When Tech Brands Get Illustration Right
Tech brands have gotten on the illustration bandwagon, and the result is a stronger brand presence
Think of all the places you’ve encountered illustration. Images of graphic New Yorker covers, whimsical children’s books, or artisanal liquor labels might come to mind. In recent years, you may have noticed that technology brands have joined the game, adopting illustration as part of their visual identity.
A few key players — Dropbox, Mailchimp, Salesforce — have dared to venture out from the ordinary. They believed that a brand didn’t have to be dry to prove its credibility. They didn’t want to limit themselves to technical infographics, lifeless icons, and generic stock photos. Instead, they knew that in order to connect with people, tech needs to be approachable, with fun characters and illustrative narratives. And it worked. Now, it’s not uncommon for you to find happy creatures and silly drawings when you open up an app. Recently, I burst into laughter when a unicorn flew across my screen after I had checked off a to-do item in Asana.
So why have tech brands turned to illustration? Well, in an industry that’s all about cold productivity and robotic efficiency, illustration offers a warm, human touch. Its expressive nature gives personality to a brand. As a user interacts with this personality, they develop a trusting relationship with the brand. When it comes to communicating complex concepts like blockchain, the cloud, or omnichannel, illustration engages the power of visual metaphors to transform abstract ideas into tangible forms, communicating more effectively than the typical stock photos of people on devices. Illustration is a powerful communication tool that can create a strong connection with an audience, build brand loyalty, and, ultimately, be a differentiator.
However, with the recent widespread use of illustrations in tech, there’s a differentiation plateau because everyone’s starting to do the same thing. Online creative marketplaces like Freepik and creative galleries like Dribbble also fuel this homogeneous aesthetic. The factory-style, cookie-cutter illustrations we see in tech nowadays are typically vectorized human figures, sometimes with disproportionate or geometric bodies. They’re usually floating in a contained scene with a blobby background or placed on an isometric grid. Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe, has even curated a Pinterest board of these “monoculture illustrations” and described the aesthetic as follows:
“The colors range from primary to bright pastels; the figures are cleanly drawn and almost always rendered with vectors; the details are highly abstracted and shading is geometric if it appears at all; the compositions are generally minimal and only occasionally feature very limited background elements.”
Still, this is an exciting time for illustration, branding, and design. Except now, just having illustration is not enough. The blobby shapes, random dot textures, and vector people will look like every other app to the common user.
To stand out, tech brands need to approach illustration with a unique perspective and element of the hand. In a market saturated with vector drawings, Mailchimp recently launched a rebrand and differentiated itself through intelligent illustrations. They got it right. Their strategy: represent concepts through witty, clever metaphors instead of using cliches. For example, “Connect your favorite tools” is artfully visualized with a mobile instead of the typical dots and lines. “Automate your busy work” is represented by a Newton’s cradle rather than your typical circle of arrows.
This must sound backward to many B2B tech brands and marketers because they typically assume that the best way to communicate with their busy audience is to be explicit and direct. Sure, there’s a time and place for purely efficient design, such as navigational signs in hospitals or icon labels for an organization system. But by using shrewd images that respect the viewer’s intelligence, brands can engage their audience, inviting them to complete the picture and have an aha moment.
Think about it in the context of interactions with real people. Would you rather talk to someone who only shares facts and asks you direct questions? Or would you rather talk to someone who also shares stories and jokes with you?
Another company creating stirring work with illustration is Intercom. Its unique style experiments with rough edges, patterned collage, and imperfect shapes. In contrast to crisp circles and clean vectors — obviously designed in Adobe Illustrator — one could imagine an Intercom designer drawing with markers, tearing patterned papers, and composing each piece by hand. This element of the hand in their illustration work is what gives it a sense of humanity and personality, the main quality that attracted tech brands to illustration in the first place.
Mailchimp and Intercom are among the few tech brands that stick out in an ecosystem brimming with illustration. They do so by approaching illustration with a sophisticated perspective — avoiding your stereotypical motifs and opting for meaningful metaphors instead. And while everyone is drawing vector forms on the computer, they’re exploring methods with an element of the hand like collage, pencil sketches, and brushwork to establish a human connection. Though visual expression in tech has come a long way, brands will need to refine their unique perspective and human approach to illustration to stay competitive.