For great B2B brand illustrations, start with your story


Veronika Vřešťálová


26th April 2023

One surefire way of undermining a carefully built B2B brand is to use illustrations that look like they were downloaded from a stock library.

Unfortunately, the reverse isn’t automatically true. Even a relatively well-considered custom-made illustration set doesn’t guarantee uniqueness, engagement or credibility. And for that you can largely blame design trends. As soon as one of the big B2B players comes up with an illustration style, designers quickly become consciously and subconsciously aware of it. Then stock library creators try to emulate it. (And some will do an amazing job.)

But here’s the point. Design trends catch on fast. Getting design inspiration is normal and necessary, but looking just like every other brand will effectively make you invisible.

The illustration utopia

A fantastic example of a thoroughly abused style for B2B illustrations is Corporate Memphis, also known as Alegria Art. Think happy people floating around spotless office spaces, blissfully using gigantic markers to draw upward arrows. You’ll find it everywhere – it even has a dedicated hate subreddit. It’s easy to see why it’s so overused.

From an illustration-economy point of view, Corporate Memphis is the winner among contemporary figurative styles. This is because a few simple shapes, usually vectors, can be reused to create multiple scenes.

What’s more, there’s no requirement to adhere to human anatomy or perspective. In fact, disproportionate bodies and flat compositions are favoured, together with just about any colour combination.

This makes compositions in this style relatively easy to put together and, in all honesty, really fun to do. Drawing people in a realistic way is challenging and can quickly send you into the uncanny valley.

Exaggerated proportions and abstract gestures, on the other hand, are liberating. The composition suddenly stops hinging on the accuracy of every detail. All that matters is the overall visual kick it delivers.

A collection of stylised figures in motion. The style features long arms and legs of mostly uniform thickness. The composition is flat, meaning it looks as if it was cut out of paper, and gives no illusion of depth.

Facebook, 2017. Also known as original Alegria, This style was innovative at the time, inspiring illustrators and their clients all over the world.

Four people of various ages, genders and skin tones spending time together and helping each other out. Their body proportions are realistic but anatomy is stylised. The illustration gives some illusion of depth.

Google, 2023. More realistic illustrations that still fit within the Alegria Art style. What sets Google’s extensive library apart is the diversity of its characters. However, this is only a world-view difference – the illustrations aren’t particularly visually surprising and, if anything, are trying to resemble real society as much as possible. This works for Google because it doesn’t need help grabbing attention through imagery. Everyone already knows the brand.

The illustration style trap

There’s another advantage of modular styles like Corporate Memphis. Once established, they are practically designer-agnostic. If two (or twenty) designers rigorously follow a solid set of rules, their outcomes can be used in the same web page, ebook or campaign without looking inconsistent. That alone is a reason for large companies to seek out modular styles.

Which leads us to the pitfall of this illustration style.

B2B brands tend to share markets with multiple competitors that  talk about similar subjects and solve similar problems.

When B2B brands start converging to the most convenient visual asset solution, they start looking very much interchangeable. And given one of the key purposes of a brand is to be noticed and remembered, that’s not really what you’re aiming for.

A collection of six illustration in Alegria Art style. All of them are vibrant and colourful and feature happy people amidst various activities such as flying or painting the interface of a gigantic phone with a paintbrush. Little to no illusion of depth.

Accessible, well-mastered Alegria, Freepik 2023, various creators (pch.vector, freepik, pikisuperstar, vector4stock, jcomp, vectorjuice). Note how all of these have a similar feel.

Start with your story

Setting your illustrations apart from those of other B2B brands isn’t really about using one style or another. And it’s not about keeping up with the latest design trends of the big players. It’s about starting with your brand story.

The difference between illustrations that serve their purpose to differentiate, entertain and engage, and ones that fail, is often their level of brand coherence, as well as genuine meaning and interest.

Easier said than done? Maybe not. If the design process starts with an inspiring brand narrative, it’s almost impossible not to stumble upon something to set the style apart.

Hand drawn simplified map of several cities in an abstract yellow landscape on the left, details of hand unfolding the map, book and a tree (that looks like a broccoli) on the right.

Mailchimp’s brand includes playful, hand-drawn illustrations, creating a style that is distinct from the serious and orderly approach usually favoured by B2B brands. These are from its Give Where You Live initiative.

A collage of Malika Favre's illustrations and photos of Barcelona's pavement and Sagrada Familia. The illustration style is intricate and carefully balanced between geometric abstraction and realism, as is typical for the artist.

In a detour from the digital world, well-known illustrator Malika Favre included visual links to Barcelona in the city’s Mercè festival illustration. No other city could reuse the poster. While B2B tech companies can’t usually make use of city landmarks, this is exactly how they should be thinking. Get to the essence of what is unique and show it.

Three dimensional visuals of a floating calendar, bottles, flag, magnifying glass and various currencies orbiting an abstract globe. Their neon colours look painted on the objects and bear almost no resemblance to what might be expected.

Animated and 3D. While not strictly “illustrations”, these visuals by Ragged Edge set the Wise brand apart in a unique and recognisable way.

Creative freedom shouldn’t be confused with a creative vacuum. From a visual identity perspective, when a brand’s mission manifests itself in a logo and layouts, it should also be included in illustrations and other graphics.

You can do this in many ways. Through background shapes. The way photos are cropped. Repeating patterns. Characters’ face shapes. A library of hand-drawn scribbles. Anything that isn’t the obvious solution. Minimalism, abstract illustrations, skeuomorphism, even the often-used Alegria Art. The key point is, having a story to work with inspires designers to seek non-obvious solutions within the parameters of systems and styles.

So find an illustration style that suits your brand, then push it to look distinctive in an ownable way – by drawing inspiration from your brand story.