Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Art of Seeing What’s Not There, Or, Imagination

Yesterday, my daughter — who has been a constant source of amazement for me lately — decided to take a fake cardboard guitar we made for her and stand on the coffee table in our living room to give a brief, private concert.  (She didn’t end up singing because she apparently has early on-set stage fright).

Nevertheless, she did pluck the strings of the guitar and proceed to act as if she were regaling us with its music.

It struck me at that moment that I would love to see what her mind sees.  Does she see an actual guitar and hear actual music? Is she believing that she’s on stage? What do her eyes tell her — or rather, her mind’s eyes?

All at once, I saw the vestiges of something we’re losing as a generation and a people.  Movies, video games, smartphone games, etc are beginning to replace the imagination.  All things fantastic portrayed for us now.  And as we advance further in technology, we are actually, I believe, compromising our ability to imagine.  Because isn’t that the goal of entertainment, to create and put in front of our eyes the likeness of the real, of the genuine.

It’s an interesting paradox.  On the one hand, I do want to be entertained.  On the other, I’d like to be able to create, to draw the fantastic, to envision things that don’t exist, but that appear as if they might.  I want to be able to exercise my imagination and have it produce things that are unique.

So, even though it was against the “rules”, we let our daughter play as long as she wanted on top of that coffee table with her guitar, even though she never sang a word.  I’d like for her to grow up of that mind — to be able to see and imagine and envision.

You hear it often — a new wave of “visionaries”; someone with a “vision” for the future;  or what’s your “vision” for this project?  How else do you suppose those visionaries grow up?  How are you able to envision the future?  How can you have a vision for the project?

Imagination.  Seeing what’s not there.  Yet.

iOS 7 and Flat Design

After so much scientific proof to the contrary, maybe — just maybe — the world is flat.

No longer are we trying to capture realism with Apple’s former vanguard in skeumorphism.  No longer are we slapping a ton of gradients and drop shadows everywhere.  No way.  That’s the past.  The future is flat design.  And the future is coming on very quickly, accelerated I believe more so than ever by Apple’s WWDC ’13 conference which began yesterday.

Why do we call it flat?  It’s not really flat, is it? Nope, what that really means is a termination of the use of dimension-creating effects: reflections, drop shadows, gradients, etc.  Flat, in some ways, means clearer and simpler, trading the form for the function.

After watching some of Apple’s keynote presentation yesterday, particularly the iOS 7 portion, I realized that perhaps the gradients aren’t gone — just more gentle — and the drop shadows might be even more transparent, but subtly there.  Part of what Apple is going for, it appears, is a way to not seem as “flat” as Windows’ interface, rather to retain its own unique brand and style of user interface. For apple, I believe flat might mean simpler, not necessarily flat in the present buzzword sense.

I believe the appearance of iOS 7 represents Apple’s “take” on flat design.

The intent here is clear — get the user interface, the content, out there without clouding it with unnecessary dimension.  Dimension, mind you, can be good in design when it is handled properly, and can be well-managed with flat design. But when abused, it creates visual chaos that overcomes the function of the piece, which in the user interface realm is obviously very important.

And as I told my friend, Brad, I like where flat design is headed.  I’m more interested in accommodating a user’s ease in navigating apps, websites, etc.  Flat design has worked now for years in the print world.  Some of the most successful ad, billboard, magazine, brochure, and business card designs (not to mention others) have utilized flat design with a strong sense of minimalism without a lot of elaborate dimensionality.

Check out this site:  Some of the website examples are visually stunning.  But when you zoom out, you realize why.  The strengths are in color and typography.  You don’t need a lot of visual 3-D goodness or realism to light up your senses.  This world is soaked in color.  When it’s used well, the eye effortlessly gravitates to it.  And who doesn’t love some creative typographic presentations?  Why do you think font foundries are increasing in popularity — especially those with a unique bent?  I believe typography will be of more profound importance in the coming years with the advent of flat design’s burgeoning fame.

All that to say, I’m actually glad we’re headed into this brave new world.  I think some fear that designers won’t have to work as hard in flat design.  I completely disagree.  The challenges of designing in flat design with a nod toward minimalism is much more difficult than adapting the verisimilitude of realism.

