Between Creative and Technical: Part II

Between Creative and Technical: James White

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article entitled Between Creative and Technical, which was in response to a few emails I have received about the general struggle designers and artists encounter as they try to find their way through the field. The article was very well received by the creative community and spawned a number of wonderful comments from readers. Thanks to everyone who contributed, and I’m sure your stories helped like-minded designers out there.

So because I am a firm supporter of creative dialogue, I would like post a follow-up to the previous article and bring some attention to a few of the stories, points and ideas that came to light through the comments :) We are all in the same boat, so here we go.

“For those (including myself) who battle with this issue I’ve discovered that you can’t “find” your style. Your style will evolve over time with the more work that you produce. Like a piece of wood that starts out rough, you widdle it down with each project you create by building your strengths and discovering your weaknesses.”Eddie Wilson

“People believe it is so important to have a unique, ground-breaking style when the REAL value is in your fundamental skill a visual thinker, regardless of the style that you dress it up with. Tools like Photoshop make it easy to throw everything possible into an image, many times giving the illusion of skill or quality, when the underlying fundamental design principles in place are very poor.

So my advice is to focus on the fundamentals and learn proper design. That alone can take decade to master, and a personal style is something that only really shines once that has been achieved. Modern designers put too much pressure on themselves to be unique and not enough on their foundations.”Eric

“It’s a bit like people trying so hard to be unique or individual and end up being one of the crowd that seeks the same…you don’t become unique by seeking that as a goal but rather it happens accidentally as you become gripped by a vision of something you have to pursue at any cost. Then people start to recognize something unique about the flavor that life starts to take on.”Rod Sawatsky

“Design (no matter how old you are) is art and art is a journey – a continual self exploration and demonstration of what makes each creative tick. Once I began to change my perception, my designs began changing and I actually started to enjoy designing again. I found myself like a child in mud – exploring, laughing out loud and generally getting down and dirty.”Threadlusst

Some wonderful points and experiences in there, it’s nice to hear about the paths taken by others.

Between Creative and Technical

Between Creative and Technical by James White

I recently received an email from a fellow designer named James. I’m not really one to reply to emails in public via the blog, but the nature of his email is something that I’ve seen a few times before and thought it might be relevant to others out there. James tells me a bit about his struggle in the design industry, being just out of school, and asks some questions on how he might find his way in the field, specifically with his own work. Here is the short version of his note to me:

“I recently graduated in multimedia, and I’m not particularly happy with the development side of my work. I would really like to push my graphic design work, but the nature of my studies has turned me into a bit of a “jack of all trades, master of none”, For example my knowledge of design for print is lacking and I know 10 times more about photoshop than illustrator.

I’m just lost on how to take it to the next level as I have many ideas but still feel very intimidated, and I have no personal style (rather opting to hop from trend to trend, spending most of my time envying the work of others!). if you have the time any advice you could offer would be greatly appreciated.”

I know this is a pitfall with a lot of designers and artists out there especially in early career mode, and I’m no exception. So I thought this might make for a good post on the blog (with James’ permission) if it helps out other like-minded designers out there who might have similar questions. Bear in mind, I write this based solely on my own experiences.

1. Pursuit of ‘Style’

I spent a lot of time during my early career (starting in 1998) trying to find “my own style”. I had been watching artists online developing their own unique work for a couple of years at that point, experimenting with the same graphic software I was using and creating results that boggled my mind. This is when I registered Signalnoise.com and started diving into Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash on my own time just like the artists I admired. This became intensely frustrating for me as I tried to force my creativity in different directions, almost entirely based on the work and direction of others. It didn’t work, which led to a lot of unfinished projects as I couldn’t get my ambition, creativity and technical know-how to line up at all. It was overwhelming.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that I was doing things for all the wrong reasons. Personal work shouldn’t feel like work, it shouldn’t have pressure or deadlines attached. Personal work should be fun. When you start having fun generating ideas and trying new techniques it relinquishes all of the pressure you put on yourself to create, and it feels like you’re a kid again slopping around paint just for the hell of it. Style happens by accident along the way as you continue to say “I wonder what would happen if I tried this.” I’m a metal-head who creates art with rainbows, so to say I never saw that coming would be a big understatement.

