Keeping Illustration Freshhhhh

Bob Galmarini
Jun 11, 2018 · 6 min read
illustrations by Marcus Oakley

A bit of history…
Illustration has forever been a really big and important part of the Zendesk brand. We have always used our illustrations to communicate our personality. Illustration has also been used to explain pretty complicated and confusing tech business software stuff in an easy way. In a lot of ways, illustration has defined our visual language at Zendesk.

We were an early adopter of “line art”. Our line art style was a vector based, geometric system. It was built of simple shapes and forms. Our initial decision to use line art was largely because it was fast and easy to produce. There were a lot of illustrator wiz-kids that could produce great work quickly. When it was at its best, it communicated a simplicity and charm.

Our line art at its best (illustration by Richard Perez) https://dribbble.com/shots/1205165-SHIP-IT-3-of-3

Holding onto an illustration style within a brand for an elongated period of time is a difficult thing to do, for several reasons:

  1. The internet is fast, and good things catch on. It wasn’t long before all of dribbble, the design community, and tech software in general adopted the line art style. This made it particularly difficult for us (or anyone) to stand out as a brand. I could even walk into our local grocery store and see the same line art style applied to something as minuscule as canned food — like I said, good things catch on quick.
  2. Designers get bored. Great designers love to push boundaries, try new things, and be progressive. Giving designers an old illustration style to work with automatically limits their work.

As Zendesk changed, we realized our illustration style needed to adapt as well. We saw that our designers kept pushing the limits and bending the rules of the illustration style, which led to a good amount of inconsistency. An event may be a bit different from a banner ad which looks a bit different from a webpage, etc. We also knew that just jumping on the most trendy illustration style would be a short-lived solution — soon enough it would limit our designers and date us yet again.

Experimenting with our sister “brand”, Relate
Zendesk has a thought leadership forum and conference called Relate. It’s always been progressive and offers our design team a playground to push boundaries and test new things. Our brand team gets to design not just the materials used for the conference, but the conference itself, which inevitably leads to more experimentation. Relate 2017 offered the perfect forum to launch and test a new illustration style. Enter: Marcus Oakley. We had worked with Marcus Oakley a bit in the past and fell in love with his style; his work offers simplicity and sophistication at the same time. It feels human, quirky, timeless and humble — and it couldn’t be more Zendesk.

Then, it hit us: what if we used only Marcus Oakley illustrations to design the whole Relate conference?!

So, we did.

Relate launched with Marcus Oakley taking the spotlight. And it was great. Marcus’s humble charm won over the attendees. This gave us the idea of seasonal art direction for Zendesk. We have always treated the Zendesk brand a bit more like a B-to-C company than a B-to-B company. Why would our illustration be any different? Looking at our favorite consumer brands, we realized that their visual language changed pretty regularly and was usually seasonal or campaign driven.

Relate NY 2017

Clearly defining the brand
To pull off the idea of seasonal illustration, a few things needed to line up. For starters, we had to very clearly define the permanent parts of the Zendesk brand. If the illustrations have the ability to change, there needs to be an anchor and a clear visual language that still defines the work as Zendesk. For us, those anchors are tone of copy, color, typography, and tone of the illustration. Our typography does not change. So even if an illustration is different, you can tell it is Zendesk just from the color and setting of the typography. We also needed to define a more permanent, evergreen illustration style.

What’s an evergreen style?
While using seasonal art is exciting, it is not sustainable to change all of our illustration completely when we decide to change artists. To solve this, we had to define an evergreen illustration. The term “evergreen” refers to a style that is meant to be kept around for a good amount of time — we use this style for smaller spot illustrations and icons, and save the seasonal art for big heroes, product launches, key pages, events, banner ads, etc. The evergreen style should always be super simple. It needs to align with a brand’s identity and messaging, be clean and simple, and be able to easily match virtually every type of seasonal art direction thrown at it.

Introducing seasonal illustration with Marcus Oakley
Once we established the brand and our evergreen style, it was time to bring on the seasonal illustration. Having more temporary illustration style offers our brand and our designers a few things, all beneficial. We get to work with illustrators that we love. We get to continually look forward to change and keeping things fresh. We get to reinvent ourselves frequently and not get burnt out. We get to stay on trend and stay ahead of the curve in our industry and we get to test. And, we have the ability to try different styles to see what resonates with our audience the most —t hat may be the biggest benefit of all.

With the success and feedback from the 2017 Relate event, we thought that Marcus Oakley would be the a great fit for Zendesk’s first seasonal artist. Having worked with Marcus before, we acquired a pretty large collection of work that was only seen by a few thousand people; we knew that the rest of the Zendesk audience and brand would benefit from a fresh perspective and his unique style.

So, without further ado, I’d love to formally introduce Zendesk x Marcus Oakley.

Marcus has taken over many key pages of our website, events and campaigns. You may see Marcus’s work on Zendesk billboards or even a car wrap driving around your city.

Brand Awareness campaign assets
IRL — Downtown Dallas brand awareness campaign
Zendesk.com homepage featuring Marcus

Stay tuned for the next Zendesk Illustration style (unless we decide we need to keep Marcus’s work forever!)

If you’re interested in this stuff, you should follow our Creative team on IG.

Zendesk Creative Collection

We're a blend of art, copy, video, and product design. We come from different backgrounds, but we share one passion as the Creative team—making compelling work for Zendesk.

Bob Galmarini

Written by

Sr. Director of Brand Design at http://slack.com . Previously http://zendesk.com . co-founder of http://neveandhawk.com .

Zendesk Creative Collection

We're a blend of art, copy, video, and product design. We come from different backgrounds, but we share one passion as the Creative team—making compelling work for Zendesk.

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