DESIGN CRIT 012
Compositionally it’s pretty flat, there’s no implied perspective, although we do get some sense that this chain link is behind the other stuff, so there’s a tiny bit of depth. And the color overall is mostly midtones, kind of a brown-purple wash over the whole thing, so it’s low contrast color-wise, which contributes to that flatness, and I think we can improve on that. But he’s kind of building a feeling here, he said he’s trying to reference the 90s with the videotape affect, and convey the broke, dirty lifestyle of this group of skaters. And I think he’s got some good touches that start to do that, but they’re really tiny and spread out. It’s sorta sparse. So it might be fun to go the other direction and make this sort of maximal, if you will, with a lot of relevant signifiers, which if you remember are just those visual elements that a viewer can piece together to glean some sort of meaning. Visual signifiers are the things that mean stuff.
Like, Lords of Dogtown actually takes place in the 1970s, but Angelo wanted something that was about the 90s, so he’s got the VHS stuff and this cover from RayGun magazine, which is very 90s. In various ways, they signify aspects of that era. And we can find ways to push that harder. But first, I think we need to make definite references to skateboarding, because at first glance I wasn’t really aware that this whole two thirds of the frame is a skateboard. It just looked like a wall. Not that you can’t find it if you’re really looking for it, but the important signifiers that tell you what it is, like the shape of it and the wheels and so forth… those are really hidden, so the idea of a skateboard is kind of hidden. And the skateboard is an important signifier itself, telling us what this is all about, so it should probably be a more apparent focal point in the frame. Tearing it apart, it looks like the board itself is actually fake. I don’t know why, but it’s just some wheels on a piece of wood, so we can’t really pull it more into frame to better convey “skateboard”. Sometimes you have to fake something like this, but when you can, why not get the real thing? I found this one that’s fairly high resolution, so we can use it more how we need to, and as a big bonus we get the benefit of it being authentic and real instead of faked.
That said, of course, some aspects of this one signify the wrong things, so… bye bye happy face. Bye bye bright yellow paint. Now we can bring it in and we’ve got something that’s recognizeable as a skateboard and also doesn’t have those signifers that would be kind of inappropriate or confusing to this idea of scrappy skate punks. You can take this idea of signifiers as far as you want to go with them, too, adding and subtracting things to change their qualities and change how people feel about them. So we took away the cartoon face, we added some more wood grain. Now adding some grit makes it kind of a dirty skateboard, which says something about how it’s used, and the kind of person who might use it. Even a small detail like this rough edge helps tell the viewer a little more. And that’s all mostly subconscious, but that’s how we read a lot of things as viewers. We feel them, more than anything. So we’ve changed this to convey something different than this. Something more appropriate to our theme.
And then we’ll layer some stuff on top, so I’ve spent some time on my own gathering elements that just feel like skate punk culture to me. I’m not a skater, so this is really my interpretation of it, not something that comes from actual experience. And in any design project, especially one that has some narrative like this, you’re first calling on your own experience as much as you can, to provide as much of an authentic and unique perspective on it as possible. And then second you’re doing as much research as you can with the time that you have, to sort of supplement that real world experience. For me, that research is mostly going and looking at imagery and going down some rabbit holes. Just doing an image search for skateboards, I came across some brands, which I then searched, and saw some typography examples that made me think of concerts, so I searched that and came across some photos from shows. While you’re researching, you’re selecting certain ideas and engaging in the third part, which is interpretation. You look at a bunch of fairly broad stuff, and go toward what makes sense to you. You get ideas and eventually it can get pretty specific, but it’s your specific. Use your experience and knowledge, add to it with your research, and mix it all into your interpretation.
Drop this guy back in, and you can already see where Angelo and I have diverged. Our experiences are different, our research was different, and our interpretations are different. I’m still gonna try to use as many of his elements as I can, but I want to build out a background, starting with some lo-fi wheatpaste posters. I’m taking this image of a skater and treating it as something done with old screenprinting technology, dirtying it up, making it imperfect, and also something of its time and place. I’m combining all of these signifiers of imperfection, misuse, and old low budget printing technologies with skating imagery. Y’know it’s all wrapped together to kind of subconsciously tell people things. For example, this is Angelo’s image of mangled chain link fence, which works here, it’s a good idea, I’m just gonna use it in a different way. But even just by itself it means something, it signifies things. Damaged chain link probably reminds you of run down or forgotten spaces. Property that’s been broken into, probably by people who don’t have a whole lot of regard for property, y’know? It calls to mind some things, and when you put it in the context of this other stuff, it starts to build an overall picture that people can kind of understand. Again, maybe not explicitly, but subconsciously. They feel it, they get it. It tells part of the story.
