How Our Stories Embody Our Craft: The Catalyst Custom Illustrations

Custom Illustrations vs. Royalty Free Stock Art: Cramer Takes a Stand

If you've followed Cramer Stories, or our newsletter and Medium publication, Catalyst, over the last year, you've noticed our custom crafted story icons. Illustrations unique to each piece. They're beautiful, sure, but are they worth the effort? With so many high-quality, royalty-free stock images out there, why take that extra step and create a custom illustration for every story we publish?

Easy. Visual authenticity. Hand-drawn art and digital illustration, as Fast Co Design puts it, "offers warmth and a degree of originality that simply can’t be met with other visuals."

For us, the focus wasn't on keeping with or ahead of web design trends. No, it was simpler than that. It came down to honesty, putting the time into ourselves as we would for our clients, and in turn, creating a brand publication that felt like our own, for our readers.

Let's explore the family tree of our Catalyst icons and really dig into the roots of this story.

First, meet the masterminds behind the illustrations. Brad Harris and David Tetrault.

Brad has been at Cramer for nearly five years, working his way from Senior Art Director to Associate Creative Director. David has been a Senior Interactive Designer here for the last two years. Together, these two design the visualizations for some of the most beautiful brand experiences in the industry.

Both quiet, calm, and confident on the surface, you can be sure that the gears inside these guys are spinning rapidly in a constant state of controlled creative chaos. It's a wonderful thing to see truly gifted people, truly loving what they do. And so when Cramer decided to start down the long and winding path of brand journalism, Brad and David stepped in to guide the publication's brand identity.

Why did you opt for custom illustrations on Catalyst stories?

David: For us, as an agency, it was about practicing what we preached. We consult on visual language, brand tone, copy, etc. for clients, and so we wanted to be that critical of ourselves as well. There are a lot of resources for images out there, but we wanted to design something unique to the Cramer brand that would set our stories apart.

Brad: You're just always better off going custom with your brand. A brand is after all a visual identity. You have to be unique to be strong.

What is your process like when you have to craft a new story icon?

Brad: It's just like cooking. Inspiration then iteration. Taking in the collective visual images of the world as a whole, finding a common visual language, and picking ingredients out of it that can be recombined to make a new meal. That's really what design is about and that's what we bring to the stories. Inspiration then iteration.

David: We like looking for a metaphor to play with and drive across. Conceptually, we take two visual clichés, and juxtapose them to convey the theme and message of the story. What is the crux of the article? How can we help communicate the story, and make it stronger, before you even read into it? Those are the questions we design to answer.

Brad: It's always fun to look at your design real estate, in this case a square, and conceptualize the best way to fill it. Where are the boundaries, and can you break them?

Do you guys go back and forth on the icons, reiterating each other's designs, or do you just switch off who takes which stories?

David: A lot of times it just comes down to whoever has the time will start in on the next icon. Then the other will react and poke holes or add thoughts. It's more fluid this way than having a "design bake off," where we would both start in on the same story. I think that's counter-productive.

Brad: Yeah, one of us will always be the one doing it and owning it, but we'll always run it by the other person. A lot of it is in the title for me, whereas David might pull from a different idea within the story. So having the balance of bouncing ideas off of each other on a single icon is invaluable.

What have been some of your favorite stories to design for?

Brad: One of my favorite so far has been the Cramer Summer Outing piece—the paddles, with the bandana. I really like the shape and the bounds of that one. Also, the 5 Tips To Better Presenting, and the Second Screen Technology pieces, those are cool.

David: Some of the ones I'm most proud of are the first few we did, because this is when we had to really define a style and push ourselves to be less trendy and more original. We could have gone flatter with thicker outlines, or more realistic, but we landed here. The Monster Winning the Superbowl story, and Breakthrough Experiences in Healthcare, those were some of the originals I love.

Beyond just coming up with gorgeous icons to publish alongside our original content, how do you feel this has been an important exercise for the evolution of the Cramer brand?

David: Honestly, that's been one of the best parts of this process. That we can run our brand through the ringer with these and really define how to best represent ourselves. It's also allowed us to be flexible. Many times, after a rebranding, a style guide is set in place and rigidly adhered to. There's value in being cohesive and consistent, but there's also value in having the flexibility to evolve and try new things.

Brad: When we started designing these, there were stories in the queue, and stories already published. We could be retroactive and proactive at the same time, playing with different icon styles, and landing on ones that felt different, yet part of the same family. Designing for a crop of existing stories at once laid the foundation for us to move forward and know where we wanted to take not only the icons, but the publication brand.


Are you creating rich, custom illustrations for you blog? If so, we'd love to check them out! Tweet us @wearecramer.

If time, resources, or money are pressing publication concerns, it's not the worst thing to use royalty free photography. In fact, "Stock Photos That Don't Suck" is a great roundup post on Medium by Dustin Senos that you can use as a jumping point to find all the best libraries for "stock photos that don't look like stock photos." But if there's one thing we've learned from our icon exploration on Catalyst, it's that original, is always better.

Keep up with each and every new story design from Brad and David by subscribing to the Catalyst newsletter, or following the Catalyst publication over on Medium.

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