So my advice would be to forget about it. The idea of ‘style’ sounds like a destination, when art should be a constantly evolving beast.

2. Sources of Inspiration

I post a lot of inspirational artists on my blog because they inspire me and I figure like-minded creative types might think the same. Seeking out inspiration is a big deal for me, and the internet is a huge help in getting exposure to different artists through research or advice from others. That being the case, where does one start? I’ve always been nostalgic, so in my case the best inspiration I can find is the stuff I loved when I was a kid.

Everyone has a different range of art, music, movies, etc that they admire and from there one can draw a huge amount of inspiration that is uniquely their own. Flickr and Behance are wonderful for seeing what is new and cutting-edge, but try looking into things you enjoy offline. I have a bookcase full of art books with everything from Norman Rockwell to cosmic photography which is awesome to have on hand whenever I have a blank canvas in front of me.

Not to be too philosophical, but you have to look to what you love for inspiration. From there, it’s just research which is the fun part :)

3. The Tools

You have to know your tools and be willing to spend great amounts of time learning them, it’s as simple as that. This is something that doesn’t happen overnight, but after many many nights of playing with your favorite software packages. If you are a designer working at an agency, you can’t always be expected to do advanced Photoshop on all the jobs you work on, but you can on your own time. Never, ever, stop messing around with the tools you want to use for your work. Try some online tutorials and use the information you learn in different ways to see what might happen.

For a long time I had a disconnect between my creative and my technical and there is no one answer of how to overcome this. It’s all about how much time you put into it learning the subtleties of your software and discovering new ways of executing ideas. A bit of advice I can give here is to try creating things from the ground up on your own, without pre-fabricated textures, brushes, filters, etc. There are wonderful resources out there, but without leaning on pre-fab elements you will get a greater appreciation for what you can achieve on your own.

4. Conclusion

As I said at the beginning of the post, all of this information comes from my personal experience in the design field while exploring my own potential during free time, and the path is different for everyone. The key is to have fun with what you do, which is what creativity is all about. Research what you enjoy, draw inspiration from it, manifest your ideas, learn your tools, and never ever stop. The more time you put into developing your own skills, the stronger you will become. I started my own path in 1998 at the age of 21, and I’m still pushing myself today at 32 :)

So, I certainly hope this post gives a bit of insight into the abstract area between creative and technical, and feel free to sound off in the comments with any questions.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: Part VI

Part VI: Stranger in a Strange Toyland

I left off with the Odyssey story as I was re-designing The Planet characters in an attempt to adapt them to a line of designer toys (see Part V: A New Start) which had me doing a lot of research into the hip and cool toy scene. As I stated before, I’ve wanted to design my own toys since I was 7 years old and had that dream re-kindled with the rise of Kid Robot and other designer toymakers a number of years ago.

After completing the updated wireframes I posted in the last installment I had a better idea of how The Planet figures might work in 3-dimensional form. So to move to the next stage I had to understand more clearly how an unpainted toy might look. My primary weapon for the Planet has always been vector, so I proceeded to add simple gradients to the wireframe to show highlight and shadow.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

I was fairly happy with the pose and stature of the character at this point, so it was time to add some color based on my original concepts developed a couple of years prior…

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

The character was starting to come to life again, and now came the step I was most looking forward to. Naturally, I was thinking about the backstory while developing the new concept but it needed to be revised to add a bit more life to the idea. Having 3 characters with basically the same paint job worked for the original project idea, but wasn’t all that interesting when you start thinking toys. I needed more color and personality from the design to really make it work.

