Refinery29 on the importance of great illustration

Refinery29’s UK art director Anna Jay and SVP/Head of International Kate Ward explain how distinctive visuals and innovative social content have helped the brand stand out in a crowded market

In the latest issue of Creative Review, we talk to Refinery29 co-founder and Executive Creative Director Piera Gelardi about the media brand’s mission to inspire women and support female creatives.

The brand was founded in 2005 and started out with a focus on style. It now covers sex, politics, health and wellbeing as well as fashion and beauty. It has editorial teams in London, Berlin and New York and reaches 500 million people across its digital platforms.

Its success is built on creating content that makes readers feel empowered – from careers advice and candid sex tips to articles on dealing with mental health issues.

Its focus on inclusiveness – on championing individuality and recognising that female readers have a broad range of interests – has helped set it apart from other women’s media. A strong focus on visuals has also helped the brand stand out: its Instagram and Facebook feeds are filled with vibrant illustrations in its signature colours (coral, magenta, green, navy and yellow) and photographs of a diverse group of women. Over three quarters of its audience can identify a Refinery29 image in a line-up – testament to the strength of its visual creative.

“Refinery as a brand is really well-known for its creative,” says UK art director Anna Jay. “We’re really colourful, really bold, we celebrate diversity and we try to represent all women.”

At Refinery’s global offices (a London team was launched in 2015 and another in Berlin a year later), creatives work closely with writers and social media teams to create and commission all of the brand’s visual output. This includes editorial illustrations as well as stock images, social media assets and artwork for special projects and sponsored content.

“It’s a collaborative process,” says Kate Ward, SVP and Head of International at Refinery. “Our visual identity is critical to who we are, so that means the visual is absolutely ingrained in all the conversations we have about content. Whether it’s sitting with our fashion editor and collaborating on who the stylist going to be [on a shoot], or who the photographer is going to be, or working with our head of branded content to lead creative direction on that. Visual identity and creativity in storytelling is absolutely at the heart of every single idea – and through that collaboration, we’re able to do really innovative work.”

In London, Jay has worked with emerging and established talent to create some striking artwork for features. She often looks for creatives who reflect the brand’s focus on championing diversity and says: “We use a lot of female talent. I think it’s probably about a 70/30, or 80/20 [female/male] split.”

Refinery’s teams share content and collaborate on global projects (such as a set of posters created for this year’s Women’s Marches) but each site is tailored to suit a local audience. The UK website features a curated selection of articles from the US and Berlin as well as content produced by its writers and creatives in London. There are some subtle differences in content produced by each team – but the brand has a consistent tone of voice and aesthetic.

“We have a very very clear and universally adopted style guide which gives us clear guidelines not just on how we communicate but how we represent our consumers. That speaks to things like championing diversity and not assuming sexuality when you’re writing an article, and how we discuss challenging issues,” says Ward.

Jay describes the UK team’s visual creative as “slightly more gritty” – but says it is still in keeping with Refinery’s bright and vibrant style.

“I think [the UK style] really goes with the London aesthetic which we see in publications here, but I think we take it to the level where we still really fit with the Refinery brand and still make [images] really colourful and bold,” she explains.

Jay often commissions stock images that can be used to illustrate a range of articles – for example, photographs that can be used for pieces about money, sex or fitness. Refinery has built up a vast stock library over the years – this allows writers to publish content quickly while ensuring that all illustrations reflect Refinery’s core values and visual identity.

“It’s something we really pride ourselves on as a brand,” says Jay. “We do it because we want to make sure that the women we’re showing in our pictures aren’t all white or skinny and [that all Refinery pictures] have a really creative slant to them. A piece about sexual health could just be a stock picture about condoms for example, but it’s actually made a bit more poetic with photography that we’ve commissioned,” she adds.

“It’s more long-sighted than ‘we have a feature coming up next week’, because that might not give us enough time to think about how we can commission one thing in particular, so instead we look at themes and find photographers who are right for that theme and get them to shoot a batch of 20 or so images [related to that theme].”

