The art of storytelling through illustration – Q&A with Em, in-house illustrator at Hotfoot

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We all have a story to tell. Whether it’s through video, audio, the written word, or through design. A lot of the time, it’s a combination of all of them.

When it comes to our clients, some ask for illustrations to help make numbers seem less numb. Clearer. More interesting. Some want illustrations to work alongside website content to help tell their brand stories. Some want illustrations for advertising campaign concepts that require artistry and invention.

Illustration isn’t a new concept. But use of illustrations is becoming more popular in a world where photography just won’t cut it. Or AI (yes, we went there). It takes technique, understanding, skill, wizardry and a certain ‘joie de vivre’ that almost consumes. It takes a talented illustrator with a steady hand and a non-AI imagination. Luckily, we have people like that in our studio. 

But before we geek out and get ahead of ourselves, what is illustration?

Illustration refers to the visual representation or interpretation of a concept, story, idea, or text, typically through drawings, paintings, or digital means. The primary goal of illustration is to visually convey a message, evoke emotions, capture attention, or enhance understanding of a topic or specific information. They’re often created to accompany or complement written content, such as brochures, adverts, posters and websites. Illustrations can be found in a multitude of contexts, ranging from children’s books to scientific diagrams, editorial cartoons to technical drawings, and beyond.

Illustrations can vary widely in style, technique, and purpose. They can be realistic, abstract, cartoonish, or symbolic, serving to communicate or embellish a narrative or information. Artists who specialise in illustration are known as illustrators, and they employ various mediums and tools to bring their ideas to life, including pencils, pens, markers, digital software, watercolours, acrylics, and more.

We chatted with Em, in-house illustrator and a senior designer at Hotfoot, about her design career, illustration process and what inspires her art.

Em Maylor, Creative Lead at Hotfoot

Em, take us through your illustration process. Where do you start?

“Illustrating for a brand, one of the first things I’ll do is take a look at their current brand and tone of voice, and get a feel for who they are. It sounds cliché, but you can’t just dress someone in clothes that don’t feel like them. It has to be authentic and fitting, and even if it’s a service or sector that’s a little more abstract to grasp, the research is important.”

“Sometimes a client will have an idea of what they’d like to see, and sometimes they’d like us to take the lead. Listening to how someone talks about their brand and processes and their culture is also incredibly helpful in terms of what could be applied visually.” 

So how do you decide on a style, after getting to know the brand?

“After taking notes and sketching up any ideas, I’ll begin concepting but I do like to remain undecided on a style – until something does ‘click’. Sometimes a project will begin with a solid, vector illustration favoured, but in terms of fitting into the brand story, a simple line drawing might just say so much more. It’s quite fun having such a changeable element to the discipline I work in!”

“There are so many things to consider when illustrating – shape, scale, colour palettes, factoring in the brand itself, texture and any application/legacy of the illustrations. The concepting stage can often take the most time, and I can get into double, or triple figures of versions of something to try and figure out the best way of saying what needs to be said. Mocking up and presenting how things will look in situ – on site, social media or in print – always helps bring everything to life, and I feel like this is where true clarity comes along – showing the possibilities of how illustration could be used for a brand to the client and getting feedback helps narrow down the perfect idea.”

Janoski illustration by Em Maylor

Porsche illustration by Em Maylor

Porsche illustration by Em Maylor

As a designer working with a range of clients, how do you adapt to different sectors and ways of working?

“There are always new ways of working – each client brings a unique personality to capture and express, and there are endless things to illustrate! The best part is always the rush of ideas, and then seeing a tailored piece of work out there in the world.”

“Being able to put imagination and a vision into a piece of work is such an asset for a brand. A few milliseconds is all it takes for a subconscious ‘vibe check’ to be passed. So when a brand has a story to tell, there are so many ways illustration can help.”

“When other media won’t tick the box, being able to contribute and weave illustration into a brand alongside being a designer allows me to inject a little something more. There’s something about illustrating that heightens a story, enunciates the sound effects and brightens all of the scenery.”

