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Helen Capewell
OCA Learning Log
Student Number: 522802
Degree: Illustration
Current Level: 2

Critical Review

Decisions and Preparations

To be honest, I had no idea what I was going to do for this critical review. Writing alone feels alien to me. Whilst I enjoy doing a touch of writing that goes beside artwork, I do not consider myself a strong enough writer for this kind of exercise. I don’t know where to begin, what to write about etc etc. Writing "academically" is something I have avoided up until now (I’m still procrastinating), and whilst I know this is only the beginning of the critical review in this degree and expectations aren't very high at this stage (I hope), I still feel a pressure of this needing to be of a good standard, given what is at stake here. There is a serious tone to this that scares me! So, for a while, I had been thinking what my subject would be, needing it to be something that would demonstrate my attempts at being up to date and aware of current "conversations" in Illustration and other areas of the Creative Arts. At least this was my thought process to begin.

This lead me to the topic of AI, more specifically the impact it has had on the Creative Arts since its launch to the public. For a while I contemplated how I would execute this review based on this topic. I planned my questions, considered what research elements I was going to use and from where. I had started a few different drafts and hated them all, got lost in a dark hole for a moment, and then was overwhelmed with the shear scale of the technology. At the same time I had doubts whether this was the right move, had I chosen a relevant topic that would make sense to my work throughout this course? Short answer, no not really. After all, this is a critical review based on my practice. 

How was I going to find a connection with my work and AI when it is something I have done everything to ignore the existence of? However, the topic is relevant in todays world, and there is absolutely enough material and reason for this debate. I was even triggered to this subject after receiving an email from OCA regarding an event that was coming up, where the theme was AI and how an artist incorporates it into their practice. This alone made me question, why? Why is a college for Creative Arts promoting the very thing that could end the human element to the Creative Arts? Why is this being brushed over and made to feel like its not a disaster waiting to happen? Encouraging everyone to jump on the band wagon. So many incredible artists from history would be turning in their grave at the very sound of this technology, why should we be any different? 

It is not a tool, like other technology that has come to be part of our practice, it simply cannot be compared. Still, the moment to discuss this topic did not feel right, maybe another time. After all, AI is moving so fast that who knows what will happen between now and the new year. It just keeps integrating into every platform, becoming more and more normal. The very system is about collecting data and predicting the next step, is this not a warning? Relevant, but not now.

I move on.

As I crossed one topic off the list that I had already spent time on, I needed to think of a backup. To help, I had to remind myself of the work I had done in Responding to a Brief. Looking back I reflected on what I achieved, I recapped on the feedback from my tutor, and thought about the kind of exercises that pulled me in. Whilst I do have my grievances for this course, there is no denying the personal growth I feel to have made.

“Explore in greater depth a topic or theme that has informed your journey throughout this course, for example the work or ideas of a particular illustrator, an area of illustration practice, a body of work that demonstrates certain ways of working”

I don’t quite know how to construct a topic or theme that has informed my journey in this course. On one side I recall high levels of doubts and frustration during this course, leading me to question whether it was even worth continuing. On the other side, I recognise how those struggles brought clarity to my direction, understanding that the course was about voice, not only in the works created but also noticeable in the decisions made. 

Whilst responding to a brief could be interpreted as how one would complete the brief, the word responding is a reaction, and I suppose only at the end of the course do I allow this to sink in. Reacting to a brief is an interesting perspective for this course. Responding, as I understand in the context of a brief, refers to the way you answer a brief that you accept. Reacting, on the other hand, could indicate the first initial step to perhaps knowing whether you are even the right person for the brief and client. Where I found my voice through the struggles, is realising not every exercise in this course was for me, just like not every opportunity is right for me. Knowing when to say no, is just as important as knowing when to say yes. 

Unlike level one where you take baby steps into illustration, experimenting and testing everything to learn more about yourself and illustration, level two hones in on you as a creative, despite it looking like a lesser version of level one in terms of material. Where am I going with this? Well, as topics go, Responding to Brief is quite interesting. It is the theme to the course, and although it did not feel to be a theme throughout the exercises, it did help me to discover what briefs I would like to respond to in the future, and who might my client be.

Assignment 5 is a big highlight when considering my personal growth. This assignment challenged me to explore different areas of illustration with a different perspective in order to find a brief that aligned with me. Over the last year, I have been working very hard on developing a brand as part of my day job, which, beside the course, had also brought a lot of personal growth. It was my first real life project where I had full creative control on the overall visual for a new brand. I’ve gained a lot of confidence through this project, and finding an opportunity to bring this into my coursework really allowed me to stretch and discover my own voice, and perhaps find a space in the industry where I could belong.

