Guest Post

A Love Letter to Illustration (guest post by our fave design student, Eva Zhong!)

Hey there! I’m Eva, fourth-year graphic design student at the University of Alberta. This year I have been extremely lucky to be able to intern at Curio Studio!

I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the blog, so I thought it would be good to talk about why I fell so deeply in love with illustration (and why I think it’s such a powerful tool in graphic design).

Let’s start from the beginning.

Art was Part of my Family

Like many design students, my introduction to this industry was through fine arts. My dad is a traditional Chinese painter, so I grew up surrounded by beautiful paintings of mountains, flowers, and birds. I caught his love for art and began drawing as soon as I could pick up a pencil.

Pictures Connected Me to My Own Culture

As I grew older and progressed through my education, I found it more difficult to communicate with my family. While my English became more refined with years, my Cantonese suffered to a point where I could no longer read my own language. 

No matter how bad my Cantonese became, however, art was always a constant in my life. I could always communicate my ideas with my parents and grandparents through images.

Even today I often find myself showing my parents the illustration work I do for school or for fun. It’s a method for me to bond with them without having to struggle through a hybrid of English and Cantonese.

Combining Illustration and Graphic Design (or trying to, anyway…)

From the moment I got accepted into design school, I wanted all my projects to incorporate illustration in some way. This is because I know how effective illustrations are in bridging the gap between different languages (and also because I love illustrating).

But it didn’t feel like there was much room for creativity in the first two years of my design program.

In many of my early projects, my instructors seemed to only want things that were clean and simple. There was also a heavy emphasis on photography rather than illustration.

When I searched for existing illustrations used in design projects, they almost always modeled the same “simple and clean” aesthetic. It began to feel that this was industry standard, and I forced my early images to be as minimalistic as possible. 

It got to a point where I felt my images were too simple and boring. They became more of a liability in my projects as a whole.

The Illustration Class that Changed Everything

In my third year, some friends and I took the only illustration class offered at our school. I was a bit hesitant at first, but also really curious about what would be taught.

This class was nothing like my previous design classes where we learned new rules and adhered to them. Here, we used those rules to help create visually-stunning works that served a purpose. 

Our very first project was to create a series of postage stamps that celebrated Canada. 

I knew in our very first critique that I would not pass just by adhering to what I considered a “professional” style. I could tell my instructor was not impressed by my initial ideas (nor was I), but I was also afraid to break away from my perception of styles that were “acceptable” in design. 

After several restless nights without finding a satisfying solution, I finally decided to take a leap of faith and approach the project the way I really wanted to. 

It turned out to be one of my best projects (at this moment in time), and my illusion of what I could and couldn’t do in illustration was forever altered.

What I learned about illustration in graphic design

After that class, I didn’t worry about adhering to an “industry standard” with my illustration style. Instead, I’ve shifted my focus to consider which problem a project is trying to solve and which style I can use to best meet the project brief. 

While I can’t always draw super-colourful or “cute” images for every single one of my projects, I also recognize that I’m not confined to drawing in only one specific style.  

If I were to give any aspiring illustrators or graphic designers advice, it would be to learn the fundamentals (even if it seems boring), but also: Don’t lose sight of your creativity in the process. Use your creativity to help your project better fulfill its purpose. 

Eva Zhong will be graduating from her design program in June of 2022; besides having more than her share of creative talent and design abilities, Eva is remarkably organized, determined, and self-confident. She is also a pretty great hang.

Check out more of her great work (and send her your fan mail and job offers) via her Behance page!

This post was last updated on March 10, 2022 by Matt Steringa