A kind of magic for charity brands

As you can probably tell from our new website, at Northern Bear we do like a bit of illustration. So I quizzed Chief Creative Bear Emily Shaw on why she loves it so much, and what it can do for a brand…
Tags: The bears, Branding, Illustration

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As you can probably tell from our new website, at Northern Bear we do like a bit of illustration. So I quizzed Chief Creative Bear Emily Shaw on why she loves it so much and how important illustration can be for charity brands.

Morgan: So… tell me a bit about your own journey with illustration… when did you first fall in love with it?

Emily: It’s art, and I always think illustrators are super talented! Being able to draw something is so special, something lots of people wish they could do. But unless you’re ‘good’ it’s hard to put yourself out there, or realise that maybe you could do it with a lot of time and effort. Being creative feels like constantly putting yourself up for criticism and it can be emotionally daunting.

But over lockdown I felt weirdly free whilst locked up in the house! Without the noise and pressure of ‘being good’ I found so much enjoyment in drawing. I hadn’t felt like this about drawing since I was at Art College. I picked up my pencils and watercolours and just did stuff, bad, good and ugly! I really enjoyed the process and once I shook off the shackles of expectation, I realised it was just joyous.

And there’s nothing nicer than gifting something hand drawn to people, so actually it’s an excellent tool for life 😄

M: And what is it you love most about it?

E: It’s a kind of magic! It’s a cliché, but a picture really does paint a thousand words – especially when you haven’t always felt very confident with the written word. At primary school, my nemesis was the word ‘friend’. I always spelt it ‘firend’! BUT I was the actual bomb at drawing Forever Friends characters 😄

M: Showing your age there, Em!

E: True! In my job, though, Illustration can make things waaay more engaging and help us to reinforce a brand’s voice and attract the eye of the target audience. Photography’s important, don’t get me wrong, but illustrations can add that extra bit of ‘something’ to help you stand out from the crowd and make you more memorable.

M: What kind of brands do you see really making illustration work for them?

E: I was saying to my sister recently, one of my favourite uses of illustration by a brand is The Biscuiteers. And I love Headspace. In a very different style, Beavertown Brewery and Magic Rock Brewing. That’s the range and versatility illustration has to bring out a brand’s personality.

M: As a designer, thinking about the right approach for different charities and different situations, when do you think illustration works best?

E: Photography can often be restrictive to charities or small clients as it can get expensive, or a compromise on quality. And low-quality photography can be a killer of good design. Illustrations are only really restricted by your imagination. Whether it’s cost-effective simple line illustration or more elaborate specialised 3D wizardry you can create something truly unique and wondrous. For example, for Birmingham Dogs Home, I drew a Scottie dog standing on its front paws spinning plates on its back legs. This transformed what could have been an otherwise dull PowerPoint presentation into something warm, interesting and memorable. Not sure how could have recreated that quickly and cost-effectively with photography and without getting some serious heat from the RSPCA!

M: And what about our hyperactive social media world of selfies, insta clips and tik-tok… how does illustration fit in?

E: I think it’s about helping to cut through and get your message across. Charities feel so much pressure to have continuous content for social media. Usually, small teams have to tackle it in-house, and it’s hard to do without falling back on stock imagery and generic photography that ends up not being distinctive or memorable. Striking that balance of looking professional, but not like you’re wasting money, isn’t easy. But illustration can do this – it’s professional and provides consistency and personality, without looking too flashy. So it can show you’re trustworthy and will use donors’ money wisely.

Whenever we do a project, like with Birmingham Dogs Home, we create a bank of assets in formats the client can use to create ongoing content for socials.

There’s also the element of animation, which is always fun. Elaborate stuff can be pricey, but as a designer I can create simple animation that’s effective and value for money.

M: So what can illustration do for a charity brand that other types of imagery can’t?

E: As we’ve talked about, it’s really cost-effective, super flexible and engaging. And it can really seal the deal when it comes to expressing the voice and the personality of the brand.

But beyond that, illustration can be really inclusive.

Stock photography is getting so much better, but it’s not always authentic and reflective of a charity’s community. For example, a disabled person is usually represented by someone sad sitting in a wheelchair, and older people are either infirm or pretty cheesy – I mean a lot of over 60s are still working, not all retired running down a beach towards a sunset! And don’t even get me started on ethnicity in stock photography.

Using illustration, anyone and everyone across a diverse audience can be included and properly represented. Working with a client we can help ‘show’ people way they really want to be seen. Or we can take the option of representing people in a different way that doesn’t alienate them, like the Headspace example: It’s a character, it’s everyone and no one all at the time.

M: What one piece of advice would you give any charity thinking about how to incorporate illustration in their brand’s communications?

E: You don’t have to choose between illustration or photography. It can be part of your toolkit, but not necessarily used in every piece of comms or for every message. Use it alongside photos. Try to get a style which is truly ‘yours’ and matches your personality.

M: Where can we see your work? Any favourite illustration projects that you’ve worked on?

E: I’m super proud of the Birmingham Dogs Home 130th birthday illustration. It’s a simple doodle style which is warm, fun and friendly, plus it’s been really flexible. The client totally ran with the idea and it’s been brought to life in so many wonderful ways – dog bandanas being my favourite! Seeing a dog wearing my work is a career highlight! This year they’re having gift wrap and gift tags printed, which is a super cool and unique way for a charity brand to apply illustration.

M: Are there any particular illustrators or styles that really inspire you personally?

E: Old school, I’ve always loved Gerald Scarfe, I think he has such energy and texture in his illustrations.

More recently, Ruby Taylor and Gemma Correll. I love the fact they are illustrations of all those mad thoughts that can go through your brain in a day!

M: And if you could illustrate any book you’ve read, what would it be?

E: To Kill a Mockingbird. I like the idea of drawing the plants they talk about, but then I’m not sure I could do it justice… and it’s very long! I love the little illustrations you get in publications like the New Yorker. I much prefer being able to concentrate on one thing, rather than feeling the overwhelming pressure to illustrate a whole book!

M: Finally, when you’re not working, what’s your favourite thing to draw?

E: Plants! Especially flowers. I love drawing them and always have – I was obsessed with Georgia O’Keeffe when I was younger and I think it might have started there. She’s one badass woman too, so I recommend people go check her out along with her work. I think nature is amazing, so capturing it and studying it is a good use of your time.

Purple Leaves by Georgia O’Keeffe

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