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Illustration in email isn’t just a way to add levity and visual interest—it’s a great storytelling tool that extends your visual brand. Illustration can be used to depict an abstract product or service (that may not be easy to photograph) or make a complex messages easier to understand. With infographics, icons, diagrams, and symbols, illustration can quickly and elegantly convey conceptual or abstract messages. Plus, illustration is a great way to delight readers and add beauty to email. Here are five creative ways to use illustration in email, with inspiration from brands doing it best.
Add spot illustrations in email to depict a process, feature, or offer
Spot illustrations are small drawings—usually without borders or backgrounds—designed to appear alongside text to liven up or visualize a message. Including spot illustrations in email to show off product features is a great option for brands with products or services that are not “tangible” items that get shipped to our doorsteps. Dropbox, the cloud storage company, for instance, uses illustrations to introduce three new features that are more conceptual than they are literal or physical:
The line illustration style is friendly and approachable, and it’s unique to the Dropbox brand, offering readers a consistent, visual way to get updates on Dropbox offerings. Likewise, Hipmunk, the travel company, uses spot illustrations, along with illustrated text, to imbue its email with a sense of playfulness while also adding visual context for its product features and offerings:
Illustration in email is also a helpful tool in communicating a process. Airbnb uses these colorful spot illustrations in its welcome email to visually instruct readers on the first three actions to take in using its service:
As part of the instructions, the illustrations add levity and give readers something to look at other than typed out directions.
Uniqlo, the clothing company, uses a spot illustration / icon hybrid approach to illustrate prizes offered for a special in-store event. While the company typically sends photo-heavy emails showcasing clothing items, the brand clearly values the design power of adding illustration to the mix.
Grab attention with animated GIFs
Animated GIFs are often created with a series of photos to create mini-videos or cinemagraphs. But brands also animate drawings, often as the lead image in an email, to catch readers’ attention with simple motion. Take this recent email from Grammarly, the grammar-checking app, for instance:
Maximizing an inverted pyramid structure, the email starts off with a cute, simple animated GIF:
Tinybeans, the online baby journal sharing site, takes a very similar approach with this thank you email to subscribers:
Both of these brands operate online, with services that aren’t readily photographable. Including a dynamic illustration style as a key component of their visual brand identity is a smart way to make emails more engaging and interesting.
Layer with photos for added dimension
Marrying illustration in email with photography brings character to your design. With illustration, you can level-up stock images or add a special touch to your own photos, creating a more memorable experience for readers. It’s an approach BarkBox nearly always takes—playful illustration atop photos are a staple of their visual brand. Here are two recent examples from BarkBox emails:
It’s a cute and playful way to add some fun to their already humorous doggy photos.
But the pairing doesn’t always have to be silly. General Assembly has a well-established illustration style that sometimes overlaps with photography, too, like in this recent email promoting upcoming classes:
By layering colorful illustration atop black-and-white photography, GA achieves a unique look that stands out. The header image is also a great photo-illo animated GIF:
Illustrate text to build unique headers
If you don’t have a process or service to illustrate, making your email’s text illustrative is a quick way to create visual interest in email. Coupling illustration and typography can be a refreshing addition to emails that are often photography-based. Take this header from a recent Bloomingdale’s email, for example:
Like Uniqlo, the brand typically focuses on beautiful hi-res photography to showcase wardrobe items, but this playful illustration is a nice change of pace. Placed at the top of the email, it’s positioned to grab readers’ attention from the get-go.
Similarly, Bliss, the beauty care line, adds fun and movement to a recent email with this “#BODGOALS” header that’s an animated GIF, too:
The movement is simple, but, placed right at the top of the email, it’s enough to catch readers’ eyes right when they open the email, and it shows subscribers that Bliss is dedicated to engaging email design. (For tips on how to use GIFs in email, be sure to check out our top 4 tips for using animated GIFS in email.
Divide content with a pattern
Modular email design often benefits from subtle content dividers to improve readability as subscribers scroll between sections. Instead of a basic horizontal line, dividing content with a small illustrative flourish is a unique way to personalize an email. It’s a tactic Drybar, the salon service, often employs in their light, bright, gray-and-yellow messages, like with this heart-and-dot divider from a recent email:
Similarly, the Honest Company adds an illustrative touch to their welcome email with a gray illustrative pattern that separates the navigation menu from the first content module:
These simple, subtle touches, when used consistently, pull together your email design in a cohesive, professional way.
Wrap up: Ways to use illustration in email
- Pair spot illustrations with abstract concepts to bring to life your business’s processes, services, or features.
- Use an illustrated animated GIF at the top of your email to catch readers’ eyes.
- Layer photos and illustrations to add dimension and show readers your investment in good email design.
- Illustrate lettering to add punch to your email’s header and key message.
- Break up content with illustrated dividers that add a special touch.
Illustration is an effective investment in extending your brand. Give it a try by adding illustration to the next email you create in the BEE editor, and let us know how it goes!
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