A distinctive illustrative style can be a blessing and a curse – on the one hand, it can instantly signify to others when you’ve been involved in a project, but adapting that style to fit different commercial contexts can be difficult.
To explore how illustrators can have the best of both worlds, we asked five of them with unique creative styles – ranging from soft watercolours to signature silly faces and geometric shapes – to explain how they adapt their work to fit in with the demands of different clients and projects.
Have a set of flexible “building blocks”
For illustrator Rob Flowers, the backbone of his creative process lies in a set of building blocks. He tells Design Week these elements include a palette of “around 15 colours”, a selection of go-to nose and face shapes and characters’ hands drawn with three fingers instead of five.
“These building blocks always stay the same no matter what the brief,” he says. The sum of these elements forms his unique style, which he says is inspired by the likes of work by German artist Max Ernst, old Penny Dreadfuls and 1970s children’s television in the US. For the last 15 years, this approach has found him mostly character-driven work with clients as diverse as Asos, Nike, Google, the British Red Cross and even the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall.
Far from keeping his style rigid and regimented, Flowers says having a set of well-defined building blocks actually allows him to be “flexible and collaborative”. Not deviating too much from this core style means he is “willing to make changes and adjust stuff based on client feedback” in other aspects of a project.
He gives the example of a recent series of print ads he produced for Boots, which was a “much more simplified” version of his usual style and featured only two colours. While this was a departure from his typically busy and colourful scenes, it was based on his “building blocks”. He says: “The line weights and faces were still consistent with what I usually do”.
“For me it’s important to pick your battles in terms of making changes or defending how it looks – I ask myself: ‘Can I live with that change or do I need to take a stand here?’,” Flowers says. “I think when you’re approaching a commercial project you have to be prepared to be flexible, because at the end of the day you’re working for a client and it’s your job to fulfil the brief.”
Discuss style with clients “early on”
Ben O’Brien, also known online as Ben the Illustrator, similarly encourages creatives to settle on a distinct style that is flexible to use. Beyond that, he stresses the importance of having an open dialogue with clients from the earliest stages of a project.
O’Brien’s style, which can be found in work for the likes of Microsoft and the Guardian, as well as the official emojis for Elton John and Mariah Carey, is characteristically bright and bold. No matter the commission, everything is made from “clean geometric shapes, straight lines and perfect circles” and often with “as little detail as possible”, he explains.
As a result of this, he says he prefers to check with clients to ensure they’re on board with his signature creative decisions.
“I’ll often check with clients on how I do things,” O’Brien says. “For example, I usually illustrate figures without a neck, so if we’re doing something figurative, I might even ask them if it’s ok to have no neck.”
Having these conversations in the early stages of a project is best, he says, since this signals from the outset where and when he might have to “compromise”, for instance with having to consider a colour palette revolving around a client’s brand colours.
Have a portfolio that “exemplifies the work” you love doing the most
The importance of dialogue between client and illustrator is underlined too by French-German illustrator Hélène Baum. She tells Design Week she enjoys finding “new visual solutions” with clients as a result of these conversations.
But before she and a client get to this stage, Baum impresses the importance of a properly curated portfolio in her process. She explains: “I only include work that I’m happy with in my portfolio, since this is work that exemplifies what I love doing the most”.
With this most often being the first engagement that a client will have with Baum, she is able to showcase “her way of doing things” and encourage people to hire her because “they like what I do”, she says.
As a result, in her four-year career Baum says she has been fortunate that most clients have allowed her to do her own thing, and these clients include the New Statesman, Penguin Random House and Zalando.
“Only once was I gradually pushed into a very different style during a project with a colour palette which was opposite to my own and that was an uncomfortable experience,” she recalls. “There are so many illustrators out there who have unique approaches and aesthetics, clients should be able to find the fitting artist and trust that they will deliver on that – it seems like a waste of energy for both parties to try and bend a circle into a triangle.”
Stick by your style even if it isn’t “on trend”
While a signature style is great if it’s in fashion, when trends move on it can feel daunting to still be creating in a way that feels comfortable to you. Peckham-based illustrator Linzie Hunter mentors illustrators in the early stages of their career, and this worry is a frequent topic of conversation, she says.
“It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing – you want to get an established style to get work, but without work you can’t perfect your style,” Hunter explains.
Nevertheless, she says one of the key factors of owning a style in different commercial contexts comes from sticking at it. With her own practice, Hunter explains it took some time for her to be at peace with her “cute” approach, which has seen her illustrate countless children’s books and, most recently, land her own book deal.
“It’s taken me a while to appreciate being cute rather than edgy or political,” she says. “I think having an eye on what’s current is useful, but not to the point where you’re trying to change your style completely,” Hunter adds, recalling the “Ibiza chill-out album” style that was popular when she first began a career in illustration 14 years ago.
Reserve the right to say “no”
Part of being a professional illustrator, as all of those Design Week spoke to pointed out, is working with a client to create something both parties are happy with. That said, when a commission begins to feel too controlling, reserving the right to say no is an important tool in an illustrator’s arsenal.
As O’Brien says: “If a client is looking to commission you, but really wants to control your style or take you in a direction you’re not creatively happy with, then perhaps you’re not the illustrator they should be commissioning.”
This is echoed by French illustrator Mattieu Bessudo, otherwise known as Mcbess. Bessudo’s dark, black and white illustrative style is heavily influenced by the graphic inspirations he was exposed to growing up – he cites the likes of Betty Boop, animated series Merrie Melodies and Fleischer Studios.
It’s a style that has earned him projects for Nike, Nissan and Deezer and one he says he is very protective of. As a result, Bessudo says “being able to say no” is an important part of his practice – his website, for example, explicitly states to prospective clients: “Don’t ask for colours”.
Bessudo explains when clients come to him with an idea that is “miles away” from what he does, often he’ll try to “bend” the brief to suit his style and approach. But if this is something he can’t do, he says “the best thing to do is to be upfront about the work not being a good fit”.
“I know what I won’t draw and usually my clients end up liking that quality about me,” he says. “It’s true with every other craft – you wouldn’t go to a restaurant and ask the chef to change their recipe because if you have respect for a person you appreciate what they do.”