Ready, Set, Design (in 30 minutes!)

In any design job, you face deadlines. Clients want things right this very minute! Or, they needed it yesterday! (My boss likes to throw that one out at me a lot.) But what if you had only 30 minutes to design something … and it was actually kind of fun?

A couple of weeks ago, I got the privilege to participate in the annual Sacramento City College Show-Off Competition in the faculty division. The competition is part of our annual end-of-year student show for the Graphic Communications department at the college. There’s a faculty version, a student version and a 3D rendering version. And yes, it was as much fun to participate as it was to watch.

The faculty version pitted myself; Don Button, department chair and Photoshop whiz; Chris Seddon, my boss at the graphic design lab and an Illustrator whiz; and Tom Cappelletti, teacher of many disciplines in our department.

Our task? We were given a topic on the spot, had 15 minutes to brainstorm and then 30 minutes to design an 11″ x 17″ poster on said topic. Our topic was “Tagging Yourself.” We had to choose five words that described ourselves and design a poster using mainly typography to convey the message.

Don won the competition (winners were determined by popular vote). I came in second by a tiny margin. I was quite honored, as Don was a teacher of mine and is highly respected here in Sacramento. Don also won last year’s competition so he’s an old hand at this. :)

This was my entry:


This was my brainstorming sketch (you can see that I thought of the concept pretty early … drawing the profile face was the biggest challenge):


This was Don’s winning entry. If you know Don, you’ll know this is very much him:


In all, the whole experience was a blast! There was also a ton of great student work at the show. If you want to read more about it (and see the winning student and 3D entries), visit the GCOM@SCC blog!

[Super thanks to Andrea Diaz-Vaughn, who headed the planning committee (and invited me to participate in the faculty show) and GC Club president Priscilla Garcia)!]

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Blending, shading and the blend tool in Illustrator

As promised, here are some tips on using the blend tool to make gradients in Illustrator. We’ll take the jellybean in the previous post about shading and do this:


First off, if you are unfamiliar with the awesomeness of the blend tool, here is some great reading to get your started:

The Blend Tool really is a great tool that can not only help you create custom gradients, but can help you create custom shapes and effects easily. In this case, I’m using it for creating gradients, but it’s really a fun tool that’s worth playing around with.

People always ask why you’d bother to use the Blend tool to make a gradient as opposed to the Gradient tool. Well, gradients created with the Gradient tool are mostly radial or linear. But sometimes you need a gradient to follow a specific path. In the instance above, I didn’t want the gradient to cover the entire jellybean (you’ll notice there is still some dark green to the left of the highlight, and that’s intentional).

Here’s a comparison between using the Gradient tool with a radial gradient (left image) and the Blend tool (right image):


See the difference in the spread of the gradient? You could probably manipulate the gradient’s size to get the same effect as the blend tool, but the gradient will still be a circle. This jellybean isn’t a perfect circle, so using the Blend tool can help in that aspect because you need the gradient to follow a certain path.

And with the Blend tool, I could also change the shape of the highlight (which was a thin oval to begin with) to also manipulate the gradient. If I needed a shorter highlight, I could do that, or if I wanted to change the curve of the highlight and move it closer to the middle, I could change the original shape and the blend would follow.

Blending is really simple and before you know it, you’ll wind up with a bunch of fun jellybeans:


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Shading and such in Illustrator

Came across this fantastic post about doing basic shading in Illustrator the other day. If you’re one of those people who laments the flatness of your drawings in Illustrator (like me), it’s a great little read.

What I liked most about that post is that not only were the source files available for download, but that if you go through the source files, it’s basically a step-by-step visual of the process. It also used a paper-and-pencil approach to shading and how to imagine light falling on an object so you can draw the shadows and highlights. Very much like the drawing class I’m taking (funny, we just went over shading a couple of weeks ago there).

Inspired by that post — and a drawing class exercise in which we had to draw jellybeans — here’s a little jellybean drawn in Illustrator.


Only four shapes! See how it was done after the jump.

