The Symbology Project

 

This week I’m taking a little time to (finally) write up a summary of an old personal illustration project from my Instagram feed.

The Background

Early on in my design career, I used the first hour of the day to draw something — everyday. As I was learning both about illustration and the software, I usually chose to recreate something I liked. Back in those days, it was probably one of the great promo illustrations from Charles S. Anderson for French Paper. These had a mid-century modern feel with a cartoon edge and some humor coupled with great details.

Flash forward many many years and I found myself doing less hands on illustration due both to career advancement and a lack of time (which were linked). Reminiscing on those early days, I wanted to get back to drawing without a brief, client or project — just drawing for my own sake.  Luckily, I was able to take a sabbatical from work to relax and recharge which gave me all the time I needed. There was no real plan other than that — I was just going to start my day, everyday, with a coffee and an hour of drawing.

The Inspiration

As a science fiction fan who read too much and grew up with the first video games, it didn’t take me long to find inspiration. My wife and I had been playing a bunch of Destiny and I found myself, as I do in many situations, looking closely at the user interface details. Those little items that somehow bridge the gap between typography and iconography to communicate meaning. I’ve always been fascinated with this translation of symbol and meaning, so it’s no wonder I found myself working in design, branding and UI/UX. In video games, these small details help build the world while serving the dual purpose of being recognizable to the players with tangible, functional meaning. I also think that the nature of science fiction, the duality between science and fiction, is engaging for me. It’s unknown, new, futuristic, off world and yet paired with a level of precision and rigor which spurs my curiosity.

The Illustrations

Looking at all these details (and having worked with video game companies), I know how much work goes into everything, even things you think are simple or that most people gloss over — all of them are crafted. I wanted to understand what went into these drawings, the shapes and the lines. I set myself the task to pick out elements and to redraw them, but to reduce them to their most basic parts. It was sort of like trying to get to the core of their meaning by stripping away the game story and context. No fancy textures, renders or even gradients for that matter. Just the element in two or three flat colors, out of context and standing on it’s own. No explanation or description.

With the project outline in mind, the rest was fairly straightforward. It was just a matter of paying attention while playing, taking a quick screenshot and then using that as a reference for color and shape. Any Destiny player, will immediately recognize many of these symbols proving that even detached from their original art, story and context, their meaning still translates. And yet, there are also many that players wouldn’t have noticed — ones that they’ve probably seen a million times, but never focused on.

The first run was about a dozen symbols during my sabbatical and I found it immensely satisfying to study the symbol construction in terms of art while thinking on how they construed meaning. I don’t think I even published them to Instagram, but just stashed them away in a folder. Once back at work and with the daily grind pushing on my time, I put the project aside for a while as I got caught in other things.

But I found myself missing the simple, quick process of drawing each symbol, somehow capturing it’s meaning and essence through drawing it. I think it’s probably similar to learning how to write, when you first grab a pencil and start drawing letters. And the Destiny game itself did not stand still. It released new expansions which lured me back into playing. And that in turn, led me to revisit the project with new vigor. I drew every weekend and started posting them on my feed. I eventually put down my controller (for health reasons, not for any love lost for gaming) and the project sputtered to a halt. By that point though, I had drawn 121 symbols and was ready for a new challenge.

You can see them all in the video above or scroll through my Instagram feed to study them (and more) in detail.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m happy with the project and how the illustrations turned out. I cringe at a few of them looking back, but there are many that I just absolutely adore as mysterious symbols. As I’ve described, it really speaks to my work in design, but coupled with the fun of science fiction and video games. It was great to have that commitment to the practice of making and that’s one of the best lessons that I’ve taken away from the project. The commitment to a schedule of production separated from outside forces. Do the work, have fun and do it regularly. And do it for yourself. This project had no recognition, no awards and nothing went viral. It stands as it is.

Finally, a big thanks to all the game artists and developers for all their hard work. Rest assured, we know it’s not easy, we’re out here, we’re fans and we’re inspired by the work you do.

Exclaim

Spray paint graffiti lettering with stylized mouths in the counters

Again, I’m reminded of a cartoon reference that I can’t put my finger on. The stylized mouths, both happy and comically angry, inside the counters are a great feature. A fairly simple and quick piece, but elevated by the third color used for the highlights.

Midtown, Manhattan.

Teeth

Spray paint graffiti blue cartoon face with large white buck teeth

I’ll always be a fan of cartoons, so this character caught my eye. I love the subtle Japanese hints to the artwork. It’s like a piece of deity fan art.

Midtown, Manhattan.

Love Letters

Spray paint graffiti collage of hearts and stylized lettering

Starting at the top of the gate with a somewhat pedestrian “love” stencil and polka dot banner, the eye travels down into a row of hearts through the chaotic layers of lettering and finally resting once again on the rough hewn hearts. It would seem the security lights in the top corners have not dispersed people from adding signatures on top of this piece, unfortunately muddling the original theme.

Lower East Side, Manhattan.