We’ve come to expect comprehensive and visually appetising products from our favourite brands - the bar is set high for digital services to be both intuitive and delightful.
It’s perhaps therefore easy to see the value the humble doodle has when making our products and services more joyful – they add that extra sparkle.
However, when delivered in the right way, illustration has the potential to be more than the cake’s icing. It can be embedded into the heart of your customer journey and become the heavy lifter in your user experience.
Illustration has been an important form of communication throughout a lot of human existence. Early cave markings captured detailed and abstract narratives long before spoken language. And now, thousands of years later in the world of experience design, we grapple with techniques to communicate complex ideas and concepts with ease.
When using words as your primary form of communication, you make an assumption that your customer is already committed to consuming your content. The responsibility is on them to process what you have to say. Depending on the complexity of information, the cognitive load of reading copy can be high. Enter illustration. At a glance, you’ve captured the imagination of your customer, transcended language barriers and provided them with immediate context.
There are many opportunities within product and service design to harness this - the most obvious use cases are providing helpful visual aids to accompany new or complex ideas, or setting the scene for longer chunks of copy.
One way to go about it is using your design expertise to challenge the format of your own, or your clients’ content – this makes for better user experiences. However, it's important to validate these choices by testing illustration work in context to ensure it is adding the intended value.
Companies traditionally invest in illustration creation alongside brand development, but it’s important that the illustrations are created with context in mind and used sensitively at the right moments in the user flow. Over-use, out of context or poorly executed illustrations can clutter interfaces or add unnecessary friction to a journey.
So whether you’re a designer or a stakeholder, having a greater understanding of illustrative techniques will help you avoid this and improve your product, service and workflow. With that in mind, we’ve pulled together some examples of when you might want to consider illustration as well as some tips on what to keep in mind to best integrate it into your work.
Helping customers digest information
Here, spot illustrations alongside UX writing break down a new mortgage proposition for Post Office into digestible chunks to ensure that it can be understood by anyone. Spot illustrations are traditionally more detailed than a simple icon but have the same benefits of being able to help better tell your story.
Using illustration and UX writing together can allow you to introduce complex ideas to your customer at a glance. It’s important not to duplicate information when using both copy and illustration together; they should complement but not merely repeat the same story. It’s wise to test the combination for optimum comprehension.
Allowing users to quickly action what they need
Icons are the work horse of any great UI. Usually small (16px16p – 48px48p) they are typically simpler than a spot illustration and best used as a navigation or signpost mechanism. They are distilled and concise representations of an idea, that when executed well are recognisable without detailed accompanying copy; they could quite simply be labelled with one word. Icons are designed to be reusable and are good components to include as part of your design system.
Boosting editorial content
Introducing the mighty metaphor. Using metaphorical illustrations sets the tone and sparks interest in articles, white papers, or long-form information. Metaphors can fit the bill and complement editorial content but they must be emotionally and tonally relevant. Demonstrating empathy with scene illustrations can really capture the heart of your audience – providing you know who your audience are and that you can create appropriate material catered to them.
Better communicate with your internal teams and stakeholders
Humans respond to communications in the same way irrespective of context. This is excellent news, because it means we can deploy the same mechanisms to educate and entertain our colleagues as we would our customers. Therefore, it’s always worth considering if illustration could help to better tell a story within your organisation.
Animations and videos are also a powerful tool to give your internal documents a face-lift and should not just be used to capture the imaginations of your customers. Why save the good stuff for the end product?! Give your internal team a taste of what you can do and make those boardroom meetings a little more entertaining.
Develop your brand artefacts
It can be tempting to use stock icons, images or photography to make your content more engaging. We recommend taking this one step further and seeing if there is an opportunity to create something completely unique, on brand and visually appealing to go in its place.
Typically, big blocks of text and/or lifeless pages don’t make for an engaging way to consume complex or technical information, so why not apply illustration to simplify the messaging. After all, tailor made illustrations can help enhance the end result and effectively tell your brand story.
Scoping for illustration work must be given careful thought, to allow for appropriate time and budget dependent on the style and scale of the work. Here's a few pointers on safeguarding against potential issues by keeping a few key things in mind when designing. We also encourage our clients to consider these things before investing in illustrative work:
- How will the style age?
- Are you being inclusive with your depictions of people, places and things?
- Have you thought about the emotional connotation of colour choice?
- How will this illustrative style fit into your larger design system?
This is just the beginning
We’ve touched on a few ways to harness the power of illustration, but the opportunities don’t end there, you should consider illustration throughout a user flow - from on-boarding right through to notifications and milestones.
The proper use of illustration drives business value by enriching your product and service offering by engaging users in a different way. Considered user centred-writing and great user experience are a must but strong illustrative assets help offset your entire experience and allow you to standout in crowded marketplaces.