Illustrating inclusive communities

Hi there, thanks for stopping by! Today we’re taking a quick look into how we approach designing for communities at Airtasker — particularly in terms of illustration. One of our overarching goals is to keep in mind one of the biggest issues our society is facing: the freedom of embracing diversity.

Illustration by Jin Ju Hong
If we want to ‘design for change’ we must first ‘change the way we design’.
A little introspection can go a long way in making change happen.

Balancing data with beliefs

Now for the tricky part. If you do a quick search, you can find a lot of articles touching on the subject. It’s a constant battle: should we design with data in mind or with our guts first and foremost? How do we balance both? First, we need to understand the breakdown of our community.

On the one hand we have Job Posters (people creating the demand, posting jobs) – approximately 60% of them are female.

On the other side, we have the Airtasker Workers (people meeting the demand, completing the tasks) – approximately 52% of them are male.

It’s one thing to design for our existing users, but we also want to stay open for all the potential ones out there. After a fair bit of deliberation, we decided to tackle it head on, using a few simple tricks:

  • Try to use 1 male for every 2 female characters in all we do on the Job Posters side.
  • On the Airtasker Workers side, we change it to 1 female character for every 1 male as the numbers are more balanced.
  • For groups of more than 5, we try to use an equal number of each.

Doing this helps us knock out 2 birds with 1 stone:

  1. We stay relevant to what our numbers tell us about our current users.
  2. We make sure that we do the best job we can from a gender role and inclusivity standpoint.

Breaking the stereotypes

1. Magazine-type beauty

Wherever we look, we see what society’s standards of beauty have become. From magazines to photo-centric platforms and movies to almost every day-to-day conversation – it’s all over the place. And it doesn’t feel good to realise that these standards are out of reach for 99% of people.

It’s worth noting that a good majority of the photos on these platforms are heavily retouched. This means these unrealistically “good-looking” people don’t even exist in the real world. That’s quite the opposite of the realistic community we want to promote here at Airtasker. Our job is to find every possible way to represent the people that use our platform.

After all, everyone is unique. People are interesting for the little quirks they have or the special skills they have to offer. Flawless, perfect-looking individuals just don’t have the same… character!

Everything about ourselves is a statement of our uniqueness.

This is what we want our community to embrace: their singularity. We want them to know that they can be their truly unique selves while being able to find tasks and earn money.

2. Gender roles

Don’t you think it’s about time we stop saying “this is a man’s or a woman’s job”? Some women can lift heavy loads and/or operate dangerous tools. The same way, some men will be more comfortable with a sewing machine or organising weddings.

Gender should in no way be a reflection of aptitudes.

In recent past, we’ve started to see a clear shift in some industries. Women take a firm stand and fight to get what should have always been theirs in the first place. It took way too long to get to this point but it’s good to see things are finally moving in the right direction.

How about we take a genderless approach to any and every job available on the market? Our society would only benefit from having everyone do what they do best. In other words, let women be tradies, men be wedding managers and anybody else be whatever they want.

Being inclusive in illustration

One essential thing to consider when designing for a community is how to best represent it. However, this is easier said than done. The first step is to avoid shortcuts and wrong assumptions.

How do you illustrate a community without needing to create new characters all the time?

Well, you need to make decisions around which colours will constitute your palettes. Do this for skin, hair, clothes and everything in-between. You might also want to figure out what kind of body shapes to use and why. Lastly, keep in mind that you need to represent our society’s most important aspects. This means a wide variety of genders, different age brackets and sexual orientations.

1. Skin colour

Establishing a colour palette for skin was a tough one. It made us realise how big an issue this is in the world. We had to make decisions both from an inclusivity and selection standpoint — so we did.

The palette we created for skin colour.

On inclusivity: Our society tends to categorise people in groups — one of which is ethnicity. If misused, this can be (and has been) stigmatising for some groups. It’s also a spectacularly limited way to look at the world. This shortsighted worldview doesn’t align with our beliefs either.

On selection: It’s easy to create endless colour palettes. The more the merrier, right? After experimenting — and based on the results — we settled on 5 colours. We realised going too specific wasn’t helpful (not with inclusivity and limited selection in mind anyway). We landed on a set of 5 colours which can apply to many different skin types — helpfully solving both problems at once.

