Inclusiveness in illustration

WordPress.com: Designing an inclusive illustration brand

Quick scenario: You're on your phone, going through the onboarding flow for a new app you just downloaded. Helpful illustrations appear, guiding and educating you through the process. Now hold up: are the characters in these illustrations diverse or mainly white? Do they seem to be young tech-oriented millennials, mostly men?

I love that illustrations have become such a key part of the tech branding landscape. But here's an observation: tech illustrations often feature the same sets of things: young, white people (usually men), surrounded by gadgets, with a cup of coffee, in a beautiful tech world.

For consumer-oriented products, this creates an incredibly limiting and exclusive brand image, unless you are solely targeting city-dwelling, coastal tech millennials.


One important way we can address this is by creating marketing and product imagery that is more representative and inclusive.

When the WordPress.com design team asked me to develop their illustration brand and 60+ product illustrations, these values were a major focus of the project, especially as part of their mission to democratize publishing.


Starting blocks

Building a character set

So, how can inclusion and representation be expressed through character design and illustration voice? When you begin with these principles as cornerstones of your brand, rather than tacking them on at the end, they manifest in the design process in straightforward and thoughtful ways.


Starting out, we wanted to approach the design of the characters to include different body types. Because our characters are stylized and not anatomically precise, I expressed this abstractly — from square, angular blocky figures to rounded, curvier ones. I built a range of complementary skin tones into the color palette as well, instead of relying on white as the default skin tone color.


To further include racial and cultural diversity, we explored a range of physical features — face shapes, hair style, expressions, etc.

This may all seem purely symbolic, but Diógenes Brito hits the nail on the head about what this optically communicates in his write-up about using a brown hand in Slack's "Add to Slack" button feature.


The team continued to challenge any preconceived ideas and biases about what inclusion meant — I learned so much through their invaluable feedback. For instance, Mel observed that our initial character set was filled with very binary-identifying characters, leading the team to discuss gender fluidity and incorporate gender-neutral characters as well.

User research is also another useful way to spot your biases. After field visits out to real users, John made a great point about how depicting your typical illustrated "latte / laptop world" comes off as very exclusionary to a huge part of the audience that don't exist in this flashy sphere — mom-and-pop shops, individual entrepreneurs, small / medium businesses, etc:

“Another challenge to note, that is common in the tech industry, is a bias towards believing that our users are on a desktop machine or using a mobile phone in some workspace or coffee shop or “beautiful” setting of a studio. This notion doesn’t match the day-to-day people trying to get their jobs done as non-tech workers.”

— John Maeda

With that in mind, I developed a series of lightweight line-based backgrounds, illustrating a variety of lifestyles and settings, from workshops to a living room — careful to avoid only depicting tech workspaces. Further dimensions pushed in exploration included occupation, personal style, attire, age, lifestyle, socioeconomic status, etc.

Header illustrations: Characters interacting with the UI, "building" their sites

Using these guiding principles of inclusivity, I extended these explorations into a system of characters and avatar templates that the team can pull from in the future, from large to small, for contexts ranging from headers to spot illustrations.

Large: Full-body design of different characters

Medium, 404 error — replacing the previous beloved Loch Ness illustration

Medium: Character vignettes

Small: Character avatars

Tiny: spot illustrations

If there is one takeaway I've learned from this project, it's that it is challenging but always necessary to address your own biases & assumptions in order to produce better, more inclusive work.

Developing the visual language

“A line is a dot that went for a walk”

The team also asked me to establish the visual language and style of these illustrations, a brand for "real people" — one that is engaging, knowledgeable, and imaginative, but never patronizing or inaccessible. Part of the ask was to use the existing simple and geometric illustration style as a starting point.

One of my early explorations, an interplay between playful, expressive linework and familiar solid shapes, intrigued the team. I took my own experiences as a teenage WordPress.com power user all the way back from high school as an inspiration point: there is something in this expressive linework that is akin to a dot going for a walk, like the on-the-fly aspect of blogging. It feels hand-drawn, imperfect, and approachable — yet finished and polished, like a professional doodle.

The progression of balancing shapes and linework

With feedback from the team, this approach was refined down to look less cartoon-ish and a bit more mature, as a huge part of WordPress's audience is comprised of businesses. The above shows a bit of that progression in balancing line against shape. Shapework is used to groud most of the composition, and linework adds in detail as well as a bit more personality.

We also realized that whenever possible, extra details connoting a personal touch go a long way in humanizing these illustrations. Here, the whimsical flip of a piece of printer paper or small little piece of hair out of place adds a lot of personality to an otherwise serious scene (a person on their computer).

Along these lines, adding in a character interacting with a UI rather than a static computer yields a far more engaging visual. I then documented guidelines around the style on how to best balance this line and shapework, so as to allow illustrations to more firmly hold their own weight against UI.

Applied to the product

The goods

I extended this style across spot illustations, badges, and devices using these very principles! One thing I love about this style is that it is extremely versatile; given the context, we could switch from blockier shapes to singing linework, and because of that, can also adapt well against both light and dark backgrounds.

It's been exciting to see these illustrations start to roll out in the product, especially given the reach that WordPress.com has across millions of websites.

support.wordpress.com

apps.wordpress.com

For more about the project itself, check out an interview with myself and collaborator & designer Joan Rho over on the official WordPress.com blog!

Thanks

This project was a true joy to work on! One of my first experiences learning how to design and develop was with my first WordPress blog, back in high school. Friends can attest that I was a true power user — a Teenage Girl Blogger (that's what I called myself); I wrote every day and WordPress.com is one of my favorite websites. As such it was really neat to be able to come back almost a decade later and contribute in the form of illustrations and branding — full circle, almost.

This was also an incredible learning experience with respect to the lessons in inclusivity. It's by no means a finished product or a checkbox to tick off and forget about; it's a constant work in progress, and I'm happy to have grown along this spectrum.

Special thanks to Automattic designers Joan Rho, Kjell Reigstad, & Ballio Chan as well as the WordPress.com & Automattic design teams!

I'll be posting an illustration / systems process post once a week for the next couple of months! Follow along here.