Monday, October 11, 2010

Visualizing Ideas

It was suggested to me recently that I should write a bit about the creative process that goes into a graphic design piece. Now, I love what I do but I realize there might not be all that many people interested in this so feel free to click away to something else if this is not your bag of chips.

"Graphic design is the art of visualizing ideas" - Jessica Helfand - AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts - founded 1914)

I'm a woman of many hats. Among those hats would be designer, and/or artist. I am always reluctant to call myself a graphic designer because I do not have any formal training or schooling in the art of graphic design. There is a world of difference between a formally trained, skilled, creative designer and someone who can read directions and install photoshop. The former is the artist you want to hire when you need a drop-dead gorgeous, professional design package (an artist like this, for example) and the latter is the person who has recently discovered clip art and free font sites. I fall somewhere in the gray area between those two extremes. I am a self-taught individual who has sketched, painted and created since my earliest childhood memory, and essentially graduated from pencil and paper to electronic pencil and paper. While I do not have a certification or a degree in my field, I am in fact an idea visualizer, all the same.

I read a couple of articles recently on this subject and both really stood out to me for different reasons. In the one article it mentioned the use of fonts and how some are just "sexy" and others are just downright boring. I don't like the use of the word "sexy" to describe a font because frankly it just sounds somewhat perverted, but I comletely understood the point behind it. Part of a really great, incredibly memorable design is the style of font used. Take the Coca-Cola logo for example. It's a unique font to the Coke geniuses, but if you were to take that logo and recreate it using any other font, it just wouldn't have the same affect. While the Coca-Cola brand has been around forever and is already well established in cultures literally around the world, they'll never be able to change that logo now because they've left a positive impression on consumers with that font, for so many years. You just don't fix what isn't broken. Some have tried and it almost always fails quite miserably and the resort back to the original look of their logo or branding package with the more familiar, accepted font. It's pretty incredible really what a simple thing like a font can do. Other examples that you'll recognize immediately would be the fonts used for Star Wars, The Godfather, CSI, 24, and even LOST. Each franchise used a particular font and it just worked, and worked well, for the package being put out there.

When I'm creating a design that is either font based on heavily dependent on a font, sometimes it's a very long process to find just the right one that works for the design. Other times, I'll see a font I've haven't used before and the design idea actually jumps out from the font. Fonts are just plain fun to work with.

The other article focused on how graphic design is literally everywhere you look. From billboards to Bibles, grocery store receipts, web pages, junk mail, newspapers, tv shows, sports gear, food packaging and clothing labels. It is quite literally everywhere, and in each case there was a person behind every curve of every font, every image placement and every color gradient. I'm quite sure most people never give that a second thought, but it's true all the same. While professional designers are well trained and well paid to do what they do, the one common element between them and me is, the creative process. It all starts somewhere and it all follows a process.


In the work that I do, big ideas come from two sources: my own ideas and inspirations for creating something new, or someone else's brilliant ideas for a new design. Since I do quite a lot of custom work, it's really important to actually hear what someone is asking for when they're asking you to visualize their big idea for a new design. While they come to me because they trust that I know what I'm doing, they also expect to see their idea created, and not my idea of their idea, if that makes any sense. In fact, the person that suggested I write this post was someone who recently came to me with an idea of her own and asked me to create it for her.

Example: I recently received a phone call from a friend who was in a hurry to get a custom design done for their church web page for an upcoming event. The design? A funny, bright, lighthearted advertisement for a golf outing. It doesn't really matter much that I know next to nothing about golf, what mattered was the mood the ad would put you in, if you saw it. The ad had to say "you really WANT to come to this outing, because it's going to be a lot of fun!" without actually saying that in the copy. It had to be funny, it had to be bright, it had to be lighthearted. Those were the three elements I had to work with, with the underlying golfer theme. That was someone else's big idea and I was able to pull something together for them and they loved the final product. I confess I liked it too, and if I was someone who enjoyed golf, I would have wanted to be there for that outing - just because of the ad.

It's not always so easy visualizing someone else's ideas, and can require several proofs before the customer hits the "bingo!" moment and says "YES, that is exactly what I had in mind!" Sometimes other people have incredibly huge (aka: virtually impossible) big ideas and other times while it may take a lot of work, hours or even days to create the visual that someone else had in mind, the end result can be even better than what they first imagined. An example of this would be a custom birthday party invitation I created last summer for a customer. She was very specific in what she wanted: summery look, backyard, cookout, swingset with attached sandbox, sprinklers, and blonde, curly haired children. It was quite enjoyable to see her detailed list of what she actually wanted since most people don't really detail it out like that.

It was a lot of different design elements to pull into one design, but I knew I could do it. It did take several hours of creating the "wood" to build the swing set and making sure every drop of water coming out of the circular sprinkler was coming out at the correct angle but by the time the final design was complete it was exactly what she had visualized and she was quite happy with the end result. That made me happy, that she was happy! Being able to put someone else's ideas into physical form that they can hold and see and touch is a pretty incredible thing to do. I enjoy doing that very much. It makes people happy, and that's priceless.

Visualizing my own ideas on the other hand, is an entirely different process. Believe it or not, a lot of my ideas come to me in dreams. In the dream I'll see a t-shirt or a gorgeous party invitation or something that is just so outstandingly awesome that it's the entire focus of the dream. When I actually sit down to recreate the design that I saw in the dream, it doesn't always come out the same way. Sometimes it's impossible to recreate it with the same wow-factor it had in the dream, and sometimes it turns out a thousand times better. Dreams are very weird place to get inspiration but that's where much of mine comes from.


The actual process most designers use can vary quite a lot, depending on the designer. Some never touch a pencil, some exclusively use a graphics tablet, others use Illustrator, Photoshop or a huge combination of graphics software tools. My process also varies depending on the complexity of the design.

With the backyard barbeque invitation I actually sketched it all out on paper first. I closed my eyes and imagined what the back yard would look like with all those elements and placed them all on the paper in that exact location. While I don't always use pencil and paper first, I do always imagine it first. What would this look like if I were holding it in my hand? What angle would this be at, which direction would the light be hitting this element, what color would this be and what kind of background would look best?

Once I have the elements where I want them, I step away and let it sit. I may go run errands or just save and close the program completely and do something else. I return to it later with fresh eyes to see if I still like the way it looks. Sometimes I do, sometimes I see things that need to be changed. Once the design looks the way I want it to, then comes feedback time.


Feedback comes in the form of what I call my Quality Control team. That team consists of my hubby Kev, and kids Jordan, Rachel, Samuel and Ruth. Especially if the design is a kid-friendly one, nothing goes in the shop unless it's passed their inspection and approval. They know best what kids like, so they're the ones who get the final word. If the design is geared more toward adults, I'll ask Kev to come take a look at it and give me his first impression. If he laughs outloud, it's an immediate approval. If he gets a puzzled look on his face or hesitates at all, we discuss it and I make changes.

Sometimes I can go through this entire process and at the very end, scrap the entire design. That doesn't happen very often but if it doesn't meet the final approval of the team, or even if it does but I come back later and look at it and I'm the one who doesn't like it, I'll scrap it and either start over or put it in the pending file to work on at another time.

Creating the designs that I offer for sale is a lot of fun, and a lot of work at the same time. I absolutely love what I do, and I love the idea that there are people literally all over the world that also love what I do and purchase the products I design for. Just recently I hit a pretty incredible milestone as I served my 500th customer in my main zazzle shop. That was a pretty great feeling, and has served as a wonderful inspiration to keep doing what I love to do.

Graphic design by Carla Rolfe