Illustration Strategy: Process for Telling Unique Stories.
From the project brief to the final illustration, there is a long path. Every single request is different. The process could take from one day to one month, depending on the complexity of the brief. Important factors are:
- What is it for packaging or a book cover?
- Is there existing research on the audience that will see the illustration?
- How long is the material that will be illustrated (full book or a short article)?
- What type of illustration will it be: simple supporting spot illustration or detailed concept art?
- What medium should be used: paint, ink, pencil, digital?
- What is the goal of the illustration: to inform or delight?
As a brand strategist, I learned that while working on any type of project I need to clearly define my goal and purpose. Without it, my work would be art and it might not work for the audience that it was desired for.
I know. Disappointing. When you take a children’s book in your hands, you may imagine an artist painting all day in a creative studio. But there is much more behind it.
The difference between art and a commercial illustration is that the illustration has a purpose while art has to present itself. It is more of a reflection of the artist’s feelings, while illustration conveys a message from the medium or a product. Illustration is intentional. It is an art but it communicates value.
Since illustration serves a purpose, the illustrator’s job is to understand it and find a way to translate the visual into a message.
Without a strategic approach, the illustration would be an art. This, of course, can also happen. Some illustrators sell their prints as well. However, I would like to share with you the strategy for a commercial illustration.
1. What is it?
There is a big difference between illustrating a book cover and packaging. It is important to understand the technical requirements first. For example, the book cover has a spine, needs a space for a title, author name, and the bar code. There is also a short summary on the back. You can see below an example from my work on the “Abundance” book by Sophie Wikstrom.
Another example of an illustration is for packaging. Before I start anything, I need to understand how the final design will look. Packaging needs a template from the printer. I need to fold it multiple times myself to see where the illustration could fit. In the example below, I decided that the illustration could expand inside the box for a special effect. Here, also the material was different. Thick paper and offset print was much different than the earlier book cover. For example, I needed to make sure that the illustration lines are thicker so that there is enough contrast when printed. The texture also had an impact on the final look.
Finally, when designing social media content, I have more freedom with the dimensions and the outcome. The only restriction is color that might look different on every screen. Below my favorite one from Instagram.
2. Who is it for?
Researching on the audience is the next step. What is appropriate for parents loving wine won’t be the same for the readers of Sophie’s book. Not to mention the difference between adults and children. Furthermore, the way certain people consume information is different. As my thesis project at the university, I designed a mobile application for children. Before doing illustrations, I was studying what colors children prefer and what type of shapes are the most interesting for them. For example, a 5-year-old child, won’t understand the task if the background is complex. On the other hand, a teenager
3. What is the purpose?
Every design job has a purpose. When I entered the Folk Tale Week illustration challenge, my goal was to show the specific story in one image. I also wanted to make sure that my values are clearly communicated. So I made huge research on the text itself. I highlighted all the scenes, characters and motifs. Then I took my time to digest the information and add my own interpretation. Below are a few notes from my investigation.
Besides the text study and my own interpretations, I also try to make sure that the artwork aligns with the overall vision. For example, in the folktale illustration, I wanted to add my own meaning, that the happiness of the children is very important. As the illustration was for me and my own portfolio I was deciding which values I would like to transfer. In the case of the illustration for the “Abundance” book, I needed to transfer the message that mindfulness can improve our lives. The interpretation does not have to be literal. But we need to keep it in mind to make sure that the illustration follows the personal/company guidelines.
4. Competitive landscape
I believe that there is no need to compare or compete with anyone. Our only goal should be to be the best in what we do. However, it is good to understand what is already there. I love to see how other illustrators interpret a brief. It also helps me understand quickly that some of my ideas might not be as unique as I thought.
The next part of my illustration strategy is to determine what type of illustration will I make and which media should I use. Although my absolute favorite is spot illustrations in digital format, some designs will call for more experimentation. All designers have some specific styles that would be hard to avoid. But each work will call for a different medium like an original painting, collage or a digital illustration. For example, for Sophie’s book, I did another version where I tried to combine lettering with photography.
6. Illustration stylescape
Once the research is done and the strategy is in place, it is good to collect all this information into one visual. Building a mood board or a stylescape will help to summarise the tone, personality, style, and color palette. With these visuals, you get the final approval from the client to confirm the direction you will take for sketching and the final artwork.
Commercial illustration is an art with a message for a specific audience. Without a good strategy, it could be easily misinterpreted. Research on the medium and the audience can make it more successful.
Here is my recent illustration process video: