How Phil and Sean produce illustrations

Have you ever wondered how a designer comes up with an illustration? Phil and Sean from our graphic design team discuss their process for creating an illustration, and how the new prospectus covers and departmental brochures came to be.

What’s the first thing you think about when creating an illustration?

We have to think about what the project means for the University brand. In this case we also had to think about the individuality and subject matter for the University’s 27 academic departments. We wanted to give them an individual style that suits the institution but also their department. This helps to build a collaborative project that includes all of the key players.

We wanted to provide a consistency of visual experience where people know what they’re looking at, and so we had to think about some of the key things we wanted to take from each department. Each department is different – some have great photography, some have great concepts that easily translate into iconography, and some have more theoretical concepts that translate better into typography.

What’s the most challenging part of producing an illustration?

When you’re developing illustrations for something quite theoretical there’s a lot of unknowns and it’s quite open to interpretation – so it could fall into stereotypical visuals. That’s where our kick-off meetings come in handy, as you can actually speak to the experts to gauge what it is about the subject that they want to get across in a cover design. We make notes of anything that sparks any sort of visual representation. 

The challenge can sometimes come from convincing the experts to buy into an institutional approach to design, and maintain a University visual style. It is restrictive, but we aim to give everyone the chance to collaborate and adapt where possible. It’s difficult to think about how to represent a department using illustration or iconography, so we try to steer everyone towards something that would be unified. A lot of the time it’s just convincing people and earning trust. Then once we have trust we can then push the vision.

What do you have to consider when creating an illustration?

We have to think about how would this be accessible to UG students – funky young intellectuals – and then it also depends on things like schools and careers advisors. It’s all got to work for the common good. Then the postgraduate prospectus cover design, that’s a slightly older audience, we want to maintain the style and the brand elements but make its more sophisticated, and so it appeals to the right audience, who aren’t necessarily campus based. We also have to translate the higher level of study in the concepts we present.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

We do a lot of research first and have a look around the education market place as well as current design trends nationally and internationally because we’re not the only people doing this kind of thing. Prior to the design of the prospectus and brochures we went to the UCAS fair in Manchester and collected bags of brochures and publications from other universities to gauge which trends are currently in flavour with our competitors and other universities. We pick up things that are more relatable, for us that’s the art school ones because they tend to push boundaries. We don’t want to follow the flock. It’s important for the University to look progressive as well as visualise all of it’s other strengths.

How is an illustration developed?

It goes through lots of different channels and routes, with meetings between senior managers, departments, and going through key stakeholders in the directorate for feedback as well. It always sort of comes down to just a few people generally having a chat and sense checking the ideas being floated around.

We have to look at our selling points as an institution – like the big, open, green campus, and that we’ve got this kind of separation from the town but it’s still on your doorstep. We then have to try and represent that in an illustration or icon. Once the concept is clear we can embellish the details a bit, like making the colours a bit more out there and a bit more eye-catching.

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