Monday, June 27, 2016

Learning to Think Like a Designer

For 25 years I’ve worked in the visual arts field—from traditional illustration and graphic design, to visual design and art direction for games, feature animation and tech.

Having dropped out of college early on I never really gained an academic understanding of what the word ‘Design’ actually meant, and across my career my understanding of what good design is has continued to evolve. 

With the advent of my first job as a graphic artist designing flyers, posters, banners and ads for campus events at SJSU, I thought of design as simply what one did with design software—All the flyers, posters, banners and ads I made a were ‘designs’ simply by virtue of having been made with Pagemaker 2.0. 

© 1995 Mark Cordell Holmes
Over my first couple of years this idea began to evolve into a product of aesthetic choice--which dozen or so system fonts were used, which gradient patterns or shapes, how much illustration versus type. Designs were light, dark, sparse, text-heavy, or image-heavy, designations of the visual qualities that comprised them.

This understanding changed as I moved into computer games. Here design was about making things look cool. The greater the level of detail, the more rendering polish and visual complexity the better designed it was—the goal often being to design the shit out of everything.

When I joined Pixar my understanding of design truly began to mature. 

As as a production artist on my first couple of films, I was responsible for translating 2D character, set and prop concept art into production drawings that not only ensured that each design abided by the same rational world scale so characters could fit through doors, and so on, but also resolved the tiniest details so each design could truly function within the 3D world, or at least give the illusion it functioned.

 ©1998 Pixar/Disney

Designs were broken down into ‘packets’ of carefully measured turn-arounds, break-downs, cut-aways and elevations to maximize clarity and consistency as they were interpreted into 3D by teams of production modelers, riggers, and shading artists. Production art demanded a mindfulness for detail that led me to think of design as a process of defining and solving the tiniest problems so each design could serve its needs relative to story.

As I graduated to a designer role, this level of thinking was elevated to an entire character or set. No longer simply a matter of filling in details, it became about finding the right design choices for a given character or set though an in-depth process of asking questions, exploring and discounting options, making discoveries, and circling ever inwards until the right choices were found with respect to the needs of story. 

 ©2004 Pixar/Disney

This view of design as a process of deeply understanding a single person, place or thing in context of story exploded once I learned how to art direct. At Pixar, art directors manage the look, communication and consistency of different visual disciplines—characters, sets, textures, light & color, or even graphics. As designs cross through the 3D pipeline from art to modeling to rigging, shading, and lighting, passing though multiple hands, it falls on the art directors to maintain design integrity across all designs within their discipline. And as no design exists in a vacuum, every design is informed by the designs around it—how big a character looks is very much relative to the size of other characters and objects around it—art directors are always mindful of how all designs relate to each other within their discipline, within the service of story.

When I stepped in as art director on Wall-e, and became responsible for establishing the visual style of every graphic element in the Axiom, I needed to develop a design logic that that not only established a meaningful relationship of type, iconography, pattern, color, shape and motion between the graphic elements themselves, but that also worked in conjunction with the all the environmental, story, performance, camera and lighting decisions in context around them. 

Original matte painting by Paul Topolos  ©2008 Pixar/Disney

While this experience opened my eyes to the sheer complexity and problem-solving that design entailed, my real understanding of design came with production designing 'Lifted'. 

For this film of just 5 minutes, I was responsible for the look of every visual element in every shot. My varied learnings up to this point—the arbitrary use of design elements, to making things look cool, to solving the laborious details, to owning a single design, or an entire design discipline—all fell short of the task ahead of me.

At Pixar, production design is basically the process of interpreting and relating story intent into cohesive, consistent and compelling visuals, from the thoughtful design relationship of characters, props and sets, to the orchestration of all the visual design elements: composition, staging, light, color, form, space, depth, an so on. 

As the relationship of image to story helps communicate information, elicit emotion, reveal character, and convey subtext, production design requires an intimate understanding of the creative intent of not just the the film as a whole, but the dramatic progression from scene to scene, the intent of each shot, and a sensitivity to how any detail, no matter how small, can help convey story intent.

©2008 Pixar/Disney
Of course, as much as I learned at Pixar, my understanding of design did not stop there. Returning to games with Dynamighty enabled me to think of design as a mode of thought and problem-solving. Here I had the opportunity to help craft an interactive experience defined by completely different set of constraints, goals and needs. And for the first time I was not approaching design as a service provider visualizing someone else’s voice, but as a co-author author articulating my own voice. 

©2014 Sony Computer Entertainment

Art directing Counterspy expanded my consideration of design as not just the use of visuals to support a carefully constructed narrative, but as the means to crafting a user experience and fulfilling a core player fantasy in service of game design. This entailed communicating goals, supplying user motivation, shaping an immersive and engaging world that supports player fiction, and establishing clear visual gameplay systems.

©2014 Sony Computer Entertainment
From the games space to the tech world of Google, my understanding of design was stretched again. Illustrating and leading Doodles, where design was used to capture the curiosity of billions of internet users around the world within a 500x200 pixel space, as well as to help bring more user delight to a range of Google products and services, I discovered that the heart of the Doodle team was about bringing a soul to technology through artistic expression and the celebration of humanity. 

© 2015 Google

Over my career I’ve applied many of these learnings into a series of cinematic design talks on visual and emotional storytelling as it relates to film, animation, and even writing as I routinely apply design thinking to my own script and novel writing.

Since then, I have come to see design as a broad process of understanding, problem-solving and communication, where the success of execution is only as effective as the design thinking behind it. While perhaps far from academic or complete, my understanding of design is being expanded once again as I now consult with Virtual & Augmented Reality companies to help them craft entirely new visually immersive experiences. 

So what I have gleaned through all of this? 

Visual design is a means for crafting experience, whether expressed through movie screens, computer screens, mobile screens, virtual reality or words or pictures on the page, imagery is a means of capturing people's imagination, to distract, amuse, inform, engage and powerful illicit feeling. 

What is successful design? You know it when you don't just see it, but you feel it.

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