May 17, 2021
Alan Chen


“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

When we receive an idea, we try to make sense of it by categorising the parts we recognise and putting it back together using images that already exist in our subconscious. If we are familiar with the concepts, the picture formed in our mind is clearer. If an idea is new or foreign to us, creating any kind of connection to it becomes much harder and more abstract. But when we can see the idea visually represented, it suddenly comes to life and removes the ambiguity.

The Fox and the Hound

The value of illustration lies in its ability to translate the abstract into something that we can connect with, giving shape to the unseen. In many ways visualisations make an idea more accessible. Depending on the type of visual - they can even make ideas more believable. 

Take the art of cartography. When navigating space, we try to imagine the destination and create a path in our mind to help us get there. Our eyes can only see the limited space around us, just like a torch only lights the way a few steps ahead. We rely on memory, directions and our mind’s eye to fill in the gaps between where we are and the destination. Maps are a widely used graphic that gives us a bird’s eye view and allows us to clearly see the path we need to follow. . A cartographer needs to compile data and simplify it, omitting some parts and highlighting others in order to create a universal language that can be understood by the audience.

The ability to synthesise and curate data is central to the professional illustrator. In a pre-internet world, expertise was often about access to specific information which was commodified. Today the mark of expertise is not defined by access to information, but rather the curation of it. If we look at the surge in popularity around illustration, we will see that what drawing offers revolves around personal perspective. Drawings are curated ideas and information, distilled into the parts that matter most.

Choices, Choices, Choices

As a medium, Illustration is also incredibly flexible. It can be adapted to reflect brands, and can be highly impressionistic which imbues a concept with emotional sentiment. Unlike many other visual mediums like photography and film which often require a closeness to the subject; illustration is limited only by the imagination. You can literally create worlds from the comfort of your lounge sipping a cup of tea. This is why it is very valuable in prospective design, or when the concept visualised does not exist yet. It is an effective tool that helps ideas materialise and come to life.

A Night at the Chens'

Illustration can also break down barriers. A few years ago, I was part of a research project which centred around clinicians working in palliative care. Visiting patients at the end of their life was highly confronting, and taking photos was inappropriate. Drawing, on the other hand, was not only acceptable - it was encouraged. The results of this approach were quite incredible, and utterly unexpected.

As an illustrator, I was granted access to precious moments in the lives of patients which I will never forget.

Our minds are much more receptive to visual information than words; seeing an idea helps it become relatable, easily processed and understood. Through the process of understanding and analysing, we can then build on and iterate the idea. This is why visualisations are a vital tool in getting people to act, not just think.

Two tips for illustrators:

  • If you are breaking into corporate illustration, treat a brand like a character. It can inform your choices when drawing, adding spark to your approach.
  • Sketchnote your ideas, don’t just draw them. Adding words to your images actually strengthens your connection to concepts, and can be the start to creating powerful visual metaphors.

Two tips for those wanting to hire an illustrator:

  • Ask an illustrator to work with you rather than simply execute an idea. You’ll get far better results if you’re both working towards achieving a shared vision.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. I’ve used comics in banks and digital transformation projects, and painted a mural to communicate strategy. You never know what might work.