The Rise of Custom Illustrations in Publishing

From The New Yorker to Medium, Custom Illustration is complementing journalism and media with a sense of novelty.

Portrait for EnvatoBy Envato  |  Updated December 7, 2020

Ever since the rise of the New Yorker, custom illustrations have complemented journalism and media with a sense of novelty. Medium, one of the fastest-growing platforms for both self and mainstream publishing, continues to proliferate the trend with illustrated feature images. Beyond customizing within the confines of Medium’s sleek design, articles across numerous categories and tags are also sharing the visual instinct to incorporate different drawings.

Whether digital graphics, watercolors, or sketches, these illustrations contribute to Medium’s human touch and add a sense of light and fun to the thought pieces circulating the Internet. Here are some of the best examples of the different styles of illustration found on Medium:

examples of the different styles of illustration found on Medium

Getting Political

While Thomas Nast might have been “the Father of the American Cartoon,” he definitely wouldn’t be the last to use illustration to characterize the political climate. With Medium’s open-contributing platform, there’s definitely room to get political and plenty of cartoons are following suit.

Donald J. Trump illustration
Image: Timothy O’Leary.

In this example, the personality of 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, is in full view. Following Medium’s trend of bright colors, illustrations used with an article written by Timothy O’Leary, and this illustrated comic series for The Awl, designed by Amy Kurzweil, surely make a statement before a reader even gets to the text. As the role of the mainstream media is continually questioned in the age of social media, Medium provides a mediating platform that incorporates traditions from both.

illustrated comic series for The Awl
Image: Amy Kurzweil/The Awl

Endearing Characters

Several Medium contributors use illustrated personas to signify their work and create a personal brand across such a congested platform. Ever since the Mickey Mouse or the Michelin Man, brands have used characters to humanize a company, create sense of familiarity that transcends language barriers, and make the brand easily recognizable.

Thunderpuff on Medium
Image: Thunderpuff/Medium

Illustrators are finding a home in Medium to both publish their own work and create consistency when writing for other Medium publications as well. For example, ThunderPuff and Caitlin Kunkel use their illustrations to create friendly characters that readers can empathize with and even follow on other publications across the platform.

Caitlin Kunkel on Medium
Image: Caitlin Kunkel/Medium.

In Motion

The rise of GIFs has created a thin line between image and video marketing, and video continues to be an audience favorite across most media platforms. In the custom illustration landscape, animated illustrations are filling this aesthetic with subtlety.

Mel Magazine animated illustrations
Image: Mel Magazine

While viewers aren’t bound to viewing an entire video, they still are delighted and captivated with motion. Medium allows these animated illustrations to be incorporated seamlessly as in the two examples from The Mission and Mel Magazine. Although this style of illustration is less pervasive across Medium compared to some of the others mentioned in this article, it contributes some action to the otherwise static text of an article.

The Mission animated illustrations
Image: The Mission

Subtle Branding

Medium has grown to encompass blogs of major companies and media outlets, as well as the smaller-scale writer. As a result, illustrations are used in these contexts to both accompany an article and contribute to the marketing strategy of the brand.

Illustrations from Dropbox (left) and Asana (right).
Illustrations from Dropbox (left) and Asana (right).

In the examples of Dropbox Design and Wavelength from Asana, the color scheme of their brand identities provides a familiar accent that unifies their various posts. While the illustrations provide a whimsical component, the style and colors evoke the brands you know well and can recognize even on Medium as a separate platform from their websites.

Fashion Drawing

The highly-stylized form of drawing used in fashion illustrations shows up not just in Medium’s fashion categories.

Illustrations by Anna Geannopoulos
Image: Anna Geannopoulos.

These figures with simple features and elaborate clothing have become popular across the board of articles to showcase people in various scenarios. Custom illustrations of this variety can both recall a sense of nostalgia to previous artistic and fashion periods as in this article from Anna Geannopoulis or use clothing to create a caricature, like illustrator Laura Callaghan. Fashion drawings are marching across the runway of Medium publications with increasing frequency.

Illustration by Laura Callaghan
Image: Laura Callaghan


Adding some provocation and vagueness, silhouettes are popular within Medium custom illustrations; they allow the reader to interpret a figure as anyone they might imagine. With stark contrasts, illustrations like the ones on The Glorious Mess and Civic Skunk Works are compelling by mixing a simple figure with a more complex background. As a result, the illustrator can direct the viewer’s eye while still asserting a universal humanity into the composition. These silhouettes therefore make a statement all their own to contribute to their accompanied article.

The Glorious Mess
Image: The Glorious Mess

Colorful Complexity

As Medium is a platform for creatives, it makes sense that the aesthetic of most custom illustrations features bright colors and intricate attention to detail. Not only are they works of art in their own right but also they add an additional component of the article to consider. The use of vibrant color in both The Ringer and illustrations by Li-Anne Dias featured in Back Channel create an immediate catch for readers and an introductory complexity to the articles they accompany. Medium is proving to be both a platform for all types of creatives to come together and produce exciting, imaginative content for readers.

Backchannel (left) and The Ringer (right)
Backchannel (left) and The Ringer (right).

How do you use custom illustrations in your publication? Which illustrations have caught your eye on Medium? Would you use the trending colors of 2020 in your next illustration?

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