How to illustrate when you can’t draw to save your life

A personal tale with practical tips

Amy Devereux
Apr 26 · 5 min read
Drawing (attempt) versus final illustration for an empty state at Envoy

One tool to rule them all

Before diving into the techniques, you first must understand the program. While this isn’t an Adobe Illustrator tutorial, there is one particular beast of a feature — the Pen Tool—that is crucial for creating vectors. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard groans at the utter mention of its name. While it can feel discouraging after just clicking around with it, it doesn’t have to be excruciating to learn. I fully attribute my quick success with it to a single thing: mazes.

Paralleling the pathways, with as few anchor points as possible

Rapid growth from imitation

A huge factor that allowed me to quickly pick up illos (my preferred pet name) was that I wasn’t starting from scratch. Rather than dreaming up every little detail—shape, color, perspective, message, texture, and so on—I was just both rebuilding and adding to an existing set. Copying is the fastest way to get inside the mind of an illustration, and truly understand how it came to be.

Breaking it down

One of the illustrations my agency requested didn’t have a native file, so my task was to perfectly recreate it.

Popsicle made from circles and rectangles
Trimming circle paths to make macaroni noodles

Extending a style

The other task at hand was to make more illustrations in the same style. Although not as easy to validate perfection, the flip side was that there was a lot more wiggle room, while still within comfortable boundaries.

Five years later

Now I’m illustrating multiple times a week, without thinking twice about the building blocks or how to set up my Bézier curves. I still can’t draw. But I do sketch to ideate and communicate rough ideas quickly. I don’t call myself illustrator—I’m a designer, who also illustrates. This distinction is important because there are a lot of masterful illustrators out there that I don’t even come close to touching. Maybe one day I will, maybe I won’t (though catch me ever-practicing on Dribbble.)

Some illos from both work and side projects

Envoy Design

Stories and ideas from designers that challenge the workplace status quo.

Thanks to Katie Riley, Jon Rundle, and Kelly Wahlstrom.

Amy Devereux

Written by

Visual designer

Envoy Design

Stories and ideas from designers that challenge the workplace status quo.