Here are some of my initial color experiments:

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

While designing at this stage I went to my local comic shop and picked up I am Plastic, a book chronicling the designer toy movement over the years. The book was a tremendous help in getting my creative juices going but one thing jumped out at me, bears. There was a huge number of cute toys in the book donning the same little bear ears my characters had, so I worked on changing the head design a little bit . . . something more dynamic.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

Nostalgia naturally took over, and I started thinking about the toys I loved when I was a kid. Transformers, GI-Joe, He-man, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Voltron and a bunch of others in an attempt to figure out why those toylines caught my attention 25 years ago. They were all basic designs (with the exception of Transformers) with bright colors and distinctive symbols that differentiated the characters from one another. The Ninja Turtles had nothing more then different colored masks, pretty ingenious.

After a lot of sketching, color experimenting and writing, the toyline really started to take shape after I added a bit of logo design and color treatment to my simple concepts. Suddenly, even though the character model is the same across the board, the characters were separated from one another using simple colors and symbols yet worked as a team, just like those toys from my childhood. They now had personality, style, powers and most importantly . . . names!

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

It struck me soon afterward that the original title for this project ‘The Planet’, which I continued to call it wasn’t going to work anymore. It had grown outside of the original scope, was a little too vague, and I needed something that would reflect the team that Hydro, Ember, Chloro and Amour were part of. It needed to be dynamic, original, cosmic and most important of all it needed to be exciting.

I enlisted the help of Sameen, the wizard of words that she is to help me name this team of colorful little heroes, and she didn’t disappoint.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

Next up, the final chapter: Part VII: Long Live the Orbinauts!

Need to catch up on the previous parts of A Signalnoise Odyssey? Be sure to check out:

Part I: A Long Time Ago
Part II: Rise of the Brothers
Part III: Here Come the Bad Guys
Part IV: Creating a Planet
Part V: A New Start

A Signalnoise Odyssey: Part V

Part V: A New Start

We left off with all of the conceptual sketches, designs, identity and animation tests being complete on The Planet, and I was ready to move onto the arduous task of storyboarding and animating out all of the storylines I had written. The project had been fun until the thought of hours upon hours of animating in Flash was upon me, so things quickly fell apart by way of distraction and lack of time. This happened with many of my creative endeavors over the past 10 years, and the poor Planet project was no different.

Two years passed…

I had never lost track of The Planet and would occasionally doodle the little guys in my sketchbook, or re-open the Illustrator files to look at the motley crew I had designed. It was my first attempt at creating an ensemble cast so I was proud of them, and wanted to someday finish what I had started in one form or another.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

Fast forward to last November, 2008. I had been running the Signalnoise Store for about 10 months and was exploring a few other project ideas for a change of pace, just to do something different from poster design. While outlining some ideas at my local watering hole one evening, The Planet popped back into my head. I started doodling the little characters once again and thinking of a way to re-open the project. It needed to be fun, something I could get excited about. Finally it hit me.

My good friends Chris and Sameen were big supporters of The Planet as a concept, and they saw all of the designs as I was creating them offering me feedback and encouragement the whole way. While sketching that night I remembered something Sameen had said to me very early on…

“I would love to have toys of these guys on my desk!”

Great idea, her thought really got me considering the designer toy scene and reminded me that I had wanted to design toys since I was 7 years old. So I started sketching out the main Planet characters from the perspective of a designer toyline to see what I could come up with.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

The project had shifted, once again, into a direction I had very little experience in. Would The Planet translate into toys? Would they be cool enough to stand on their own without the help of a marketing stunt, like a cartoon or comic book? Could I maintain some of the back story I had developed along the way to add life to the little guys? I had lots of questions but a lot of fun research to do on what was happening in the global toy scene.

So after a lot of sketching, researching and pondering how I saw these little guys translated into a fully tangible toy, I opened Illustrator once again to start developing the concepts. My previous 2D designs wern’t going to cut it as a toy, so I had to re-think the overall design while maintaining some of the spirit of the previous concepts. Not exactly an easy task.

