5 reasons to use illustration in your designs

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When you need to decide between illustration and photography in your design work, sometimes the choice isn't clear cut. Both have their pros and cons creatively; vary in the costs, time and resources required; and can also communicate your message in very different ways, whether abstract and conceptual, or realistic and literal.

To help you make the right decision, read on for our five reasons to choose illustration over photography for your next design project.

01. You want to express something abstract

This illustration by Neil Webb visualises some of the different approaches to branding strategy

This illustration by Neil Webb visualises some of the different approaches to branding strategy

Sometimes, the nature of the idea or concept you're trying to convey will determine whether illustration is the best course of action. Abstract themes, or topics where specific visuals don't come to mind, will often lend themselves better to an illustrative treatment.

An interview with a specific person about their business strategy, say, would probably demand photography of the interviewee. It's about access to that individual, and expressing their personality. But a piece about strategy in general could be much better illustrated, to bring a potentially dry subject to life as well as visualise various abstract ideas.

Likewise in an ad campaign: sometimes photography is necessary to ground a particular claim in reality, and make it more accessible. Perhaps there's a specific person that needs to be shown – a celebrity endorsement, for instance. But if you're trying to get across more abstract brand values, such as 'playfulness' or 'innovation', illustration could be a perfect way to get that across.

02. The subject is too ambitious to photograph

The Partners crafted a beautiful illustrated brand world for The Connaught

The Partners crafted a beautiful illustrated brand world for The Connaught

Sometimes you need your imagination to be the limit, not the budget or the practical logistics of what you can shoot, where and how. The simple beauty of illustration is that you can depict literally anything you like.

Futuristic, surreal, or fantastical scenes are all possible with photography in theory, but could cost a small fortune. If some degree of realism is important, consider a middle-ground of photomontage illustration or collage, where stock assets could prove invaluable.

Pick the right style of illustration, however, and there are no boundaries for what kind of world you can create. But if you're commissioning bespoke illustration, make sure your brief steers the illustrator in the direction you need.

03. You want to tell a story 

NB Studio's character-led branding for banking app Zhuck is quirky

NB Studio's character-led branding for banking app Zhuck is quirky

Storytelling may have become a buzzword in branding and advertising, but the fact remains that a compelling narrative can be enormously effective when it comes to engaging consumers, and getting across a brand's personality and purpose.

Illustration is great for taking people on a journey, whether you're literally walking people through a brand's story using illustrated scenes or characters, or constructing a subtler narrative across various brand touchpoints.

Characters, or mascots, don't have to be twee or childish. They can be an effective way to represent the attitude of a brand in a tangible, easily relatable way, as well as providing countless options for expanding across different platforms.

And illustration can also convey particular processes, or key issues that are important to a brand – its eco-friendly credentials, or educational initiatives, for instance – in interesting, eye-catching and totally bespoke ways.

04. You have some data to visualise

Stefan Sagmeister's Happy Show raised a smile with its cheeky illustrated infographics

Stefan Sagmeister's Happy Show raised a smile with its cheeky illustrated infographics

Infographics have absolutely boomed in popularity over the last decade, with visual sharing platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram helping to spread the most engaging and thought-provoking examples far and wide – although some of them do stretch the definition of 'infographic' somewhat.

At their core, infographics are about making complex information easier to digest and understand by converting them into a visual form. And here's where illustration steps up to the plate in a way that photography never could: with a touch of creativity, a tedious spreadsheet or list of facts and figures can become a treat for the eyes.

Whether it's visualising corporate statistics for an annual report, providing a fresh perspective on a global phenomenon or clarifying a complex process, infographics are definitely here to stay.

05. A particular style is required

Aart-Jan Venema's illustrated branding for Green Man Festival was overall winner at the World Illustration Awards 2017

Aart-Jan Venema's illustrated branding for Green Man Festival was overall winner at the World Illustration Awards 2017

The best photographers may have a distinct trademark style and approach to their subject, but ultimately the camera never lies. The subject will always be the star, and while a carefully art directed photographic campaign will help give a brand coherence, it will never be as distinctive as a particular style of illustration.

Illustration can unify a design and totally transform its look, feel and mood – whether it's a multi-platform campaign, a series of graphics for an event or a simple brochure. And this is where picking the right style – whether you're commissioning bespoke illustration, or researching stock assets – is paramount.

Commissioning a full-blown, carefully art directed photoshoot can be unattainably expensive. However, as cameras increase in quality and decrease in price, and the quality of stock imagery increases, decent-quality photography is becoming more and more accessible to brands of all shapes and sizes. Illustration can help a brand stand out from the crowd in a much more distinctive way, carving a niche defined by personality and individual attitude.

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