Illustration Identities Are Our Thing

Ryan Putnam
Feb 21, 2018 · 5 min read

We get a lot of requests from clients who are interested in making illustration a core component of their brand identity. Some might think it’s a magical process that involves us falling into a deep meditative state until delightful bursts or creative sparks spring forth from our pencils. It’s actually more structured and replicable than that. In fact, we here at Putnam Studio have a five-step process to create unique and sustainable illustration identities! I know that sounds cheesy and formulaic but this process not only defines an illustration identity, but brings core parts of a brand personality to life. Our work is centered around the notion that illustration can be an identity system in itself.

Brand Audit

The need for an illustration identity process was originally sparked out of frustration. This frustration manifested in meetings that devolved into irrelevant spats between co-workers about minimal compositional or conceptual illustration issues. It became clear that creating a specific set of goals for people to use was essential for talking about illustration.

To create these goals we do a brand audit. This audit is a highly collaborative effort with the stakeholders of the project. To start, we all gather in a room and discuss the current brand assets. We talk about the strengths of each of these assets and see how illustration can fill in a hole. We distill these objectives into a list of goals. We use this set of goals in each of the following steps to talk, critique, and understand the illustration identity process.

Credit Karma Brand Audit Results

Visual Landscape

You’ll notice we haven’t even started drawing yet but don’t worry, we’ll get there! At this point we review the brand audit goals, customer base, and competitor market. We take all this into account and we survey current illustration/design trends and dig into other markets that parallel the goals set by the brand audit. Next, we gather these finding into 2–4 possible directions, each with it’s own style and goal focus. We present these directions to clients in the form of mood boards.

MessageBird Mood Board (illustrations: top left Julianna Brion, top right Hannah Swann, bottom left Hannah Swann, bottom middle Ryan Putnam, bottom right Chris Delerenzo

Style Construction

Ok, now we actually start drawing. We begin with a small project that was defined earlier in the project brief. Ideally this initial project will encompass a range of illustrations common to the brand. With this set of illustrations we apply the visual direction agreed upon from the previous step and ensure that we are aligned with our brand audit goals. We iterate and tweak details such as color palette, texture, and line quality until we capture an illustration identity we are going for.

Here One Illustration Construction
Scratch Illustration Construction

Library of Illustrations

By now we have some specific compositional attributes that we can pressure test across a suite of illustrations. All the inconsistencies and problems will bubble up to the surface in this step so we will further refine these attributes if needed. This creation process allows us to highlight the details we will need to document in style guides and rules.

Airbnb Library of Illustrations
Operator Library of Illustrations

Illustration Legacy

Now we are at our final step! We have a bunch of illustrations and a concise way of constructing them. We create comprehensive documentation that catalogs all these visual choices. This guide is given to the client so future designers and illustrators can create new artwork that is aligned with the illustration identity. This documentation can take shape in everything from a PDF to a fully interactive site.

Page from MessageBird Illustration Guide
Page from Credit Karma Illustration Guide

Growing the Process

This process has worked great for a bunch of the illustration identities we have created, but every company is different. Often, products and brands are at different stages so some of these steps might encompass more. In some cases this process can open more discussions about the brand.

We consider our working process an open conversation that will evolve with us. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts and bring this process into your own work if you find it helpful.

Digging Deeper

In the near future we will publish a number of case studies highlighting this process in some of the illustration identities we have built. We are also going to dig deeper into each step in separate articles. Subscribe to our Medium feed and watch out for more work from us!

Putnam Studio

Putnam Studio is a San Francisco based illustration and…