Creating the Illustration Style for Sidedoor: A Podcast from the Smithsonian

In March of 2017, I started a new gig working as a visual designer for the Smithsonian. I was to report to the Smithsonian Castle twice a week to help build out the look and feel of Sidedoor, a podcast from the Smithsonian with support from PRX. If you haven’t heard of it, check it out:

More than 154 million treasures fill the Smithsonian’s vaults, but where public view ends, Sidedoor begins. With the help of biologists, artists, historians, archaeologists, zookeepers, and astrophysicists, host Tony Cohn sneaks listeners through Smithsonian’s side door to search for stories that can’t be found anywhere else.

Sounds pretty cool right? My job was to come up with a visual language that could transcend into every touch point of the podcast experience. In this article, I’ll explain the process I used to create that visual language, which ended up growing into one of my favorite projects of all time.

Here are a few steps I took to arrive at the look and feel of Sidedoor:

Step 1: Visual Research

To solve any visual design problem, you have to figure out what others have already done in the same space. As a person who is constantly looking for new creative inspiration and trends, I find this part of the process to be a lot of fun. The end goal is to figure out what you’re up against and how to stand out. There are around 400K total podcasts on Apple Podcasts so how do you differentiate yourself in this sea of content?

Asking myself this question led me to several examples of branded podcasts that use illustration, photography, and visual storytelling mechanisms to help shape their story. For instance, I absolutely loved what Serial, 99% Invisible, S-town, and Invisibilia were doing. All of these podcasts did an amazing job representing their visual narrative in smart, engaging ways.

This visual research helped inform my creative decision making as I started to think through how this thing could eventually play out.

Step 2: Establishing your look and feel

Sidedoor is unique in that each episode doesn’t easily correlate with one other. One week we could be telling the story of a 19th-century explorer and scholar, Robert Kennicott and the next we could be learning about Fiona the the hungry hungry hippo baby. Sidedoor is representative of 42 different Smithsonian entities so the big visual problem was how to create cohesion among such a diverse range of topics.

With this in mind, I decided to go down the path of illustration. Illustration was ideal because I could customize the look and feel of each episode while maintaining visual consistency. Illustration could also be used to capture the values and traits of the greater Smithsonian brand, shift in tone depending on the story or environment, and identify with people from a purely visual point of view.

To be successful with creating an illustration style, I knew I had to lay down some ground rules that I could carry throughout each visual touchpoint.

The first rule was to identify a color palette that would be flexible in tone and complement the greater Smithsonian brand. In general, I try to pick colors that I love — usually something kind of pastel and easy on the eyes.

Here’s what I came up with:

The next rule was creating visual parameters that would make everything feel related. These elements consisted of patterns, strokes, curves, textures, etc. Setting these boundaries is always extremely helpful for me in my illustration and branding work. I believe that when you have a limited amount of tools to work with, it pushes you to use those tools creatively.

Process shot I shared with the Sidedoor team:

Step 3: Design phase

Once I identified some rules to follow, it was time to start thinking about what illustration style would fit and what would give me the most flexibility from episode to episode. This was the fun part of the process because I was able to bring myself into the project. Rather than invest in real user testing, I went straight to social media for real unfiltered feedback.

For instance, I posted this picture with a simple question “left or right?”:

The goal of this was to see what people responded to without context. The majority of the Instagram audience favored the skull on the right so I decided to go with that look. Simple as that!

With the script of the first episode in my hands, I started to build out different components that aligned with the story. Working on Sidedoor is amazing because I basically get to learn all sorts of cool facts and stories and then illustrate them. I feel like my trivia game is much stronger these days.

Below are some images I also shared on Instagram:

Sharing my work was an extremely important part of the process because it validated what I was making before I got too far into any one direction. It also gave me some much needed confidence and motivation to keep pushing.

The grid was another important design element that brought this system to life. Because of the complexity of each story, I didn’t feel that I could come up with one single graphic that could summarize each episode. Instead, I liked the idea of pulling out visual cues from each episode that would support the overall narrative. In my opinion, this makes the listener question what the images represent.

Grid applied to an episode about Jay Dilla, my favorite beat maker of all time:

Animation by Bobby Spero

Step 4: Implementation

Now that I had a solid plan of action for design, it was time to focus on how this would be built out. I hit up the social team at big brand Smithsonian and they made a master spreadsheet on Google Docs of every possible media type and proportion. I then created a template I could repurpose every time I built out a new episode graphic. Since new episodes come out about every two weeks, it was important that I wouldn’t have to think about this step each time I created a new graphic. I was no longer wasting time searching Google to try to find Facebook’s newest post guideline, it was already built out and ready to go.

Here’s a small portion of the illustration in context:

All said and done, the Smithsonian gave me a blank canvas to make my mark. I was never intimidated by the size of the project because of the process and steps I took to build things out. The big picture that guided the illustration was to make creative decisions based on a group consensus that would push people to shift their perception and understanding of Smithsonian Sidedoor. I’m proud to be a part of the team that created an unexpected side door entrance for those who have yet to engage with the brand.