Flat design demands that the designer very carefully consider every move, a preconceived chess game with himself.  He must face the expanse of the app, the website, whatever with a sense of care and class, and determine how best to make his flat design appear unique and strong and credible in the vast sea of its brothers and sisters.


The Paradox of Privacy

You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.  You can’t both possess it and enjoy it.  In it’s most literal sense —  once you eat the cake in its entirety, you no longer “have” it in the same way that you once did.

In this age of social media, the outcry for privacy in light of the recent NSA Prism scandal interests me.  Whatever details come to light, I do not agree a willingness on the part of information-holding sites to impart information to any entity without my consent.  In this particular case, I’m not sure the ends will ever justify the means.  But at the same time, there is a glaring truth that I can’t ignore.

Social media, in its truest sense for the individual, is broadcasting information about oneself to other individuals, to the world.  Have you ever posted photos?  When you do, you are telling the world certain things about you — the food you enjoy, they way you spend your leisure time and where you spend it, who your friends and family are, what new possessions you enjoy, where you’ve been and where you’d like to go, and recently, on Facebook, you can share any number of “inspirational quote” snippets that reveal your preferences, thoughts, beliefs, and cultural attitudes.  What’s interesting is, just by following or looking up someone on Facebook, I can get to know them in at least a superficial sense within minutes.  Of course, unless an individual really opens up in a very honest way, I won’t be able to know his deepest, truest thoughts and fears and hopes and on and on. But his life is no longer as private as he might have believed.  Privacy is a transaction — the more you keep to yourself, the more private your life.  The more you present yourself to the world, the less private.

Ever heard about the people that post when they’re on vacation only to come home to find they’ve been robbed?  Privacy eluded them.  On the flip side, a guy posts a video from a security cam on Facebook that shows an intruder attempting to rob him and asks for help identifying said intruder.  He sacrificed part of his privacy that was already being invaded so that he could help protect his own privacy.  Sweet Moses — that’s a pickle!  I’d call that a paradox — sacrificing privacy in order to protect it.  But it all comes down to qualification, right?  You’re choosing what you want to protect about yourself.  In the case of the intruder, the guy wanted to protect his possessions and the security and privacy of his home.  Though he gave several hundred (maybe more) a glimpse into his home by posting such a thing on Facebook to be shared by a network of his friends with their friends and their friends’ friends and so on.

As far as I understand it, the NSA is not actively watching my Facebook or recording my phone calls.  It seems the NSA is targeting hostiles and potential terrorists (always room for error in such a search, I believe).  Still, I think back to my own Facebook and Twitter accounts, and now the blog to which I’ve been posting.  I have willingly doled out parts of myself to my friends and those beyond my sphere of “knowing”.

Maybe that’s the point:  I got to choose what I doled out, which is, perhaps, having my cake.  But thanks to the vastness and interconnectedness of the internet, I didn’t get to choose who saw all those tidbits of Josh.  I suppose that’s why I don’t get to eat the cake, too.

Art Critics Everywhere

Art critics — they’re everywhere.

As a Graphic Designer, it’s difficult to be hired to design something because of your field of expertise, only to be criticized by someone who has no idea what he is talking about.  Immediately the old adage, “everyone’s a critic” comes to mind.  It’s not the criticism that bothers me.  It’s the blatant lack of knowledge that comes through when the other individual is talking to me.  When he tells me, for instance, that I need to be stitching together different pieces of various logo concepts into a single design, I’m silently wondering whether we’re trying to create Frankenstein’s monster.  Or when he tells me that this element or that needs to be moved over to make room for a strong gradient, I face palm and thank the web 2.0 movement for declaring that everything needs both a gradient and a drop shadow so that it seems shiny and futuristic and, of course, well-lit.  Yikes.

Now, an art critic might actually have valuable criticism for me about composition, color, layout, etc.  And I suppose that would make the difference regarding my ability to accept criticism: whether the other individual knows what he is talking about.

Suppose we were in the medical field for a moment.  I have no medical degree.  I have limited knowledge about how the body’s mechanics actually work.  But I wonder what the response of a cardiologist would be if I began to criticize his assessment of a heart condition, pointing out things I have no idea about. Can you imagine the audacity it would require in order for me to criticize a cardiologist’s diagnosis?

This reminds me of an episode of The Office where Jim and Pam have just had CiCi and the nurse comes in to help since the infant won’t nurse, at which point Pam points out they they’ve read about confusion for the baby if it is bottle fed first rather than breastfed.  The nurse (who has to be educated and certified in her role, mind you) then replies sardonically, “Oh good, you already know everything.”

Uneducated criticism is just the worst.  Pseudo-educated criticism via information discovered on the internet is possibly even more offensive.  What is it about us that we can’t let the experts be the experts? We criticize umpires, weathermen, politicians, sports athletes, and any other number of professions, often with virtually no experience in such positions or knowledge of the demands and requirements of those positions.

I can admit that I have learned from uneducated criticism.  I have learned how to understand what the Client is really saying or what he really needs.  I think this can be true of most uneducated criticism.  Still, I’d rather be criticized and learn from someone who knows what he is actually talking about.  One thing I’ve learned that is not uncommon among people who go to experts: they want someone who knows better to agree with exactly what they want.  Affirmation is good, right?  Makes you feel that you know more than you actually do when it is wholly undeserved.  But you don’t know anymore than you did before.  For every instance that I let a Client have what he wanted, I knew I wouldn’t be able to include that work in my portfolio because I had permitted poor design to enter into a wider field of view and also helped perpetrate what I call “trash design,” which is design that is purchased for the moment, to meet some immediate need and due to which has no sense of permanence or style or redeeming quality.  It would be better off in the trash bin.

So what do you do when criticized by someone with opinion rather than information?  You can either accept it and implement the “improvements” he has suggested.  Or, you can use that opportunity to inform, to educate that individual on the subject in which you’re educated.  This won’t always work, but at least you tried, and if you’re a designer, I’d caution you to proceed with such a Client, especially if he won’t back down from unusable criticism.  Also, be aware of your own defensiveness as an artist and consider whether the other individual might know what he’s talking about (I mean, it’s possible he might have a valid point, though not probable).

More often than not, an individual coming to you for design services doesn’t know how to design for himself (though he will always have opinions). It is your job as a designer to ensure that good design proliferates the world and offers an artistic presentation of the Client’s message or content.  It is not your job as a designer to accommodate poor design decisions at a Client’s whim.

It’s easier at the end of the day to make a few bucks and kick back.  But it’s more rewarding to make good decisions and leave a legacy of good art in your wake.  Remember, art critics are everywhere.


The Fear of the Blank Page

Even before I began to compose this, I didn’t know where to begin. At the beginning of nearly every illustration, I have a fear of the blank page.

And isn’t that the point?  For all the planning, outlining, themes, topics, and elements of a composition — whether it be for writing or art or whatever — the first word has to be written, the first line drawn, the first step taken into that massive white abyss.

What exactly is the fear of it? What arouses the dread associated with it? I would venture that, for myself as an illustrator, the fear is the infinite number of possibilities associated with the blank page.  Sure, you know what you need to create, you know what the final product needs to be, but the how-to-get-there is for me the most daunting part.  I can envision any number of ways to create, to build, to tell a story, to create a character.  It’s a choose-your-own-adventure type of scenario.  You just hope that when you get a quarter of the way into it that you don’t fall into swamp just out of reach of the vine only to be told to go back to the beginning and start again.  You want the end of your adventure to have productive, beautiful fruit.

How do I overcome this fear?  Type a word.  Draw a line.  Engage the white space.  Make it know that you are entering the bold frontier and that you intend to voyage in with all flags flying.  Tell it from the beginning that you know that the whole process is a creative one and that it won’t bother you to experiment, to find different inroads to your creation.  Reassure yourself that simply starting is the best way to overcome the fear.

Before you know it, you’ll be at the middle of the piece, and then at the end.  You might look back and wonder how you arrived at the end.  I do that sometimes with an illustration or a design.  The quest was fraught with thought and challenge and acumen and sometime perilous risk-taking.  But it was worth it.  Because you didn’t let fear bind you.  Because you ended up creating.

So perhaps next time, try to see past the blank page to what it will become, and then begin.

