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.

Altered Meaning

If there’s one thing I love, it’s history. For me, understanding history helps me feel grounded in the present and part of the larger picture as a whole. Now,  I’ve also been known to stop by a bar now and again. Combine the two and it’s pretty hard for me to resist. Couple these two with a unique story of typography and I’m a moth to the flame.

In New York, there’s no shortage of history and as you might imagine, there’s no shortage of historic bars. Some I’ve been to, some are still on my list. This is about one historic bar that also has a little typographic novelty.

New Yorker’s are resilient (as you might imagine) and have always been that way. The Ear Inn was built in 1817. The long and sordid tale of it’s decades as an unnamed sailor’s haunt perched on the edge of the Hudson River are better left for other times and better historians, but I do want to talk about it’s sign.

It’s sign, you see, is magnificent. It exemplifies both the resilient nature of New Yorkers and a wonderful grasp of typography.

In 1977 when new owners took over the bar, they were faced with two problems. The first? They had to actually name the bar. You see, it had mostly just been known as “bar” or “the Green Door” by the old sailors. And the second? The Landmark Commission. That’s one of the downsides of being historic. You’re protected from the vagaries of progress and as part of the deal you have to remain, well, historic. The Ear Inn had for many many years simply had a neon sign out front stating plainly, “bar”.  Removing or replacing the sign would mean going before the Landmark Commission which in it’s infinite wisdom works at a glacial pace.

As for the name, they decided to name it after the music magazine that inhabited the second floor. As for the sign, this is where the story gets creative. The solution? Just paint over the parts of the “B” in bar to create a sign that reads, “Ear”. True inspiration. Not many folks (outside of those who love typography) would look at the letter “B” and see the “E” hiding inside.

Ear Inn Sign 1

Ear Inn Sign 2

Of course, the Ear Inn can’t avoid progress completely – last time I visited, I spoke with a couple of old timers over some whiskey who were lamenting the fact that many of the regulars were dying off. They were worried not only about their friends and their own future, but what would become of the Ear Inn. A new condo has been built next door (which might help keep the Ear Inn standing upright) and the neighborhood is being gentrified.

A Tale of Two Cities

One of the earliest forms of graphic design in my mind is cartography. An elegant production of visual communication that has been refining itself since the dawn of man. Yeah, I like maps.

This past spring here in New York City, the MTA unveiled a new subway map, the first update of the map since 1998. And while the map has been reviewed in the press, as a designer, map lover and most importantly as a rider, I wanted to give my thoughts.

Old NYC Subway Map

The old subway map suffered from an overwhelming amount of information some of which was really unnecessary for most riders. For example, the bus information always was an annoyance to me. It’s always just served as clutter the map.

New NYC Subway Map

One striking thing about the new map is the decision to reduce the size of Staten Island in relation to the other boroughs. This allows the other boroughs — where most of the trains (and people) are — to be enlarged. Apparently, there was some uproar about this decision, but personally, I’m fine with it. Guess what? I’ve lived here six years and never met anyone from Staten Island. All the other boroughs? Yep, lots of people, lots of times. In fact, I’ve never even been out to Staten Island. Maybe someday I’ll go, but I’ll probably take the ferry. Reducing it’s prominence on the map — even if the geographic proportions are not accurate — is a good design decision.

A large portion of the distracting bus route information has also been removed which I whole-heartedly approve of. It allows the map to focus on it’s main goal — the subway system.

One thing I don’t like about the new map is the color change for the parks. They’re no longer a true green and are much more subtle than in the previous map. The colors of the parks and the surrounding city are so similar as to make the parks almost unnoticeable. While I like maps, I also like parks and since many of the viewers of this map are tourists, I would think the city would want to highlight the green spaces.

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Update: I’ve noticed that the version of the new map that actually is posted in subway cars contains even less of the pop out bus information boxes making for a cleaner (and clearer) presentation.

The Debate Continues

The gaming site Kotaku has posted the entire Sony Move brochure I designed — every page. Maybe it’s some attempt to one-up IGN who posted just the comparison chart page last week. You can view the post here.

Again — they seem unable to work the scanner/copier as the pages aren’t even straight. Sigh. At least the comments are funny this time around.

In terms of the design — I wanted to create a new cover (like I did for the holiday brochure), but Sony ran out of time/budget and so we went with one based on another marketing brochure that Sony had developed internally. And although I did illustrate some of the elements (such as the line drawing of the Move controller), the action photos generating comments were provided as is by Sony.

Fueling Debate

A page from another Sony Move brochure I designed got picked up and posted online fueling a ton of comments from gamers on the Move motion controller. Over 600 comments and counting at this point. You can view the chart and join the fray here.

As a side note, it’s a little disappointing that IGN couldn’t be bothered to get a clean scan of the page. It looks like they used it as a napkin before scanning and posting it. It’s not a big deal for me (I know how the page should look), but as a “publisher” it shows a real lack of concern for quality (and therefore a disdain for their viewers).

Breathing Room

For a long time now, I’ve been quietly working to bring more space into the world. Specifically to typography and the em dash in particular. The en dash (–) and to a lesser degree it’s cousin the em dash (—) are some of the most misunderstood pieces of punctuation in the English language. Being a designer, I’m intimately concerned with the visual aspects of text and seeing an en dash crammed in between two words just screams, “HELP!” I find myself adding a single space on either side of the en dash consistently and repeatedly in my work. Using the em dash to separate phrases in a sentence has always seemed jarring and then to use it without any space on either side causes it to act as a hard stop on the eye of the reader. Not very pretty and not very functional.

And I’ve always thought it was just my quirky pursuit of a certain visual aesthetic. One of those quiet tasks a designer faces. A task that at first, you try to turf onto the writers through education (along with many of the other of the finer points of digital typography) but eventually resign yourself to as just part of the job.

Recently though, I came across some typography tips which expressed and reaffirmed my beliefs regarding the en and em dash. And from none other than famed typographer Erik Spiekermann in the FontShop publication, “Erik Spiekermann’s Typo Tips.” Right there in Tip #2, he summarizes the proper use of both the en and em dash and (thankfully) helps to justify all the quiet work us designers do to improve the visual appeal of the written word.

It’s nice to be in good company (and to have a resource for explanation when the curious ask why there’s a little breathing room around an en dash).

Thinking Cold Thoughts

I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to it. Every summer I end up working on projects that are promoting something for the winter holidays. The old phrase is “Christmas in July” and I never cease to find it weird. It may be 90+ degrees outside, but I find myself drawing snow.

Here’s some samples from this summer’s big winter project. They’re from a Sony PlayStation fourteen page booklet I designed and illustrated. I really like the way the cover came out and no one can resist Sackboy.

Cover of Sony PlayStation Holiday Booklet

Interior pages of Sony PlayStation holiday booklet

For an added bonus, one of the pages of the booklet got picked up in the gaming press and posted online — starting a huge debate (i.e., flame war) regarding Sony’s new motion controller.