Drawing on versatility: Why it's a good idea for designers to cultivate many illustration styles.

by Carlo Carino in ,


Versatility is one of the key virtues of a good designer. To a large extent, a designer's job boils down to storytelling. Every good design tells a story. They provide concrete information about products, people, or events. They also convey a sense of tone, attitude, history, or culture.

How well the story is told is largely dictated by the decisions a designer makes.

"Carlo in four styles"However, the number of decisions open to a designer are dictated by how versatile that designer chooses to be.

I call versatility a choice because it takes care and consideration. Also because it takes work to add skills to your repertoire. If you care about how well you tell a story through your visuals, then versatility is a must.

Which brings me back to drawing. If you're a designer, then you must be able to draw -- not beautifully or even accurately -- just enough to put your ideas to paper in a meaningful way.

Let me quote Douglas Bonneville of bonfx.com from his great post, "Why graphic designers should learn to draw."

All the elements of design are rooted in drawing, as is painting. Drawing is the fundamental skill of visual artists of any stripe. The better we draw, the better we paint, and the better we design, because drawing contains all the problems and pitfalls we must overcome as designers. If we never fully deal with the problems with a pencil, we never fully solve our graphic design issues with much cruder tools.

With that said, not all designers are illustrators and vice versa. Not unless we want to be versatile, that is.

An example

A large part of my work involves doing digital renderings for upcoming real-world projects. This is often accomplished with a combination of photography, Photoshop, and other digital tools. On projects like these, the story is a simple one: this is what 'Project X' will look like -- and it will look cool.

Sometimes, however, I'm tasked with conveying a more complex story: this is what 'Project Y' will look like, feel like, and how it will connect to its intended audience in an emotional way.

The best way to tell that kind of story is through an illustration. Or better yet, a series of illustrations, like storyboards.

This is where it helps to have a few drawing styles in your pocket. Because the style must fit the story.

If you're drawing a storyboard for a playground project, for instance, do you do a rough, dark, grungy abstract illustration? Or do you do one that's more akin to a child's grade-school drawing? How about something that looks a little more Disney?

The more styles in your arsenal, the more choices you have. The more choices you have, the more likely you are create a visual that tells the story in the most appropriate way.

Again, success in a project like this depends on how versatile you are.

One way to do it

There's no simple way to become a versatile illustrator. It's partly research — gathering examples of a handful of different styles, some of which might you might not even like at first.

Then it's a matter of copying what you see. Over and over.

I call this 'cracking the code'. Getting to the point where you can think about the logic and personality behind a particular drawing style.

Then do an original illustration while employing you're newly assimilated style. I cannot understate how eerie this feels the first time you do it.

Then do it again. Find another style, rinse and repeat.

Not a copy anymore

Don't worry about feeling like a thief, though.

The thing is, you might start with a copy. But given time, these new styles become infused with your personality. It's unavoidable.

It ultimately becomes just the way you draw. Only now, you're more versatile.