Illustrators and Inspiration

I am a proponent of all individuals needing inspiration no matter what they do, but especially illustrators.

Why?  Because inspiration is what ignites the motivation and passion to achieve something.  Without inspiration, a political speech would lack fervor.  Without inspiration, doctors might do more harm than good.  Without inspiration, I am convinced that most things we now find great or admire would simply be bland elements in the world around us.

I’ve heard the phrase, “Writers read.”  I believe that to be true to some degree.  A successful writer likely needs to read in order to be inspired to find new ways to convey stories, to learn about structure and content and word-choice.  How else could a writer’s vocabulary expand unless he reads?  In reading, I expect he finds a source of inspiration to compose his own stories.

I find I am most inclined to illustrate when I am inspired.  Now that inspiration doesn’t always come from the same source.  Often, observation of the world, interaction with other human beings, and simply sitting and thinking can be great sources of inspiration.  For my lot, I consider my Creator to be the greatest source of inspiration for all things I do.  But I also know that in a visual art I must be visually stimulated so that my brain finds new venues to create on the page the things I imagine.

For illustrative inspiration, I view Behance. There are many artists, artworks, and designs, and I can filter to view a type of art and also follow individuals whose works I like.  It is a good community for sharing work and Behance even features local portfolio reviews.  I am inspired by the idea of like-minded people coming together to help improve one another’s passions.  At Behance, I am often inspired such that it’s diffcult to contain my desire to begin working right away.

So at the end of the day, I conclude that the difference between good creativity and great creativity is inspiration.  In whatever you do, be sure that you’re inspired.


An Impression of the Art of Illustration

When reviewing various Illustrators, I noticed a common theme: impression.

Because individuals vary in their perceptions of the world around them, we see the expression of those perceptions come through art — and in all media, whether it be modern sculptures, painting, digital media, and even through what I’d consider the craft of social media.  I interpret Twitter’s maximum character usage to be a form of literary art wherein the individual attempts to capture  a moment or idea in its most condensed packaging.  It’s the Campbell’s soup of thought management.  But then, Campbell’s soup might lead you to think on Warhol’s famous piece and what it might suggest about his impression of repetition.  I don’t believe we are meant to look at the series of cans and think, “Mmm, wish I had some soup.”  In fact, the impression I get is of blandness, too much repetition, mechanized reproduction with only a detailed variation in the naming of the soup itself.

Repetition is, I’ve been taught, a strong component of good design.  When managed appropriately, it has the ability to elicit visual interest.  This can be done with color, shape, typography, anything that is an element on the media surface.  Which leads me to wonder what this suggests about our impression of the world.

I believe that we admire uniqueness.  I believe that if you were to see a colony of bats taking flight and in that colony spotted one albino, that you would have more interest in it than in the entire colony of “normal” bats.  But then again, the albino has a sufficiently similar shape and behavior to be considered a repetitive element amongst the group.  I very much doubt you would notice or care about a bird that had happened into the colony of bats.  I don’t believe so.  Instead, I believe your eye tells your brain — there is a group of animals all very similar and then there is one that is similar, but starkly different in its one characteristic.  And so that makes it visually appealing.  The impression that you get is strikingly paradoxical — repetition married to variation.

I assert that it is this same general likeness but unique variation that makes the human an interesting piece of art, as well.  For whatever reason, I like seeing illustrators put a ton of people on any media and just looking at all the differences, yet understanding our alikeness as humans.  Can you imagine if we all looked exactly alike?  This makes me think of the Twilight Zone, Agent Smith in the Matrix sequels, and any other number of Hollywood imaginings of cloning, mass copying, etc.  I think when you see exactitude of likeness portrayed in those stories, it is not done so positively and often evokes a fearful response.  Inherently, I think one of our greatest fears is having our individuality destroyed.  And yet another paradox — we struggle to be “like” so many others.  Think about it — it’s in the way we dress, fix our hair, grow our beards, get our tans, eat our food, drink our coffee, watch our shows.  As much as we want our individuality, we also seek commonality.  This is, I think, the apart of the great canvas of humanity — having the common shape, having a basically similar format, and yet still being characteristically unique.  We are humankind, but we are also countless variations of that one format.  Much like snowflakes, rocks, trees, etc.