And I’ll apply it to another of these wheatpaste posters. We’ll do a few. By the way, this halftone effect is super easy, and completely non-destructive. Look for a link in the description to a small photoshop file you can use to get this effect, and to tutorial for it by texturelabs, which is an awesome channel for this sort of stuff. If you keep pushing this technique, you can get color overprinting looks and do all sorts of cool grimy retro stuff. It’s really fun to play with
So now we’re starting to get a density of visual elements, and paying attention to how you compose them becomes more and more important. It’s a balancing act, really. Because while some areas of the frame may be really full and even chaotic, you still probably want some other areas that are less chaotic, less dense, just so your viewer’s eye isn’t flying all around the frame, not knowing where to look. It can mean moving your pieces around, arranging them, but it can also very much mean that certain aspects of those individual elements need to change. Brighter here, darker there, maybe you’ve gotta flip something around. I built these posters to work on their own, but now that they’re just elements in this composition, their guts have to be scooched around sometimes to work better for the job they’re doing here. Same with the board. It still works in this larger composition, but it needs a little adjustment.
I also want to consider the depth between these things. Just to allow some to sit in front of and behind others a bit. A touch of shadowing painted in helps that out. The original was pretty flat, and we’re keeping to the same straight on view that he had, with the horizontal skateboard and the guy, so it’s not going to have crazy perspective or anything but I think it feels livelier if there’s even just a little sense of depth.
And I’ll bring in even more elements, some from the original, and some that I’ve gone out and found. If you spend some time doing research, you can collect things you see along the way. Elements you want to import, or just things that inspire ideas you want to try. You don’t have to use everything that you gather, but if you’re trying to go kind of maximal, like we are here, it helps to have a lot of stuff to choose from. Some of it will naturally get buried in the frame, but it can still really enrich the overall character of your design just by being part of that specific mass of stuff. Each little bit still counts toward that, and you want to take care, as much as possible, to make sure that each little bit says the right thing, tells its part of the story. This polaroid is probably gonna be buried under stuff, but it needs to feel like amateur photography and be that specific kind of old, or it’ll feel entirely out of place, so I’ll spend the time to give it those qualities, those visual signifiers, that make it feel like it belongs here. The yellowing, the grit, the fading, you see what I’m talking about.
I also thought: ok we’ve got three skate posters here, we’re pushing that idea pretty hard, so why don’t we take one of them and make it a concert poster instead. Something lo-fi and gritty, of course. Something rock or punk to develop our theme in that direction a bit. And again, I pulled that idea from going out and looking at stuff, getting ideas from it, grabbing imagery from the search, and figuring out what it means and how it might work together with the other stuff. And then I did my own remix of it. The lightning bolt icon and the star and the singer and the logo all come from completely different references, but they work together in this halftone treatment well enough that when you throw it into the mix under this other stuff, it just becomes another part of this overall story that’s kind of developing. My imaginary take on 90s skate punk culture.
Well, it’s kind of my take filtered through Angelo’s basic elements and composition. Straight on, horizontal skateboard with tiny guy on top of it, and surrounded by the elements of his environment: spray paint, chain link fencing, graffiti, stickers, but done in a more maximal way. And what I added to get that maximalism wasn’t just “more stuff”. What I tried to add was more narrative. More things that relate to the theme and make a more specific take on that theme. And as a result I think this rework just has more to say about the theme. It conveys more character through the details that are carefully curated and crafted. When you look at it, there’s more to understand about the culture it’s describing. It’s interpretation of that culture is different, for sure, and you can see that even in surface decisions as basic as how bright it is, or how much activity there is in the frame. That’s compositional stuff, and that really helps support the narrative, but the thing I hope you take away from this is that in the end, the narrative makes the real difference; the understanding that you give people about the topic. And the work you do to develop and convey that narrative counts a whole lot toward whether people find it interesting or not. That doesn’t mean more is better, it means more consideration is almost always better. Come to it with your pre-existing knowledge, add to that as much research and exploration as you can afford to do, and then find your interpretation of it as you attend to the details with care for how they’re going to add to the story or mood or narrative.
It’s not a fast process, this took me a few days. And you rarely have a huge amount of time for each of those steps if someone is paying you to make work, but finding ways to incorporate research and experimentation will almost always be your best bet, and will result in more interesting designs. If you’re asked to make something in as little as a few hours, take the first 20 or 30 minutes and see what you can dig up. I find that almost every single time just a google image search for whatever the project involves, gives me a better grounding in the topic, helps give me better ideas, and generally makes the whole process easier and more inspired. It’s just such an easy advantage to give yourself.
So definitely give that a go when you’re starting a new project. And just for fun, try out this maximalist strategy of adding in more and more detailed, crafted, relevant little bits, to make your design richer and richer. It can get chaotic, but with the formmaking skills you work on in the first few parts of the Visual Design Lab, you can get control of it and really start wrangling some awesome designs.
Alright, have fun with it! See you soon.