Do we really need to use illustrations in digital product?

Introducing a new TransferWise brand illustration system. Say hello to our Tiny People.

Agata Pośpiech
Oct 16, 2019 · 6 min read

Well, we don’t need to use illustration in all apps. Not all digital products need cute little images — as they’re often called. But if we then ask, do we want our digital product to be transparent, understandable and deliver a delightful user experience?

Then the answer becomes much clearer. Because sometimes, to achieve these goals, icons, smart copy, and even photography might not be enough. Enter illustration. TransferWise’s product, fast international money transfers — to keep things simple — is one of those cases. At TransferWise, we introduced an illustration system to help users understand complex ideas and the steps of sensitive finance services.

When used wisely, illustration can work as a simplified international language — easily digestible, easily understood.

Finding the right illustration language.

TransferWise has been using illustrations for many years — almost since its beginning. But usually the first goal of a tech startups is to concentrate on functionality. Which makes sense. Because firstly, the product needs to work. Visual elements can support it, but they’re not the first priority. The polishing process and settling solid brand rules comes later.

So fast forward to the present day, TransferWise is no longer a startup but an international trusted company. Seems like a good time to add illustration to the brand system.

When looking for the right illustration language we wanted to be sure of 3 things:

  1. It reflects TransferWise and its users. From the brand perspective, there was a need of a solid system which could become an integral part of the brand design system. This means reflect the company mission (convenient and fast money transfers) in an honest way and represent TransferWise customers — diverse people without borders. It had to function as an integral part of the whole branding and be easily adaptable.
  2. It has a communicative function. From the digital product perspective, TransferWise needed a strong communication tool. We have complex ideas and we need to communicate in an easy, comprehensive and consistent way — to make the transfer experience more convenient for customers. And we have international customers who need to understand the product in the same way.
  3. It delights our users. At the same time, we wanted to add some delightful moments for the users, to make money transfers feel more exciting and bring energy into the product experience. Customers don’t talk about money transfer to friends. They’re more likely to talk about surprising moments they experience when using an app. And when people like your app, they’re more likely to keep using it and recommend it to their friends. And the more people use TransferWise, the more we can drive down prices and improve the customer experience.

Design, test, iterate, repeat.

It’s true, TransferWise illustrations were a bit of an accidental part of the brand system, that quickly became a bigger part of how we communicate. Visually attractive but a little disjointed. So, we knew it needed a redesign. But, it is a tech company and knowing is not enough. Nothing comes life without solid user testing — including illustration. To validate our decisions, we needed to ask the customers, both current and prospective. We showed the previous illustrations to learn where they were falling down and what resonated. Multiple user tests confirmed that people were expecting some more serious, trustworthy images. They were too: childish, boring, cartoonish, and not serious enough. Put gently, not what the TransferWise pillars stand for.

Previous TransferWise illustration style.

Introducing new characters.

This time we wanted to show there are real humans behind our digital product. We created a family of Tiny People, various characters who allow us to communicate in a more human, empathetic way. They represent the TransferWise community, both customers and employees. They celebrate the diversity and wide range of TransferWise customers. We show more than one race, more than one gender, more than one age group, and more than just able bodied people in each image.

We also wanted to express the excitement about the service TransferWise delivers and the positive changes it brings to the finance world. That’s why the characters are happy, joyful people, and that’s why we often show them in dynamic poses. This dynamism also covers the fast aspect of TransferWise. Our transfers are fast and our international customers travel and move from place to another a lot — so our characters just had to look active.

To communicate our ideas, the illustrations also use objects which are very real. TransferWise deals with real money, make serious transfers and so we decided that our characters should do the same. That’s why we avoid abstract images. Our Tiny People interact with exaggerated objects, to emphasise actions, but still they do very real things with them.

Again, testing.

We had a strong story and rationality supporting our new illustrations style, we knew it’d be easily adaptable, and we believed in the story behind it. But again, we needed to validate it by user testing.

Liking or hating the style can be something very subjective. But what can be tested is the understanding of the metaphors and the emotions they evoke. We wanted to answer questions like “do they represent our brand values?” and be sure we were meeting our project goals like delivering trustworthy and reliable product.

Thankfully, the results of the test, when we compared old illustration with the new ones, confirmed our assumptions. The customers agreed that the new style was more serious, and built more trust for the product. They felt like the company cares about people and appreciates their variety. They could identify with the characters, too. Some of our favourite quotes from the survey were:

You can imagine yourself in these situations” , “The company is serious about explaining what they do, they want to explain it in a clear way”.

New illustration style vs. old one.

Where the brand illustration system lives.

You can find our illustrations in the app as well as in some marketing materials — on our landing pages, for instance.

Our golden rule is that decorative function is not enough. The message we’re communicating is always as important as the aesthetic aspects of our illustrations. Those Tiny People have serious work to do. They are with us whenever we need to communicate an important message. And they’re very happy to help when it comes to:

• understanding and improving the clarity of the messages

• celebrating some moments in the user journey

• encouraging action

• embodying our brand pillars

What’s the future of our Tiny People?

The Tiny People family is growing. We add new characters to celebrate the variety of TransferWise customers as much as possible. That’s the beauty of working on a branding system as a part of the internal team. There’s always room for development and improvement.

We’ve implemented the first animations into the product and are working on a new set. There’s a lot of possibilities when it comes to our characters, and how they can develop. We’re excited to see them grow to help build even more transparency and trust using smart metaphors and animations.

We’re also growing our team and looking for a second skilled illustrator/animator who’s keen to help us bring our Tiny People to life.

TransferWise Design

In the TransferWise design team, it’s our job to understand people, ask the right questions, and make abstract ideas tangible. We care for the details, and we keep humans at the centre of our work. We make global money simple and human for people without borders.

Agata Pośpiech

Written by

Illustrator / Brand & Visual Designer / currently developing brand illustration system at TransferWise /

TransferWise Design

In the TransferWise design team, it’s our job to understand people, ask the right questions, and make abstract ideas tangible. We care for the details, and we keep humans at the centre of our work. We make global money simple and human for people without borders.

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