Designing Pictures

Wrenched Blue Line Sketch

Previously, I wrote about my experiences writing a picture book, and storyboarding it. This week I’m taking a look at designing the artwork.

Years ago I had a job designing icons for software. I worked on multiple products that had libraries of hundreds of icons, and we maintained a catalog of thousands. Icons were a very popular design artifact for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that they contributed to the visual brand and attractiveness of the ui, while simultaneously being incredibly functional. Within the smallest canvas imaginable, they could convey a story at a glance, without words, and across languages. Cognitive load is for suckers!

But part of the power of icons is in the brevity of their use, and while icons were effective and useful, too many of them in a ui would diminish their authority. The full story could only be told through a balance of ux elements working together toward a common outcome.

And so here I am designing a picture book, and I realize it’s basically the same thing. I’m editing illustrations and words, but not independently of each other – but in collaboration with each other. As one thing. I’m looking for the balance that makes the story flow just right.

In general the entire process for designing illustrations turns out to be not much different from any other design project. And it really is design. Characters, locations and objects are all researched. The research and sketches change the story. Iterate, iterate, iterate until all the burs are worn off.

Define, ideate, prototype. Sound familiar? Write it, burn through a thousand thumbnails, then try out those ideas in sketches, colour studies, and style experiments.

Wrenched Clothing Notes

There are a number of well known visual attributes, design principles, that help determine image quality. Like unique character silhouettes, composition, colour value, and line weight, etc. I started wondering about what additional elements there could be for sequential images, and how the image contributes not only to the page it’s on, but also to neighbouring pages. How an image can affect the speed you read a page, and subsequently the speed you travel through a book. How some perspectives are funnier than others. Maybe I should read a book on film editing.

Once I started iterating through the pages in a book-like format, all the small details got revealed. Thumbnails are such broad strokes visually, and as they become sketches they kind of tighten up. Details related to space travel worked their way into the images. Hints about who the troublemaker was snuck in.

Not just small details, but larger ones, too. Editing in sequence made clear how the last two pages didn’t work. Better when they’re sketches, than when they are finished illustrations.

And so, designing the images for the book was a cyclical process of thumbnails, research, and sketching until I was so sick of the whole thing I just started inking it.

Somewhere in all that design process I also decided the illustration style would be digital ink and paint. There was some long winded mostly inner discussion about whether it should be digitally painted (no ink), or even traditional watercolour. It turns out I’m not completely crazy, as I stuck with what I was most familiar with. Typography would be hand lettered, in a simple text grid. I hate my back, apparently, and love grids. This was obviously more work, but I love the visual cohesion between hand lettered type, and inked lines. Additionally, the colour palette would be based around Willa, the lead character, because it is her story, and her world, and so the colour palette should complement her. Sometimes it can be difficult to decide where to start with a colour palette, and like anything else, I think you focus on what’s most important, and work out from there. Anyway, that’s were I landed.

Finally, one of the most important lessons in this whole project, has been about mindset. This is a big project, and it would be really easy to wipe your hands at the end of a page and say “Well, that’s it! Done!” But often a days breathing room from that page will turn up inconsistencies, or opportunity for additional useful details. Lock yourself into a design too early and you’ll short change the whole thing.

Eventually, like software, it has to ship. But not until my gut stops churning at the sight of it.

You can follow the progress of Wrenched on the project page, and any of my social media accounts.