Flicking through the pages of a magazine or idly scrolling through a publication online, few of us see a beautiful suite of bespoke, commissioned images and think, “hang on, what would Greta have to say about all this?” Unlike other aspects of many people’s daily lives—avoiding plastic straws, dutifully separating rubbish for recycling bins, carrying a canvas tote to the supermarket, only using the printer when absolutely necessary—flat images don’t yet carry the same connotations of wastefulness when it comes to sustainability.
Yet it makes sense that photoshoots pack a punch when it comes to both carbon footprint and budget. Vogue Italia’s January 2020 issue highlighted the impact of commissioning original photography, when it took the unusual decision to eschew photography in favour of illustration, commissioning eight illustrators and artists (including Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano, artist and Kanye West collaborator Vanessa Beecroft and comic book artist Milo Manara) to each create their own cover and designs for the features within the mag.
As editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia Emanuele Farneti explained in the issue, the travel logistics involved in creating its September issue included around 20 flights, 12 train journeys, 40 cars on standby and 60 international deliveries. On top of this, the shoots themselves were far from environmentally sound when you consider the power needed for high-energy lighting and charging phones, laptops and cameras; as well as the plastic used to wrap garments and food waste from catering services.
It sounds obvious, but an illustration route cuts the vast majority of such energy-intense logistics. It’s also far cheaper (Vogue Italia donated the money it saved creating the January towards restoring the flood-damaged Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice).
For designers, illustration can offer greater versatility than photography when it comes to creating certain touchpoints within a branding project. As Charlie Smith, founder Charlie Smith Design points out, “illustration can bring a different dynamic or mood to a project—it can inject a bit more humour and personality into a hoarding or book cover for instance. You can often have more fun with it.” She points to the agency’s work for property company Cadogan, which used illustration on hoardings. “A photographic route for a new build hoarding brings an expectation that the image looks ‘real’, even though you’re forced to use renders, but illustration can let you be a bit more fanciful,” says Smith.
Quite rightly, we’re being increasingly encouraged to not only reduce our consumption, but to reuse and recycle existing materials where possible. This calls into question the idea of commissioning new creative work at all—whether within photography, film or illustration—and suggests that a greener route might be to use images that already exist, such as through stock image libraries.
While many agencies often look to stock photography libraries for potential images to use as part of a wider branding campaign; it seems fewer are aware of the potential of illustration libraries—which perhaps in years gone by have been seen to be a little limited or generic in terms of the sort of styles they offer. Today, though, things are very different, and many offer a hugely diverse range of smart, witty and versatile illustrations.
A natural concern with such libraries is that the image you use isn’t bespoke, and so there’s a chance it might pop up in another brand’s design work. However, smart use of a library illustration can easily make it a viable, ownable asset. And any branding job never uses solely illustration—it’s part of a far larger set of creative considerations around typography, colour palettes, tone of voice, photography, and so on. “It’s about looking at all the assets together,” says Smith. “If you carefully pick the right illustrations, they can become the more playful elements of the identity—they can be coherent and can push the identity further. Some illustrations won’t sit well with the aesthetic; some will enhance it.”
“That’s the same with any other part of the branding, like tone of voice: you’ll have straight-talking messaging and punches of language that do the more chatty stuff. Illustrations do the same thing—they can be the more friendly part of the identity; or work as stand alone as assets for social, for instance. You can have a lot of fun with them.”
London-based agency Nice and Serious works mostly with nonprofits and charities, and as such, has less budget to play with than commercial clients. As a result, it often looks to image libraries. Creative director Peter Larkin’s advice is to try as hard as possible to find the more unusual images, and consider how images can be used along with other assets to create something distinctive. “It’s as much how you use an image as which image you use. You have to align it with the brand language or overall campaign look and feel to make it ownable.”
Like Smith, Design Bridge creative director Mike Stride points out that with any brand “there’s a big number of ingredients: the hard work isn’t done through the illustration alone.” For designers working with library illustrations, Stride advises primarily taking into account the brand’s unique “personality”; and also carefully considering how you apply the image in terms of materiality. “For a brand like Smirnoff, for instance, if I embossed the illustration on paper it’ll have a more premium feel than if I printed it in one colour on the page,” he says.
Other ways of making a stock image unique to the project you’re working on include adding texture – something that could make it feel more artisanal. Larkin also suggests that while it depends on image rights, and the overall feel of a branding project or campaign, designers could consider using a “collage-like look look and feel; cutting elements out and giving them a new lease of life,” or applying new visual treatments to them.
Using stock illustrations is more environmentally friendly than creating new ones in the sense of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra – particularly when you take into account things like the electricity and physical materials used in making them. They’re also often more cost-effective, and finding stock images can be a much quicker process than commissioning original artwork.
As the advice from these designers shows, there are multiple ways in which such illustrations can be used to brilliant effect in projects, if designers are smart about their alignment with a brand’s wider identity and how they’re used. Stride sums it up: “Every brand has its own DNA, filter or personality. That’s what gives you the visual language to tap into, and which you can put any illustration through.”
Ikon Images provides a curated selection of stock illustrations from a wide range of artists; ikon-images.com