How to choose an illustration style

by Michelle Barnett

Posted on 11 August 2017

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Mason& Co chocolate

There’s just so many beautiful styles of drawing out there, how can we possibly choose?  Well I hate to tell you this, but if you’re looking purely at aesthetics, you’re probably looking at the wrong thing.  You could draw the same image in a million different styles, and they’d all look great, but the question here is which one is the best one for your project.  If we're doing a design for you, we'll send you a Moodboard - a collection of images that are all saying the right sort of thing - which narrows the field down for you a bit.  But at the end of the day it's still you that has to pick.  So how do you do you make such an important choice?


As with all branding, we start by thinking about our audience.  Who are they?  What do they like?  What do we want to say to them?  When we talk about illustrative ‘style’ we usually mean the feeling or tone of an artwork, but also the visual shorthand.  No kind of art or visual design exists in a vacuum - everything is a reference back to something else that came before, so when picking a style of illustration what you’re actually doing is tapping into your audience’s cultural awareness.  Certain images remind you of other images and when there’s a big enough history of these a kind of theme develops.  We can all do this without thinking: this drawing of a cow looks friendly, but this one looks threatening, or traditional, or futuristic, or cuddly, or modern, or whatever you like.  

The task, therefore, is not to decide which is the prettiest or most technically adept drawing of a cow, but to decide which one is going to support what you’re trying to say to your audience.  This is made a lot easier when you remember that any illustration should fit neatly into the rest of your branding.  The website for a Bed & Breakfast that emphasises the homegrown, cosy feel of the building will not be best served by a bold cartoonish style of illustration.  Something more subtle, with freehand-drawn elements will do a much better job of conveying the personal touch of that business.

The best way to show this is with examples, so lets do two involving food.  First up: chocolate brands using a similar illustration style for different purposes.

Monty Bojangles is a luxury brand of truffles.  Immediately I’m hit by colours that are strong and confident, but as I look closer I see that these are paired with some really intricate but nonsensical illustrations, mainly featuring a cat in a top hat and tails.  There are classic vintage elements here; florals and butterflies, zephyrs and hot air balloons, a motor car from the 1900s.  The detail lends the brand a sense of sophistication and the eclectic collection adds whimsy, as if we were finding bizarre treasures in an antiques shop.  Add all this up and the brand portrays a luxurious treat that a lot of thought and effort has gone into, selling it as a classy gift or a little private indulgence.  And notice that they've done all this without actually showing you the chocolate.  What they've sold you is the brand, the idea (although the chocolate is also very nice!)

Monty Bojangles truffles

Compare that to the branding of Mason & Co, which is more focussed on information than decoration.  Their primary selling point is the provenance of the cocoa beans they use - they only want to talk about the chocolate.  This is emphasised across the lower half of all their packaging in the only piece of illustration.  It's a single colour etching of the cocoa pod, the most detailed thing on the packaging, so again the suggestion of care and quality, but with much less whimsy.  There's no hot air balloons or top-hatted cats here - this is a very sensible, realistic, almost botanical drawing, giving us the sense that the producers are very intimately connected with the chocolate making process from start to finish.  This is clearly a staple bar rather than a special treat or gift suggestion.  What you draw is just as important as how you draw it.

Mason & Co chocolate

The lone illustration is framed by design which has a clear hierarchy.  The colourful upper half shows you which variety of chocolate you're getting, and your attention is pointed directly to the cocoa percentage with a palette which is still bright, but comparitively restriained when placed next to our last example.  There's no need for extraneous frills or an attempt to be fancy or fight with the illustration for attention.  The whole design is delibrately simple, referencing the humble origins and asking you to take it on face value.  You know what it is, you know what's in it, and you know how it got there, and Mason & Co feel confident that it's enough to let the product itself do the rest of the talking.


Now let's try two brands that are more closely matched.  Staying with food, a great comparison is Bristol-based Pieminister and their market competitor Higgidy.  Priced with barely a 20p different in supermarkets, these two brands have managed to target slightly different areas of the market by using illustration.

Pieminister’s use of illustrative elements on their logos and marketing is bright and graphic, using a lot of basic shapes that you might even call childish (tell me that the little pie with the running legs doesn't look like something straight of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon).  Hands and feet end in points, eyes are perfect circles, there’s no unnecessary faff or layers to sift through.  If I had to sum it up in three words, those words would be Simple, Contemporary, and above all Fun.  This is not a company trying to dazzle you with their complex flavours and high-class dining, they’re accessible to everybody and they want you and their food to get together and have a proper good time.

Pie Minister branding

Compare that with rival Higgidy, whose branding actually began in a very similar vein to Pieminister but who have recently worked to differentiate themselves through their branding.  We still have a lot of simple shapes and bright colours here, so that feeling of straightforwardness remains, but Higgidy have gone for a gentler more crafted look with the theme that focusses on the beauty of imprefection.  These are all hand-painted illustrations, which brings a sense of care and consideration to the brand and reflects the fact that the pies are hand-finished too.  I can see the brush marks in the paint, the pigment collecting at the edges of the watercolour areas, the imperfect edges of leaves printed with blocks and ink.  It all reminds me of old plates I might find in my Nan's kitchen.  If I was to do the three-word test again I’d probably go with Handmade, Thoughtful and maybe Nostalgic.  


Differences in illustrative approach can have a big effect.  Whatever the actual taste of the pies might be, I’m now expecting a different experience from each meal.  Both project honesty and authenticity in their own way, but I’ll probably get a beer and a friendly slap on the back from Pieminister while we watch the footy together, whereas Higgidy is going to top me up with a salad and a cuppa and ask me how my Mum is.  Despite their obvious overlap and very similar product, each now has a slice (pardon the pun) of the pie market all to itself, because their use of bespoke illustration provides that all-important differentiation.

So, whittle down your shortlist of illustrations styles, and then have a good long think about what aspect of your business you really want to get across to your customers.  The one that best does that is the one you should pick.