Illustrating Balanced and Inclusive Teams
Co-authored by Trace Byrd, Brand Designer & Illustrator at Atlassian.
It has been a huge year for the Atlassian Brand. We’ve developed a new design language that touches every part of our business. It was an effort not only to change the way we embody our personality, but also change the standard we hold ourselves to.
As part of our process, we re-explored the qualities that represent Atlassian’s core values, and we discovered that those values are built on a foundation of celebrating diversity. Our values are as intrinsic to our brand as our mission to unleash the potential in every team. And since we know that the best teams are diverse and inclusive, it became apparent that we needed to make a holistic change to rethink both our visual assets and our mindset.
No part of our brand was left unchanged, but we would soon find that revisiting illustration in particular presented a unique opportunity to celebrate the diversity in the teams we serve. Over the past few years illustration in branding has become more prominent, and for good reason. It’s a powerful tool that has the flexibility to tell whimsical, aspirational stories as well as communicate complex technical concepts that might otherwise overwhelm an audience. Using the same visual language, illustration can convey a variety of tones and emotions. Lastly, illustration can effectively embody our brand’s personality. It’s a great way for us to further distinguish our voice. In time, it is something that will create a deeper emotional connection between us and our audience.
For 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. 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. Redefining our illustration 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.
The process of progress
We’ve used illustrated characters (we call them meeples) in some form to tell our story for a long time. In fact, we’ve been on this journey for several years. Originally, meeples were used as graphic devices to tell stories about different people in different roles. They were humanoid, but not quite human. They didn’t yet have realistic features that could represent the diversity of all team members, only simple props that indicated their functions. Bonus points to anyone who can determine the role of the second meeple from the left.
As you can see, this was not an effort in making our audience feel represented. These purely functional illustrations downplayed diversity by abstracting people beyond recognition
Our next iteration added a bit more character, but not much. Gender expression was shown only through two hairstyle options and the default meeple appeared male. Additionally, certain stereotypes were being reinforced, such as a tie (a traditionally male item) being used to denote a business person or manager. Lastly, skin tones were still “absent”, though these characters were effectively White as a result.
The more realistic details we added, the more obvious the lack of representation became. We weren’t doing a great job of representing our own team, let alone all of the teams in the world.
Our next iteration of meeples were more varied in gender and clothing, but this made the absence of varied skin tones and the binary approach to gender all the more apparent. At the time, this was naïvely done in order to avoid disrupting our fragile color palette — which we put too much emphasis on to carry the look and feel of of our brand. It was becoming painfully obvious that by attempting to avoid a discussion around inclusion, we were actually developing habits that we needed to break. We started by making room in our brand language for an expanded color palette to include different skin tones.
Teams are diverse and if we wanted to represent them we needed to acknowledge that. What came next was a well-intentioned but somewhat shallow approach to diverse representation. This included a checked box approach to skin color (light, medium, “dark”), roles that were implied by apparel, and inclusion of a few more religious symbols.
As small as this step might seem, we were finally starting to ask difficult questions about what inclusive representation meant, even if we were far from answering them. These conversations were important because they not only opened our eyes to all the things we should be considering, but how important it would be to educate anyone who would be using our assets on how to do so thoughtfully. We wanted to make sure that our teammates would be empowered to amplify and incorporate this thinking into their everyday roles.
Our approach today
With our recent brand refresh, our commitment to depicting more humanity in teamwork has only become stronger. We embarked on the mission to create more inclusive imagery with the lessons from our past attempts at the top of our minds. More completely visualizing our own team and our audience started with thinking about them differently. We needed to shed the tendency to simplify our audience into just a few personas. While this convention helps us be economical with budget and timeline-driven projects that require a target market, it is extremely limiting when it comes to creating a language to speak to all of our current and future users. The more we enforce 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. Meeples can be found in all levels of illustration, but each category has different challenges and opportunities when it comes to inclusive storytelling.
Meeples in Spot llustrations
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.
Creating a representative family of meeples was vital but how these characters are used to tell a story is just as important. Which meeple is chosen for which 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.
This process is not scientific, nor should it be. Becoming overly formulaic when trying to represent diversity is what led to many of our past problems. For us, creating these stories in an inclusive way is built around conversation. We share with our team (which intrinsically very diverse) and with people outside our team and even company. We ask how the representation in an illustration makes people feel. We make adjustments and hold ourselves and each other accountable. With the opinions we gather, we do our best to distill them into an outcome that pushes us forward. There is still a long way to go. The process can never really be finished, but we are inching our way toward something better.
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.
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.
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.
This journey has taught us that promoting diversity and inclusion within our brand is a persistent and multi-faceted effort. The work is never done and there aren’t many companies that have blazed a clear path forward for us. We face some challenges that can not be easily overcome. For instance, it can be a struggle to be a totally inclusive brand knowing that there are aspects of diversity, like invisible disabilities or neurodiversity, which can be difficult to illustrate.
Also, it is 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.
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.
It’s not just about advancing our business, it’s about being the best member of the tech community that we can.
In the spirit of helping others in their journey, we’d like to share some tips on how you might become more aware of diversity and inclusion within your brand space, whether its through illustration, photography, or other mediums that deal directly with humans and how we depict them. 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.
Before you even start creating, challenge assumptions of your audience early on in the design process. Don’t settle for a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to defining who your customers are.
If your organization prides itself on investing in inclusion consider looking to your colleagues for inspiration. There are more than a few of our meeples that are named after our own teammates.
Consider thinking about it as “normalizing” vs. “diversifying”. Making your brand more representative of the real world makes sense, as opposed to an aggressively lopsided representation, which can feel like you’re adding ‘token’ characters.
Open up the lines of communication to your organization. We wouldn’t have been made aware of problematic depictions of people had it not been for our value “Open Company, No Bullshit.” Talking to your internal clients about how they think about diversity while using brand assets will also aid your written guidelines.
Use a collection of subtle elements, not just one, to indicate ethnicity. For instance, you shouldn’t have one specific eye shape to indicate an Asian person. Relying too heavily on one element is the fast track to making caricatures.
Leverage your diversity and inclusion experts in your company. Even with the best intentions, it’s unrealistic to assume that everyone knows how to visualize diversity in a respectful way.
Accept change as inevitable! Be willing to constantly challenge your assumptions. Your brand will grow and so will you!
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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