And as artists, we not only are individuals, but also see the world through those individual eyes.  So when I see a tree (a white oak for instance), I see it in a certain way, a certain form and shape and color.  And if a hundred artists surrounded me, looking at the selfsame tree, they would interpret it according to their own impressions of it.  I believe you would not find alike any two artistic renderings of that tree.

I love that when I have applied for jobs on Elance, creating a bid proposal and attaching some works to demonstrate my capabilities to the Client, that often I have been rejected with the following reason:  “Prefer another style.”  In truth, it is impossible for the Client to know exactly what my impression of his project would be unless he gave me the chance to show him.  It is not of chagrin that I speak to this, but of interest in that one phrase: “prefer another style”.

I’d much prefer instead, when someone considers my art, my illustration, my design, to decline it on this basis: “prefer another impression.”  Therein I believe is the greater truth.

The Beginning Starts at the Beginning

So, for a while now, I’ve been doing this graphic design freelancing thing.  Last year it was my main gig.  This year, I actually joined a company based in Washington where I’m helping with some technical migrations for DNS and email.  Interestingly, it’s during this time that I discovered exactly what I want from and love most about graphic design.

Surprise:  it’s illustration.

Why is that a surprise, you ask?  Well, I have been learning the tools of my trade . . . particularly InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator.  Learning these tools takes time.  Time goes on and peels itself away in layers until you reach a moment where you realize a certain level of comfort with such tools.  When you reach this comfort level, you begin to experiment, to think more creatively, to branch out — all because the fear of not knowing how to use the tool has diminished.

You’re not afraid of the pen tool in either Photoshop or Illustrator anymore.  You know how blending modes work.  InDesign’s master pages, spreads, and styles no longer seem to be complicated processes, rather time-saving tools.  Overall, you see the tools in a different light.

The comfort with the tools then leads you to understand what it is you’d really like to be doing with them.  I found myself looking at sites like Behance where creatives post their works and for a ProSite membership, you can even create a portfolio website of your works.  I discovered The Mighty Pencil, perusing various artists and admiring the quality of their work, especially drawn to illustrations created digitally.  I voraciously consumed with visual fervor the so-many artists who are striking a consummation between hand-crafted and digital art.

It’s funny when you experience an epiphany that basically had been slapping you in the face your entire life.  When I explained to my wife what I really wanted to do, she nodded knowingly and we both agreed that illustration was not only an integral part of who I am, but basically had pervaded my life from my earliest memories until now.  Pencils, crayons, and paint now found their way from paper and canvas to the screen of my iMac where I have been working diligently to discover my own creative voice.

Moreover, as a believer, God has been gently nudging me toward this truth in His own enigmatic, but fully revelatory fashion.  He has shown me what I hunger for.  He has given me a hunger.  Along the way, I’ve parsed out where He has been showing me and prodding me and patiently waiting for my eyes to open.  At Fellowship, we’ve been walking through Nehemiah, which is a fantastic examination of a calling, a plan, a ministry, and the fulfillment of God’s desire in one’s life.  This has helped focus my vision and strengthen my resolve.  I have prayerfully considered how to proceed and am planning the next steps.

There are still many unknowns.  But who cares?  The beauty of this truth is that I’m going pursue something I’ve loved my entire life.  I’m excited about learning and discovering more about illustration.  I want it to be a labor.  I want it to be challenging.  I want things to come through thought and creativity that blossoms after immersion in prayer and consideration of art.  I want this to be something that I leave behind me that arouses curiosity about how I viewed the world around me.  I want others to look at my illustration and wonder what I was thinking, why I chose this color, what motivated my hand.

It’s not as if I am predestined to experience success in this thing I love.  Well, that is, as the world measures success.  I do believe that there is success in providing for one’s family and in worshipfully creating art, employing the gift that God has given me.  And ultimately, using that gift and those resources to serve the world, to help those in need, to become something more than a fixture in this world.  Fixtures can be replaced.  Men and women with purpose, drive, and a heart for the Lord cannot.  They live forever.

But one thing that is common among dreams and purposes and visions and plans for the future is this:  the beginning starts at the beginning.