So after a few attempts, here is one of my vector designs where I was exploring character form and articulation.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

Next up: Part VI: Stranger in a Strange Toyland

Need to catch up on the previous parts in A Signalnoise Odyssey? Be sure to check out:

Part I: A Long Time Ago
Part II: Rise of the Brothers
Part III: Here Come the Bad Guys
Part IV: Creating a Planet

A Signalnoise Odyssey: Part IV

Part IV: Creating a Planet

After deciding on a project direction for my little robots, and creating a cast of supporting characters, I started all of my pre-planning to create the additional elements I would need to adequately animate things. As I stated in Part III: Here Come the Bad Guys, I had a loose idea of how I wanted these characters to move but I had done no further work on it at that point. I have had very little character animation experience at the time, so the entire process was very new to me.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

My first step was to create some models with different views so I would know what these guys looked like from a few angles. I had only created one point of view at this point and needed to explore some rough rotations, so I created these studies:

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

I wanted the animation to be pretty simple, where I could create loops, still frames and effects I could easily use with tweens in Flash. Nothing new, but I thought it would look nice seeing the scenes I created using such bold colors come to life.

In order to understand just how versatile these guys were, I did a couple of animation tests using the old and revised versions of the Brothers. I had to figure out how many pieces I would require when looping and rotating the characters, not all that different then the kind of animation used on my favorite web cartoon, Homestar Runner. So, I went about creating a few animated tests in Flash, click the images below to check them out:

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

After spending a few weeks prepping these character designs and animation tests, I set about solidifying back stories, mapping out more realized plot lines, and the daunting task of storyboarding out all of my ideas. I had to see how everything fit together before I started creating the animation for characters and backgrounds, so I spent a great deal of time roughing up thumbnails to analyze the flow and to make sure things moved intuitively.

This is where I hit an impasse. I was looking at the various animation tasks ahead and began to feel buried under a project that had started out on a small scale but had steadily grown as I explored the designs, the story, and my potential as an animator. As much fun as these characters and environments were to design, it was time to move on to the brooding production work that lied ahead . . . and it started to look a bit grim.

Next up . . . Part V: A New Start

Need to catch up on the previous parts in A Signalnoise Odyssey? Be sure to check out:

Part I: A Long Time Ago…
Part II: Rise of the Brothers
Part III: Here Come the Bad Guys

A Signalnoise Odyssey, Part III

Part III: Here Come the Bad Guys

After creating the main character concepts (see Part I) as well as refining the design in vector format (see Part II), I was now at a critical point in the project which was mapping out exactly how I wanted it executed, in what medium, and what additional elements or characters I needed to create.

While designing, I had been loosely thinking about what the characters might look like in motion with different scenes, angles and poses. So I decided my little alien robots would be the lead characters in a little online animation project, maybe webisodes or a few short films. I would write and animate everything in Flash with some painterly backgrounds, an ambitious but fun little project I simply dubbed The Planet.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

With that decision made, I set about writing some basic outlines for plots and stories I thought would be fun to work on. As the story grew I started adding more characters into the mix to foil, and be foiled by, the Brothers. These additional characters got further flushed out as I bounced ideas off of friends for plot ideas, and I eventually started the design process to see what these guys looked like.

The first was the main bad guy, the Coyote to my little Roadrunners, who I wanted to resemble a small spoiled child. His name is Ikaru:

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

Darth Vader had his Stormtroopers, and I wanted Ikaru to have his own posse of minions to do his dirty work:

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

And a race of super-intelligent robo-beings I simply named The Elders. Nobody knows whose side the Elders are on:

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

And what bad guy would be complete with a castle lair where he can plot the demise of his unsuspecting enemys? As a kid, I always loved how elaborate the villains’ hideouts always were, so here is a concept design for Ikaru’s castle:

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

My overall goal for creating a cast of characters was to not only make them unique from each other, but paying strict attention to how they looked as a whole. Styles can change, but they needed to look consistent as a group to enforce they were from the same universe, or planet in this case. I have been drawing cartoons my whole life, but with this project I was concentrating on applying my design abilities to keep things as consistant as I possibly could.

So at this point I had a more explored idea of the band of characters that inhabited The Planet, and a good idea of how they interacted to one another based on their archetypes. It was then time to move from the conceptual stage and into some pre-visualization and storyboarding based on the storylines I had come up with, and the trials that come with it.