2. Hair colour

Once the skin palette was complete (and only then) we started to look at hair colour. We didn’t do it in parallel because these colours needed to work with our skin tones. We realised it was best to finalise the skin colour options beforehand. Most of the time, hair colour needed to contrast with the skin colours. In other cases, we would use it to be representative of a character’s personality. This made it clear early on that hair was going to be an element to get right as well.

The palette we created for hair colour.

We started with a set of 4 colours. The first 3 are for general purposes. The extra one is some kind of pink, for quirkiness sake. This represents the way people sometimes dye their hair. This list is definitely likely to evolve in the near future.

3. Gender, age & love equality

We never cease to be amazed with the variety of people using our platform. We see folks of all genders, ages and love orientation. We take pride in trying to represent them all, one way or another, in our illustrations. We want everyone to do tasks on our platform, no matter who they are and what their story might be. This is the real definition of a community and we can’t be more proud to see it happen the way it does on Airtasker.

We’ve been using an extensive mix of genders and ages in recent work. What we haven’t done yet (but want to start using in the future) is love equality. We simply haven’t found the right opportunities to showcase our support in a meaningful way. It stays top-of-mind for us though, which is what will ultimately help.

Focus on human interactions & emotions

We think it’s important to touch on the human aspect in our illustrations as well. It may not be conscious, but these details are still perceived by the brain. How you approach designing the humanising touches of your characters and illustrations really matters.

When designing for people, there’s a chance you will trigger some kind of emotional response. This means they will react to what’s presented to them. The more they can relate to what’s in front of them the better. This is the best way to allow people to identify with your company, service or mission.

Some of the things we thought of in that aspect are as follow:

  • Body language: open or closed arms, chin up or down, etc… Don’t forget to research all this. It can go a long way in understanding what certain body positions can mean for your country and in your culture.
  • Shapes: softer or sharper edges, longer or shorter legs, etc… How you go about choosing these criteria will define your characters’ personalities. It also sets the tone of your illustrations and how your customer base will perceive them.

When designing scenes, always go the extra mile. Experiment with cultural references known to most. Add the little details people are regularly used to seeing (snoozing an alarm, queueing for the bus, emojis, etc).

Product vs Marketing illustrations

The way we use illustrations in our product is not the same as our marketing/brand initiatives. They look like they come from same family but they differ slightly. What’s different to start with is the context those illustrations exist in. Then, you have to think about people’s mindset in both instances but also the kind of space you can work within.

On the product side, everything has to be a lot clearer and concise. When people use apps, all they want is a simple experience. By using easy-to-understand illustrations, we can help guide their experience. Here’s what we do to make sure they remain simple:

  • We avoid funky perspectives (harder to scan at a glance)
  • We use front-facing narratives (works better when paired with UI)
  • We have nothing in the background (best way to declutter)

When creating anything marketing/brand related, we can go a little broader. There are far more opportunities to add details that reaffirm the brand’s personality. We can use the space more so it focuses on telling stories that people can relate to. It’s about painting a better picture of what they can achieve but also what the community looks like. We found illustrating in this case helped us when:

  • We want to give some more context (“my apartment is a mess, I need help cleaning it”)
  • There’s a need to tell a story (“I’m a time-poor young professional”)
  • Trying to show the problem (“my birthday party is tonight and i’m nowhere near ready for it”)

Conclusion

Designing with communities in mind can be challenging — it’s all about finding the right balance of criterias. Most of your decision-making will come from the message you want to send, and it’s definitely a lot easier to make these decisions if your company believes in inclusivity. That’s how these values get included into your workflow as critical, not just a “nice-to-have”. In the end, the shape they take is not as important as actually making sure to inject them in your work.

Cast your mind back to the ideals you set for yourself when you started a career in design. Remember the days you wanted to change the world in your own personal way. Well, now you can take any project as an opportunity to do a little good around you. Why not send positive vibes out into the world? And take just a little bit of time to consider inclusivity and ethics in whatever you design.

After all, starting small is always better than not starting at all 😄


I want to finish by thanking those who helped make this piece happen: Jin Ju Hong (illustrations), Alex Schwarz & Katie Hume (wordsmithing) and the whole of the design team at Airtasker 🙏🏻