For many years I have floated between practices, I have painted portraits, designed for tv, product, and brands, illustrated children books, ran daily cartoons and so on. I'm now designing websites, logos and branding amongst other things and finding ways to be bring my illustration in. Never have I felt to have had a style or a real place in any area of the creative arts. Choosing to embark on a degree in illustration was a way for me to find my place, to discover myself as an illustrator and find my niche where I can really blossom. What styles do I gravitate, what themes, subjects and social aspects inspire and resonate. Learning that disciplines can cross over and be successful has been the turning point I needed in order to get closer to finding a passion that I could evolve in. I see branding more than just a logo, I understand that visual language and identity go beyond a typeface, and it's exciting. The platforms and avenues that are now available are abundant, we are no longer limited to print or television commercials.

This degree has exposed me to graphic novels, it has forced me to complete an animated gif that is more than just wobbly lines on a typeface, there is so much I can take away from this, but ultimately, storytelling is at the heart of what I love. What I find most interesting, is how narrative can be applied to many things, including branding. It became clear during this course that this was an area I felt most at home.

For this review, I explored the relationship between illustrators and brands, examining how illustration can elevate a brand and in which areas it can be most effective. I compared the use and styles of illustration for brands today to the 1950s when the birth of modern branding took hold, and illustrations were used in many printed advertisements. I believe that illustrations, combined with design, are an exciting way to bringing life to a brand, providing personality, identity, and depth. Content is not just dominated by photos and videos, but also motion graphics, animation and illustration. I unpack all of this in my critical review.

Critical Review

How has the use of illustration become an important communication tool for a brand’s visual language and/or identity over the years? 

“A brand is a promise. Brand designers help businesses reach people by thoughtfully crafting this promise with words, logos, colour, and typography. Increasingly, illustration is being used to express brand value, especially on the web. To be clear, companies are going beyond commissioning one-off illustrations that highlight isolated talking points on their websites. These days, they’re investing substantial time and resources into extensive brand illustration systems.” [1]

Do we overlook illustration as a powerful tool in branding?

For this review, I explore the relationship between illustration and brands, examining how illustration can elevate a brand and in which areas it can be most effective.

It is extremely exciting times for illustration and branding. In recent years, perhaps thanks to the constant battle of keeping up with algorithms, there appears to be a rise in the use of illustration in different areas of a brand, be it for their branding and visual communications, a product collaboration, or their advertisements either across social media and television. The quality in much of the works feels to have grown substantially, as if there is more of an understanding of the power that illustration can have on an audience, and that being playful and creative with imagery has a lasting effect on customers. It seems saturated with brilliant ideas, creativity at a peek of inspired works.

If the 1870s-1920’s is considered the “era of invention” then what do we consider today?

I take a closer look at two current artists that have brand rich portfolios, bringing their artist style to a mainstream audience through collaborations with known brands. Although these artists do not create brand identity or visual identity, their work has made it across the products from some of the biggest brands, creating visual stories for the brand on a wider scale. What this means is that, for a brand to show they are collaborating with different artists in different collectable capsules, it rather speaks louder for their branding and reputation than it would by having a singular illustrated conversation between their identity and audience. In other words, I believe this can be treated as seasonal, more cost effective way to refresh a brand without changing a brand visual, it allows for many changes that evolve as the seasons do and audience, without losing their iconic identity. It keeps them in the eye of their customers whilst reaching out to more. 

They constantly evolve their brands, and do it through their products. For example, Nike will use the same classic sneaker, but evolve it to be relevant today. The Jordan has taken many forms (what number are they on now?) and have worked with different basketball players, each time taking on a new visual. It’s like rebranding in a way but staying true to their identity. This is how I categories these artists, they help to evolve brands with their illustration. They can take a regular product from their collection, add their own creative language to it, creating a brand new product, only it isn’t, it’s just a refresh, it’s a story, it’s a communication tool - It’s marketing.

Kelly Anna worked with Nike to create a beautiful collection of sporting gear. The collaboration is bold, bright, and relevant, which, in the position of the brand, catapults them in to a space that is connecting with an audience differently. It pushes their brand beyond the general Nike clothing that lacks personality but stays strong on brand identity. It creates relationships with old and new fans, it becomes collectable due to their limited edition prestige. It puts a real working artist in front of a brand that appears to have no one at the centre, giving the impression of it being inclusive, and maybe even relatable, thus confirming the power of illustration within branding, albeit in a one-off scenario. 

Artist, Steven Harrington, has collaborated with many different brands, from Nike, Olympics, Uniqlo, Coca Cola, and Nixon to name a few. In the same way that Kelly Anna had created a collection with Nike, Steve Harrington creates limited editions with brands. I take a closer look at his collaboration with Nixon, the Disney special limited edition that celebrates Mickey 90th Birthday in particular.

