.NET Illustration Refresh

July 2020 – October 2020
Art Direction | Illustration
Microsoft | Developer Division

Project overview

After .NET transitioned to being open-source in 2008, its relation to the Microsoft brand changed. The brand guidelines removed Microsoft from the name and ties to the Microsoft visual style, which includes the illustration style. This kicked off our journey to creating a unique style and set of illustrations just for .NET.

My contribution

For this project I worked with our Creative Director, Emily Stoll, and our Illustrator, Don Baker. I lead the art direction and managed the asset production process.

Setting the scene

What is .NET?

.NET is a free, cross-platform, open source developer platform for building a wide variety of applications. Developers can write .NET applications in C#, F#, or Visual Basic (VB).

What is .NET's connection to Microsoft?

.NET was originally created by Microsoft and has deep ties to other Microsoft products, like Visual Studio. While the .NET brand is no longer directly linked to the Microsoft brand, they are still fairly tight knit.

Why does .NET have so many illustrations?

.NET doesn't have its own UI because it is a platform and historically the .NET brand has leaned heavily on illustrations to "show" the product or at least describe how it works.

PHASE 01

Identifying the problem

There were a lot of issues with the illustrations used across the .NET website and other marketing materials. But there were two main problems promoting this illustration redesign:

Using too many styles

Over time, the .NET website team requested many different illustrations in many different styles, but didn't maintain an illustration set. Due to the lack of maintainence, the website's illustrations became inconsistent and confusing.

.NET could no longer use the Microsoft illustration library or style

When .NET became open-source in 2008, Microsoft was removed from all branding, including illustration. This didn't really go into effect until 2019 and 2020 when we did an initial pass at a brand refresh.

Audit of illustrations on botnet.microsoft.com

Inspiration

When thinking about a new illustration style I was initially drawn to parallel between mid-century modern furniture and .NET as a developer platform. Now you might be asking yourself, “What does a furniture style have to do with software development?” Both have stood the test of time and remain relevant today. Mid-century modern furniture also has a great balance between feeling comfortable and approachable while also feeling sturdy, secure, and safe. This is a similar balance we wanted to strike for .NET as a brand.

Examples of furniture that inspired me

The “Ah Ha!” moment

While thinking about the the issues with the existing illustrations, we as a team realized that creating a new illustration style and set of illustrations would fix a lot of the immediate issues.

PHASE 02

Design explorations

Crafting a new style

I worked with our illustrator, Don Baker, to define the new illustration style. I began by doing hand schetches and breaking down the forms that we were drawn to during our research phase. I chose to focus on the furniture forms I was drawn to and focus on what makes them feel inviting, comfortable, stable, and secure.

explorations determining what makes mid-century modern furniture work

More furniture explorations

During this exercise I learned that smooth transitions between shapes or types of forms is important, the straight edges usually at the base of the furniture makes the forms feel secure, using soft edges makes the furniture more approachable and look comfortable, and a balance between straight and curved lines makes the pieces interesting to look at. I took these lessons and started to explore how this could apply to our dotnet-bot.

Early hand-sketched drawings

Through these explorations I determined that the bot should rarely be viewed face on, the bot should feel comfortable and relaxed in its space, the bot should have shorter legs so it feels more stable and less likely to topple over, and the wider stance also makes the bot feel more stable and ready to tackle whatever its thrown its way.

Exploring color

After the illustration explorations, we began exploring color palette. We had a few colors determined from our secondary brand palette, but we wanted to explore what would be best for dotnet-bot's new world. When looking at color palettes we determined that the brighter, Spring palette would work better for the bot because it feels lively, energetic, and approachable. The darker, Winter palette felt too cold and dreary.

Our color palette on a light background

Our color palette on a dark background

The darker color palette we felt wasn't appropriate for .NET

Creating the illustration set for the website

After we defined our new style we were faced with the task of recreating over 120 unique images used on the website. Our illustrator Don and I worked together over the course of three months to create all the new illustration for the site. Working in batches of 10, I would add notes and concepts for each image next to the previous illustration. Then Don would create sketches and we would review compositions and after the digital illustration was created we would make minor adjustments until we felt it fit our style and communicated the message.

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PHASE 03

Testing & Validation

While we worked on creating the new illustrations, we also began testing them in context on the website. This lead to a series of tweaks based on background colors on the website, adjustments to better fit the context, and tweaks to colors to make sure the priority elements stood out.

PHASE 04

Seeing it in the real world

After creating all the illustrations we tagged each one with meta-data so they are easily searchable in Figma and in our team's online asset library. We also shared a subset of marketing illustrations with the .NET community on GitHub.

What I learned from this project

Just because it is tech doesn’t mean it needs to look like tech

During this period of time most tech marketing all felt and looked the same and much of it leaned into the technical aspects of the products. I wanted to bring more of a human touch to such a technical space.

Appeal to the person, not just their profession

Most of the time when we talk about developers, we just focus on their profession. During this project I wanted to focus on the customer as a person, not just the two-dimensional idea of a developer.

Metadata is really important

Properly tagging illustrations made it easier for people to find them in Figma as well as our online asset library. Without the metadata it would have been difficult to find or use anything.