Using the right style or language for your illustration is key. Learn how the differences between sketchy, hand-drawn styles and vector-based styles can shape your message.
Cover image via cosmaa
Illustrative design is much older than graphic design. Indeed, patterns on ancient vessels predate Paul Rand by about 30,000 years. Now that we have computers helping us make vectors and achieve perfect geometry, we can use a variety of styles to shape our designs. The options are nearly endless, so we should consider what those styles communicate.
Two generally self-contained styles we can compare are hand-drawn illustration and more flat, vector illustration. We’ll look at how these represent certain types of design and can also enforce a message with either a playful, scrawled DIY aesthetic, or a buttoned-down and straightforward approach. Then we’ll learn how blending the two styles can support each other.
In vector illustration the shapes and characters of a design are simplified representations, like icons, using the computer to create defined edges and precise curves. You may remember the Flat Design revolution from a few years ago, when many phone and computer makers switched to a flat UI style over skeuomorphic style, and app designers followed suit.
This ideology carries over to illustration where we strip the elements down to thoughtfully basic shapes. Colors can become more important when using a flat style. UX design is based on this interaction, of simplifying the information to be super clear and universal.
To make flat vectors into designs, designers layer geometric shapes that can range from simple to very complex. It’s a very modern style with roots in the same deconstructionist principles as abstract geometry.
Image via Bloomicon
For direct communication, such as with interface design, or instructional design illustration, a flat style will help you communicate to more people with more clarity. As we start to see iconographic patterns in the devices we use, and more industries put those patterns into use, a language develops.
Flat vector style can help your message to be businesslike, with clear subject matter and simple color palettes. You can also add subtle but defined shadows and highlights to add some depth. When used with more playful imagery, you can create icons that are a little bit livelier.
Hand-drawn style is the other end of illustration. Whether it’s actually hand-drawn and used in pixel based design, or made on the computer with vectors, it communicates a more playful or DIY aesthetic.
Drawing (sorry) from the outdoor adventure craze, Walking Designs creates a range of illustrative branding for clients ranging from snack foods to resorts. Their Instagram feed is a great way to see the process of sketching ideas on various media with various pens and pencils, before creating more polished illustrations. The cool thing is that you can see how refined or unrefined the ideas end up in the finished product.
In this setting, the sketchy style supports a down-to-earth, DIY vibe, like mom’s handwriting on a bag of homemade snacks.
We can see the hand-drawn style used across advertising. It can be in the form of wild typography to show a scrawled message, or dynamic graphic elements that add motion and character.
On this book cover design by Adam J. Kurtz we can see the hand-written titling supported by torn paper to suggest a fun-but-frazzled state. This matches and supports the subject matter, as creative careers can be found in various states of playful disarray (or distress).
In editorial design for print and online magazines, adding hand-drawn graphic elements has been popular throughout various periods of design, but now is an especially fertile time for “glorified doodles.” Artists such as Biff have elevated the doodle to industry-respected design work.
Mixing Flat with Hand Drawn Illustration
If flat illustration is like a buttoned-down modern professional, hand-drawn style can add some hip flare and bring flat style out of its shell. When they get together it’s a more dynamic pairing that can cross genres to communicate more ideas.
Illustrator Daniel Clarke adds structural forms from architecture to his geometric, fluid shapes, mixing drawing and painting with computer-aided design on magazines and event posters.
Adding textures or a sketched quality to certain elements in an illustration will give it the energy, or action, that can elevate it. Antonio Uve uses textures to turn his layouts of simple shapes and color into something between Memphis style design and Art Nouveau-like flat illustration. These have an instructional basis, but with more visual treats within.
Getting to know how styles communicate with one another lets you use them as prescriptions to eliminate the guesswork in new projects. You can conversely play with styles in ways that surprise a viewer by mixing messages. A sarcastic statement with an instructional or conservative vibe makes a statement just a little bit funnier. Take it from there and keep growing your arsenal of visual language.