Brightening up a Financial Brand

Bringing empathy, humanity, and joy through Illustration

A few years ago, the fine folks at Credit Karma decided it was time to launch an internal branding project as their current brand needed a refresh and realignment. They decided to kick off a comprehensive project and revisit all of their brand assets: logo, colors, and website to name a few. During this process they decided to move forward with a unique and own-able illustration style. With a subject as sensitive as personal finance, Credit Karma knew that a strong illustration style and strategy would give their users a sense of empowerment and optimism as they plan for the future.

With this in mind, Credit Karma reached out to us for this portion of their rebrand and we kicked off our introductory research phase: the brand audit (to learn more about this and other phases, check out this article). This phase of our working process is all about getting to know the company and defining goals. We sat down with the Credit Karma design team and stakeholders and began exploring and collecting ideas from the conceptual to the literal within a collaborative brainstorming session.

Notes from some initial brainstorming

After we spent some time collecting feedback, we grouped the feedback by theme. We put such words as instructive, helpful, and enlightening into a categorical goal: clarifying. Other themes we landed on included empathetic and humanistic. Additionally, we determined that the illustrations needed to be flexible enough to handle sensitive as well as celebratory content from heavy debt to improving one’s credit score.

Heartfelt and Competent

Once we had a good understanding of Credit Karma and their goals, we moved towards our Visual Landscape phase. At this point we reviewed brand audit goals, customer base, and competitor market. While taking into account all of this information, we surveyed current illustration trends to determine preliminary guidelines for visual and illustrative solutions. We collect a range of sample work that exemplify brand audit themes differently.

During this process, we worked on trying to distinguish Credit Karma from a sea of Financial + Tech companies. We found that the competitor market relied primarily on a clinical and sleek feel. With this in mind, we knew it would be easy to bring the heart back into personal finance with illustrations that made use of a bright color palette while focusing on people and outdoor scenes.

On the left are some placeholder illustrations that were originally in use for Credit Karma. On the right are some of our finalized illustrations. Here you can see the mono-line illustrations that we were careful to avoid stylistically.

To bring a humanistic feel, we focused on styles that showcased hand-drawn linework, textural elements, and organic shapes. We wanted to make a far departure from the clinical linework that was found on many websites and brands especially throughout tech. We also ensured that all the showcased styles allowed for enough flexibility that a diversity of body types and skin colors could be included in the final style.

A silhouette of Arizona with it’s famous Monument Valley within the shape.

At the end of this phase, we parsed this research into 3 distinct directions each with it’s own unique look and included write-ups discussing pros/cons as well as stylistic breakdowns.

Above are the three Mood Boards we put together. Illustration Credits: Top Board: Alejandro Ramirez, Mingo Lamberti for MUTI, Mauco Sosa, Oleg Beresnev for Beresnev Design, Stefano Marra, Eight Hour Day. Bottom Left: Jon McNaught, Rafael Mayani, Andrea Desantis, Ping Zhu, Meg Hunt, Becca Stadtlander, Marina Muun. Bottom Right: Martina Paukova, Rami Niemi, Andy Rementer, Chris Delorenzo, Hisashi Okawa.

Piece by Piece

After discussions with Credit Karma, we threw out two styles. We wanted to avoid falling too far into the fine arts direction or into a direction that felt too silly. We wanted to walk the fine line between hand-made, unique artwork and visual styles familiar enough to lend credibility.

Next, we moved into our Style Construction Phase. We finally got pen to paper and began drawing. With our Mood Boards as our base-point, we drew a sampling of illustrations that hit all of our goal, brand, and style points. We used these illustrations as a way to ensure that we were aligned with client expectations while tweaking details such as color palette, texture, and line quality. We started to make guidelines about content as this point as well, focusing on natural and plant elements as opposed to inorganic or machine ones. We ensured that these illustrations were hitting high level goals as well as smaller more nuanced goals.

Early Iconography Styles that stuck around

It became clear around this time that certain stylistic goals were taking the lead while some were fading out or not being used at all. After some discussions with Credit Karma, we all agreed that “clarifying” was not a goal that would be met with these illustrations. We decided that emotional value (empathy, humanity) would take the lead on these illustrations because ultimately emotional value would be of more use than clarifying illustrations for their customers.

One of our initial illustration boards. Many features of this style made their way into the final artwork. This color palette was tweaked to include a broader range of colors and the dark teal was thrown out.

Drawing, Drawing, Drawing

After our Style Construction illustrations had been ok’ed by stakeholders, it was time to get into the meat of the project, our Library of Work. Credit Karma provided us with documentation that outlined what work they wanted, ranging from small icons to hero illustrations. We divided these based on priority set by Credit Karma and started on the most pressing illustrations first.

For larger illustrations we would usually send over preliminary concepts and sketches before digging into the final version. Our real challenge at this point is expanding the general guidelines from our previous phase to allow for consistent work across a wide variety of applications and subject matter. We began to standardize certain rules after several illustrations had been created.

One of the things we had to standardize pretty quickly was the depiction of people. With this geometric style, specificity and attention to detail is paramount to stylistic consistency and strength. We put together a quick guide that outlined a few rules about the characters. Some of the rules included were that faces are to be shown only at profile and head-on views, specific proportions must be followed, and that a variety of body shapes, genders, races, and haircuts were to be represented.

A page from the illustration style guide for Credit Karma showcasing a few examples of how people could look in regards to pose, skin color, hairstyles, age, and gender.

In addition to people guidelines, we developed guidelines for how specific content, like houses, cars, and landscapes, were to be illustrated. We had a lot of fun with challenging content such as Arches National Park, workout gear, and the White House.

During this stage, we also did a fair amount of rule-breaking to begin to determine weak points in the style. We found that many of our rules around perspective and color broke down at small sizes and therefore had to be reigned in at certain points. We tried the illustrations on different colors as well, finding that they primarily work best on light and white backgrounds. We also were confronted with ways in which the often light-hearted content of the illustrations were inappropriate. For example, an illustration of an ice cream cone dropped on the ground paired in the product with a screen informing the user that their credit score has dropped, feels mocking or even cruel.

Above you can see some of the ways we were investigating scaling this style. Some of the color blocking and perspective begins to breakdown at certain sizes. We outlined how much detail, dimensionality, and color could work at different sizes.

Illustration Legacy

Now that our illustrations were nearly finalized, it was time to document all of our work to ensure that we institute a legacy of excellence for the Credit Karma illustration brand. Our research, in conjunction with the extensive illustration work we had completed, allowed us to compile a comprehensive document that outlined rules and guidelines for working within the illustration style.

Another page from the style guide outlining how we use perspective throughout the illustrations.

The style guide was sent to the client so any future illustrators or designers that create work in-house will have all the information they need. This style guide included rules for usage and application of the custom texture we created for the illustrations as well as rules regarding perspective, color, depiction of people, and background elements.

We laid out a few examples of what different body types, ability levels, and ages could look like in the style guide. We reiterated that although the body parts are composed of geometric shapes, there is plenty of room to represent different kinds of people. The above page is a beginner step towards body diversity.

We ensured that our process was as accessible and de-mystified as possible. We value the work that we do so we always put a lot of love and care into our style guides so that the work continues to be held to a high standard of excellency that we expect from ourselves.

Thanks for reading! You can see some more of the work we did for Credit Karma on their website. To read more about our working process, check out this article.