In a later post, I’ll also show how to try and make it more realistic using the Blend tool and some blurs. Fun!

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Illustrator Brush Basics

In our Mac Lab at Sac City, I used to get all kinds of questions about making and using brushes in Illustrator. I also came across a great scatter brush primer online a little while ago, which reminded me I should probably write up a brush tutorial. (It’s also almost mid-semester here at the college, which is right about when all the students start asking about those brushes.) :)

Without further ado, here are some brush tips for Illustrator so you can do things like this:

picture sun

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By popular demand

Afro Man in space

This took way longer than it should have

This took way longer than it should have

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My epic build: Update No. 3

I realized it had been a while since I last posted an update on my workings with the Go Green California Business site I was working on. Nope, the project didn’t die. :)

We had an original launch date of February 9, but decided (much to my relief) to push that launch all the way to April 22. One week after tax day.

I finally managed to move the site onto a live server and filled it out a little more.

Last I left off, I had built most of the WordPress templates. Now it was time to actually start filling the site out with some content, add some plugins and put a little meat onto the site:

It was all working and looking good so far. (Whew!)

I even managed to install bbPress for the forum and style it correctly. (I was on a roll.)

In the process, I was also thinking about usability for our own staff, since we’re the ones who have to update the site. The main thing I had to figure out was how all the ads would get switched out. Then I discovered the Improved Include Page plugin, which was an absolute godsend. I was able to make the three advertising spots separate pages that were easy to update thanks to that plugin!

Now it’s just a matter of filling in yet more content and crossing my fingers. And lots and lots of testing and tweaking and such.

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Space Dementia!

Afro Man in all his glory.

Afro Man in all his glory.

OK, so Illustrator is my weak point designwise. (My head is my weakpoint otherwise). I’ve always been terrible at drawing, although I turned that into an asset when I was in high school to draw a giant series of awful comics called Afro Man.

So, with that in mind, I signed up for a basic Illustrator class this semester. I’m not entertaining any delusions that learning a computer program will make me better at drawing. The idea is that hopefully I can use computer magic to get around my shortcomings and make something by hand that’s actually usable. I’m a big fan of repurposing just about anything, but I recognize that it can only go so far.

So, I thought it might be interesting to keep a log of stuff I make in Illustrator to (hopefully) watch my skills improve. One of the the early assignments in the class was to make a space scene.  What I did was simple, mostly using basic shapes and colors, and OK, I used the flare tool, and yeah, stars aren’t shaped like that, and yeah, continents are neither brown nor do they look like paper cutouts, but hey… it’s a start?

My thought process while making this: "Flare tool? Shit yes."

My thought process while making this: "Flare tool? Shit yes."

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Getting your act (and portfolio) together

Came across this great article from Smashing Magazine: 10 Steps to the Perfect Portfolio Website.

Tons and tons of great tips, including how to make everything more concise and clear. I especially like the tip about having a tagline because I think that’s so important. You have to be able to sum yourself up in a few words and sell it! And what better way to do that than with a tagline?

There was also yet another incredibly valuable tip in that article, one that especially applies to designers who are just starting out: If you don’t have clients, create things. I wholeheartedly agree with that. Make a business card for yourself and put it in your portfolio. Design a theme. Design something because it’s better than nothing.

A lot of design students are unsure about what to put in portfolios, and really the best answer is any work that truly represents what you do. I’ve used final class projects before. I’ve had friends who used wallpapers they designed as part of their portfolios. Not everybody is a design genius who gets tons of clients right away! We all have to start somewhere, and schoolwork isn’t a bad start. As you get more clients, you can start putting more real-world work up. Again, it’s better than nothing!

And while having a web portfolio is pretty important, don’t forget that having a “book” is handy too. I usually get one of those nice black ones you see at the art stores. What size you get depends on your work. I tend to do a lot of tabloid-sized posters, so I have one that’s 11 x 17. Mount your work on black paper and add a small explainer to each page if you can.

