Image by Beatrice Sala

For as long as non-designers have needed to create design-centric work, there have been tools and services that help them get around hiring a professional. Need a resume? Use the template on Google Docs. Want to make a deck for your big presentation? You can use Canva, whose users mockup presentations, posters, and social media posts using the service’s templated designs.

In today’s world, the need for content in all forms is growing exponentially. Our relentless appetite for new apps, websites, social posts, and videos has propelled us into a new era of semi-automated creativity where non-designers can expedite branding and collateral using services that do most of the creative heavy lifting while leaving room for just a touch of customization. This kind of collaborative creativity, a shortcut for non-designers, if you will, has its place in the design spectrum. But it’s also a source of friction for designers and illustrators who must navigate this new world where their services can be packaged, sold, and replicated with the click of a button.

Blush is the latest company emblematic of this new tension. The service is essentially a mix-and-match platform that provides access to ready-to-download illustrator packs created by artists. People can quickly sign up for the free plan and access unlimited illustration packs that often take the form of joyful humanoid figures engaging in a variety of keyword-optimized activities like “sports,” “brainstorming” and “partying.” For $15 per month, people get access to vector files and tools that let them tweak the color, background, and components, leading to a pseudo-customized illustration. The catch, of course, is that you and everyone else is customizing illustrations from the same pool of just over 50 artists.

Blush bills itself as a one-stop shop for “illustrations for everyone.” And true to its marketing claim, the company aims its services at a wide range of customers who might not have the time, money, or know-how to hire a custom illustration from an artist. From this perspective, modular libraries are beneficial for the teachers, content creators, and small business owners who Blush counts among its customers. But what kind of impact does the automation of illustration have on the people who make the work?

Blush’s founder, Pablo Stanley, said his company’s goal is two pronged: to provide a wide range of illustrators with reliable work and to provide customers with off-the-shelf artwork that takes little mental overhead to access. “When we started Blush, the challenges were making it easier for people who have never used a design tool,” Stanley said. Stanley is an alum of Udemy, InVision, and Lyft. He has a history in the open source space, having created free modular illustration libraries like Avataaars, Open Peeps, and Humaaans. Blush is a continuation of Stanley’s open source mission, souped up with features that allow users to tweak and remix features like hair, body type, and color scheme to create a semi-custom illustration. 

Stanley views his work with what he describes as an “abundance mindset.” It’s a mental space where, in his words, “open-source projects and for-profit ventures can live in harmony.” “Openly sharing our work invites people to collaborate, tinker, learn from each other, and grow together,” he said. “The knowledge behind our craft doesn’t have to be kept behind gates but rather freely accessible to the world. By teaching and sharing our skills and best practices, we improve the community and increase the value of design.”

Illustration of multi-colored hands on a white background
Illustration by Ivan Mesaros

 

That may be true, but many designers take issue with how modular illustration libraries can lead to a homogenous visual culture and stamp out individuality in the process. Though Blush employs designers with a variety of styles, the nature of libraries is such that eventually everything starts to look like stock imagery. Blush, along with Stanely’s previous endeavors, have perpetuated certain styles to the point that they’ve completed the full trend cycle: named, shamed, and proclaimed dead

Stanley believes this is the normal evolution of digital art, signaling back to Flash intros, colorful sites, and later, the standardization of the web with more systems. “I believe that worrying about the homogenization effect dismisses the evolution of art and design over time,” he said. “Homogenization is a natural process. Artists get influenced by others, and suddenly we see many illustrations that look similar, or every singer doing a disco album, or all teenagers using baggy pants. But after all that, we witness punk rock and skinny jeans as a reaction.”

Sam Eckersley, associate chair of graphic design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, echoes the general sentiment, saying that while digital platforms expedite the process of aesthetic homogenization, this phenomenon has been a part of visual culture all along. “Social media and these platforms are so immediate that emerging and established designers see these moments of trend so quickly,” he said. “What used to take six years to become a trend then took two, and now just six months for people to catch on to.”

These platforms often perpetuate certain styles to the point that they’ve completed the full trend cycle: named, shamed, and proclaimed dead

Blush tries to get around this with features that let people tweak certain aspects of an illustration. Though anyone can buy the same collection pack, the platform’s tools are intended to make users feel like they are creating something custom, even if they’re just getting a slightly remixed version of what the customer before them downloaded. “My illustration sets are created to be fiddled with and adjusted to a variety of needs and looks,” said Serbian illustrator and Blush artist Ivan Mesaros. “I think of them as clay for others to play and combine into something new.”

Mesaros, whose style focuses on clean-lined characters full of emotion, has been illustrating for the past seven years and found out about Blush through Stanley’s work. Though he nor Stanley provided numbers, Mesaros said Blush is a reliable source of income in an industry that can be capricious. On average, he spends around a month creating an illustration set for Blush, and the service accounts for about 10 percent of his income. “With Blush, I know I can count on that money at the end of the month,” Mesaros said. “Other platforms take high percentages for each set sold — 50 to 70 percent on average — so I tend to stay off them.”

Blush’s artists are paid upfront for their work in the form of a flat fee. The artist sends a quote to Blush for their compensation and proposes a deadline based on the amount of work they calculate and their availability. Once they agree on terms, the Blush team begins their onboarding with a small team of veteran artists who help new illustrators vectorize their art and create a simple workflow.

Though the artwork is designed to be customized, every illustration pack on Blush is attributed to the artists who created it, and Stanley encourages (though doesn’t require) customers to give credit to the original artist. It’s a seemingly small detail, but Mesaros said it makes a big difference for illustrators who often upload work to open-source platforms and don’t receive attribution or promotion. “This is extremely important because a lot of client work comes from someone seeing your set used on the internet and reaching out later requesting custom work,” he said. 

And that’s the goal. While some illustrators are happy to work in service of “democratizing design” or getting a steady paycheck, ultimately, illustrators want to build a name—and a style—for themselves off whatever platform they’re using to pay the bills. And if they’re successful? Who knows, someday their style might just be remixed into oblivion, too.