Bryan Ho from Startup Illustrated

drawing by Bryan Ho

This interview is part of an ongoing series that focuses on creators who live at the intersection of writing and art. The goal is to provide inspiration and practical tips for anyone looking to add more visuals to their work.

Creator: Bryan Ho (Twitter, personal site)

Main projects: Startup Illustrated (whose mascot is shown above) and Gumbr

Recommended starting point: Subscribe to his newsletter and check out his illustrated post on the basics of business thinking.

Bryan Ho is an artist and entrepreneur who lives in Singapore. I came to appreciate his work via Startup Illustrated on Twitter, which is full of fun and simple illustrations that explain various ideas in business. After catching up with Bryan over video, I also came to appreciate his wide ranging experiments and projects that led up to Startup Illustrated.

Bryan always enjoyed drawing when he was a kid and became fascinated by the illustrations of Neopets. This love of art led him to draw items and potions for D&D style role playing games that he invented with his friends. Bryan pursued business in college and while doing a skills audit, he realized his love for and skills at drawing could be paired with his entrepreneurial spirit.

He is modest about them, but this led to two very successful projects (that are no longer updated but very worth looking through). 

  • An Instagram account that at one point had around 30k followers. He posted a drawing every day and engaged with the art community on Instagram as much as possible. (He says this was a great experience but to watch out for burnout doing this kind of daily challenge).
Drawing of a lighthouse in a cup of coffee.
Example daily drawing from Bryan’s Instagram, The.Hobo.Art
  • A Facebook page full of tutorials and drawing inspiration that has around 700k followers. Many of the tutorials can still be found on this YouTube page, which has some fantastic stuff.

To further enhance his skills, Bryan took a course in web development on the side. Web skills + experience growing an audience around art + interest in business all led to the start of his latest projects, Startup Illustrated and interactive content (such as these very cool co-founder question cards).

The remainder is a lightly edited transcript from our conversation.

What was your thought process for incorporating original visuals into your work? What tools do you like to use for creation and publishing? 

For Startup Illustrated it’s mostly pen and paper. I’ll take a photo on my phone, I’ll send it to myself, and I’ll put it into Photoshop. I then use a tablet pen with a hand me down Surface Pro. There are alternatives to Photoshop that I’ve tried, like Gimp and Inkscape. But primarily I’m the most comfortable with Photoshop in terms of just going freehand. 

My goal was to settle on a drawing style I can do consistently and quickly that doesn’t detract from the message and doesn’t take me three hours every single day to do it.

I realized that the fidelity of the drawings don’t take away from the messages. Just look at xkcd or the Oh No Blob

For the “Oh No” Blob, I was like, I can do that, and I can do that consistently. I can find a way to modularize a lot of the drawings and find a way to put it into a system.

Every time I do a custom drawing, like for the hands, or any item that represent certain things, I chuck them all into Google Slides. Now each time I do a custom drawing it just adds to the assets. And eventually there will come a day where I can take this asset and that asset and this asset and stuff them all together and make something new, something that addresses that problem I’m visualizing.

The background has to be yellow, the person has to be drawn in black, and speech bubbles done in a certain way, and jointless hands, just wavy and blobby. These are the kinds of constraints I’m putting on myself. And the width of my pixel brush. But otherwise, it’s just free form around “how can I visualize this?”

A favorite Tweet of mine from Startup Illustrated

How did you come up with the aesthetic?

The yellowish background was actually inspired by Post-it Notes. I did a full year of design thinking with a partner, and a fundamental part was that you should represent your ideas visually as well as writing them down. A picture conveys a thousand words kind of view. I wanted to apply that to business as well. If you can illustrate an idea for a product, and then stick it on the wall with a thousand things, why can’t you do that with business concepts and business models and business thinking? And that’s where the yellow came from. 

The art style was influenced by a lot of other artists that I saw. I was thinking, “How can I allow people to project themselves onto this amorphous blob in the same way the ‘Oh No’ comic does?”

As long as I can see heads, as long as I can see hands, I think that is enough to convey the message. 

Is there one image you’ve created that you are particularly proud of?

I would say maybe this one? It was the one that started my entire account even though it was not the first one I posted.

Drawing of an astronaut in space.
“Empty space beckoned and he leapt forward into its inviting embrace.” From Bryan’s IG

Are there any creators who work at the intersection of writing and art that inspire and motivate you?

One of the reasons why I went with a Post-it Notes look is because of the aesthetic that Jono Hey creates with Sketchplanations.

In terms of other writers, Deepu Asok with Visual Wisdom and Marie Dollé with In Bed With Social, who sometimes creates her own visuals. 

What advice would you give anyone who wants to start (or continue) adding visual creativity to their work?

Just keep it simple. That’s really the crux of it. Keep it as simple as possible. Look at Jack Butcher, Jack Butcher does it extremely well. Look at xkcd. You just need stick figures. 

It’s about the message. In the end, you just need to keep the message in mind and make it something you can consistently do over and over again. It’s very easy to get into entrapments like, ‘this illustration isn’t good enough”, or “I should go for a more complex art style and add anime eyes and wavy hair for everything!” In the long run it’s about consistency, over and over again. You cannot do anime eyes and long hair in every single post, you don’t need to go for that straight away. You can slowly evolve it over time to find your style.

And some of the proudest drawings I’ve done are simple. Two black round things for eyes. Felicia Chiao blends this idea of simplicity and complexity really well. 

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