About that space illustration you keep seeing around

My thought process on choosing color and illustration style. Originally published on the official Adobe blog

It was 2013. I sat down, played some music, dimmed the lights, and opened my laptop. Had a ton of shit to do. In an attempt to summon inspiration, I started mindlessly drawing lines from one corner of the screen to the other, when suddenly a comet formed. “Hm…”, my brain was slowly waking up, “…what if I connect the lines and add some planets”. Being the master procrastinator I am, I did just that. And I did a couple more things after that. Few hours later I had my most popular Dribbble shot, as well as my most popular illustration ever.

An illustration that I had no idea would inspire its own illustration trend with many designers and companies around the world re-creating it, re-iterating it, re-imagining it… I guess it really hit me when I read Meg Robichaud’s answer in a Dribbble interview about her all-time favorite Dribbble shot:

I mean the colours and the shapes are stunning, and of course, it’s space: awesome. The reason it’s my favourite shot is because I spot people with it as their phone or desktop wallpaper all the time, and it’s like this awesome little badge: “Yeah I know you got that on Dribbble. Wanna stop whatever we’re doing and talk about Dribbble?”

When I read this I though “Wow. This is real. I’m not imagining it”.

So, having a bunch of tutorial requests constantly coming my way, I’m finally sharing a how-to, and more importantly, the thought process behind it. Enjoy!

The illustration style

Illustration style is basically all about self-imposed limitations. And my brain is constantly coming up with these weird rules when I illustrate stuff. It’s almost like ridiculous challenges that I can’t stand to pass over — What if I draw a human using only circles? What if I illustrate a sunset using only one color? And bam, a new illustration style is born.

Geometric rules, logical progressions, symmetry. There’s something very appealing in having strict mathematical rules applied to art. It feels like reverse engineering magic, it strips away the mystical element in art so it’s almost like revealing the science behind it.

The space illustration has two of these rules.

The rounded wavy pattern

This wavy pattern is the foundation of the space illustration, since almost every object is made up of it. The wavy pattern is actually alternating inwards and outwards curves. Let me show you how it can be easily created in Adobe Illustrator.

First, draw some rectangles with the same height. The spacing between the rectangles should be the height of one rectangle. You can turn on “Show Grid” and “Snap to Grid” to make it easier.

Next, fill the gaps with some more rectangles, but make sure that these are shorter than the first batch of rectangles in order to form the inwards curves. Select all and merge into one shape.

Lastly, drag the live corners to round them until they form perfect semi-circles. Ta-da! You just drew a bunch of hotdogs stacked together.

Combining various lengths and sizes of hotdogs, you can already start forming objects:

The 30° Tilt

Every object in the illustration tilts at 30°.
Why even tilt in the first place? The objects in the illustration are things floating in space, which by definition are disjointed, because they’re… well, floating in space. So synchronizing their direction creates a nice unity.

Ok, but why tilt at 30°? A right angle or a horizontal direction is too symmetric and understimulating. Diagonal tilt breaks the symmetry in a synchronized way. The reason why 30°, and not 45, or 20, or 15… is just that I like it better. Because 30° is clearly the best angle in the world, ever.

At this point, we have the shapes and the tilt, which sort of looks like this:

The colors

As it turns out, my brain is fairly lazy when it comes to choosing color. It categorizes any illustration in one of the two categories — simple or complex. It then chooses a color palette accordingly.

Complex illustrations have high granularity level, with many shapes/objects and a lot of detail. These are usually very pattern-like by nature and don’t have one clear focus point. My brain has decided that these types of illustrations apparently work well with monochromatic or analogous color palettes. Or, in broader terms — less colors and less color contrast. All this boils down to visual balance, so if the shapes are crazy, the colors should be tame.

On the other hand, illustrations with lower complexity usually have a clear focus point and clear object hierarchy. On the shape side of things these illustrations seem to be rather straightforward, so the color choices can be wilder. High contrasting colors of any kind — complementary, triadic, tetradic, whateveradic as long as it’s an eye-catching, stimulating palette.

There’s a whole universe in-between what I described as complex and simple illustrations, but my brain is not too concerned with all that spectrum, it’d rather label any illustration as either complex or simple. Sorry about that.

The triadic color palette

Due to the repetitive pattern and shapes, the space illustration apparently belongs in the “simple illustration” category. So I went nuts with the color palette, which is a roughly triadic choice of magenta, cyan and orange, with a violet background. Yay, a little bit of everything!

Here’s how that looks like on the color wheel:

I promise I was not intending on drawing a peace sign✌️

The violet background is naturally the most present color percentage-wise, but the magenta and cyan are perceptually most dominant. The orange appears very little, so it’s more of an accent color, to create a bit of contrast.

I chose violet as a background because it’s the glue color connecting all objects, so it needs to work well with each of the other colors separately. On the color wheel it’s located exactly halfway in-between the dominant colors — magenta and cyan, so it’s perfectly harmonious with both. It also works well with the accent color, orange, because they’re complementary colors.

Pattern breakers

Very often illustrations created with strict rules tend to be a bit too…. patterny? Predictable and boring, just too much of the same thing. Like, way too many hotdogs. So I was looking for ways to break the pattern in a way that doesn’t break the rules.

The glow

I added glow in the same color of the planet, which looks quite realistic for lighter objects against a darker background. Glow also blurs the sharp borders a bit, and it gives the planets a physical property without breaking the flatness. I created the final composition and added the glow in Photoshop after porting all objects from Illustrator as smart objects.

The glass atmosphere

The glass atmosphere was a last minute addition, and it’s again a physical property that creates more depth. There is no big secret in how this was achieved, it’s a simple combination of placement and a clipping mask:

  1. Add a solid circle between the big planet and the objects behind it. Add subtle glow to the circle layer, using Overlay as the blending mode.
  2. Create a copy of the objects, place them on top of the circle layer, and optionally tweak the colors to be slightly lighter.
  3. Create a clipping mask. Select the copies of the objects, and right click > Create Clipping Mask.

It’s a wrap!

After applying the hotdogs, the tilt, the colors, the glow and the glass atmosphere, you should be pretty much done by now! Here‘s a quick recap:

I’m curious to see how you apply the techniques to your own illustrations as well, so please do send your experiments my way. Thank you for reading! (◉ᴗ◉)

Check out my stuff on Behance or Dribbble, and feel free to fist bump me on Twitter!