“The Mickey Mouse watch is an historic design that was one of the first pieces of merchandising for Disney way back in 1933. Since then there have been many takes on the timepiece and it only seemed right that such an iconic, colourful artist have a turn” [3]

The point to consider here, is that these brands in particular are not using illustrators to work on a rebrand as such, but they are investing money into limited edition collaborations with artists. This is creating exciting opportunities for illustrators, whilst also working incredibly well for the brands themselves. It engages with their audience and brings a different artistic style that is trendy.  

The other direction in this topic focuses more on Branding Illustration, where illustration and design are combined to create a visual identity. Branding is more than just a logo, it’s values, it’s experiences, and it’s personality. I have chosen to study two brands that use illustration as part of their brand identity, examining why they chose to use illustration as part of their visual identity and what impact it has on their audiences.

Interested to understand this, I came across an interview with illustrator and Creative Director, Anna Charity, who was brought in to help “rebrand death” for Farewill. 

“Death is a cold, faceless industry with fascinating design challenges everywhere you look” [2]

I was drawn to include Farewill’s rebrand due to its subject matter. No statement could be more true, and the interview is full of truth. It is an industry you don’t consider when thinking of brands, and yet Farewell “hit the nail in the coffin” with their ideology and brand strategy. The use of illustration is an incredible ice breaker, bordering genius when considering ways to communicate their values that goes beyond the industry norm. It builds a bridge that doesn’t typically exist in the death industry, like reaching a hand out to support those that are suffering from loss rather than giving a cold shoulder.

“How can we use design and technology to modernise the way people write a will? How can we simplify the will writing process to make it a positive user experience? And, the biggest challenge of all, how can we warm people up to the idea of writing a will in the first place? That's been a huge area of focus for us over the last 12 months. We can't just rely on beautifully designed products; we need to build a brand that completely changes people's perceptions of death.” [2]

Branding strategies question the status quo, they look to find solutions to difficult challenges, such as building relations with customers, gaining customer trust, and ensuring that a customer will return, plus many more that involve more industry ideologies and out dated expectations or “normal” standards. It is not enough to just create a logo for your brand and hope to be iconic, you have to build a whole system around your brand, and this, I believe, is what Farewell had done successfully. They have identified their challenges, both as an industry and as a company within the industry. They have thought about strategy and a goal they wish to achieve. Change the way the world deals with death, how to make it easy, approachable, and affordable. 

“When you look at the solicitors and law firms Farewill is competing against, there’s stock photography everywhere you turn, and the branding is all a bit fifty shades of blue. Those were to things we knew we had to avoid, so illustration became the clear way forward.” [2]

When industries have been riding a rather generic style for centuries, it can be difficult to break the mould. The topic of death, for some reason, has been a long standing topic that is difficult to approach for many, myself included! Though, I’m finding that travelling has changed this perspective a lot, and learning how other cultures handle the topic has certainly been an eye opener. So it is interesting to see how this part of the world still struggle with it, perhaps behind in ideologies. I admire how Farewill have looked to find solutions to this, and have carefully considered their visual language in order to break the glass roof of an industry, paving the way for change in a stock photography full world. 

“In terms of style, I wanted the illustrations to be versatile enough to convey complex stories, but I also wanted them to demonstrate the simplicity of the service Farewill Offers.” [2]

What Anna and Farewill have achieved with the use of illustration, is a form of communication to their audience. It’s info graphics mixed with relatable characters. There’s warmth in the visuals, from typography to colour choice and even in the way they communicate through their channels. It feels like a friend helping rather than a scary law firm or other. Even the choice of colour as part of the brand identity is bright, cheerful and friendly. Yellow is known to be energising, optimistic, and encourages communication. This combined with the simple black and white illustration brings a very bold statement, a far cry from the fifty shade of blue quoted above. 

Anna Charity knows how to reach an audience in a way that feels humble through her visual direction, she provides a blanket that gives you a hug, or makes you feel at ease with what could be a very difficult time. Something that is also evident in her incredible work on Headspace. Headspace is another brand that has integrated illustration into their brand identity. Using calming positive illustrations to promote mindfulness in a world that doesn’t stop. Between the two brands, you get a sense that Anna has a real understanding with finding a connection. Knowing that illustration can communicate the things photos or video may not. Once again proving that illustration is an incredibly valuable tool to consider when building a branding system.

