A day in the life of an illustrator

Nikki Langwell

In: News  Projects 

Our design studio is made up of a talented team with a mixture of specialist skills including, graphic design, branding, strategy and Illustration.

We go behind the scenes with our in-house designer and illustrator James Smart, who talks to us about how he got into illustrating, some of the projects he has worked on and how he brings to life some of the characters he creates.


Hi James, tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into illustrating?

I became interested in design at a young age; I was always drawing as a child and I developed a real interest in art and design at school which led me to university to study for a degree in graphic design with an additional specialism in illustration.

I worked on a range of illustration projects from editorial illustration through to classical musical illustration and character illustration.

What is it about illustration that you enjoy and how does it benefit the clients you work with?

Character led illustration projects are amongst those I particularly enjoy. There is no right or wrong answer when illustrating characters and usually these pieces of work give the greatest amount of creative freedom to fulfil a brief.

Illustrations are handcrafted and unique and have supported some of the brands we have created and worked with. They allow a brand to tell their story in an individual way that stands out and encourages likeability. Messages feel more personable, and as a result resonate more directly with the target audience.

Tell us about some of the projects you have worked on during your time at Ruddocks?

I joined the Ruddocks team three and a half years ago and since then I have worked on a wide range of illustrative projects, from children’s book characters, charity mascots, handcrafted beer and tourist maps, right through to schematics and technical drawings.

Can you take us through the creative process for some of this work?

A Little Brown Fish

A local author recently commissioned us to illustrate a children’s book she had written, 'A Little Brown Fish' which is an educational story for young primary school age children.

I started with rough hand drawn character concepts to pitch what I imagined the main character to look like. The author had already decided on painted style illustrations so I had some clear direction here. Once the main character style is approved the next stage is usually creation of the storyboard so you know what text will sit where and which parts of the story you are illustrating, essentially to give you a draft outline of the book.

The next stage is to draw outlines of all the characters and elements being illustrated – almost like a final hand sketched story board.  Once this is approved the development work can begin.

Colouring of the Little Brown Fish characters was done by digitally re-creating the sketches and using special brushes to build up the impression of texture and effects such as highlights which gave the illusion of reflections in the water.

This project required 2 sets of illustrations. In addition to the softer children’s characters I also created realistic drawings of each animal in the story with an educational focus.

LIVES Mascot

Having rebranded local emergency services charity LIVES we were commissioned to create a fundraising mascot to support engagement with families, schools and the younger generation.

They came to us with quite an open brief of a cartoon character which would embody the volunteers who work for LIVES as everyday heroes. I presented a moodboard showing ideas of specific characters and the direction development might take. I looked at a ‘Superman’ style initially but LIVES wanted the character to have mass appeal across genders and ages so I developed the concepts to become less stereotypical and male focussed whilst still retaining the human element of the character: and Defribrilator Dan was born.

This project took illustration to the next level as the mascot needed to work on paper, on screen and as a life-size physical character to appear at events in and around the community.

British Steel schematics and technical drawings

The illustrative work I do is not always about characters, it can be very practical. Whereas character illustrations are very expressive and creative there is the other end of the spectrum where illustration is used to create a visual representation of very technical information and to simplify complex manufacturing processes, for example to show non-engineers the core materials that go into a blast furnace during the steel making process.

Much of the work for British Steel was about creating uniform diagrams which conformed to the new British Steel brand.

Creating their stock range brochure which is essentially a catalogue of all the components they produce, involved transforming rough diagrams, flat drawings, images and supplied measurements into vectorised isometric illustrations all within the British Steel brand.

Thank you James!


Illustration can add value to many different types of projects and brands, as supporting creative and as an integral part of core messaging. The scope of what we can do is vast so please get in touch for a chat to see how illustration could work for you.