Disclaimer: The author of this blog post is 100% in favour of illustration in branding and a friend of all illustrators. This is meant to be an examination of public opinions on art, and is in no way an attack on a particular artist, studio or artistic style.
In recent years there has been an ongoing discourse about the use of illustration in marketing and branding, specifically around how a particular style of illustration has been seen in more corporate and “tech” industries, and how a lot of public perception is actually turning against this look that was intended to be universally appealing.
Some other really great, intelligent thought has gone into examining the history of this “corporate memphis” or simply “flat” style, and I think that the complexity of this discussion is something worth writing an essay about, let alone a blog post.
So instead of going super deep, I thought it would be interesting to examine what I see as a paradox surrounding the use of illustration in marketing, and the public perception of that artwork.
To start, let’s ask: why would a brand use illustration in their marketing material or brand identity? To me, there are a couple of main reasons.
First, and maybe less often the case, it is to appeal to a core value or sense of artistic expression – whether that is on the part of the brand, the company’s leadership, or simply a desire to appeal to a specific demographic, illustration can set you apart and help you feel more “artsy” if you use it properly.
More commonly, though, I think the main reason brands use illustration is actually kind of the opposite of the first reason: they use it for relatability. To better understand this idea, maybe we should review a bit of art theory.
Above is an excerpt from comic artist Scott McCloud’s amazing book Understanding Comics, in which he breaks down the conceptual process of creating relatability in character design through the abstraction of representation (he actually goes a lot deeper than that, but that’s the part we’ll use for this discussion). In essence, we can understand that, while a photograph represents a very specific person or group of people, a cartoon smiley face essentially represents all humans (at least all of the happy ones 😊).
So what’s the point? I think these two uses of illustration in marketing highlight a paradoxical response to illustration being used in marketing – that there is actually an inverse relationship to the public perception of illustration based on the relatability spectrum Scott McCloud describes.
The specific type of illustration we’ve recently seen backlash to is this modern, flat, “corporate memphis” style epitomised by companies like Meta (Facebook), which, ironically, was designed specifically to be relatable and approachable. The consequence of trying to be universally appealing is that you risk ending up being universally generic – or worse, seen as sinister, like you’re trying to hide behind a benign facade.
On the other hand, we can see plenty of prominent brands like Headspace, Collective Arts or any number of skateboarding brands that leverage illustration but commit to a more defined artistic statement and, in the majority of cases, see little backlash to these styles (though they may attract a smaller audience).
To be clear, my point isn’t that flat, Facebookey-style art is inherently less valuable, or that artists working in that style lack vision or merit. I personally like a lot of the art in corporate spaces, and the fact is that that style was extremely successful and appealed to enough people that it had the power to become ubiquitous! If you search for Illustration on popular stock image sites, there is a definite artistic style that dominates that space, and it hasn’t always been so prolific. In that sense, we have to admit that there’s power to this style.
Ultimately, my point is merely a suggestion that brands reconsider why they want to leverage illustration. Are you commissioning the work of an artist to help your brand make a statement? To stand out? To say something metaphorical with images or to express an abstract idea? Then you’re probably on the right track hiring an illustrator for your brand. However, if you’re deciding to use illustration in your branding to have mass appeal, to be likeable or inoffensive, you may want to consider if your intentions are leading you down the road of the generic and you’re at risk of becoming trapped in the paradox of being unappealingly appealing.