What are your go-to programs for illustrating?

“I’ll generally concept either in Adobe Illustrator using simple shapes and build on top of that. Or if it’s something intricate or more direct/dynamic, such as a continuous line drawing, I’ll use Procreate on my iPad – either drawing on there right away or drawing by hand first as a reference to try and work out the most understandable, concise version of what I want to create.”

Let’s say it’s the weekend. You’ve had a long week at work and your iPad and pencil are nearby. Are you illustrating?

“Yes! Outside of work, I’m always trying my best to make time to illustrate a wide range of subjects, but I do seem to end up just illustrating what I want. Texture and shape play the biggest roles in my work, but they’ll never get boring – like any creative, we’re constantly evolving. I suppose you can say the same about a brand – we have to adapt to a changing world and sometimes narratives and directions change – so being able to understand, accommodate, and express this is very important to me.”

Gibson – Les Paul Guitar illustration by Em Maylor

Adidas illustration by Em Maylor

What do you love most about illustrating?

“I love halftone and I love a gritty texture. That, on top of considered shape that can break the rules, is the icing on the cake for me.”

“Illustrating is one of few things that tunes everything else in my life out, where the world makes sense and where I fully fit in. I will never tire of being surprised at what comes out, even if it’s something I’ve planned quite a lot. There’ll be a slight change that can alter the whole mood of a piece and the ability to play creatively and do that for a living is something that’s still so amazing for me.”

“Sometimes I’ll get a voice in my head that says ‘that’s not how everyone else would do it, it’s not showing that accurately’. But it’s not about how it’s ‘supposed’ to look. Illustration, design and visual communication as a whole are a storytelling form, and if you tell something like it is, monotonous without a little something, nobody is going to hear you.”

Lamp illustration by Em Maylor

Lamp illustration by Em Maylor

Rainbow Boa illustration by Em Maylor

Was a career in graphic design always on the cards for you?

“No, illustration was never something that was planned for me. I was going to study Creative Writing at university, but I fell in love with tattooing and took up an apprenticeship in a tattoo studio in Manchester. The idea of being a part of producing the culture I love to be covered in was so special to me. I’d always doodled as a kid but never took Art at GCSE.”

“After speaking to a tattoo artist who’d previously been a freelance Illustrator, I looked into studying Art at college. Realising that I could make a career out of visual communication and telling a story without words became something I wanted to work towards, and I took that route through to University.”

“Closer to the end of my degree, I adapted my work to the design sector and applied concepts to packaging. I wanted to fake it until I made it, and concepted work for brands that at that time I’d never considered being close to working with, but decided – if I can weave my work into a brand and understand that brand, then I’ve got it.”

Are you excited about more brands bringing illustration into their identities and communications?

“It’s refreshing to see brands delving into illustration – they always have, but it’s now becoming more than just a stock icon or pattern. Sometimes a considered line drawing, something bespoke, comes up brass as anything and really helps authenticate a brand and their voice. You want someone to look at a brand as a whole and see that thought and time has been put in – and I feel that when the visual aspect of that slots nicely in line with content and ideology, someone will look and think ‘actually, this brand gives one about what they do – and it just makes sense’.”

Mr Charger Hotfoot Client Work

Hotfoot client work: Mr Charger illustration by Em Maylor

Mr Charger Hotfoot Client Work

Hotfoot client work: Mr Charger illustration by Em Maylor

Mr Charger Hotfoot Client Work

Hotfoot client work: Mr Charger illustration by Em Maylor

Rolls-Royce SMR Hotfoot Client Work

Hotfoot client work: Rolls-Royce SMR illustration by Em Maylor

Illustrations in this post that aren’t stated ‘client work’ are courtesy of Em Maylor, who has kindly agreed for us to share them on our website.

Em Maylor is a Creative Lead at Hotfoot, specialising in brand identity, illustration, packaging, and digital design, working with our clients on a range of compelling projects.

If you’d like to chat with our senior design team at Hotfoot, please get in touch.

Let’s grow your brand.


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