Exceptional content needs great visuals to get noticed, and these days, they’re in no short supply. Thankfully, the days of cheesy stock images are (almost) gone, with high-quality photography – whether sourced or original – taking their place on blogs and content efforts across the board.
So much so, in fact, that even the good stuff starts to blend together, at times. When you’ve posted your umpteenth light-flared or color-blocked shot, where do you turn for something that feels fresh and new?
Artwork provides a wonderful departure from the photos we encounter every day. Effective graphics and illustrations don’t just catch the eye. They help tell a story.
“Illustration provides a great opportunity to communicate because it abstracts an idea,” says Steve Peck, a creative director who has worked on branding and campaigns for top companies including Apple, Dropbox, and Samsung. “It allows you to exaggerate your expression in effective ways and provides room for interpretation and imagination, which can make your message more powerful.”
Tech brands and beyond are experimenting, keen on the differentiation, clarification, and engagement digital illustration affords. More and more companies are bringing talent in-house, too, finally realizing that good design can be just as important as engineering. Airbnb has taken to incorporating illustrations across branding and content efforts, for instance, with graphic designer Andrea Nguyen as the creative force behind many of the brand’s eye-catching GIFs, infographics, product illustrations, blog art, and wonderfully helpful, educational videos for new hosts – all the more engaging, thanks to their visual twist.
After all, with pen on paper (or stylus on tablet, more likely) anything is possible – any style explored, any concept explained, beautifully and easily. Plus, illustration is a medium with universal appeal. The right animation can bring people together like no live-action clip can, precisely because of its ability to abstract concepts and characters.
Two brands rise above the rest in their illustration efforts, which run across every story they tell and nearly every piece of content they create: Oscar and Headspace. Here, the creative minds behind the brands’ illustrated identities share the ins-and-outs of bringing design and illustration to the forefront of content marketing.
Health insurance is a highly competitive industry – and nobody’s cup of tea. That’s why relative newcomer Oscar decided to invest in design and content marketing: to set itself apart in the often confusing and exasperating field as an easy and accessible healthcare option.
“We looked at the insurance space and it was easy to point out the problems,” says Peck, who led the creative behind Oscar’s launch. “The visual design and the language were very complicated and clinical, and the tone of voice was pretty inhuman and laced with confusing jargon. With Oscar, we had an opportunity to create a new brand from scratch, so we went the opposite way.”
Casual, welcoming words matched with minimal yet stylish cartoons keep with Oscar’s “simple, intuitive, and human” design philosophy. The overall effect also helps transform health insurance – something that’s usually dull, confusing, and even irritating – into something interesting, easy to understand, and even fun.
The lesson? Effective language isn’t just verbal. It’s visual, too.
Highlighting benefits over features, the brand’s many animated videos (available in English and Spanish) playfully point out how Oscar comes in handy in peoples’ everyday lives. Other animated video content provides simple explanations of health insurance processes and policies, while a new generation of illustrations and infographics extend Oscar’s accessibility and approachability on the Oscar blog and social channels.
“Instead of using white and gray, we made Oscar colorful. Instead of writing copy that sounded professional, we developed a brand voice that felt more like a friend and put health insurance in terms that anyone could understand. And instead of showing generic photos of smiling families, we created a whole world of diverse animated characters that felt more fun and interesting,” Peck says.
Thanks in part to the team’s creative efforts, Oscar was able to more than double enrollment over the course of eight months back in 2015. “All of these things came together to create a brand that didn’t look or sound like health insurance at all – and that was a good thing,” says Peck.
Another brand trying not to look or sound like the product it’s peddling? Headspace, the digital health platform and meditation app that bills itself as a “gym membership for the mind.”
“We’ve always made really deliberate design decisions to break the stigma and peoples’ misconceptions about meditation being all about incense and sitting on the ground with your legs wrapped around your head,” says Chris Markland, a Senior Creative and one of the illustrators behind the brand’s fun and friendly look, which was developed by Creative Director Anna Charity. “We want meditation to be for everyone, so instead of using images of flowing water and forests, we always try to have a more grounded and relatable approach.”
That’s why the brand’s video content, social posts, and blog visuals all feature incredibly engaging variations of its unique illustrations and animations. Instead of relying on straight photography, most blog posts are paired with bespoke illustrations, collages, or graphically accented GIFs as hero images. The variety within the distinctive designs keeps the eye moving and draws a visitor’s attention and curiosity in various directions.
Long before it was an app or a $250 million business, co-founders Andy Puddicombe and Rich Pierson started Headspace as an events company, using animation as a tool to expound on the heavy, complex themes of their talks. “The mind is often an overwhelming and scary place,” says Markland. “Illustration has always been a really useful tool in breaking that down to people in an engaging, fun, and relatable way.”
As challenging as it can be to explain some of these high-level concepts, Markland and his team are dedicated to using the simplest terms and graphics in doing so. Their most successful piece of content thus far? An animated video called “Brilliant Things Happen in Calm Minds” (based on a TED Talk Puddicombe gave in 2012) that’s garnered more than 63 million views. “It’s done a really good job of educating people as to what meditation is truly about and how it can help in our day-to-day lives,” says Markland. “We often say, ‘Who can hate a cartoon?’ People are much more willing to give it their time.”
Will Illustration Work For Your Brand?
If you’d like to start exploring the medium, begin with identifying your brand’s core values, message, and target audience. Peck’s advice? “With any brand, you have to start at the top and ask what the mission is. Once that’s clearly articulated, the rest of the strategy starts to take shape.
“Finding the right way to express the brand’s mission and values is the crucial next step. I always look at the category and what everyone else is doing, then find a way to differentiate and stand out.”
When it comes to developing a specific style for a particular brand, Peck’s process is pretty straightforward: “We usually fill a bunch of foam boards full of reference from different illustrators and find a couple people who have the right style to express what we’re trying to say.” He recommends Pinterest or agencies like Hugo & Marie or Levine & Leavitt to find talent.
“From there, we hone in on the specifics of why that style is best and pair that together with the words, color, logo, tagline and everything else to determine if we’re putting all the right pieces together in creating a unique and ownable identity for the brand,” he says.
The important thing is to go with the flow and be willing to experiment. “A lot of times, I have something in mind when we start getting into a design and by the end of the process, we end up in a completely different place,” Peck says. “That’s a good thing. You have to work through it and try a variety of styles, different things and see what works.”
Last but not least? The element of surprise – as well as utility. “Try to be unexpected in your approach, and think about why you’re using illustration in the first place,” adds Markland. “Is it even the best medium for your brand? Design with empathy and with your user in mind, and create something useful instead of something pretty that just sits on your website.”