Even product images supplied by brands for shopping features will be given some kind of treatment. Jay and her team regularly create patterns or backgrounds that can be used to give these images a Refinery twist.

This commitment to producing great visuals is also evident in the brand’s social media output. The brand creates bespoke content for each of its social channels: it has broadcast makeup tutorials and video interviews on Facebook Live and regularly creates Instagram Stories based on articles from the site. It is also working with female filmmakers, writers and producers to create Instagram-first documentaries and Facebook video series through its video arm, R29 Originals. Much of the brand’s short form video content is produced in New York but UK and German teams are closely involved in the process.

On Refinery29’s UK Instagram account, Jay has adopted an innovative approach to reporting on Fashion Week shows. Instead of just posting videos and photographs from runway shows, she creates collages with colour swatches and fabrics.

The UK team also launched an Instagram video series, Friday Film Club, in collaboration with Central Saint Martins graduate Pia Hakko. Each week, Hakko creates a 15-second video summing up a cult film, which is posted on @refinery29uk alongside a summary of the plot. The posts have proved popular on the platform and have also led to film screenings with Rooftop Film Club in London.

“We started doing it when Instagram video was quite new, not that many people were really using video on Instagram, so that was a really nice test and we saw really good engagement and a positive reaction to it,” says Jay.

“I think what Refinery29 has real strength in is creating unique experiences on each platform,” says Ward. “While we are able to tell one story on our UK site, we then think about how we can translate that and make it super relevant to our audience on Instagram and our audience on Facebook. Some of that is informed by data, and image testing and headline testing, but some of it is also informed by the creative process – [by thinking] ‘how do we drive social impact on each different social channel for each story that we do?’ It’s really important to do that. There’s absolutely not a one-size fits all approach in our programming.”

On Facebook and Instagram, distinctive visuals have helped set Refinery’s content apart from that of other publishers. Article previews from different magazines are often indistinguishable on Facebook but bold colour palettes and compositions ensure that Refinery29’s posts are instantly recognisable.

“That’s a big thing we think of whenever we do a story, even if it’s a news story: ‘is someone going to know it’s a Refinery story? Is it going to stand out? Is it going to not look like another website’s?'” says Jay.

“We have our primary, secondary and tertiary colours and we try to include at least one key brand colour in everything we do … we try to use this colour palette in all of our illustrations, because it is quite recognisable,” she continues. “We also have quite loose guidelines in terms of photography, where we like to keep things quite simply composed,” she continues. “Even if we’re shooting a black-and-white image, a simple composition can help make sure it feels bold and on-brand.”

Commercial projects and sponsored content must also reflect Refinery29’s focus on creating compelling visual content. Jay recently commissioned eight female photographers to create self-portraits using the Honor 8 smartphone to promote the quality of its camera, resulting in some lovely images that ran on the website alongside commentary from each woman.

Her work also includes creating visuals for content weeks, where the brand focuses on a single topic in depth. The UK team launched ‘Rag Week’ in April last year – publishing a collection of articles about periods – and has since run content weeks on sustainable fashion and motherhood.

“Content weeks are a great way for us to have conversations, where we take a moment, a topic, a subject that we think really matters to our audience and study it from a huge range of angles,” says Ward. “We have quite a lot more of those in the pipeline.”

“[Rag Week] had a really strong visual identity, with lots of reds and pinks and paint-like textures,” adds Jay. These images helped challenge the idea of periods as a taboo subject, she says – and are much more fun and visually inspiring than clinical photographs of tampons or underwear.

Refinery29 launched in the UK less than two years ago but it has a fast-growing following. The team is building on Refinery’s global mission to inspire women and provide a platform for creative talent. Its focus on visual storytelling and championing diversity has helped the brand established a unique identity – one that has resonated with readers around the world.

You can read an interview with Piera Gelardi in the June/July issue of Creative Review, out now. The issue also includes interviews with photographer Gregory Crewdson and The Douglas Brothers and an in-depth look at the making of Meet Graham – the award-winning Australian road safety campaign. More info here. You can follow Anna Jay on Instagram at @annarosejay.

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