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A behind-the-scenes look at the illustrations for Blueprint

Net neutrality! Countries spending millions on social media advertising to subvert elections in other countries! The intersection of society, technology, business and government is getting more and more complicated.

Blueprint is an annual industry forecast by Lucy Bernholz, that looks into these sorts of issues, and a whole lot more. Blueprint is published by the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, about the ways we use private resources for public benefit. The Huffington Post calls Lucy a “philanthropy game changer” and Fast Company magazine named her blog Philanthropy2173 “Best in Class.”

You can download the 2018 edition of Blueprint here.

This year I was privileged enough to be asked by Lucy to do the illustrations for Blueprint. I thought it’d be helpful to show a step-by-step look at how I did them.

The all-important brief

The first thing I did was to take a brief from Lucy and the team, about the scope and nature of what they were after: who is the audience? What context do they bring to how they read Blueprint? What are the main messages to be communicated? What is the desired visual character and tone? And when does it all have to be done by?

Previous issues had used a mix of stock imagery, digital boxes and arrows and custom illustrations, so the set of each issue’s illustrations didn’t really have a visual coherence. I wanted to fix that.

Estimating for this sort of work is notoriously hard, mostly because I couldn’t know how many specific illustrations would be needed until I had read the draft of Blueprint and we had discussed a rough number and placement. To tackle this, we settled on a rough amount of time I would spend, where I would produce as many illustrations as I could within the directions of the brief and within that time.

Microsoft Word - Illustration styles.docx

I also provided a page of sample illustration styles I’ve done in the past; it’s much easier for clients to point to a visual style they like rather than describe it. The team preferred the sketchnote style.

Initial sketches

I read the draft version of Blueprint, as well as several back issues, to get a feel for where illustrations would benefit the most. Lucy also had some specific illustrations and placements in mind, too, which helped tremendously. I then spent some time just doodling and sketching up lots of different ideas to help enhance the text using Procreate (an amazing work of genius software made in Australia) on my iPad Pro (set to ‘HB pencil’ / Black).

Microsoft Word - Illustration styles.docx

The sketches above use three different kinds of representation:

  • Literal representation – all three images display some concepts as real-world objects, e.g. security cameras, people, and a dustpan and brush. They’ve been abstracted, but nonetheless are depictions of real-world objects
  • Diagrammatic representation – the first image displays literally represented elements grouped as three entities (civil society, government, markets) by circles, separate from one another. The circles belong to Venn diagram visual language, which our brains recognise as meaning separate non-overlapping entities.
  • Metaphorical representation – the second and third images are using metaphors to communicate their meaning. The second image has a fence around the figures, meaning that they are bound by something and can’t escape. The third image equates the digital traces we leave from our digital activity as tiny pieces that are inspected (magnifying glass), collected (dustpan and broom), and stored (bin).

Some of the draft sketches were fine as-is; most needed refining (as far as clarity visual meaning went), and some were just downright off the mark! But some of the off-mark drafts still triggered new ideas in the team for other illustrations to try. I always enjoy this stage, for those moments of serendipitous creativity.

Refining and finessing

Often the biggest challenge I find with freelance work like this is not being able to be physically in the room with the team. Sure, there’s lots of great digital tools we could use, but ultimately the most effective efficient way of sharing my work and gauging steering and feedback was just to email them in batches, and either have a group discussion (through Google Hangout) where I would capture their feedback, or an email chain.

By reducing each ‘HB pencil sketch’ layer to 50% in Procreate, I’m able to sketch over the top in subsequent layers, using it as a guide. I used the ‘Studio Pen’/Black setting at about 30% width, to get close to the sketchnote style they had seen (which was actually done with a real marker and pen).


In the photo above, you can see the layers palette open, and the ‘pencil’ layer showing ‘underneath’ the black Studio Pen drawing.

Microsoft Word - Illustration styles.docx

At this point, I started to refine an overall visual style and character to apply to all of the illustrations. I parked the choice of colour initially, while exploring other elements to use. I ended up using a loose sketchy style overall, and a white grid in the background to be a uniting visual element.

