Friday, September 23, 2016

Art Philosophy: Decoration vs. Design

What is design?

I define design as function + aesthetics, meaning a well designed work should be both beautiful and functional. If a work is only functional, then it is utilitarian, not well designed. If it is only beautiful, then it is decoration, not design.


For example, a brochure needs to catch the eye as well as communicate information and possibly sell a client on a product or service. If it's only pretty, it's useless for anything but hanging on a wall to add color. If it isn't pretty, it's little more than a specifications listing. A website needs to look cool as well as be easy to navigate and find information. No one is going to spend much time or return to a website they can't find anything on.

This idea first began to jell in my head at art school when an architecture instructor talked about Frank Lloyd Wright's philosophy and how he didn't believe in decorating his buildings, but wanted everything to serve a purpose. For him, at least according to this instructor, he believed in enhancing his buildings using the structure to increase the aesthetics, not merely decorating it to make it pretty. That struck me.

So why am I bringing this up? Recently I've been working on a brochure for a high end client who has very clear ideas about what they want. That part is good, because it makes the job go much quicker and the client usually ends up more satisfied. The bad part is they make requests that actually hurt the effectiveness and/or quality of the work. This client wanted boxes that contained the most important information in the brochure and therefore should be the most prominent to be more transparent so they blend into the background and make the text less legible. The transparency may add to the overall beauty, but it makes the text difficult to read and therefore less valuable. The boxes with a small transparency looked nice. But this request pushed the design into decoration territory. They're paying for it, so I'll give them what they want, but it is a lost opportunity.

When I first started working professionally, things like that really bothered me. I used to argue and fight with clients trying to bend them to my way of thinking. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. But I've been in this business long enough that I think very little of it. I've reached a point where a tell a client honestly, "Version A is more effective because of Reason 1, 2, and 3. Version B is less effective because of Faults 1, 2, and 3, but you are paying for the Work so I'll do what you want." It's worked well. I've done my job by informing and educating the client on what would give him or her the best results, but I don't fall into the typical graphic designer trap of "I'm so great and wonderful you should do whatever I say and not speak little dumb, uneducated public." That gets annoying and makes additional gigs hard to get.

The menu above is a design prototype to show a client what i thought would make a nice design for his Hostel. It looks quite inviting, but it's also practical in that it clearly lists items you can order, cost, a description of each, and they are divided by when you can order them. Beauty and functionality.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Genre - What is it, and do we need it?

I'm currently reading (actually listening to the Audible version) a new book by Neil Gaiman called The View from the Cheap Seats. It's a collection of introductions, speeches, and other nonfiction essays that were either published or delivered previously. At first that sounds like a really weird idea for a book and a pretty cheap way to get paid twice for the same work. But it's actually a pretty clever idea.

First, let me say that I am not a Neil Gaiman fan when it comes to fiction. I've read very little of his work, but everything I have read has left me unimpressed and uninterested. That just isn't my kind of fiction.

But I AM a Neil Gaiman fan when it comes to nonfiction. Whenever I see an interview online or an interview or an essay or some other glimpse into his mind, I always make it a point to watch/listen/read it, and most of the time I am thoroughly enthralled. Is that weird that I like one kind of his writing but not another kind? And it's not just his. There are other writers who I feel the same way about. And then there are writers whose fiction and nonfiction I really enjoy. I can't explain it.

But back to the book. Most of the events the speeches were delivered at, the books the introductions were written for, and the websites the interviews were published at I would probably never read/visit/hear, so having all of these collected into one book is a real treasure, because I get dessert without having to eat the nasty main course first. (I don't do this will actual food--usually.)

In one of his essays, he discusses genre and gives a really good answer. He says genre is something that helps a reader find something he wants by telling him what something isn't and pointing him away from things he probably isn't interested in. He uses the shelves of a bookstore with books located in sections. There are a lot of books in a bookstore, and one can get lost and not find what one is looking for without help. A reader who is looking for a space adventure doesn't need to waste time looking in the cookbook section, because he won't find any space adventures amongst all the recipes. (Of course, Neil explains it much better than I am.)

I've always thought of genre as a snobby term for category or type, and it is used that way a lot. I've also felt genre was too limiting telling an author what a story can and can't be, which sometimes is helpful to keep the story cohesive and coherent, but other times is too limiting. I've read a lot of science fiction that was equally a mystery or thriller or romance or some other "unrelated" genre. Growing up, my favorite shows were those that ignored the boundaries of genre and offered you a serving of everything on each plate (episode) such as SuperFriends, Jonny Quest, G.I. Joe, He-Man, and M.A.S.K., just to name a few. I found shows that are locked strictly into their genre to be a little boring and predictable.

But not everyone shares my opinion. A lot of people want their stories to be very constrained and get upset when an element from another genre creeps in. A novel I published a few years ago received a review on YouTube criticizing the book for being all over the place. The reviewer wasn't sure what kind of book it was nor who it was written for. The answer is obvious: I wrote it for me. That's the kind of fiction I like. That's the kind of fiction I buy.

So what does this have to do with the illustration above? I'm glad you asked!

I recently discovered a musician named Lindsey Stirling. She mixes classical music with techno, much like I do. Mmmm, a musician after my own heart. In one of the videos (shown below) she features dancing pirates. This reminded me of a WW Denslow illustration from Father Goose with pirates and dancing sailors. I decided to do my own take on this idea. As I worked on it, it slowly morphed into a Steampunk illustration. I'm not a big fan of steampunk, but while looking for inspiration and reference material, I stumbled across the fact that Steampunk, a genre, has been broken into over a dozen subgenres like Teslapunk. Who knew? It's amazing that something that seems so narrow and niche can be further subdivided, and yet, like Neil Gaiman said, it's wonderful because it helps me quickly eliminate those works I'm not interested in. And it presents me with many I might be interested in that I might otherwise overlook due to the sheer number of options.

Anyway, enjoy the illustration above, and enjoy the video of Lindsey and her dancing pirates below.

Monday, September 12, 2016


I created this for DeviantArt to celebrate 12,000 hits. It's colored in the style from The Phantom Coach, but with hand drawn lines and The Auction style texturing. Maybe my next comic will look like this.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Beauty of Black & White

No one can deny the power of color. No other element can draw the eye quicker or more powerfully. 

But color isn't perfect. It speaks to the visual part of our brain which is more ambiguous than the auditory part. Like words, black and white images communicate ideas much more clearly and more precisely. I've heard several theories on why this is, but I'm not sure anyone actually knows.

Above and below are two images from the Wandering Koala Adult Coloring Book. The book collects the Wandering Koala 80-page Giant #1, but strips out the color so the reader can add them himself. Or he can choose to enjoy the story in it's more raw form. Read it both ways and see which one draws you in quicker and tighter.