Karen Hong Explains How Illustrations Help Headspace Spread Mindfulness

A Brand Illustrator for Headspace shares how the company uses illustrations to help people all around the globe improve their mental well-being.

Gabriela Ross

Headspace now has 70 million members and counting! That's a lot of people working on getting healthy and happy. Whether it's mindfulness, deep breathing, or just some relaxing exercises, there is something for everyone.

But how can you motivate people to meditate daily? You can use illustrations, of course! Storytelling through illustrations has helped drive their growth and improve the health and happiness of the world one member at a time.

We had a fantastic chat with Karen Hong, Brand Illustrator at Headspace, to look at how illustrations improve how the app reaches its global audience.

Representative image with illustrations of a presentation in public
Headspace Course illustration: Presentations.

How illustrations help people find joy in everyday life

Hola Karen, we're thrilled to talk with you today. We're sure you'll give us some fascinating answers. Let's get to it!

Blush: You've been on the Headspace team since 2017, and as of today, how would you describe your experience? What's the biggest challenge?

Karen: I feel old at Headspace because I've seen so much change happen within the past four and a half years! I got to touch a variety of projects while being here.

I started out doing illustrations for our editorial blog, then working on growth social media ads, and now focusing on the art for the courses you see in our app. I occasionally work on some cool campaigns and partnerships like Youtube Kids. And I would say the biggest challenge is adapting to the changes as we continue to elevate our brand.

Profile picture of Karen Hong, brand illustrator at Headspace

Blush: Do you think illustrations are crucial to the engagement of Headspace?

Karen: Yes, of course! Our illustrations are the foundation of our brand. There wouldn't be much of a brand if you took that away.

Blush: What makes illustrations so effective for designs about mental health? How does Headspace use them to promote the company's mission?

Karen: There's still a taboo around meditation and mental health, and our brand makes it feel approachable and not daunting, especially for beginners.

Image with illustrations of two birds in the night
Headspace Course illustration: Interrupted Sleep.

Blush: We noticed that Headspace transitioned to a different illustration style, which is now more vibrant and simplified. For example, a specific type around 2018 was clearly other from the current designs. Were you involved in these changes? How did the team decide to rebrand?

Karen: Yes, I was! It was a big shift. We needed the brand to be more expandable across different parts of the organization as we grew. And most importantly, we wanted to be more approachable to all age groups. The characters were cute but felt limiting. We were getting feedback that the brand felt "childish and cartoony."

Blush: We love how Headspace relies heavily on illustrations, from its ads to its emails, and pretty much everywhere, but how do you stay consistent when you're working with so many assets?

Karen: We do weekly stand-ups to see what everyone's working on and make sure things are looking good! The check-ins are helpful, and it's just nice to see what everyone is up to, especially now that we're working from home 24/7.

Social media ad with illustrations to promote inner confidence
Headspace Social Media Ad (2017).

Blush: Talking about teams, how big is the illustration team at Headspace? How do you make sure to promote collaboration and sharing of ideas?

Karen: All of our designers and animators play with illustrations. It's a quality we look for when we hire—having a good eye for illustration and understanding the brand's voice. But the core dedicated illustration team is two! Myself and my partner-in-crime Ryan Cox.

Image with illustrations featuring a green turtle in a pink background of a track race
Headspace Course illustration: Patience.

Blush: How do you work with product designers to bring illustrations into the product? How does this improve the user experience?

Karen: I work a lot more with our content team! A lot of the work I do is creating art for our courses. From time to time, I get to collaborate with our product designers on things like the onboarding process, etc.

Blush: Can you tell us more about the design process of your latest project, Youtube Kids x Headspace?

Karen: This was a whirlwind of a project! We had to churn out seven episodes within about three months with a core team of three. While our AD Karina Korol and I were storyboarding and illustrating the episodes, our senior animator Brian Lee was animating them simultaneously (on top of editing the footage)! It was wild! These two were super fun to work with, and they kept me sane! Shout out to our CD's David Hsia and Tyler Hoehnne, and our supporting animators Janet Lee, Delaney Trione, and Erich Reimers. True champs!

Gif with illustrations featuring a turtle finding her way with music
Youtube Kids x Headspace

Blush: Sounds like it was a great experience! Congratulations on such a fantastic project. If you could choose just one differentiator between Headspace and its competition, what would that be?

Karen: Our playful and comforting voice. I like to think of our brand as a big warm hug! We try to make our work fun and witty while still being considerate to sensitive, heavier topics.

Blush: Love that analogy of the big warm hug; probably, many app members feel that way today.

We've reached our final round. We have four last questions for you. First one: You have illustrations featured in Forge, Intercom, and The New York Times! What was the key to getting those opportunities?

Karen: I got super lucky and got reached out for those gigs! I'm very grateful and hope to have more opportunities in the future. I would say, though, that it's important to engage with the online illustration community, like on Instagram and Twitter.

Blush: What are some of your favorite design tools?

Karen: I draw in Procreate! I used to draw on my trackpad in Photoshop, but my fingers and wrist didn't like that! When I'm in the right mood, I occasionally paint on a canvas or draw on actual paper using Posca markers. They're super fun and satisfying to draw with!

Blush: How do you make sure you're constantly innovating?

Karen: I'm always looking at what other artists are doing. Their work inspires me and pushes me to tell my stories in different ways. To name a few: Michael Dumontier & Neil Farber and Goodmorning Town. Most of my work are mini "comic strips" about my personal life, and it feels nice when others can get a laugh out of it or even relate to it.

Image featuring Headspace’s yellow character surrounded by doodles of ideas and feelings
Youtube Kids x Headspace

Blush: Last question, what does creativity mean to you?

Karen: I like to think it means being witty with how you execute your ideas and stories. I admire artists that are able to tell a story with simple illustrations.

Blush: Before we go, is there anything else you'd like to mention for our readers?

Karen: I'd love to give a shout-out to our newborn Instagram account for the Headspace brand team. We recently opened an account to showcase more behind-the-scenes/processes of our projects and to spotlight our team members. I've been working with our awesome senior copywriter Makenzie McNeill, and it's been a fun project so far!

Blush: Sweet! Thank you so much!

It's the little things that make a difference

It's not what we say or do; it is how we do it that makes the difference. Illustrations are a universal language with the power to communicate a message clearly, and make it friendly and approachable! That's how Headspace found that doodles were one unique way to promote their mission of improving mental health.

Drop us a line at @blushdesignapp and tell us your thoughts on this brand!

Call to action with doodles and button to try blush pro and unlock 10,000 illustrations for your next project
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