Making ‘True Blue’
How we integrated story, illustration, and design to create an internet public art project.
A few years ago, I received an email from my friend David Cohen, “I’ve had an idea for a book for a while. I thought I’d send it to you because I sure as hell am never going to write it.” David went on to present a thought experiment: What if your future was determined by the color of your eyes?
Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret. If you start writing books, your friends will start sending you ideas. Strangers too. You’ll get very good at letting people down easy. After all, you have your own dreams to bring to life.
But David’s premise stuck with me, lurking in the shadows of my subconscious and rearing its head when I least suspected. It would visit me as I took the dog on a walk or did the dishes. It made me think of my opa whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis and my oma who risked her life every day to fight in the Dutch Resistance. Every time the idea resurfaced, it took on weight and texture, building up creative momentum until I had no choice but to write it.
True Blue became a story about being true to yourself even when the world turns against you, a story about standing up instead of standing by, a story about finding the courage to stop caring what other people think.
When True Blue was originally published on Kindle, readers started reaching out to say what it meant to them and share their own stories, many of which were profoundly moving. It made me wonder whether there might be a way to let True Blue grow beyond its four thousand words of prose. What could it mean to tell a story in a format optimized for its content, to use illustration and web design to further the narrative, to make the entire project, and the creative process behind it, a piece of public art on the internet?
So I wrote David an email of my own that expanded this question into a proposal, and he offered to support the experiment with a small grant.
The first person I called was Peter Nowell.
Peter is a dear friend and an incredibly talented designer. I’ve always been amazed by his ability to work across mediums as disparate as web, wood, and type. If art is anything made with care, he is one of those people who brings so much care to everything he makes that his attention renders it transcendent.
I was hoping to get Peter’s advice because I knew he would challenge my assumptions and think through everything from first principles.
But Peter ambushed me.
Instead of dispensing advice, he offered to partner on the project.
We started by asking big, messy, mutually exclusive questions. What if we adapted True Blue into a physical comic book? What if we turned it into an animated film? What if we partnered with a magazine to run it as a splashy fictional feature? What if we launched it on Kickstarter? What if the story was a physical space that you walked through?
As often happens with this particular kind of yes, and… discussion, the brainstorms expanded and multiplied before collapsing under their own weight. We excavated some key conclusions from the rubble:
- The story would be visual.
- The story would live online.
- The story would not be a comic, an article, an illustrated book, a website, or an art installation, but something that used these forms as ingredients in a recipe we would have to make up as we went along.
With these three objectives in mind, we set out to find an artist.
Peter and I scoured the internet for art and artists whose sensibilities connected with True Blue. We reviewed portfolios, made and cross-referenced lists of prospects, interviewed candidates, and winnowed the field down to a few finalists.
Along the way, we drafted a creative brief that outlined things like our goals, timeline, visual style, lookbook, and other things like design philosophy:
Separately, we collected images that seemed to resonate at the same frequency as the story into a mood board:
And Peter used a few of those images to create rough mockups that showed how the text and illustrations might ultimately come together:
We also broke the True Blue text down to show where illustrations could fit into the story:
These assets proved invaluable as we searched for the right artist because we were able to give them something concrete to review and better communicate the overall vision for the project. We needed an artist who wanted to play a role in art direction, rather than executing concepts we assigned. By seeing what we were thinking, candidates could jump right in and tell us where we were right or wrong and how they would approach things differently.
After a two month search, we found an artist who inspired us so much we couldn’t not work with her: Phoebe Morris.
Phoebe is an award-winning illustrator who has worked on a wide range of projects, from children’s books to physical installations. We loved the breadth of her range and the combination of thoughtfulness and whimsy that infuses her work:
We also loved how she used digital tools to bring web projects to life without distracting from their emotional impact:
But more than anything, we loved how she brought her own vision to the table, how she made True Blue hers. We hadn’t found an illustrator. We had found a third partner.
Over the course of the following year, Phoebe illustrated True Blue.
She began by scoping the entire project. She identified how illustrations could deepen the story’s emotional impact, build out its imaginary world, embody the themes, and let the narrative grow in new directions. She mapped out every image, inserting them into the text to create a rhythm between prose and art. Then we got together and discussed the plan she’d created, fine tuning it based on story structure and design constraints.
Peter is based in Argentina, Phoebe in New Zealand, and I’m in California, so we did all the reviews and coordination over Skype, juggling time zones, screen sharing, and working through the inevitable glitches and time delays. Coordinating via the imperfect but ubiquitous digital cosmos was both miraculous and surreal, an emotional tone we hoped to capture in the project itself.
