December 17, 2020

An illustrator’s advice for breaking into the digital product space

How to shine in the digital product space—a world constantly demanding visually amazing experiences and talent.

Fran Pulido

Fran Pulido

Freelance Illustrator at Z1

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An illustrator’s advice for breaking into the digital product space

As an illustrator, you may have never dreamed of seeing your work published in an app. It’s time to overcome this prejudice.

At some point in our lives, we have all drawn. We have all used a pencil and a piece of paper to explain an idea that was difficult for us to express in words alone (or at least for the pure pleasure of it). The difference is that some of us continue to draw our entire lives. This is what happened to me.

My name is Fran. I’m an illustrator at Z1, and the romanticism that prompted me to continue holding the pencil remains intact. In fact, it has transcended into the digital realm—a space in which I now also navigate.

One day, I discovered that the word “illustration” comes from Latin and that it literally means to illuminate. I loved this. In a way, our job consists of lighting up an idea, helping it to be understood, and using our flashlight to turn it into an aesthetic experience.

"The word “illustration” comes from Latin, and it literally means to illuminate."
Fran Pulido, freelance illustrator.

This is fascinating to those of us who choose to pursue careers in Graphic Design or Fine Arts—to those of us who dream of seeing our work in an exhibition, on the album of a musician we love, or on the cover of a magazine—something I’m proud to have achieved in papers like El País, where I began to collaborate a couple of years ago.

However, the few of us who opt for this way of life, (especially if we already have a few years under our belt) never dreamed of seeing our illustration work published in an app. I used to be one of those individuals. I thought that print was better for illustration because it’s a physical, tangible object and has a halo of prestige.

Digital seemed like a throwaway product. Fortunately, this perception is already being challenged. Long ago, I pole-vaulted over this prejudice. But my time working alongside my Z1 teammates has finished chiseling my vision. Working with developers, designers, copywriters, and product managers, I’ve learned that the romanticism and beauty of our profession is not only experienced in the digital field, but also takes flight thanks to the advantages of the medium and teamwork.

I can’t believe the misconception that still exists around digital illustration. Especially in today’s world where we all spend so much time on our mobile screens—more so this year as we’ve practically learned to live on the internet. However, the idea of ​​the bohemian illustrator who works on books, posters, magazines, or exhibitions always reappears. But I have to tell you something, colleagues—in this day and age, to work only in these formats is no longer realistic.

"We are faced with an increasingly experienced & exigent user who no longer only seeks usability, but also quality & beauty.”
Fran Pulido, freelance illustrator.

Digital Products is a growing sector and requires visually amazing experiences as we face an increasingly experienced and exigent user who no longer only seeks usability but also quality. There are work and growth opportunities for illustrators here—a professional future in which your skills will improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

Yes, in my portfolio today, you’ll find illustrations for prestigious national newspapers. But you’ll also find work for apps such as Less, which helps thousands of users to have a healthier relationship with alcohol consumption. Or experiences as fascinating as Trip, one of the most beautiful and complex challenges that I have undertaken at Z1—an app that accompanies you on psychotropic trips.

Trip's app illustrated by Fran Pulido.
Trip — Mental Health Application

On some occasions, my work has been defined as “fresh and vibrant,” and I like to think that those are the qualities that we also strive to achieve in the digital products we design here at the studio. At Z1, I was surprised at the amount of care given to design, as well as the constant training of the team. In fact, we’ve launched FixThatCrAAP, a redesign challenge to help our community stay up-to-date in UI.

Of course, if reading this motivates you to transition into the world of digital products, there are a few things you need to know.

Here are some tips to enter this field that’s in high-demand of illustration professionals like you

Embrace the team approach ​

When it comes to product illustration, you have to be willing to work with a team, to support the needs of your colleagues, and to understand that you’re sailing in a boat where many row together. And you’ll quickly discover that it’s actually pretty great.

Never stop learning

If want to design or illustrate for digital products, you need to be a voracious consumer of these experiences. In addition, you should be aware of everything that can help to improve your work. This includes reading (it helped me a lot to rediscover comics books, for example), to soak up each new trend in the market, and, of course, the tools that can refine your results.

"If you want to design or illustrate for digital products, you need to be a voracious consumer of these experiences.”
Fran Pulido, freelance illustrator .

There’s a vast range of courses, but my advice is that you never abandon the self-taught approach. Many companies are ahead of the game, so you always need to keep an eye on how the industry is evolving if you want to stay up-to-date.

Use the right tools

Pencil and paper are still my starting point, but I can’t rely on only these tools. A drawing tablet and the use of some software are essential. In my case, it’s an iPad Pro, Cintiq Pro 16, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Procreate. Speed ​​is one of the most valued skills in an illustrator, as long as it doesn’t compromise quality. Mastering these tools will help you move faster.

Be bold

In my case, it was Manolo Ortega, Lead Designer at Z1, who got in touch with me. But until then, a lot of the work I landed came from reaching out to individuals, studios, and agencies that interested me. Advance your portfolio with joy. It’s the only way for potential collaborators to understand your value and your passion. And remember that a half-hour coffee date with an experienced professional (even if it is virtual) can provide you with invaluable advice for your career.

It all adds up

Just because you move into a new sector doesn’t mean you have to discard your previous knowledge. For example, my design training helped me understand typography, hierarchy, and sizing issues when working as a press illustrator. At the same time, working in print helped me to bring textures and uses of color to the digital world. It’s a matter of adapting your skills.

An image of two screen showing Supercast's UI with a lilac background.

Don’t focus on the recognition

We all know the joy that comes from seeing your name next to your creations. Even though your name won’t likely stand next to your work in an app, the good illustrators end up being recognized. Creative studios are already showing off the illustrators on their teams. Think of people like Pablo Stanley or Miguel Camacho.

Embrace the freedom

Digital illustration opens up an infinite field of possibilities. You can literally do what you want with it. It does not occupy a physical space in anyone’s house, but in return, you will see your creations in motion, and this is priceless.

Promote yourself and your work

This is vital. Keep up to date with each platform or social network that your followers use to see your designs. Share new content on your social networks and encourage conversations with your followers by adding context to your shots. Explain what went into the work, what role illustration has played in the game, or how you have developed it. We are designers, so we have to put just as much care into how we showcase our work as the actual work itself.

Final thoughts

If you dare to try it, I guarantee you’ll enjoy working with a team in the many iterations of the UI design process, until you know the product like the back of your hand. And, of course, there’s nothing like seeing that sketch you made on a Tuesday morning being used by hundreds, if not thousands, of different hands.

The digital products industry and consumers demand and deserve excellence. As it is, the words art, talent, quality, experimentation and avant-garde also work here. What do I say! They mostly work here! Who ever said that your illustrations as a digital product designer can’t end up at MOMA like the first emoji designs? Above all, think about how your work will travel in the pockets of so many people—people who one day will open the app that you enlightened and will access a richer experience thanks to the fact that you did your part. Is there a better purpose for a piece of art than that?

“This article was originally published on Dribbble.”