Another illustrator asked me why I illustrate for Blush. There is a tremendous amount of debate in the illustration community around this kind of work. I wanted to share my perspective more widely.

A sample of a composition from the Blush tool built using my Open Figures library

For context, Blush is an open-source illustration tool created by Pablo Stanley that allows folks to remix illustrations from pre-made parts to create their own versions for whatever they need. In Pablo’s words:

Blush is a tool that brings illustrations to everyone from artists around the world. The cool thing is that you can customize every piece of an illustration to create your own compositions! Our goal is to make art more accessible to all while championing illustrators and the importance of art in digital experiences.

Digital illustration of people, buildings, and a skyline of San Francisco
Digital illustration of people, buildings, and a skyline of San Francisco
Illustration system based on the one I built for Square

For some backstory, I’ve worked on modular libraries in the past, the main two I built for Square in my time there to empower product designers to be able to quickly mock up illustrations before we’d work together, and then, after I left, they would have a library to use themselves. Because I wasn’t an ‘illustrator’ by title just a designer who was inspired to help product out, building a modular system was much faster and created a system that was self-supporting. They still use it now that I am gone, but they also hire me as a freelancer to do work in a new style they are developing. I built something similar for OpenTable, but they didn’t want to use it in the end. And that’s ok.

When Pablo asked me to be part of this project, he gave me some guidelines (basically, build a modular system), but said I could do mostly whatever I wanted. It gave me a chance to create a new little style that didn’t rely on any company’s guidelines. I got to build exactly what I wanted. Pablo then gave feedback around what would technically work (for instance, we cut dresses so we could put folks in wheelchairs). I got to define everything. I got paid for my work at a rate comparable to my normal rate for big tech companies. His only caveat was that this library is meant to be shared and worked on top of, so I’m not allowed to tell people not to make changes to their illustrations built from my library. Basically, it is open-source. I’m okay with that because this is, to me, experimental illustration. I have a lot of work that is custom-made, that I wouldn’t expect folks to tweak and re-use.

An example of the Blush plugin for Figma

What I really like about this project specifically is that Pablo is putting the design in the hands of emerging women who are all WOC or neurodiverse. I know some people won’t like the styles Pablo has curated, and that’s okay with me because these aren’t being made by people who have traditionally owned the illustration space. They don’t have their names out there yet. Doing something like this allows us to 1. get paid and 2. have our work shared widely in a design world that is not made for us. These illustrations are made with a lot of heart and love.

A style I’d only have made for the joy of making it

Of course I understand the fear illustrators have around everything becoming a version of stock illustration. That fear is very real: could I lose my livelihood to projects like Blush? As I am now a freelancer, it makes me wonder should I have just kept them to myself so I could sell the style to a company? But my work wouldn’t be widely viewed or used. I wouldn’t have gotten to put a Taylor Swift song on a shirt. I would have been told I “can’t” do a lot of things.

This helps put us on people’s radar, even if some people hate the work. I’m proud of what I made, and the kind of people who are being financially supported by this project.

When you have the ability to hit ‘randomize’ on an illustration, you start to chip away at bias. I know I have my own preferences for the kind of people I want to draw. We all have these biases that stop us from creating a more representative, diverse world of illustration. Because you can hit ‘randomize’ and start from a place free from your own bias. Of course you have the bias of the system’s creator, and from your choice of system, but this is step towards creating work that doesn’t hinge on me drawing the same type of woman over and over again.

If you want to play around with Open Figures, my system, check it out here.

Or, try the Figma plugin!

Illustrator who works in brand and product design. Clients include Airbnb, Square, Lyft, and Figma. Originally from San Francisco. www.bonniekatewolf.com

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