Visual branding strategy: Brains love custom illustrations (and hate stock photos)

A custom illustreated image of a hand drawing a large number of icons
January 29, 2021


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When you see paintings in ancient caves for the first time, you realize how little it takes to tell such a big story. Abstract patterns, tracings of human hands and drawings of bison, horses and deer, reach out across the millennia and communicate what life was like way back when.

Archeologists and other curious folks have found cave paintings on every continent except Antarctica. There are at least 350 of them in Europe alone, and more popular sites such as the Lascaux cave draw in visitors worldwide. The etchings in the Lascaux cave date back 14,000 years ago — young compared to paintings discovered in Borneo, which are around 40,000 years old.

We've been telling stories via images for a long (long, long) time. Drawings, paintings, etchings, illustrations and, more recently, photographs, graphics and video, help us communicate and understand stories and concepts. There is something innate to human beings that prompts us to create and use images to tell stories — especially when words might falter.

A custom illustration of a sillhoutted head with a heart icon

Our brains love pictures, too. 

If you thought we would get through this article without mentioning the cliche phrase “a picture tells a thousand words,” you’re wrong, friend. Because as it turns out, this phrase — the bane of every writer’s fragile existence — has some truth to it.

A team of neuroscientists from MIT found that the human brain can process images that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds. A large percentage of the human brain is dedicated to visual processing, and vision is our sharpest sense. Images grab the brain quickly. Bright colors are especially sticky, an evolutionary leftover from when we were hunter/gatherers, and poisonous berries might sneak onto the menu. And when compared with text alone, text combined with images improves comprehension by as much as 89%. 

The power of images in your visual brand strategy 

We harnessed the power of images in marketing and advertising early on. Who can forget the image of a polar bear slurping down a cold Coca Cola, or the aggressive finger-pointing of Uncle Sam? In early advertising, images were meticulously selected and reviewed for their power to sell products. From the beginning, we realized that images were powerful. 

A custom illustration of a streetlight

Images open up opportunities to connect with audiences in ways that are natural to them. For example, we can tell right away that green means “Go” and red means “Stop.” There are widely accepted image conventions that we can harness. In the same way, images can also reinforce and establish a brand personality. Mailchimp, for example, does this well. They’ve latched on to bright and sunny yellow, and instantly this brings a sense of quirkiness and fun to their brand personality. The same goes for the electric green and black combo that Spotify uses. It’s hard to miss on a desktop and lends the brand a cool edginess. 

Images and colors can transcend language barriers and cultures. There’s a reason why signs and signals are used worldwide to communicate things like “Danger” and “Toilet.” If you’re running a global marketing strategy, it’s handy to remember that images can do a lot of the heavy lifting. And if you’ve ever battled through an IKEA flatpack, you’ll be aware just how important images can be in aiding understanding and comprehension. Without älmhult Gubbe (the IKEA instruction man), you might still find us weeping amongst a pile of nuts and bolts. 

A custom illustrated image of a person sitting on oversized bolts and nuts

Building a custom illustration strategy 

But if stock photos have taught us anything, it’s that images are not enough. It can’t just be pictures. It can’t just be pretty. A useful illustration strategy understands the message and the intended audience and uses brand tools, cultural signals, and familiar conventions to communicate not decorate

Generic images are everywhere; It’s become too easy to pull a photograph of Unsplash or Shutterstock. But when it comes down to it, a random photo isn’t going to be aligned with your brand’s unique message. It won’t do any heavy lifting, or really, any work at all. According to Killer Visual Strategies, 40.2% of marketers say that original, custom visual content such as illustrations and infographics perform best, compared to just 12.5% saying stock photography is best.

In short, custom visual content that fits your message, tone and brand is always better. 

An illustrated graphic stating that 40.2% of marketers say custom visual content performs better than stock photography, with an illustrated marketer standing back to back with a stock photo marketer

Here's how we do it at Contentful 

When we started implementing a custom illustration strategy, one of our big goals was to humanize technology. For most non-technical folk, the inner-workings of Contentful can be a challenge to understand. But at its core, Contentful is about people — through our tech, we want to make people's lives easier and less stressful, all while giving them the tools to create cool things. Our illustration strategy allowed us to inject people back into the equation. 

It also allowed us to be a champion of inclusivity. From the beginning, we were able to include people in our illustrations from all walks of life. This reflects the diverse makeup of Contentful and our belief that inclusion and diversity make the world better. 

Our custom illustration strategy also allowed us to reinforce brand messaging. Unlike using stock photography, using custom illustrations allowed us to infuse our brand message into every piece of content. We created a consistent color palette and style across everything we published — allowing our audience to recognize our work instantly.  

But most importantly, our illustration strategy aims to bring clarity to our written message. It helps us communicate complex concepts like API calls and agile workflows. It brings life to marketing materials like infographics and white papers. It doesn't just decorate; it communicates.

Explore more posts about how Contentful makes design decisions, and how thoughtful design strategies could support your own project. 

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