Several of the sketches incorporated some text as well. I thought about just using my own handwriting, but in the end I opted for a font that was similar to my own handwriting (Draftsman), for consistency and ease of editing.

The final result

The colours in the style guide for the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society were basically black and red; I wanted the illustrations to have a complementary colour to the red titles and call-outs, so I showed the team a range of options. I also showed them what they would look like using a dummy in-situ sample, like this:


In the end, they settled on the gradation of a desaturated lilac to teal that you see here:

Microsoft Word - Illustration styles.docx

So there you have it! I hope it’s useful for you to see my process, and for how these sorts of illustrations come together. Do you do any digital sketching or illustration? What’s your process? I’m keen to find out how other people tackle illustrations like these.

Close-up picture of one of my sketchnotes from UX Australia

Sketchnoting at UX Australia 2013

I’m just back from this year’s UX Australia, with that post-conference fatigue-y headbuzz. There were tonnes of insights and trends to grab hold of, as usual, plus I’ve got a load of sketchnotes to share (below).

We’re all learning UX from each other

First and foremost, I’m noticing that not only is lean UX and agile/UX pairing becoming well-embedded techniques in both agency- and client-side, there no longer seems to be a traditional know-how flow from thinker/author > agency side > client side. Great thinkers and doers are everywhere now, and the flow is multi-directional. We’re all learning from each other.

Practices are great, but we can’t forget the principles and theory

This year there seemed to be much more attention on the techniques and practice of UX, whereas previous years it seemed to be more about mobile/contextual UX. I’d be concerned if conferences only focused on processes and practices, because we can’t short-change ourselves on UX thinking and design thinking. Techniques – and terminology of techniques – will come and go, but it’s essential that we keep sharpening our thinking about the principles of the experiences we create. In short: we still need to stimulate each other with more concepts and more theory, not just the doing stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, the balance was still there, especially with blending strategies with results and outcomes of UX practice (especially Katja ForbesUniversal design for touch, and Gabriel White’s Design at the edges (plus here on slideshare)), but my stand-out fave talk by Andrea Resmini really blew my mind: Navigation as cross-channel sense making (sketchnote below).

A sketchnote of Andrea Resmini's talk: Navigation as cross-channel sense making

In future…?

In future years of UX Australia – in response to my low-level concern and anxiety above – I’d like to hear more about how UX thinking and customer experience (CX) thinking are becoming paired disciplines. There is also quiet rumbling out there about architecture rediscovering itself and its purpose: designing places and spaces for people and not just for architecture magazine covers. We’ve been standing on the shoulders of architects since Day 1 of UX, and we have much to share with each other. Let’s hear more of that exciting stuff.


And ah yes, sketchnoting! I’m a big fan of sketching to explain, to think and to reflect, and it was great to meet and see Rebecca Jackson talk about her sketchnoting experiences. Below is my sketchnote of her sketchnoting talk… a bit weird really… but hey. And as an aside, Rebecca has posted some really great and useful summaries of the conference’s talks; here’s part 1 and part 2.

Sketchnote of Rebecca Jackson talking... about sketchnotes


It was also bloody excellent to meet Matthew Magain. I’ve found his drawing-to-explain mastery pretty inspiring in the past, and not only did he and Luke Chambers bring UX to life through the brilliance of The Blues Brothers, but he’s also done a great wrap-up of UX Australia 2013 in his own sketchnotes over on their service to the UX community: UX Mastery.

I’ve put all my UX Australia 2013 sketchnotes together on Flickr, here. I set myself a challenge of pumping out sketchnotes from every session I attended. It was pretty gruelling, both mentally and physically*, but highly worth it. I also tried out some other ideas I’ve had: rather than just spraying drawings all over the page, I tried conforming them to letter-shapes. I even tried doing one as a comic strip…but… let’s just say that one needs more prep and practice!


*OK, not really physically. Knowing loads of people who enter marathons, pull all-nighters at hospitals saving lives, etc, I can’t EVER use the word ‘gruelling’ when it comes to sketching. ;)