It’s hard to imagine modern online media without any photos or illustrations—many articles stick out to us not because of their titles or even the content itself, but because of their design and multimedia elements. According to our framework for better content experience design, which is based on 750+ pages of research and insights from the best in the industry, visual elements used regularly throughout your content can improve engagement, and by choosing them carefully you can improve your branding and make your content stand out in a crowded space.
While many company blogs have jumped on this bandwagon and are producing content packed with stock photography, not as many are taking advantage of illustrations. We understand why—illustrations take extra time and resources since they must be created custom for your brand—but they also can be incredibly powerful in visualizing ideas that may be harder to photograph and creating visual elements that are completely unique to your company.
If you’re curious about using illustration on your blog, here are some tips for getting started.
Use illustrations for stories that aren’t particularly visual by nature
Illustration from Inside Intercom publication
With some brands, like lifestyle companies, it’s easy to think of beautiful photography to represent the products or ideas you’re sharing. The challenge comes when what your company does isn’t particularly visual by nature. “A lot of SaaS companies struggle to show off their software using stock photos. (Let’s say you’re selling accounting software, for example. I hope you like messy desks with calculators.),” explains Luke Bailey for Unbounce. “Illustrations can help you represent complex or abstract ideas in a much more clean and simple way.”
If you’re always stumped on how to visually represent concepts for your brand, or are just working on a particular story where existing stock visuals don’t make sense, illustration could be a good avenue to explore.
Create a style guide for your illustrations
Illustration guide for Oscar Health by Laura Alejo
Just like for everything else related to your brand, you’ll want to have a guide to your illustrative style to ensure they fit in with your other brand elements and have some consistency across multiple posts. This isn’t just to make things look good—brand consistency matters for business! According to Lucidpress, keeping your brand consistent across platforms can lead to a 23% increase in revenue. Using a similar visual style across the board helps people remember and connect with your brand more, therefore making them more likely to buy.
While doing this fully can involve a month’s-long process collaborating with a designer, there are small ways you can start to develop your visual style today. Some of it, like brand colors and the general feeling you’re trying to get across, you might be able to pull from your existing editorial or photography style guides. Like when describing your photo style, you should include technical details like line width, technique, file size, etc.
But you’ll also want to develop guidelines specific to your illustrative style. According to Alice Lee, who developed a previous illustrative style for Slack, to good place to start is by understanding the brand’s core values, mission, and personality, and then creating a mood board of illustrations that you like or think align with the brand. Then, you can distill it down to a voice and technique your publication focuses on. The resulting description doesn’t have to be incredibly specific to start. For instance, for Slack, she described their style as “character-driven, gesturally hand-drawn, with a bold primary palette.”
But let yourself play with different styles
Different style of covers on Inside Intercom
We’re about to contradict ourselves here, but not every illustration your brand uses has to look compltely consistent. Especially if you’re publishing a ton or have a more editorial-style content marketing publication, using the exact same illustrative style across every piece could get boring, fast.
Stewart Scott-Curran of the Intercom Brand Studio shares that they wanted their blog to look more “like something you might see in Fast Company, and not just another company tech blog.” So, they keep their visual style guidelines pretty loose and find illustrators whose work they like, then let them go to town using their unique style. The result is a blog where each illustration looks entirely unique—which becomes a branding element in and of itself. “Regular readers have come to love these pieces, and how they creatively interpret blog posts on topics as varied as how to track the right company metrics to tips on providing great customer support.”
Example: Another approach is to develop a unique visual style for different content formats or series’. For instance, Dropbox created a specific illustration style for all posts related to working remotely during COVID-19, which is distinct from the style they use for other posts.
Start with a cover illustration
Cover on Mailchimp’s Resources section
Just like with photography, if you only have one illustration for your piece, start with the cover image. This is the image that people see first, and is usually part of what they use to determine if they want to click on an article from your social media or landing page, and whether they’ll keep scrolling below the fold to read.
This is your opportunity to really shine, with a bold illustration that conveys the topic and feeling of the article to the greatest possible extent. The meaning of cover illustrations should be understandable without text since people may see them before they even click.
Think carefully about where illustrations are throughout your piece
While research has shown that stories with an image every 75-100 words perform better—something we check for as part of our content experience design scorecard—you also don’t want to overwhelm people with a full-blown illustration every time they scroll. After all, this is a company blog, not a picture book!
Instead, find a good rhythm for large illustrations, and mix it up with other types of visual elements to keep the reader engaged. If there are several illustrations, they should be arranged so that they supplement the respective parts of the text. Small pictures may be used to transition from one part of your article to another. Don’t limit yourself to one style or type of visual information: add infographics, maps, and diagrams, if needed.
Find illustrators you love to work with
It’s Nice That – is great source for searching new trends in illustration
If you’re new to using illustration, you may be wondering how to even find the right illustrator(s) to work with. Sites like Dribble and Behance allow artists to show off their work, and are great places to start when looking for illustrators to add to your team. Look for visual styles that align with the guidelines you outlined above, or just reach out to people whose work you’re drawn to!
Example: Miro’s visual style could be described as collage-inspired flatlays with bold iconography and simple yet bright color palettes.
Make your process collaborative
While the easiest thing to do is hand your illustrator a completed article and let them have at it, that’s usually not the best process for a couple of reasons. First of all, it can slow down the publishing process while you wait for the illustrator to finish their work.
Second, you’re more likely to get work you’re happy with if you give the illustrator a detailed brief and work collaboratively with him or her from the start of the project. If they’re new to working with you, you’ll want to make sure they’re familiar with your style guide. For each piece, you can share the general themes and outline of the article, explain what emotions should be brought out by his or her work, and share reference materials to make sure you’re on the same page.
Explore easy and affordable ways to add more illustrative elements
You can find free vector icons on The Noun Project for your posts
We know that getting custom illustrations can be an expensive endeavour, and you may not have the budget for it. That shouldn’t stop you from playing with illustrative elements in your publication. Don’t assume every illustration has to be super detailed—try different things and see what works. There are plenty of free and cheap ways to add simple illustrations.
For instance, sometimes a simple vector icon will illustrate a point just fine. Resources like The Noun Project allow you to quickly find and download icons online so you can add illustrations to your piece ASAP. (Bonus: Setka Editor has an integration with The Noun Project that lets you browse these icons directly within the Editor.)
For more complex illustrations on a dime, you could play with turning a photo into an illustration using applications like Prisma, or finding a picture in illustration databases like Stubborn Generator.
Finally, don’t forget that illustration isn’t your only option for adding visual interest to your content. To learn more, check out our ebook on Using Visuals & Imagery to Improve Content Engagement or our Guide to Photography.
Editor’s Note: Thos post was originally published in January 2017 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.