to understand. Infographics, charts, and graphs are all forms of data visualization. 

To better explain this practice I’ll show you. I took a set of data I was given about breakfast nutrition for female swimmers and organized it into a table. 

Then I went a step further and created an illustrative scatter plot graph containing radial charts as the points. The axis of the graph is the sides of the pool, the radial charts are floats, and the diving board is the key. As you can see, this is not your typical graph. The illustrative nature of it draws you in and offers a pleasant way to present the information. (View the full project here)

(Maggie Rakovic 2020)

The goal is reach on social media

Through testing, we’ve found that illustration is the most reshared creative on some of our client’s social channels. Our theory is that illustration can be more approachable and relatable than an image. 

When promoting the Women’s Health Protection Act for the Center of Reproductive Rights we used this method. We created an illustrated animation that was shared widely and was picked up by influential accounts. Notably, Senator Richard Blumenthal and Planned Parenthood reshared the animation. 

The subject is complex 

Illustrations can simplify complex subject matter. They act as a visual aid that breaks down information into more digestible parts. 

We worked with Generation Progress to come up with a campaign focused on educating young adults about the intersection of abortion access, criminal justice, and economic justice — an ambitious task for a social ad campaign. We strategically chose to create videos and carousels that included illustration to help introduce the issue in an accessible way. The animation below is one frame of our carousel. In this frame you see two women holding pieces of a venn diagram. The pieces are pushed together to show where these issues intersect. A venn diagram was a powerful solution for this project because it is a common way to show how subjects relate. (View the full case study here.

When you’re telling a story

Lastly, illustrations enhance storytelling. They can take us on a journey through different types of stories, anything from a fairytale to a brand story. The most obvious example of this is in children’s books. Children’s books use illustrations because they are more interesting than photographs and have the flexibility to provide more room for imagination (which takes us back to bullet point #1).  

As you now know, illustration is a brilliant solution for several projects. Incorporating illustration into your brand can enhance how you’re communicating to your audience and help your creative stand out. It is important to note, however, that illustration does take more additional resources than most photography-based projects because the process takes more time. Keep this list in mind the next time you’re considering illustration for your creative project to make sure it’s the right fit.