Next up . . . Part IV: Creating a Planet

A Signalnoise Odyssey, Part II

Part II: Rise of the Brothers

Here is the second part of A Signalnoise Odyssey, a series of posts where I’m outlining a project I started 3 years ago, the processes involved, and where the endeavor has led.

After drawing my little robot character for a week or so (seen in Part I: A Long Time Ago…), I naturally started to build up his personality in my head while expanding on some design ideas. I started thinking about his purpose, an environment he might reside in, and ultimately what his origins might be. I always saw him wandering about a forest on a distant planet, which sounds like a lonely existence for such a little guy, but more about that later.

My next step was to move into Illustrator and sharpen things up. I always do a first vector version quickly to nail down posture and expression in a very 2D manner using basic shapes, which led to this version of the little robot:

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

The funnest part of making this very rough version was messing around with the floral design on his torso. Offsetting it over his arm, imagining what it might look like in rotation, the variety of different styles I could pursue, etc. A lot of fun was to be had.

Over the next few days I started moving the design into something a bit more 3-dimensional still using strict vectors and basic shapes while continuing to experiment with floral designs from various dingbat sets I downloaded. As I said earlier, I imagined this little guy in a fairly lonely existence which is pretty unfair :) But through experimenting with the new design and different patterns, the Brothers were born.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

I nudged the design more in the direction of my initial concept sketches while trying to maintain the posture, expression and general silliness of the flat vector version.

So what started as a little sketch had grown into a little band of forest-dwelling robots. But the obvious question was what did the forest look like? I wanted something simple to compliment the shapes of the Brothers, but it needed to be alien enough to make it distinctive from anything found on earth. I opted for the biggest different being expressed through color, which set me free to design a simple environment for the Orange Forest where the Brothers could peacefully go about their business.

I first painted things out quickly in Photoshop…

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

… then moved into Illustrator to clean things up and design the landscape around the characters.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

I had been watching a lot of Samurai Jack at the time, and the Asian style Tartakovsky used for his background designs had an influence on what I wanted to achieve.

Things were now starting to take some shape, but I had still done very little planning as to what the Brothers actually were, what they did in the forest, where they came from and ultimately what I saw this project becoming. Every character needs a good backstory to give them purpose, so for the next several weeks I set about exploring the orange world where the Brothers lived and what they might encounter along the way.

Next up . . . Part III: Here Come the Bad Guys

A Signalnoise Odyssey, Part I

Part I: A Long Time Ago …

Over the years I have had several ideas for creative endeavors, some of which came to realization while others got shelved due to time-constraints or simply distraction. Some were silly, others far more then I could chew. However, there was one little project that never strayed far from my work flow, and because of how much joy it brought me I would try to slip in some time to work on it whenever I could.

So, I would like to dedicate a series of blog entries to this small project, the processes involved, how new ideas came about and how it evolved into something I had not originally intended. This is off the beaten path in terms of my typical body of work, and all starts around three years ago while I was doodling in my Moleskine book, when this little guy appeared:

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

I had been drawing a lot of character-based cartoons at the time, most of which involved monsters, robots, aliens and the occasional pirate. I’ve designed hundreds (maybe thousands) of little characters all throughout my many sketchbooks, but this little guy deserved a bit more attention.

Over the following few days I spent a great deal of time roughing out his design and posture, sketching him from different angles, all the while pondering what his elusive backstory might be.

A Signalnoise Odyssey: James White

It was decided early on that this little guy would be from space, or a distant planet. I liked the odd mix of being a funny little robot, while at the same time having the innocence of some kind of woodland creature. His simplicity made him easy and fun to draw, yet still fairly expressive.

With every new project, especially character-based stuff, there are a number of different avenues one can explore for bringing characters and stories to life. My favorite comic strip artist Bill Watterson once said that his characters, Calvin and Hobbes, should never reside outside of the comic strip for that is their world. Good point there.

My next step was clear, to engineer a world where this unwitting little robot might live and discover a little more about him along the way.

Next up . . . Part II: Rise of the Brothers.