The Design Process

Part of our education at DigiPen this semester covered the “Design Process.” Having a process for designing things is drop-dead important. I explained it to a friend, who gladly took everything she could get out of it. The method of explaining was through an IM window.

I would love to take this information and cleanly format it and present it to you in such a way that you could easily understand it. However, I’m tired.

The ugliness of this information in no way subtracts from its importance. And this doesn’t apply to just art. This process is generic enough that it can apply to just about everything. Naturally, some of the terminology (like “thumbnails”) will need to be changed for something like, say, cooking, but the concept is still the same.

Hopefully I’ll clean it up some day.

Stickman: The design process has five steps.
Joozika: This is exciting.
Stickman: 1) Inspiration.
Stickman: 2) Exploration and Research
Stickman: 3) Refinement
Stickman: 4) Construction/Polish
Stickman: 5) Presentation.
Stickman: The inspiration phase is often very simple. Your boss or teacher coming up to you and giving you an assignment with certain parameters is your inspiration.
Stickman: Alternatively, you may get a really great idea. Best to write it down when you do. However, please remember that pictoral information is a VISUAL language. The written language is very different, and sometimes a written idea may sound very, very neat, but it simply does not translate into a visual idea.
Stickman: For an example of bad translations, please illustrate to me the concept of “friend.” It just doesn’t work.
Stickman: The inspiration phase is often very short.
Stickman: The next stage is Exploration (and research).
Stickman: This stage should take up 20-25% of your time. If you have five hours to do a project, spend at least a hour on this.
Stickman: Let’s get an example so we can talk about it. Letsay someone is paying you to draw an otter.
Stickman: First thing you need to do is figure out how to draw an otter. Just Googling it is not enough. Of course, if that’s all you have time for, that’s all you can do.
Stickman: Books have much better and clearer pictures than the internet. You can also hold a book seperate while you work with drawing on your computer. If you DO Google something, print it out so you can have a physical copy.
Stickman: The library is your friend.
Stickman: Once you’ve researched the project and done some sketches and drawings to explore the anatomy, stucture, planes, joints, surfaces, textures, and other bits about your character, and really tried to figure out what makes an otter an otter, you push it.
Stickman: This is still exporation and research.
Stickman: Try to simplify the picture as far as you can go and still have it look like an otter. Find out what you can take out and still have it look like what it is.
Stickman: Then push it the other way. Get as detailed as possible. Find out what you can put in and still have the picture look good.
Stickman: In both directions, make sure you push it TOO FAR. The object of sketches is to learn something. If you didn’t go too far, you didn’t find out where the edge is.
Stickman: This is exploration and research. Your product for this stage will be sketches that define what makes an otter an otter.
Stickman: The next stage is refinement.
Stickman: You know what. I need my notes.
Stickman: I think the initial thumbnails are in the exploration stage. D: Let me check.
Stickman: Alright, lets put a little more order in this.
Joozika: o.o
Stickman: Exploration. Ask yourself, “How am I going to change words into art?” You have there goals in this stage.
Stickman: 1. Research forms.
Stickman: 2. Define primary forms and relationships.
Stickman: 3. Gauge forms against commercial function of project.
Stickman: That is, go to the library and get books, and draw what you see for structural understanding.
Stickman: Figure out what goes where, how big the head is relative to the feet, and etc. That’s defining primary forms and relationships.
Stickman: The third, is figure out how well those are going to work for the final project. For example, if you need a logo, you may find that the only form that works in the shape you’re giving is the little guy’s head. In that case, focus your time on the head.
Stickman: You will create two products during the exploration phase.
Stickman: 1) Research sketches.
Stickman: 2) Thumbnails.
Stickman: Thumbnails will be “sloppy” or casual drawing. They tend to be small, too. Maybe an inch or two only. The purpose of them is to get the composition to look good.
Stickman: You may end up drawing a thousand thumbnails and only get one or two that have one thing in them you like. But that’s the purpose of making them, to get something that looks good.
Stickman: Oh, moving on. Your goals for researching should be:
Stickman: 1) Isolate visual elements that identify the specific object. Otters are thing and furry and sleek. I’m sure if you saw a picture you could pick out a dozen other things that is unique enough or even completely unique to an otter.
Stickman: 2) Establish variation allowance. This is where you push the drawing as far as you can. Make the head twice as big as the body. Does it work? No? Push it back until it does.
Stickman: 3) Understand visual/mechanical structure of subject.
