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August 3, 2023

How a Branded Illustration Comes to Life as Told by the Designer Who Created It

Isaiah Harwood

How a Branded Illustration Comes to Life blog article.

Everyone loves a well-refined logo and a cohesive color scheme, but when it comes to the full scope of a brand’s visual identity, these assets alone are only the tip of the iceberg. While a logo or a wordmark serves as a strong foundation and can express a brand’s persona and mission, a well-rounded visual strategy has the capability to tell your brand’s story across all spaces and media; for example, customized illustrations created with your brand’s goals in mind can leave a creative fingerprint and add a burst of emotion to a campaign.

Illustrative work has the unique ability to communicate a narrative and elicit emotion in the consumer. The versatility of custom illustrations is endless, and they have a magnetic effect that commands attention. For example, imagine a consumer paying money to have one of your brand’s unique illustrations on a piece of merchandise, or visualize a commuter stopping in their tracks on the way to work to admire one on a poster or billboard that stands out among competitors. A branded illustration is a work of art, and once an original piece of art has been created for your brand, it can be used to drive sales and increase brand awareness through social media, print ads, merchandise, the web, etc. It’s clear that custom illustrations are a cornerstone of a well-rounded visual identity, but how does one of these illustrations come to be?

The Process

The Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association recently utilized the power of a custom illustration for their 2022 magazine cover. The Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association, or NETTA, releases a magazine every year to drive visitors to the Northeastern corner of Tennessee, known around the country for its hiking trails, concert venues, micro-breweries, and diverse population of native fauna. Each year, the NETTA magazine picks a unique theme, and the 2022 theme was wildlife. When NETTA approached Creative Energy with their idea for the cover, the challenge set before our team was to not only capture the adventure, wonder, and natural beauty of Northeast Tennessee but also to spotlight regional animals. We came to the conclusion that an illustration would be the best way to differentiate the NETTA magazine from other publications which often opt for landscape photography. So, in the first phase of the project, we put together several sketches utilizing different styles and layouts for the client to choose from.

The Sketch Phase

Branded Illustration - sketch phase

The sketch phase may be my favorite because of the endless possibilities and raw potential of that first stage of a project. As soon as I found out I would be working on this job, I started dreaming of all the ways this custom illustration could come together. When drafting sketches for the NETTA magazine cover, we took into account all of the little things that make Northeast Tennessee unique. We carefully considered every detail and were thoughtful when choosing what elements would effectively reflect the region and NETTA as an organization. We asked ourselves several questions: How can we combine the theme of wildlife with some of the beloved Appalachian outdoor pastimes like hiking, fishing, camping, or listening to music? What objects or places can we reference in the foreground and background of the piece to pay homage to the culture of Northeast Tennessee? How will the style and composition of the illustration be translated to other sizes or media? In the end, we presented several sketches to the client, along with corresponding moodboards, to help visualize the final product. Any of these sketches would have made a great magazine cover, but only one could make it to the next round.

The Execution

One sketch rose above the rest, and it was time for the fun part: the execution. Working through the stages of this illustration process required patience and problem-solving. First, I tested colors and methods for shading. After the team reached a consensus on methodology, I started constructing the background and building out each individual shape in Adobe Illustrator. I began with the main focal elements like the sky and fire tower and eventually worked down to the foreground foliage. The animals in the midground went through several design changes, but in the end, we opted for a subtle stylization in (almost) natural poses. The heavily detailed nature of the piece offered us space to include visual easter eggs expressing the personas of each character in the illustration. On the right side, I included a music festival poster hinting at the many concerts and festivals hosted in East Tennessee. Besides this element, there is a cooler of beer which serves as a shout-out to the large number of micro-breweries that call this region home. One of the friends, a little squirrel, can be seen sitting in front of the fire reading a book and paying tribute to the story-telling festival which takes place every year in Jonesborough, Tennessee. The illustration is filled to the brim with the minutiae of East Tennessee’s beautiful and wild culture. After months of work, internal reviews, and revisions, the illustration was finally complete. I was proud of our team and confident in the final product.

Mic Drop

Branded Illustration - final design.

There are few things more gratifying than seeing a client satisfied with, and enthusiastic about, our collaboration. The smiles and high-fives make the long hours and dedication to quality worth it. After the final iteration was approved, I created additional sizes and modified the composition to expand its versatility. We put together an iteration for NETTA’s brochure version of the guide which would sit on the racks in visitor centers and historic locations in the area. These finalized assets went into print and our work was now out in the world, but that’s not the end of the story.

The NETTA illustration went on to win a silver, gold, and Best of Show for print in the regional American Advertising Awards, as well as a silver medal for illustration in the 2023 international Graphis competition. Not only were we able to illustrate all of the things that make our region great, but we were able to make our client happy and win some awards along the way. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s turn your idea into a personalized illustration for your brand.

If you’d like to check out more from our work for the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association, scroll through our full case study for the illustration for the 2022 guide and magazine cover here.

Branded Illustration - hero image.