How to commission better illustration

illustration commissioning
(Image credit: B&B Studio)

Illustration is a key part of many brands, and it's so important it's recently been added as one of three new craft categories at the Brand Impact Awards. In this piece, category judges explain why illustration is so key to many brands, as well as how commissioners, illustrators and designers can work together to make the most of the medium. 

If you've created some incredible illustration for a brand, there's still time to enter the Brand Impact Awards. You have until 26 June to submit your best work.

Brand Impact Awards 2020

(Image credit: Future)

"Illustration's potential is endless, especially when you’re designing in categories that are generally generic and dull," enthuses NB's Alan Dye. "It can instantly bring empathy, warmth and joy to a saturated and homogenised corporate world."

"Illustration can give brands the opportunity to create a unique sense of closeness and relatability with audiences," concurs Shaun Bowen of B&B Studio. "Maybe it's because you imagine the illustrator at work, and this creates a sense of human connection."

"Within brand design, illustration must always be considered in combination with other crafts like typography and copywriting," he continues. "A specific tone of voice can shift nuances of illustration and make it all the more powerful."

Craft is innate at NB, according to Dye: "It’s actually never mentioned, as it’s an absolute given," he says. "Illustration, like photography, typography, the ‘big idea’ and copywriting, are an integral part of the solution to any client's brief." 

"The most important things are mutual appreciation, a desire to make something brilliant, and of course trust – and this applies to all the different kinds of artists that NB partners with," Dye continues. 

illustration commissioning

"Bold, warm and strong" was the brief for this project (Image credit: Rebecca Sutherland)

As an illustrator who regularly collaborates with design agencies on branding projects, Rebecca Sutherland points out that a thorough brief is essential – the best design directors are skilled at managing illustrators as well as designers. "It's a niche job, and we must be specifically directed to the needs of the project," she explains. "The brand touchpoints must be clarified in the brief."

One of Sutherland's recent collaborations was with Distil Studio for Orang-Utan coffee, a product created to support Sumatra's diminishing orangutan population. "I was commissioned to create a never-ending pattern of orangutans – holding onto each other, bold, warm, strong," she explains.

In partnership with hat-trick design, Sutherland helped develop an expressive, painterly new identity for Welsh National Opera based around strokes of ink that form a colourful 'O' that doubles as a mouth; she also worked with Studio Sutherl& to update Start-Rite's much-loved 'shoe twins' into a cleaner, simpler and more versatile silhouette form.

As with all great collaborations, a close working relationship based on mutual trust and understanding is critical. "Many illustrators we’ve worked with over the years have become good friends," reveals Alan. "Building a good relationship is the key to getting the best results. The harder the challenge, the more opportunity there is to put your heads together and do something really creative."  

With that in mind, if you're considering commissioning an illustrator, make sure you do the following:

01. Write a thorough brief

illustration commissioning

"The brand has so much to communicate with its sustainable and efficacy credentials, and illustration was the best way to encompass all of these attributes in a desirable way," explains Shaun Bowen, talking about nappy brand Kit & Kin (Image credit: B&B Studio)

"The illustrator has to have a clear understanding of the brand’s personality, and the essence of the brand," says Shaun Bowen. "Details around the brand’s personality and values, the values of the consumer, and the tone of voice all help create the best brief. That brief must continue to ground and inspire the work throughout the project." 

02. Don't play it safe

illustration commissioning

"We worked incredibly closely with the brilliant Alice Bowsher who on a number of occasions worked in our studio alongside designers, copywriters, client and coders," says Alan Dye, on the ANNA project (Image credit: NB Studio)

"Sometimes it’s good to fuck things up and work with someone completely different," says Alan Dye. "Some of our most memorable work was born this way. The brand's audience and positioning will guide the illustration style, but it can pay off to go with the unnatural choice. Like we did by using illustration to bring a human touch to the cold finance world. Playing it safe is a waste of talent and time."

03. Disrupt sector conventions

illustration in drinks

"Through the use of illustration, we could really capture the exciting vibrancy of botanical flavour combinations. Illustration also meant we could bring together different nuances of flavour, like freshness and intensity," says Bowen (Image credit: B&B Studio)

"It’s easy to make assumptions about specific styles of illustration communicating specific brand personalities," admits Shaun Bowen. "However this just reinforces category conventions. There might be a better way. We see this in the naïve style of illustration that has come to represent a lot of food and drink brands. If you understand the unique brand opportunity, you can push the category forward."

Enter your best branding or illustration in branding to the Brand Impact Awards before 26 July.

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Nick Carson

Nick is a content strategist and copywriter. He has worked with world-class agencies including Superunion, Wolff Olins and Vault49 on brand storytelling, tone of voice and verbal strategy for global brands such as Virgin, Pepsi and TikTok. Nick launched the Brand Impact Awards in 2013 while editor of Computer Arts, and remains chair of judges. He's written for Creative Bloq on design and branding matters since the site's launch.