Our illustrations have always been all over the place, which is the result of being a small language app team dreaming big. Every word or phrase in our language lessons has a corresponding illustration, meaning that we have well over 3000 illustrations in Drops—some we licensed online, some we created in-house, and some were outsourced to various design studios.
When I joined the team as a graphic designer, nobody was fully in charge of the vision of our illustrations, but there was a desire to do better and figure out what more our illustrations could represent. On my first day between two introductions and me trying to remember everyone’s names, the question was posed: “Do you think you could take over the illustration project?” Once I wrapped my head around the state of things, I began to understand how difficult it is to get the balance of simple but understandable right. We realised with Ági Surján—who was in charge of putting together the learning content (words, phrases, topics, translations, you name it) at the time and who had a passion for always making things better—that we need a fresh start for our illustrations.
Not only were there various styles, shapes that looked nothing like the word they were supposed to resemble, but the “humans” in those illustrations ranged from detailed silhouettes to stick figures to abstract, ghoulish ghosts. After a while, we had so many different characters that we couldn’t name them all. Some of them were faceless, shapeless, and sometimes frankly not very inclusive. It was probably no accident for example that two 💪 strong independent 💪 women looked at our illustration of the word “waitress“, the slender waist, the short skirt with a sexy little apron and said “we’ll take it from here.” I am a strong believer that just by a little bit of extra effort you can always create spaces where everyone can feel comfortable and seen at the expense of nobody, and no platform is small enough to be handled by the utmost respect and care. If we can steer our illustrations away from being stereotypical, sexist and cold whilst still giving them a personality, it’s well worth the effort.
We dedicated months to finding the right partner to help us consolidate our Drops illustrations. After many hours of browsing online portfolios, interviewing studios, and managing many trial projects, we ended up connecting with Grrr, a wonderful design agency from the Netherlands. Joséphine Broesby-Olsen joined our team for this project as art director and through a lot of careful research and many variations, helped us figure out a way to focus all our needs and ideas into a unified illustration style for all of our images.
The brief: we needed a consistent style that was simple enough to keep up with the ever-increasing number of items we’re adding to the app, but also expressive so that we can teach more complicated phrases or concepts. Most importantly, we wanted the characters in these illustrations to look… well, human! As well as relatable and diverse.
As we narrowed down the specifications, we discovered we needed a main character that can guide our learners through all of our lessons in the app. It was important to us that this character should not just be the friendly face who pops up in every word or phrase you learn, but should also allow everyone to see themselves in them.
Sam is the friendly face we want learners to recognize and follow along through their language learning journey. They are presented as gender-neutral as possible and we include them in almost every side of every situation. You’ll find Sam exploring a market in Travel Talk, at the nail salon in the Health & Wellness category, giving a presentation in Workplace Talk, and about to propose in We’re Engaged. Putting Sam into the shoes of the person in any of these situations is our attempt to take the gender out of activities that might have previously been strongly tied to traditionalist gender expressions.
Of course, we’re not perfect, and we still mess up. On occasion we fall into the mistake of making Sam more masculine in our illustrations. Sometimes someone slips up and straight-up refers to them as “he” on internal calls. We correct each other, because it’s important to respect Sam, what they stand for and what we committed to as a team. This is also why it was very important for us to feature Sam in our Period topic, to balance out all the other times we might have made them too masculine.
In this way, Sam has been teaching us a lot about inclusivity and making us examine our own biases. Our work with Sam has reverberated into the rest of our illustrations as we build our diverse cast of characters and overcome stereotypes, especially in regard to family roles, jobs, and relationships. Many Drops learners will recognize the characters in our pride collection from our previous topics not only in a romantic context but also in their various careers and hobbies. We want to name them all as we map out their unique stories.
Sam is so much more to us than a cartoon character. They’re a representative of the inclusive content we want all of our learners to be able to relate to.
Maja Szakadat is a Hungarian graphic designer at Drops, currently living in the United Kingdom. She tries hard, and that is the best she can do. :)
Sound fun? Easy? Effective? It is.
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