Presenting ideas visually is a great way to appeal to a wider audience and to make a lasting impression. As Content Rules’ graphic designer, I get asked to do this with every project I work on. While some ideas are easy to visualize, complex or abstract concepts can be especially challenging to represent graphically.

For example, if I’m asked to represent a computer, the hardest part is making sure the colors and style match the corporate brand guidelines. If a project requires visual representation of something a lot less easily recognizable–such as a specific type of content “component”– much more work needs to be done before I can even open Adobe Illustrator.

After facing this conundrum fairly often, I have devised a method for streamlining my illustration workflow. Hopefully, this will help other visual artists in finding a workflow that works well for them.

Brainstorm & Research

The first step of this process begins with Brainstorm & Research. When I am asked to illustrate a more abstract concept, I usually begin by doing word associations that could help build a connection to something more visually recognizable.

For example, “strength” is not necessarily something that can be illustrated literally. Instead, I might try to visualize a muscle or a dumbbell, which are related, and easily recognizable by a wide audience.

If this doesn’t lead anywhere, or the concept is very abstract, the next step is to research. I start with a search engine image search, looking to see how other artists have illustrated the same or similar ideas. I usually browse a few different websites, and eventually, save the best three or four visual ideas for the next step.

If I’m unable to find any good ideas, perhaps the concept itself is better left in words only, as not to confuse an audience with an irrelevant graphic.


This takes me to the second step in my illustration workflow–Creation. Once you have some idea(s) of how you will illustrate your concept, it’s important to sketch. This doesn’t have to be on paper–most of my sketching happens in Illustrator–but it does need to be quick and without total commitment. The key is to play with different shapes and lines to solidify the original idea(s) and fit them into the required style guidelines.

At this point in my workflow, I review the style guidelines to set restrictions. This usually involves defining the color palette based on the guidelines and/or the style elements of the place(s) the illustration will be used, as well as determining font size and line weight (if applicable).

In addition, it’s also very helpful to incorporate some principles of reuse into the workflow. I do this by attempting to re-use design motifs and elements that I might have already created for the same project or client.

For example, if I am asked to illustrate a user interface on a computer, I would try to use assets that I’ve already created as a base to work off of. This saves time and contributes to a consistent design language across a client’s content library. For more information about reuse and structured content creation, see 6 Best Practices for Creating Reusable Global Content.

Now, once I have a draft of the illustration, it’s time to take it to the client and see if they like and understand how I chose to visualize their ideas. 

Feedback & Refinement

The next step in my workflow is Feedback & Refinement. With any work that I do, I find that feedback can be an integral part of creating a truly amazing final product.

It’s at this stage where I can learn the most about how to improve not only the illustration itself but also myself as an illustrator and artist. It’s imperative that even if I receive negative feedback that takes me back to the drawing board, I see it as a lesson and opportunity to improve.

I do this by carefully noting what stands out within the feedback. What worked? What didn’t work? If any of this isn’t clear, I ask the client clarifying questions about what they would like to see. From this, I can make a game plan for revisions. After that, I go back to my Creation step and repeat the process until the client is more than happy with the result.


So there it is, my secret recipe for illustration success! If you decide to try my method, I would ask you to exercise the Feedback and Refinement step on your workflow. What’s working for you? What isn’t? How can you adjust and try again? Of course, everyone has a unique artistic process that works for them, and this is the workflow that works well for me. I hope that you can find some useful features to incorporate into yours.

Kiam McQuaid
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