If you’re really ambitious and wanting to flex your creativity, you could put together an actual book. Come up with a great concept and theme that ties all your work together, and the final result is very impressive. I’ve seen a few of these before and love the idea. If you know someone who has a lot of HOW Magazine or Print Magazine design annuals lying around, go flip through the student promotions to see a few examples.

A portfolio is the best way for you to sell yourself. It gives people a glimpse of not only what you can do, but also what your style is and who you are. Take the time not only to decide what work should go in a portfolio, but also to decide how you want to brand yourself. Drawing up your logo and thinking of your tagline and deciding how your portfolio will look online are just the beginning, but it’s a great start.

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Drawing: It’s a useful skill!

Came across this excellent article by Chris Spooner of SpoonGraphics: 40 Free Tutorials on Advanced Drawing Techniques.

There’s really a lot of good stuff in that post, including drawing manga-style things, drawing actual people, even a great tutorial on drawing eyes (and other specific body parts are covered as well). Some of those tutorials even cover drawing something with pencil and then taking your drawing and inking it in Illustrator (yet another super useful skill).

Now, what’s with the drawing, you ask? Have you managed to get by without really knowing how to draw things? I used to be one of those people who could only draw blobular things. I would often have these concepts for logos or artwork in my head, but couldn’t really sketch them out on paper and would get really frustrated.

I always told people I couldn’t draw to save my life, and always admired the friends who could do it. My boss at Sac City used to do all these intricate drawings in Illustrator and I would just watch in fascination. He’d sometimes solicit ideas from the tutors and then come back a week later with finished drawings in Illustrator. He’d do life-like portraits of people or even weird, whimsical creatures (he once drew a squid wearing a suit because when he solicited an idea, all I said was, “Draw a fantastical squid.”).

So all this time, I would just be jealous of those who could draw. I thought I could get by. But at some point, the frustration over not being able to sketch out or execute certain ideas came to a head and I figured I’d better learn how to draw. So I’m enrolled in a drawing class this semester at Sac City. And while it scared the living daylights out of me, it’s been a lot of fun. And I wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner.

Drawing is a really fundamental skill that all designers should know. I’m not asking you to be the next Leonardo Da Vinci, but knowing some of the basics can help. Like knowing about composition and perspective and shading. I used to be frustrated that I couldn’t make anything that had depth in Illustrator; now that I know a little more about shading and positioning, I’m a little better at it. Drawing cityscapes is easier for me now because I know a little more about two-point perspective and everything doesn’t look so distorted anymore. And so on and so forth.

So if you belong in the I-can’t-draw-to-save-my-life category, maybe you should bite the bullet and learn how! It’s scary but so worth it in the end.

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TGIHMF (Thank goodness I have my files!)

One of my design teachers used to emphasize the importance of naming files correctly and having some kind of convention so that if anyone has to fill in for you and look at your files, he or she can tell what’s what. She also used to tell us about how she archived everything, and you should have seen all the jaws drop in the classroom. (Ah, young students. So impressionable.)

I, too, employed the pack-rat mentality, though I’m probably not as organized as my teacher. I save all my old e-mails too in neat folders. There have been several times that I’ve thought about deleting things wholesale and then deciding against it because you never know!

Well, that you never know moment happened to me last week when a project that had been lying dormant for two years or so suddenly sprang back to life. (You’ve got to love those phone calls.) And lo and behold, I still had all the project files. I even had all the old e-mail correspondence. I need to wait for some details, but I can pretty much pick up where I started two years ago when I was thinner and perhaps more sane.

Let it be a lesson to you! Save everything! And at least label your folders in a way that might jog your memory.

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Abstract artwork in Illustrator

Sometimes you just want to practice certain techniques, like shading objects or making swirls. Or maybe you just want to practice your composition skills. Either way, there’s a great article in Vectortuts about making abstract artwork in Adobe Illustrator.

I took it for a whirl and came up with this:


(Okay, so it wasn’t entirely done in Illustrator. I threw the artwork into Photoshop when I was done and added a gradient background. It was suggested in the tutorial.)

