Illustrating Balanced and Inclusive Teams

Co-authored by Trace Byrd, Brand Designer & Illustrator at Atlassian.

The influence of brands on society can’t be underestimated. The technology industry in particular is extremely unbalanced, and there is little doubt that a lack of representation in tech brands plays a role — if people never see themselves represented in tech branding, it’s unlikely they’d consider tech a welcoming place to work.

As a company that wants to unleash the potential in every team, depicting people is especially important. How we represent the people who make up teams should be just as important. We’ve always known that the best teams are balanced; made of a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, but our illustrations haven’t always reflected that. Redefining our illustration style was not only a chance to make it a more powerful and usable tool for advancing our brand message, but to step up and become a more proactive and responsible member of our community.

There are many ways to visualize teamwork. For us and many other companies, illustration has become the tool of choice. Using the same visual language, illustration can convey a variety of tones and emotions. Lastly, illustration can effectively embody our brand’s personality.In time, it is something that will create a deeper connection between us and our audience.

With our recent brand refresh, our commitment to depicting more humanity in teamwork has only become stronger. More completely visualizing our own team and our audience started with thinking about them differently. The more we fall back on a limited image of our audience, the more we limit who sees themselves as an Atlassian customer, a part of the tech industry, or even a full member of their team. Bottom line, Atlassian products are for people on teams. That shouldn’t be limited by their race, religion, gender, age, or ability. Anyone should be able to see themselves in the stories we tell.

For the most part, we divide our illustrations into categories: Spots and Heroes. Depictions of people — which we call “meeples” — can be found in all levels of illustration, but each category has different challenges and opportunities when it comes to inclusive storytelling.v

Meeples in Spot lllustrations

We define spot illustrations as the simplest expression of a concept. For meeples, this is the most basic form they can take — like a headshot or an avatar. They’re excellent for telling technical stories about teamwork, especially when supplemented by other illustrations or iconography. They allow for a high level of detail that can be used to express individuality. In our new spot meeples, we started by widening the spectrum of skin tones, hair colors, and other features to better reflect real people. This not only allowed us to more effectively represent people of color, but helped people of all ages see themselves in our brand too. We expanded on how our meeples express gender and individuality with more hairstyles and clothing options. We added to the number of cultures and religions that can be expressed and experimented with new ways to present meeples of varying ability, starting with the addition of glasses and hearing aids.

Meeples 2017

Creating a representative family of meeples was vital, but how these characters are used to tell a story is just as important. The meeple that is chosen for a specific role can have a major impact on what we’re saying as a brand. What does a manager look like? Who is a developer? What makes a diverse team? These are questions that we expect every Atlassian to reflect on when they speak on behalf of Atlassian.

Meeples in Hero Illustrations

Hero illustrations are a totally new type of illustration for us at Atlassian. In them, we show full-bodied meeples interacting with larger than life environments. These visuals are usually telling more complex, metaphorical stories using a variety of different characters.

These mini-meeples have less facial detail, but show more direct relationships between one another. This provides us a great opportunity to share a vision of inclusive teamwork. And because they are full-body figures, we had the opportunity to show more realistic range in body size and proportion.

Not only do we continue to portray a more realistic range of skin tones, religious beliefs, cultures, gender expressions, and abilities, but we go further to examine the actions and relationships between meeples. While our spots are more like components of a story, given to people within Atlassian to build their own narratives, heroes and spot heroes are pre-composed. Each one is like a mini-story and each meeple is a character within it. The roles we give to each character matter, so we take care to be conscious of the power dynamics we create. Everyone in a scene should contribute equally. Our illustrations should promote a spirit of collaboration that includes a diverse group of people bringing their different strengths to the task as hand.

Our illustrations should promote a spirit of collaboration that includes a diverse group of people bringing their different strengths to the task as hand.

Empowering thoughtful use of illustration

Atlassian believes in a culture of open work. This means as a Creative Team we don’t just supply outcomes, we supply tools and practices. In the case of illustration, this takes the form of a library of assets and guidelines on how to use them. Within the library, each meeple has a name which helps us to think about them as an individual, not just an asset to copy and paste. The names themselves also serve to shake up stereotypes.

Our internal Illustration Library

With the illustrations and guidelines in hand, we can start telling stories! Since it is virtually impossible to determine a person’s role by their wardrobe or face, we set up our fellow Atlassians with other resources to help imply this. For instance, a super easy template in Keynote that allows a non-designer to combine a Meeple with an icon that indicates their role, task, or action. This steers us clear of falling back onto stereotypes to determine who is a developer, marketer, support agent, etc.

Assigning a role to a meeple using our Keynote template

When selecting multiple meeples to form a team or describe a specific scenario, it can feel a bit daunting to choose a diverse group. In addition to written guidelines around this, we also take out some of the guesswork by assigning background colors to the meeples which, when used together, are an inherently balanced subset of meeples. For example, if you choose three or more meeples with a blue background, you know that you are choosing a group that we have spent time making balanced. Additionally, we’ve created scenes with meeples engaged in a variety of activities both social and professional. We’ve put a lot of time into illustrating scenarios that represent the truly balanced teams that Atlassian hopes to serve.

Going forward

Promoting diversity and inclusion within our brand is a persistent and multi-faceted effort. And it’s a challenge to depict diversity without it feeling merely perfunctory or symbolic until the reality of our industry truly represents the customers we serve and the world at large. More needs to be done outside of the brand to promote an inclusive workplace, but we’ve found that the results of constant vigilance and open conversation are worth the time and energy. It’s not just about advancing our business, it’s about being the best member of the tech community that we can.

So much more needs to be done outside of the brand to promote an inclusive workplace, but we’ve found that the results of constant vigilance and open conversation are worth the time and energy.

We encourage other designers to join us on this journey and take steps to make your company’s illustrations for inclusive. By taking ownership of the problem, you can provide a better toolkit for marketers and designers, and also educate your entire organization on the importance of inclusive representation.

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