design illustration

What is “Illustrator-led design”?

“Illustrator-led Design” is not a real thing. It’s not in the dictionary and it’s not in the “inside-baseball” design lexicon.

It’s something we made up.

Admittedly, it’s not a super-intuitive term. But it’s the best way we can think to explain what makes Curio designers unique! 

So let’s talk about what we’re talking about when we talk about “Illustrator-led design”….

“Illustrator-led” versus “plain ol’” Design

“Design” is a humongous tent covering a jillion-ring circus (which includes industrial design, urban design, interior design, graphic design, and much more). 

In this post, we’ll generally use the term “design” to refer to graphic design, that is: “the art or profession of using design elements (such as typography and images) to convey information.” (thanks,!)

How effectively that message gets across is a matter of some creativity, lots of expertise, and a lot of nudging.

…and sometimes that message is the difference between catching your connection and spending five hours in a Hong Kong Chili’s.

A designer, then, is a person who thinks of creative ways to visually convey a message, then applies their expertise to deciding how to compose that message. 

“Not all Designers”

If, at this point, it sounds like ANYONE can be a designer, well… yes! For sure they can! And this is exactly why there is such a wide range in style, ability, and career trajectory among designers—life’s rich pageant, baby!

For instance, Carolyn Davis was a student when she designed the Nike Swoosh for Phil Knight. She was paid a whole $35!

This diversity can, however, be frustrating for a client who is seeking a graphic design partner. If you want to get a particular message across to a particular audience in a particularly resonant way, how do you find a designer that will do the job particularly well?

The truth is, there is no simple way to know for sure. But, in our experience, it helps if a designer listens well, understands the problem at hand, and is able to start sketching out ideas on-the-spot.

Not all designer are illustrators, though. So what happens when you mix design and illustration together in the same person?

Human Peanut Butter Cups, that’s what!

Do you remember the compulsive doodlers from your grade school? The ones tattooing their binders with sharpies while everyone else was learning how to function in the world? That was us!

All our designers at Curio Studio are also illustrators—doodlers who undertook the education and practice to turn a nervous compulsion into a vocation.

With time, skill, and deliberate practice, we’ve developed the ability to turn hundreds of imaginative ideas into (potentially) usable sketches. 

And, when enough sketches make it out of the pen and onto the paper, the result is a rich primordial soup from which to select the best concepts.  

Our illustrator/designers then begin to mould their best sketches into highly-refined designs. 

Left: Some early concept sketches for the Curio logo (circa 2014). Right: The final, refined version of the logo.
Straining the Primordial Soup: Where illustration meets design

A good design is the product of hundreds of decisions based on some proportion of instinct, know-how, and experimentation. Sometimes, a fantastic design can be the result of pure inspiration, and at other times, it can be the result of hours of changing this line or that pixel or that value of cyan by one or two percent (followed by a screeching existential crisis).

A designer with the right education and many hours of practice is able to more quickly refine a rough sketch into a polished concept—they’ve been faced with these thousands of decisions before, and they know instinctively which ones will work best.

Designing a brand involves choosing the right logo, typography, colours that will all work together to resonate with the intended audience.
Case in point: The brand we created for plastic-free haircare company Jack59.

At Curio, our designers have been working and practising at this for 20 years. We produce good work, we do so fast, and we pass the savings along to the client (which, as most design wonks will tell you, is basically a paradox).    

Does it work? Well, it works for us….

20 years in the design business is a long time, and confidentially, Curio Studio hasn’t been thriving for this long exclusively because we are all ravenous business savants.    

We owe our longevity to approaching every design with a highly-refined process of (first) doodling and (then) noodling. 

It’s a process that we love, it fulfils us creatively, it scratches our itches, and it brings about some work we are really, truly proud of.

…like this fun lil’ mural install we recently completed for Instinct Construction (concept sketch on left, final result on right)

Are you interested in putting illustration-led design to work for you? Get in touch with us and let’s talk about some sketchy business! 

This post was last updated on June 30, 2022 by Matt Steringa