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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.

Apple Building at Mariani Ave. 20525, Cupertino
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Apple 2.0 – a brand of social innovation as well as tech innovation?

Apple Building at Mariani Ave. 20525, Cupertino

Apple Building at Mariani Ave. 20525, Cupertino (By Francesco Meschia, used under Creative Commons License)

What if Apple brand, under the new leadership of CEO Tim Cook, was known equally well for its different thinking in the social change space, as well as the technology innovation space?

I was just reading this NY Times article: The mystery of Steve Jobs’ public giving, and the comments there. It’s about the enigma of The Possible Philanthroper Steve Jobs. It’s a great collection of public information available about his social involvement, financial and otherwise, and it also makes the inevitable comparisons to the more public giving of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, even Mark Zuckerberg.

Heroes are people too

Now I know that this article was published before the tragic passing of Steve Jobs, but there were two things that struck me. Firstly, the assumption we tend to have that we can have some sort of ownership over public figures. We look up to people like Steve Jobs as role models, we aspire to their characteristics, and we build up a model in our minds about who they are and what they stand for. But when there are gaps in that model, we sometimes feel we have a right to know what fills them.

Leander Kahney, author of Inside Steve’s Brain, speaking of Steve Jobs is quoted (via Wired commentary): “Yes, he has great charisma and his presentations are good theater. But his absence from public discourse makes him a cipher. People project their values onto him, and he skates away from the responsibilities that come with great wealth and power.”

Surely that’s his prerogative? He was known so much for his vision, innovation and leadership; surely there’s room for respecting those ‘gaps’ that aren’t served up to us as well? Yes, it’s a great argument that he has ‘responsibilities’, but not every great leader has aggressive debilitating cancer. In other words, we have to consider the whole person and their situation.

The changing of the guard, and a renewed opportunity

Which brings me to the second thing. The opportunity before Apple to make a big — and I mean, a BIG difference. I know that we (rightly or wrongly) basically regard Apple Inc. and its corporate policies as being Steve Job’s policies. So his own personal philanthropic efforts seem to mirror those of Apple Inc. Private, undisclosed. Not a part of his public persona, not a part of the Apple brand.

But with tragic loss comes the opportunity for enormous good. The tragic loss of Steve Jobs could be a positive catalyst for change for Apple as a brand, under the new leadership of CEO Tim Cook. Whatever happens, Apple will become, if you like Apple 2.0 under his stewardship. He has an incredible opportunity to re-chart Apple’s destiny as a brand that speaks of social responsibility as well as of innovation and all the familiar hallmarks. Others are wondering this too.

The campaign to ask Apple to support cancer research

I’m actually trying to raise this with Apple at the moment, through an email campaign: Dear Apple: Please donate $1 to cancer research for every iPhone sold.

I’m sure that there’s thousands of avid Apple devotees out there — and loyal they are — that would be gratified to know that Apple 2.0 includes extending the ‘Think Different’ maxim to supporting pancreatic cancer research efforts for early detection, treatment and cure. And no, it doesn’t necessarily need to be by skimming of $1 per iPhone sale to fund charities; there are loads of ways this could happen.

Ladies and gentlemen, Apple fans and non-fans alike, we can ask Apple to make this change. Please consider going to the link above and sending an email? Thanks.