Lifting the Veil on the Ugly.
So I love a good process post as good as the next person. It’s one of my favorite things to read, when other fantastic designers break down their thought process and inspiration points. It really gives you a whole new level of appreciation for their talent. Awesome. I’ve never done one of these process posts. One reason is that generally, I think they often come off as looking too easy. It’s great to see how the inspiration led to the sketches that in turn led to a couple of concepts that led to a final piece but it’s not often you see a lot of wrong turns, dead ends and frankly, shit that didn’t work. So that’s what I’m going to do with this post.
I was excited to hear about a collaborative project started by Joe Geis called The 69 Project. Each contributor took a song that was written and released in 1969 and illustrated what that song made them think and feel. There were a few simple rules. No use of photography (illustration only) and no use of the lyrics to the song. I chose “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone. Great. I love illustration and I love music so it should be easy right? Wrong. This was like pulling teeth and honestly, I really struggled with it. Like, really really struggled. It was probably about 3 weeks from start to finish and I produced an absolute mountain of garbage. Ultimately, I’m pretty happy with the final outcome. Not ecstatic, but given the difficulties I had with this one I’m willing to go along with the thought that done is better than perfect.
I think as designers we often pull a veil over the tough parts of our process. We love posting pixel perfect shots to Dribbble and Instagram and Twitter and even when we share process posts it’s often lovingly shot photos of sheets of paper with beautifully rendered fine line marker sketches and half finished cups of coffee. This is great but why do we do it? Is it really to give others insight into what we do and how we do it? Or are we doing it for ourselves? Each can answer that question for themselves but by glossing over the tough parts we do a dis-service to those who may be reading those posts and wondering why it might not be so easy for them. I believe that when we lift the veil off of our process it should be exposed for what it is. So here is mine. It’s kind of a mess, and frankly most of this I’m embarrassed to show anyone but what the hell.
I’ve always been a huge Soul and Funk fan. I originally wanted to do a Curtis Mayfield song but his first solo album wasn’t released until 1970 so I landed on Sly Stone and the seminal “Stand” album. I wanted to strike a balance between the uncut fun of the band at that stage of their recording career and some of the more socially reflective moments on that album. “Everyday People” is a stone cold classic and summed up by the refrain “We’ve got to live together”. They were also formed in San Francisco and I liked the idea of integrating the city where I live into the design somehow. San Francisco was a fulcrum for social change at the time and it felt right that a song that is an appeal for equality should come from this city.
What did I want to achieve with this illustration? I wanted it to reflect everything that the song was. Fun. Inclusive. Celebratory. Colorful. That’s casting a pretty wide net but these words also dovetail nicely with what I’m generally trying to do with my illustration and side projects right now.
My First Mistake.
OK, so I decided to try and be part of this project before I saw any submissions from other contributors. I should have worked on my piece before checking out some of the pieces that started being posted. They were all amazing. Cue waves of self-doubt, inadequacy and questioning whether I could produce something that could sit comfortably alongside some of the mind-blowing work already on display. Also scanning the list of contributors only reinforced these feelings. I know the work of almost everybody on there and they’re all uber talented. I began to question whether the ideas I was turning over would even amount to average.
Classic schoolboy error. It took a fair bit of effort to push these thoughts aside and concentrate on just trying to produce something I was happy with but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t resurface several times as I was locking a concept and execution down.
I felt like I wanted to step out of my comfort zone on this one. My illustration style is generally pretty tight with detailed, mono line weights. I wanted to try something that felt a lot looser and organic. I’ve never been particularly comfortable with texture so this was a chance to try some new techniques.
I also really really love the album cover for Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”. It’s so iconic. I felt that I might want to pay homage to that in some way. It’s also a great commentary on the state of things in the US and is as relevant now as it ever was.
I started pulling together a Pinterest board thinking about the Stars and Stripes, San Francisco and loose paint strokes and textures.
OK Now What?
I liked the idea of the raised fist salute or the v-peace-sign-thing. These felt like a way to signify protest against the way things were/are and at the same time be a message of positivity and inclusion. My first concept was to incorporate the raised fist and the flag and then work in the city skyline. Like the raised fist salute was rising out of San Francisco itself. I wanted to use watercolor or paint roller textures to add some grit and I was planning on buying some ink, rollers etc and doing it all myself rather than using scanned or bought brushes and textures in Photoshop.
Here are the quick sketches and vector iterations on the flag/fist motif I worked through.
I wasn’t totally happy with these but I was at least content enough that I wanted to push on with this concept and see how it might work as a composition. I grabbed a couple of ink textures online and a vector of the San Francisco skyline from Shutterstock. I would rework these elements if I was to pursue this concept to completion but I wasn’t confident enough that it was going to work to invest that time right now.So I pulled these rough elements together in Photoshop to see if it might work. As you can see it did not.
Looks like crap right? At this point I was pretty happy that I hadn’t invested more time. Maybe when it came time to actually put ink on paper it would look better but once I’d put this together I pretty much decided to scrap the concept.
Back to the Drawing Board.
OK so I went back to my inspiration. I still liked the idea of the flag. I decided to try a watercolor type effect for a flag and then overlay the raised fist or v-salute. I sketched it out super quick.
I liked how some of these individual elements looked but I messed around for forever trying to get a good composition and sense of color balance. I really struggled figuring out how to balance the white stripes (or negative space) against the hand. I tried a one color flag, removing the stripes altogether and just having the stars. I also messed around with my daughter’s paint set to see how it might look when I actually put brush to paper. Let’s just say it was never going to look as good as this example that I found online. I was pretty bummed. None of my concepts were coming together into something that looked right. It just looked and felt “wrong”.
The one highlight of this part of the process was that I was pretty happy with the hand I had drawn. It felt fun but still made some kind of statement. Honestly I worried that the peace sign was way too cliché and expected. But at the same time I had tried to draw a raised fist salute in the same linear vector style and, as you can see below, they all looked like shit. I pushed on with the peace sign and experimented with grouping them as if hundreds of people were raising them simultaneously. I also was thinking about color palette. I obviously wasn’t ready to let go of the flag concept quite yet.
I made a few versions of the hand and started placing them on the square canvas and once I had some color in there I felt so much happier.
The last step was to tighten up on the composition and finalize the color palette. I wanted to reference the colors of people he sang about in the song. I went back to the original album cover and sampled the colors from there. I thought it was a nice connection between my piece and the original.
The Final Submission.
This is what I emailed out to Joe.
So that was pretty arduous right? Yeah. It was for me too. I’m relatively happy with where I ended up. It could be better but we all probably think about most things we design so I’m OK with calling it done. What was interesting about this process was how completely bereft of inspiration I was for the longest time at the start. But I just let it marinade in my subconscious for a while. When I gave it some dedicated brain time I could feel bits and pieces coming together but I trusted that it would slowly come together which ultimately it did.
Sometimes inspiration hits us with a flash of bright light and we can’t get the ideas down on the paper fast enough. Sometimes we need to work a lot harder for it, as I did in this case. It’s worth remembering that the amazing work that we all see posted online has had it’s own journey. Some of it easy, some of it hard and every shade in between. We should be honest about that.
As soon as I finished writing this I shared it with a couple of trusted friends to get some initial feedback. As soon as I did that I felt a wave of panic set over me. What if they judged me on the quality of my work? What if they thought my process was flawed? What if they thought I was less of a designer because I shared all the terrible work? What if people that I may work with / for see it and think I’m not as good as they thought I might be.
It’s interesting how easy it is to fall back into a feeling of inadequacy. I think I’m going to fighting the urge to delete this post for while. Let’s see how long that lasts and how people react to it.