“it’s the result of the strategy, storytelling and research process, figuring out what the illustrations need to do and how they need to feel.” [2]

Researching the industry, the competition, the audience, the historical and the present trends is an important part of the process to developing an effective branding system. Understanding those elements helps to identify the style and direction of how illustration could be used effectively. How can you tell the brand’s story, how can you market their product in an honest, and engaging way.

Motion graphics can be commonly found in a brand’s logo, and websites amongst other multimedia avenues. In fact since (year), the trend of using motion graphics for logos, infographics, call for actions, and more, has become a must have in many brand strategies. Not only can Animation be used to create short engaging graphics, but it also has an ability to to tell compelling narratives for a brand. Going back to Farewill, you can see how their illustrated characters can be used for advertisements as they create short animations to sell their services. They are as warm as their online presence, further reaching out the hand for support. It shows how a branding strategy and system can be carried out across a number of different avenues, showing strength in their rebrand tactic and that the use illustration has very much elevated them as they hoped it would.

Following this, I found the works by Con McHugh, an illustrator and animation artist, to be a great extension to this particular area, showing how collaborations between artist and brands can add energy that goes further than your screen. Con McHugh recently worked with Bristol Jazz Festival 2024, creating a series of illustrated works and animations that promote this years festival. The works are vibrant, energetic and “jazzy”, fitting Con McHugh style perfectly. Although it isn’t a full rebrand, it is certainly as close as given that it has become their visual for this year. The works were projected across a building, with different animations filling the windows. It is used across social media, and also printed media. The illustrations work well beside photographic and video content, creating a really balanced and cohesive look throughout their promotions. 

The final example I wanted to include is of a brand that I haven’t personally consumed, but very much admire for their creativity. Beavertown Brewery has an incredibly strong identity and visual language, with detailed illustrations breaking through the screen and onto their products that are both playful and memorable.

Artist Nick Dwyer has created more than just a brand, but and entire universe in which their products exist. They are incredibly unique and consistent. An interview with AOI and Nick gave insight to the thoughts behind the branding.

“Picture this: you are visiting a bar, a pub or a shop, and you have to choose what you want to drink. You might select something familiar, but decide to try something new instead. In between the many well-known brands, you notice a colourful label or can design – it catches your eye, because it’s illustrated! and it looks tasty. You decide to buy it.

It’s an often a common scenario. From food to drink, packaging and branding has a power to persuade the consumer – and illustration can play a big role in this dynamic. Many times even, illustration can go beyond packaging and influence the complete identity of a brand.” [4]

When asked whether illustration has become pivotal to craft beer branding in the last decade, Nick provides a confident yes whilst also highlighting how illustration has such a broad spectrum of iterations and applications. 

Beavertown Brewery steps outside the food and drink design standards by applying colourful and engaging illustrations to our screens, walls and their products. Nick goes on to mention how they have had an impact on consumer behaviour, “the fact they(illustrations) are wrapped around a can of beer is what made them exciting to people in the first place”. And as mentioned above, in a line of beer cans that a generic in their design, seeing a fully illustrated design that seems fun and considered is definitely intriguing, if you’re an adventurous one, you might be willing to give it a try based on looks alone. 

Now considering Beavertown Brewery Branding, Nick has shown that illustration alone can hold a brand together. With the branding being considered, i.e fonts, colours, style, etc, following the theme of illustration as the core tool for communication brings a future that can remain consistent with its mission. As Nick says, the fact that illustration can be so easily applied to anything allows for a lot of creativity within their universe. They can easily create merchandise, build their own bars for an in-person experience, they could expand in ways that continue to tell their story, or better still gives the opportunity to tell more stories. 

For Assignment 5, I had decided to expand on a project I am currently working on in my day job. For the brand I had developed, I wanted to find a way that could make space for illustration to be part of its visual identity. Like Beavertown Brewery understands who their audience is, both age and culturally, creating a skate brand in a culture that is heavily inspired by the 90’s and 00’s styling, felt to have a similar reach where applying illustration makes sense. Learning what style of illustration can have the best impact on the audience is what makes them fit seamlessly into a brands visual language, making it memorable and playful. 

To conclude on my experience through Assignment 5, I truly believe that illustration in branding is a powerful tool in many aspects. It communicates what life sometimes cannot, it tells stories that are engaging and impactful, it finds connection between brand and consumer, and above all, it is eye catching in a world that is set with outdated standards.

You can see the movement across many industries, observe how trends are becoming the new standard. Different ideas, different styles, different experiences, it is really what the consumer demands now. They want to feel more when investing into a product and brand. The values from consumer behaviour has shifted, and the need for validation, inclusivity and connection has become pivotal. Illustration can achieve all of this.

LINKS - Accessed 17/05/24 - Accessed 17/05/24 - Accessed 18/05/24 - Accessed 15/05/24


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