As a visual designer and illustrator, I know that people respond to images faster than they read words. This means that visuals, and not words, will be the first introduction of your content to its intended audience. It can be easy and tempting to grab a stock visual to represent key messages, but if you spent valuable hours crafting every sentence in a piece, the visuals that accompany it should be just as thoughtful. Rather than settling for a stock image that might be used in dozens of other places, take control over the tone and composition of your entire message with illustration.

Illustration can be a powerful tool to give your message a foundation, structure, and credibility boost. The illustration style should flow from your brand and voice, reflecting and complementing the nature of the content. Treating visuals as a planned asset and not an afterthought can give you a leg up in brand recognition. If your audience is already familiar with your brand, they will notice an out of place image and celebrate a well-placed one.

Hold visuals to the same level of scrutiny as words. People won’t buy a car with a high-quality engine and great fuel efficiency if that car is also a garish color and an odd shape. Similarly, you can put a good paint job on a car, but it won’t make it run any better. The visual and functional elements need to work in tandem to give an equal and accurate representation of the content.

Deciding when to use illustration to enhance a concept, further an idea or explain a thought can be a straightforward process. If a visual will cut down on the number of words required to explain a complex idea, use one. Choosing illustration over something like photography is a good idea if your topic includes specific details, tackles abstract concepts, or will be difficult to capture photographically. Illustration gives designers complete control over composition, mood and tone of the visual.

One approach I like to use when assigning an illustration style is to take emotion into account. After covering the basics like purpose and shelf life, I’ll bring groups of words to a client and use them to determine the mood and stylistic approach. After conducting some initial research to narrow things down, I create a list of words and talk through that list with a client to determine which words resonate best. A tech company might want to come across as innovative and hopeful, while a bakery might want to be seen as friendly, fun and unexpected. These small word explorations can be extremely valuable to a designer trying to translate your brand visually and can bring about some surprising discoveries for you as well.

Once the client and I have decided that they are, for instance, reserved educators that prefer a technical approach, we can begin to explore styles. During my design research, I’ll keep these foundation words in mind to create a sense of cohesion and connection between your brand and the images used to reflect it. If a brand is described as reserved and technical, it wouldn’t be appropriate to use playful and whimsical illustration. As a client, it’s helpful to remember that you likely aren’t your target audience. Trust your illustrator to understand the audience with your guidance and let them create images that ring true with the people you are trying to reach.

Experimentation is key. Keep an open mind, try different visual styles if you’re unsure, and see what fits. It’s better to take a risk with a style that scares you than it is to stay with the safe and expected. Leaders know the value of bold choices and illustration is a great way to share that value with audiences.