Stickman: 4) How to stylize/exaggerate? Most people don’t want a true-to-life picture. They want it to look more cuddly than it is, or more sleek than it is, or faster moving than it is, because that’s what they’re using that animal for their logo or design for.
Stickman: 5) Go too far to find the limit of how far you can push. I talked about that one.
Joozika: *nod*
Stickman: There are two pieces to think about when playing with this: Architectural structure and kinetic structure. What holds it together, and how it moves forces around. Not all subjects have both… buildings don’t have a kinetic structure.
Stickman: Oh, more goals.
Stickman: 6) See how other artists have used subject. Sure, figuring it out for yourself is great, but if someone else already did it, there’s no reason to do it again.
Stickman: 7) Connect subject to humanity. Because people don’t care about things they can’t relate with.
Stickman: And make sure you connect it to yourself. If YOU don’t like it, then you won’t draw it well.
Joozika: so true D:
Stickman: Research sources. I’ll brush over these:
Stickman: 1. Nothing beats seeing it in person. So you can see it in 3D, see light changes, watch movement and personality, get an emotional connection, and make drawings or even (gasp!) take reference photos!
Stickman: 2. Photographics reference. Use more than just the internet. Internet pictures are really, really poor quality when compared to a book. And don’t copy photos. They’re reference to figure out how the thing looks, not to just copy the finished product from.
Stickman: 3. Other artist’s interpretations. See how other artists solved the problem.
Stickman: Not plagerizing goes without saying.
Stickman: Holy cow. He just keeps going on and on… There, I see refinement.
Joozika: o.O
Stickman: Exploration is something he really dwelt on because it’s something most artists don’t do.
Stickman: And it’s something that 25% of the time you have on the project should be spent on.
Stickman: It solves the problems before you even get to them, if you think about it.
Stickman: I’m missing some info… I wonder if I ever got the slides.
Stickman: Ha-HA!
Stickman: … Oh. It’s three slideshows.
Stickman: That’s scary.
Stickman: So right. Lets get into thumbnails. I need to move along.
Stickman: This is a lecture given to animation students, mind you. And the number one goal of drawing for animation is emotion. The second is relational accuracy. They’re not bad goals for anyone, but they are specifically made for animators.
Stickman: When making thumbnails, which are small and a dozen can fit on one page, and are very quickly done, about 30 seconds each.
1. Capture emotional signature of the subject.
a) Body language and gesture
b) Environments and mood/atmosphere
Stickman: 2. Relational Accuracy
a) Architectural structure of the subject
b) Kinetic structure
c) Proportional relationships
d) Directional/placement relationships
e) Basic compositional structure of design
Stickman: Good thumbnails: Are very small. Are proportional to the final design (you can scale them up, essentially), are produced en masse (yay, pages and pages!), focus on structural integrity of the design, and they flow freely.
Stickman: The reason I’m even talking about the design process to you when you talked about a webpage is that the art dean designed the webpage for DigiPen. And he started by drawing thumbnails. He used the design process for that.
Stickman: It works for anything. Programming, cooking, and especially art.
Stickman: Next stage! Number two. Refinement.
Stickman: The goals are: Combine best ideas from exploration phase (remember, product from stage 1 is thumbnails), elaborate the basic relatinoships, add complexity and interest to design, and solve specific drawing problems related to technique and visual illusions. Then decide on a final design solution.
Stickman: The products of the refinement stage are: Superthumbs! Specialized photo references. And “Comps” or Composites.
Stickman: Superthumbs are the same size as thumbnails. However, rather than starting from an idea or scratch, you start from your best ideas of your thumbnails, mix and match your favorites, and maybe try a few new things with those.
Stickman: If you have problems, with like making the otter bend a certain way, you seek out or create specialized photo references. Actually getting a zoo or otter to cooperate with you may be a problem, but in an actual company situation, it may be possible. The Lion King artists had an actual lion brought into the studio.
Stickman: Anyway, your thumbnails needed to flow, which means there wasn’t much time for reflection. Refinement is all about reflecting, finding what you like, and making better use of it.
Stickman: Superthumbnails need the following traits: No bigger than parents, no more than 4 tones, and don’t add complexity yet. Be sure to vary your ideas when making superthumbs.
Stickman: after that, still in the refinment stage, you make what’s called “Comps” or “Composites”. These are larger than thumbnails, and will be the first thing you show to your employer. They are the “visual idea” represented in its best form.
Stickman: Comps may go in stages, getting more and more complex and larger until finally they’re at least half the size of the final project.
Stickman: Working larger slowly lets you solve problems as they arrise, and work detail into the picture slowly so you don’t end up blowing it up in your face.
Stickman: Make sure to keep the relationships, tones, and lines you had in your original thumbnail. That is, the idea you wanted to save the thumbnail for, that you turned it into a superthumb for? Make sure that stays in your comps.
