How to incorporate illustration into a branding project, with Olssøn Barbieri, OMSE and Decade
We all know how the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. In the context of a brand identity though, illustration’s importance often goes under the radar when compared to typography and logomarks. Through a diverse and expressive range of styles, illustration has the ability to bring humour, playfulness and a personality that type and layout can’t always communicate. As an essential part of many branding projects, we’d like to shine a light on what goes on behind the scenes and provide some handy insights for those new to the process. We discussed how to incorporate illustration into an identity with Olssøn Barbieri, OMSE and Decade; three creative practices from around the world with prolific and varied use of illustration in their work.
We asked the three studios what their typical process is like for choosing the right illustrator for a project. Rather than a quick scroll through Pinterest, “it’s the result of the strategy, storytelling and research process,” reveals Henrik Olssøn, Founder and Managing Director at Olssøn Barbieri. For James Kape, Founder of London-based studio OMSE, this means “figuring out what the illustrations need to do and how they need to feel.” From there, the studios are able to form an understanding of what style feels right. “Then the key is to look for the glue that will tie it all together and create that link to the overall vibe of the identity,” Kape continues. This could be in the form of a concept, the content, the colour palette, or a specific style of illustration. “But there are no set rules here,” he adds, “it all depends on what works best for each project.” Grace Robinson-Leo and Rob Matthews, Co-founders of New York-based studio Decade reveal a similar mindset. Starting with what the identity needs, they tell us, “we think about the style part – what is the rest of the identity (typography, design, language, imagery) doing and what is the gap illustration needs to fill?”
Look for the glue that will tie it all together and create that link.
Once the illustration’s intention has been finalised, Olssøn explains that generally, depending on the project’s aims, “we either work with historical references or look for particular qualities in an illustrator style or portfolio.” Regarding the former, the Oslo-based studio look for illustrators “specialised and skilled in that specific technique and with the right sensibility” in order to ensure that the work feels authentic and accurate. If the team are looking for a “stronger personality,” they look for a style that they haven’t seen in the product’s category, perhaps reaching out to illustrators who have not worked in the field of packaging. “We’re constantly looking for illustrators that we get moved by or resonate with, and have several illustrators we hope we can work with when the right project comes along.” Above all, “their style should feel the right fit for the concept and the brand personality,” he tells us.
With a concept, strategy and chosen style in mind, versatility is not something to ignore either. As Robinson-Leo and Matthews point out, when deciding on the illustrations themselves it’s helpful to consider the logistics of how a brand will use them. “Will the illustration stand alone and have detail and complexity? Or are they reproduced at different scales and should be more abstract? Will they live in digital or print?”
We want to set a brand up with a tone and an approach, not a specific style.
Looking further ahead, it’s important for the studios to consider how their chosen illustration style will be used in the future when, perhaps, they will no longer be working with the client in question. With consideration for the brand’s use and development beyond their involvement, we asked the studios how they incorporate illustration into an identity system so it can be maintained in the long term. In unanimous agreement, there is one core idea: flexibility. “We want to set a brand up with a tone and an approach, not a specific style,” reveal Robinson-Leo and Matthews, explaining that as trends change, brands will want to stay up to date. “We believe that brands have to grow and evolve, and shouldn’t be too rigid – we want to build in that flexibility from the beginning.”
Echoing that sentiment, Kape reminds us that it’s “natural” that brands need to evolve organically to stay fresh and relevant. “It’s totally okay for a client to explore different illustration styles over time – or to even stop using it at some point if they no longer need it! As long as the main brand idea is still represented somehow, there’s no reason for the design system to be stretched in unique and interesting ways.”
Build a relationship with the illustrator.
If a brand-illustrator pairing feels like a match made in heaven, and is looking like it could be a long-term partnership, how can a studio aid the relationship between them? Olssøn has found that it’s necessary for the identity’s concept and illustration style to be connected and ownable by the brand. “Storytelling and creating a set of limitations could help with that, and it also becomes more important for the illustrator to commit to a long-term partnership and to not work for other brands within the same category and market,” he explains. Kape suggests that one way to keep this sustainable is to help the client “build a relationship with the illustrator,” so they can continue working together easily once the studio is out of the picture. “This involves finding the time to make the client a part of the process,” Kape notes, “so they get a bit of an education on how to brief and give feedback to the artists.”
When Robinson-Leo and Matthews incorporate illustration, they try to work with several illustrators, commissioning multiple pieces at the beginning. “If a brand launches with just one style,” they explain, “everything after that risks feeling ‘off-brand.’” Speaking candidly, they find that it isn’t necessarily feasible for a brand to go with one style or one illustrator when considering the long term. This is the approach taken in their work – by opting for “a visual world,” there is plenty of flexibility – with room to expand the world so newer pieces can fit in seamlessly. “This isn’t just because it’s logistically difficult to be reliant on one illustrator or style – it’s because styles change, what looks good changes, what feels fresh is always different, and that’s a good thing.”
With inspiration, innovation and ideas to be found in abundance, branding feels reflective of our rapidly changing society. Visual identities aren’t as rigid as they once were, thanks to exponential shifts in the digital-reality relationship, and that provides us with an exciting space to explore the possibilities. As Robinson-Leo and Matthews conclude, “designers, illustrators, creatives, in general, want to make new things and brands should be built to encourage that.”