Crafting a New Illustration Style for Creative Market

If you just hit our homepage it might be hard to tell, but our design team has been hard at work the past few month. Watching us launch countless new product features, delightful campaigns and a freshly redesigned logo script makes me super proud to be a part of this team.

Meanwhile…

Behind the scenes, our brand team (Bronwyn Gruet, Gerren Lamson and myself) has been cranking away on a huge overhaul of our product illustration system at Creative Market.

Evolving The Brand

Im sure a few of you can remember the early days of Creative Market. For the newer crowd — picture a slight farmers market vibe, pencil sketch icons, 3D buttons, and texture, texture, texture… like on everything. In some ways it was kinda the old web at its finest — like when things still had some character.

Legacy illustration work

Flash forward four years and our site still looks very similar to the original MVP but we have stripped away most of those defining characteristics in favor of a more flat design approach. Times have changed, and we need to continue to push our design system forward. When I first joined the team we were right in the middle of the “de-texturing” process and I couldn’t have been more happy. But, sometime last year I found myself longing for more character in our stuff and feeling rather nostalgic for some of what made the “old” Creative Market special in my mind.

Getting Started

Understanding the Problem

One of the biggest praises I always give to our site is that we do a great job of staying out of the way of the products. Our shop owners are the real stars here and their products largely define the overall vibe and perceived brand of Creative Market. But therein lies one of our biggest problems — establishing a solid brand voice within our product. The remaining illustration system from the MVP just hasn’t allowed us to evolve our brand’s visual voice and tone.

Setting Goals

To jumpstart our exploration into a new illustration system we started by trying to define a theme and capture goals. Here is a snapshot of what we wrote down.

Create an Illustration style that can:

  • Provide context and clarity to complex ideas and tasks.
  • Make the Creative Market experience delightful and memorable for our users.
  • Engage our users and encourage action and conversion.
  • Embody our brand’s values and reflect the diverse creativity within the Creative Market marketplace.
  • Find a balance between the handmade/crafty look and a more digital/modern vibe.
  • Embrace the Creative Market of the past and guide it forward.

Research

Once we had goals established we set out on creating a mood-board. Our mood-board aided us in trying to piece together visually what was then only in our brains. We called out small characteristics in each image and found tiny style treatments that we loved and thought might help us in achieving our new vibe.

Snapshot of our illustration mood-board

WILLOs

With our mood-board in hand and a frankensteined list of new illo (illustration) styles to test we opened up Illustrator and began exploring. Unfortunately for our small team we couldn’t afford to set aside a huge block of time to devote solely to our endeavor, so we created a weekly cadence of exploring two new illos each week. We called them our WILLOs or Weekly Illos. Each week we picked 2 items/topics to illustrate and tried to explore 2–3 different style executions of each. These ranged from basic design tools (pencil, computer) to more random elements like a cocktail or house plant. My dog even made the list but sadly we never got to draw her.

Samples from our WIllOs

Each week Bronwyn and I would review the previous weeks work. We would comment on and document what we thought was working and what wasn’t — then we made recommendations for how to best tackle the new weeks WILLO.

A large part of our WILLO process was exploring brush techniques. Having an element of texture present in our illustration seemed vital to creating a slight hand-drawn feel and reinforcing the crafted nature that’s seen throughout so many of the products on our site.

Samples from our WIllOs

This process took us about eight weeks before each of our of our individual explorations really began to intersect with the other and started to feel like a unified style.

Samples from our WIllOs

Refinement

At this point in our process actual on-site product projects began to arise with real illustration needs. Out of necessity we used a few of these early projects as small outlets to gut check and test out the new direction for our illustrations.

Early product illustration samples

Some went well and some deserve a redo. But, overall these early projects allowed us to really learn from our illustration style and assess if we were actually achieving the goals we set out to.

Guidelines

After working most of our style kinks out we began to address the growing need for guidelines and clear rules for keeping out system cohesive. Our guidelines tackle color, stroke, texturing, and some general composition topics like perspective and shadows. While writing our guidelines we decided to not only create rules for what to do and not to do, but also for how and when it would be ok to break those rules.

Looking Forward

We have shipped a handful of projects that we are really pumped about and are already working on new ones. The brand team at Creative Market has now become a meaningful part of new product initiatives and our illustrations are helping us redefine our visual voice and tone. Our illustration style should continue to evolve and mature, but I’m proud of where we have gotten so far and Im excited to continue to push it forward.

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