Stickman: Once you have your finals comps ready, you can show them to your employer. Generally you’ll only want to show ONE. But if he doesn’t like it, make sure you have half a dozen other designs in your pocket. And always show him your favorite one first.
Stickman: And make sure it fits the original guidelines! If you have a better idea, show him the one he wanted. If he likes it, say, “I think this problem can be solved better like this,” and THEN show him your non-spec comp.
Stickman: There is no reason to show the employer any of your lesser comps, or anything he doesn’t need to see.
Stickman: And don’t let any of the comps you show him be something you don’t like, because he will pick it every time.
Stickman: Thus ends the 50% stage, refinement. The 50-75% stage is polish/construction.
Stickman: The goals for the polish/construction stage are:
Stickman: 1) Select the final design (often done by the employer when you show the final comps)
2) Create the final art
3) Allow the work to continue to evolve.
Stickman: The product of this stage will be the finished art, but it will be unmounted.
Stickman: Now then… there are three ways to finish a drawing.
Stickman: 1) Acretion. This method involves adding things to taking them away until the product is done. This is a very common method. Pencil and eraser, paint added or scrapped off, and just keep working until it’s right.
Stickman: (Also note that graphite is not a “professional” medium, though it is suitable for sketches)
Stickman: 2) Calligraphic. This method means doing it once and getting it done right. The problem with this method is that even though it sounds really, really easy, it’s not. Because you have to make sure you can get it right every time. On the first try.
Stickman: And it has to look exactly the same each time. Best used for simple logo design and when you really want to impress people. But make sure the last 100 times you draw it you get it exactly the same, because you don’t want to flop in front of someone.
Stickman: 3) Precision. This method is somewhat like acretion, but instead of adding and taking away, you’re really moving pieces. This was made popular by computer editing.
Stickman: The goal of polishing is not to recreate an earlier comp. It is to improve on the work. Don’t photocopy it, make it better.
Stickman: Your polish should be done in a medium that you are professional proficient in. If you’ve never used brush and ink before, the polish stage is a terrible time to start.
Stickman: Also, if you haven’t been making at least your comps in brush and ink, you’re an idiot for trying to start it at the polishing stage. But that’s just common sense.
Stickman: One of the hardest parts about the polish stage for some artists is having to choose one of the comps and sticking with it. They’ll need abandon the others and pick one. And some can’t do that. But that’s the way life goes, you have to eliminate the possibilities or you’ll get nothing done.
Stickman: The last stage is presentation.
Stickman: This is what really makes your product.
Stickman: If you gave them a nice looking comp and they thought it was awesome, and you give them the polished version unframed, with a coffee stain on it, and on wrinkled paper… well… you probably just lost the job.
Stickman: Presentation has the following goals:
Stickman: 1) Isolate your work visually
Stickman: 2) Establish your professionalism
Stickman: 3) Protect the work from incidental damage.
Stickman: This stage results in the following products:
Stickman: -A framing or mounting system
-A packaging or delivery system
-A display system
Stickman: What you do in this stage depends on what the work is for.
Stickman: You can frame it, put it in a matt, put it on a pedistal, add theatrical lighting, or whatever.
Stickman: And that’s the design process.
Stickman: You still alive out there?
Joozika: Yes, reading.
Joozika: Riveted. :)
Stickman: Matting is probably the most common for portable work, and they gave a presentation on it at school. If you don’t know how to do it, I could try to explain it.
Stickman: A note on thumbnail quantity: Each professional design solution requires hundreds and sometimes thousands of thumbnails. This is not a figure of speech. I’m speaking literally. The minimum should be no fewer than 200 and may exceed 1,000 individual thumbnail drawings.
Joozika: gah.
Joozika: gaaahh.
Stickman: But if you think about it, 45 seconds per thumbnail and 1000 thumbnails, that’s only 12 hours. <.<
Stickman: I suppose it depends on the size of the project you’re working on.
Stickman: So anyway… that’s the design process. Which is one of the five Ps of professional: Process.
Stickman: The other four are Professionalism, Pratice, Persistance, and Passion.
Stickman: And then, if you want to be a CEO you have to be a sociopath and a maglomaniac. But that’s different.
Joozika: This is all amazing advice. I feel like I’m cheating the system by getting free art classes. XD
Stickman: Well, I’m glad you realize how important it is. If I was worried about getting a job myself, I wouldn’t have told you that, because most artists don’t have a process. Artistry is a right-brained task, and organizational skills are a left-brained task. Having a process you can follow that’s proved to work is extremely valuable.
Stickman: By having that, you have an edge on the composition. Well, by USING that.