Picture perfect

A good illustrator can add a touch of magic to a packaging design and help tell a brand’s story. Anna Richardson samples a range of projects where illustration has been used to full effect

Use of illustrators has always been popular in packaging design, with the recent trend of retro, decorative and hand-drawn packaging highlighting their importance.
‘Illustration on packaging can be central to telling a story,’ says Torben Dunn, group design director at Elmwood. ‘But the ideas have to happen first. If you don’t have a strong idea, no matter how beautifully executed, it’s still not a strong idea.’

‘We don’t start off thinking we’re going to use illustration,’ agrees Pearlfisher creative director Natalie Chung. ‘We get the brief and sometimes illustration will lend itself to it.’

There are different ways of electing to work with illustrators. A concept can be inspired by a specific illustration style, or an illustrator can be chosen to execute a certain idea.

Sometimes it’s a very collaborative process, adds Dunn. ‘Those are often the best,’ he says. Elmwood’s concept for Lamb’s Spiced Rum included a strong icon – a decorative gecko that looked exotic, but would work as a symbol, as well as off-pack. The idea had already evolved, with various rough drafts executed in-house, but Elmwood ended up working with illustrator Chris Mitchell on the final design. ‘It became collaborative, but within quite a tight framework,’ says Dunn. ‘Mitchell certainly brought some magic to the party. That’s when you realise that illustrators can add a little extra touch or quirk – even just in the way they draw a line.’

Coming up with an identity for tea brand Dr Stuart’s, Pearlfisher developed the idea of the teas having different personalities. Illustrator Brett Ryder’s style fit perfectly with the brand and the direction in which the consultancy wanted to take it, and Pearlfisher used examples of his work during its concept presentation stage. ‘It was very much a case of wanting Ryder,’ says Chung. ‘It depends on how much of somebody’s stamp you want on [the design].’ On the new packaging for Taylors of Harrogate’s coffee, Pearlfisher used Simon Pemberton – again, taking his style as inspiration in the first round of presentation.

Similarly, when Elmwood designed the packaging for Asda’s new range of sherries, Brian Grimwood was at the back of the designers’ mind. ‘We wanted his looseness, but used in this formal structure,’ says Dunn. ‘He contributed quite early on in the process.’

But not every illustrator is always available, so there has to be adaptation. ‘There are many ways to get to the end solution. As long as the idea is strong, the execution can be done in different ways,’ he adds.

Other times, a certain style is not what’s needed. ‘When you approach a specific illustrator you will get more of a definitive style, whereas when we illustrate in-house, the style is almost secondary,’ says Chung. For Cadbury’s Buttons, for example, the illustration was incorporated into the design, working with the product itself.

For Jamie Oliver’s Jme identity, Pearlfisher used Lucia Gaggiotti on some of the elements, such as the tobacco and fig candles. ‘What’s good about her is that she’s very diverse, so we used her to imitate different styles,’ explains Chung.

The central concept for Asda milkshakes by Elmwood was to inject a bit of fun by featuring cow-shaped chocolates or strawberries. According to Dunn, ‘Lots of different cartoon illustrators could have interpreted that in lots of different ways. After initial concepts we thought about which illustrator could really bring our roughs to life. We approached Andrew Painter, and thankfully he said yes.’

Whatever the approach, using an illustrator is about making the design unique, says Jo Saker, creative director at Parker Williams. ‘It’s about whether the brush stroke of a typographer and that of an illustrator can be combined – so you get something much more cohesive, holistic and creative.’

Parker Williams used Sarah Coleman for the packaging for Waitrose’s range of olives and antipasti. ‘It was important to capture the spirit of the typography in the style of the illustration, and Coleman was great,’ says Saker. ‘She did modern calligraphy with contem-porary illustrations. It was all about telling a story on the pack, so the creative writing needed a creative visualising as well.’

Even though briefing illustrators tends to be straightforward – tea boxes are just mini posters, Chung points out – packaging design generally needs to have a lot more control than, say, editorial work. Dunn says, ‘The stories are so specific and packs are generally going to sit on the shelf for a long time. For editorial work there is a lot more freedom, because it’s more ephemeral.’

Issue of rights also need to be considered. Lamb’s Spiced Rum’s gecko was always going to be used off-pack, for example, so the client had to buy the rights outright.

Such considerations can seem cumbersome, but it’s a necessary effort, believes Dunn. ‘It’s too easy to not go down that avenue because it requires an extra step, but there are some wonderfully talented people out there, and we should embrace them,’ he says.

‘We have people [at Elmwood] who can draw fantastically well, but there are times when you know that if you gave the project to an illustrator they could add something extra. It’s important not to accept second best and get the client to invest in someone who can turn it up another 10 per cent. There’s always some magic [an illustrator can] bring.’

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  • Ryan Dixon November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    We use illustrators for many of our projects and it’s always a joy to partner with them.

    Working in corporate communications, you would imagine the work to be formal, bland and stuffy. Quite the contrary. Illustration is welcomed in the corporate world as a refreshing perspective.

    And, illustration breathes personality into a project; introducing a viscerally engaging element. I personally champion the notion of words and pictures being as one, but they really connect on two distinct levels – rational and emotional. We call this the ‘visual connection’.

    And, like Torben Dunn says, illustrators really add punch to a team and its project. They’re tuned into a world of metaphors, storytelling and translating facts and figures into clear, compelling visuals.

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