With her plan in place, Phoebe got to work. She put down rough line work as a guide and then filled in large areas to establish zones of light and dark. Then she built up scenes in ever greater detail and added texture. She used both physical and digital illustration techniques — leveraging the flexibility and capacity for high detail of digital drawing apps with the messy physicality of real charcoal and watercolor. This approach had the added benefit of breaking the illustrations into many different layers that Peter would be able to adjust later while designing the responsive website. There was a lot of trial and error along the way as we discovered the individual identity of each illustration and established an overall style.
Because this would be a public art project, Phoebe pushed herself to go beyond a traditional commercial aesthetic. She created a cinematic storyboard, watching the story play out like a film in her mind’s eye, and was constantly asking herself about lighting and where the “camera” should go. She varied her compositions between big world-building shots, tiny vignettes, and intimate scenes, knowing that we’d be able to think outside-the-box on layout and spacing because it would be published on a custom site. She paid particular attention to metaphor, balancing literal and abstract visual description to transport readers and challenge them to bring their own imaginations to the table.
Having a year to move through the different phases of illustrating True Blue gave Phoebe space to wander and, in doing so, occasionally stumble on hidden pockets of creative insight. Over the course of that year, it was amazing to see the project’s visual identity emerge, halting at first, and then building up momentum as it became ever more itself.
With illustrations in hand, Peter took the helm.
When he told friends about the project, their first question was always, “What is there to design?” The text was written. The art was ready. Surely, publishing the story online wasn’t that complicated.
They could have been right. Early on, we had talked to a few mainstream publications who were interested in partnering on the project. Had we joined forces, publishing the story would have consisted of uploading the final text and images into their CMS and hitting publish. But right away we realized that wasn’t going to work because we wanted the story itself to feel like an art piece, we wanted the illustrations to be sized and cropped differently for different screen sizes, and we wanted everything from the fonts to the background textures to advance the narrative.
That meant Peter had a lot of work to do, work that went five times beyond what he had initially scoped. He designed the custom lettering, the cover page and afterword, the layout and typesetting, the chapter transitions, the logo, the icon, and the seamless backgrounds running between the illustrations. Peter wrote code that smoothed out the reading experience and minimized load times. He created micro-animations that brought certain illustrations to life, and he gave everything rough, hand-made edges, eschewing the pixel-perfect lines of the digital.
Peter also lead the art direction and post-production on the illustrations. Nowhere was this more evident than than the process of incorporating the color blue. From the beginning, we imagined a black and white style with occasional bursts of blue, but during the illustration phase we realized that color couldn’t be applied to the images as an afterthought. A basic blue tint didn’t look good enough and didn’t advance the narrative. So Phoebe produced dozens of watercolor splashes, charcoal smudges, and physical textures that Peter meticulously adjusted and composited into the final pieces. Wherever it appears, we strove for the color blue to play its own artistic and narrative role.
One of the counterintuitive lessons we learned was how powerful it is to obscure certain details, letting readers bring more of their imagination to the story. Specifically, we discovered that detailed lines often trigger the sense of something being depicted for you, so we smudged and faded and shadowed until we felt the right balance of detail and suggestion. This philosophy carried through to design — which so often aims to reduce tension by making experiences simple, intuitive, and convenient. But stories thrive on conflict, and Peter challenged himself to use design to evoke tension instead of erasing it.
He even engineered a new tool that cropped images so that they adapted to different devices and screen sizes not only by changing size, but actually changing image composition to preserve narrative content and emotional impact. When I told him about the project over a slice of Arizmendi pizza, author/friend/media experimenter Robin Sloan coined a term for this new technique: Narrative Responsive Design.
Over the course of six months, the site came together and Peter created a consistent visual message with everything from the logotype to the chapter numbers so that the story itself became an artifact from the world of True Blue.
A few weeks before the site went live, I was troubleshooting some final issues with Peter. We were both feeling that unique blend of burgeoning terror and excitement at the prospect of sharing the project with the world. “Remember this moment,” I said. “Right now. This is the best part.” I was speaking as much to myself as to Peter, reminding us both that when a creative project accelerates into being, it’s important to pause for a moment and reflect on what it took to get there, and how it had changed us along the way. This post is our way of documenting that feeling for ourselves, and for you.
True Blue is an experiment. We wanted to tell a story with words, pictures, and the storytelling medium itself. We wanted to challenge ourselves to reimagine the shape of narrative. We wanted to create a little corner of the open web that is thoughtful, beautiful, and, we hope, moving. Even where we stumble, we hope you find our mistakes instructive.
“What if?” is the question that powers speculative fiction. Imaginative stories invite us to experience plausible realities unlike our own. In doing so, they empower us to confront the myriad hidden assumptions we take for granted in our day-to-day lives. We cannot explore new worlds and return unchanged.
Making True Blue was a hell of a journey. Read it to embark on a journey of your own.