It reminds me of my L.A. Gear shoes from the mid-80s … but I digress.

This was a neat little tutorial, and the artwork the writer comes up with is about 10,000 times better than mine. It’s packed with useful tips on creating swirls and shadows and such. I also especially liked the tips on how to make the paint drops and how to do sort of stripey shapes.

There’s also another swirly tutorial on Abduzeedo I want to try, but that’s another post.

Do try this tutorial, though. It’s a good foundation. And it was written by someone who is only 16! (What a smart cookie.)

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Your own message

Design isn’t always about getting someone else’s message out. It’s often about you getting your own message across. Inspiration is all around, and sometimes it fuels something personal.


This was sparked in part by the awful story about a Los Angeles-area man who shot his family, then himself. The news in the days surrounding the shooting was filled with stories reminding people in desperate times needing to take a step back and remember that there is always help. And so that image came to me.

There’s plenty to inspire you out in the world, good and bad.

And do keep hope alive.

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My epic build: Update No. 2

Wow, something like 11 days until the Go Green California Business site is supposed to launch. Is it time to panic yet?

Admittedly, I’m running into a few problems (not site-building-related) that make me a little nervous, but sometimes there are things that are beyond your control that you can’t worry about. Or at least try to channel your best Zen and not worry about them. Personally, I always remind myself that there are only certain things I can control and I’m going to go right on controlling those things.

Like starting the WordPress conversion of this site.

The Illustrator file had been made into a pretty little HTML file and my CSS was written. And so I dove right into WordPress.

It had been a little while since I’d done my last custom WordPress project, so I had forgotten a few things when I started. At the top of that list? Don’t name any of your files home.php! Since I forgot that cardinal rule, I spent a good long time trying to figure out why my front page wasn’t showing what I expected it to be showing. Duh.

After overcoming that, um, hiccup, there came the business of actually creating WordPress templates. If you’ve never done this before, it’s always a good idea to look at what files are contained in the default theme and make sure you have the same ones. (I once forgot to put a comments.php file in a custom theme I built and no one could leave comments!) So that’s how I first take stock of what should be done.

The next thing I do is determine how many different templates I need. The front page of this project isn’t your regular ol’ blog, so that was going to be its own template. All the pages needed a template, so there was another template. The actual blog page needed its own treatment too. And some of the other information pages didn’t need a fancy graphic header, so I needed a template for that.

The results are below.

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Super logos?

super-bowl-xliii-logoIt’s almost time for one of the biggest annual sporting spectacles of the year: the Super Bowl. Some of us watch it for the game (like me; I’m an unabashed football addict … not to mention a Steelers fan), some of us watch it for the commercials, and some of us watch it for the halftime show.

But every year, someone gets to design the logo for the game. There have been 43 Super Bowls and 43 logos. This great story from the New York Times talks about the designs and some of the trends the designs have followed over the years. Sure, maybe these logos aren’t super sexy and they’re probably a little too corporate and sterile for some people’s tastes, but it is still something that gets put on millions of pieces of merchandise and gets ridiculous amounts of exposure.

Plus, some of the tidbits about some of the logos (like some of the things that hint at the location of the game, or the fact that this year’s logo, pictured at right, is the first one to actually feature a football field) and insights from the designers of the logos were pretty interesting. It’s a nice read.

And if you were curious, you can see the past 42 logos (not including this year’s) all on this page.

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Illustrator tip: Stripes and multiple strokes

As a tutor, I used to get asked by a lot of students how to do multiple strokes in Illustrator. Some people used to do it by eye, drawing two shapes of different colors and trying to align them perfectly. (That’s just painful … and easy to mess up!)

You can also go into the Stroke palette and use the Align to Outside, Align to Middle (the default) and Align to Inside tools to position different strokes. But another way you can do it is using the Appearances palette. Learning how the Appearances palette works is useful, as you can create a lot of really nice effects and textures and gradients.

Here’s an example of multiple strokes in action:


So let’s get some stripe action going!

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