War Sign

For a while now, as I’ve been working on symbols and icons, I’ve been thinking of opposites. The on/off icon switches we see throughout our digital lives. Am I on mute? Can you see my screen? These little yes/no binary icon changes to alert us in minuscule ways to our state of being. Each state is paired with it’s opposing force and we learn to recognize each as we build a library of shared acceptance. A common understanding if you will.

The concept of dualism as expressed by the yin and yang in ancient Chinese philosophy would say that each needs a counterpart in order to be whole. But there are symbols in our lives that do not seem to have an opposite and perhaps without both sides, we cannot have understanding. We’re only seeing one half of the picture.

This absence has always bugged me in particular around one symbol — the peace symbol. Now my annoyance probably has more to do with my nihilism and personal experiences than anything else. But coupled with a tendency to be a videogame completionist and being a designer, every time I see a peace sign, I wonder, where’s the war sign? Where’s the sign for those of us who see the dark?

Learning more about the origins of the peace symbol — probably via 99 Percent Invisible — finally gave me the push to create an opposing icon, a war sign to provide balance. Using the same flag semaphore base as the original, I’ve created a war sign.

war sign

The original peace sign uses the semaphore “N” and “D” for “nuclear disarmament” while this war sign uses the “N” and “W” for “nuclear war.” A grim thought, I know.

The peace sign was designed to express an element of despair while this war sign definitely has a more aggressive stance, even with the same “N” shape in place. Instead of drawing the eye down, it moves to the right and conjures an explosive element. It almost reminds me of the safety and hazard symbols used in science and transportation.

With the world at war for the last 20 years (or even longer depending on your framework) and the U.S. government continuing to keep the AUMF on the books so that it can declare war (without declaring war) any time it wants, we live in a time of war. Sadly, we need a symbol, a war sign. Perhaps with a symbol for both sides, we can gain an understanding of the whole and how each works in concert with the other.

Note: I’m certainly not promoting war. Don’t be silly. Quite the opposite in fact. I just think that denying war or keeping it invisible doesn’t work. Finally, despite a bit of intellectual meandering above, I’m realistic. This symbol will probably get used more by metal bands than anyone else. And I’m okay with that too.

You can download the war sign here.

Empire

With The Expanse in between seasons, we’ve gone back to the Star Wars franchise to get our science fiction fix. And while we work our way through The Mandalorian series, we pulled up Rogue One the other afternoon just to take a break from all the cuteness of baby Yoda. Nothing like a tragic tale of death and sacrifice to clear out the sinuses. Somewhere in the middle of the movie, I came across this symbol and headed down the rabbit hole of Star Wars art and iconography.

Now, ever since the early days, the franchise has had great art direction and a good set of icons — from the circular Empire symbol to the Rebel Alliance logo. Simple, recognizable and emotive. As a side effect, they’re easy to reproduce which has led to a ton of mommy blog crafting posts with customized merchandise.

Given all this, I was surprised when I saw this logo in the movie — one I can’t remember seeing before. In the mission on Eadu scene, the Empire science officers who are developing the Death Star are all wearing white jumpsuits with this logo patch on their upper arms.

Star Wars Rogue One Empire Science Officer Logo

For me, it’s the perfect symbol for the Death Star. It communicates the basic shape along with the firing mechanism. So I had to draw it up quick and you can download the icon here.

 

Unsmilely

Unsmilely Icon Set

There’s a natural ebb and flow to projects. An initial burst of inspiration creating momentum that slowly fades as the hard work and all too often, the insecurity sets in. This is one of those projects.

Originally drawn in 2017, it’s hard to recall the exact source of inspiration, but in hindsight, they seem a reaction to both the political landscape at the time as well as the sugar saturation of skeuomorphism in the standard emoji world. Like in my symbology project, these are a study in the reduction of the extraneous to reveal the core.

I think the other goal, given their simplicity, was always to animate them. The only question, and this is where the project ebb started, was how to best create the animation. And so, what started out as an excuse to learn new software applications — a tedious task which sucked any joy out of the project via frustration — led to stagnation. It was only recently when my web work sparked the idea of animating these via CSS. Now, there was still a ton of learning to do with this CSS only approach, but at least I had a stronger foundation having done it before with small things and these icons are in essence, a gr0up of small things.

Here’s a quick video demo of the animation.

 

And for those more inclined, here’s a Codepen with all the HTML/CSS.

See the Pen
Unsmilely Icon #1
by strongest (@strongest)
on CodePen.

The full collection on Codepen is available here: https://codepen.io/collection/XjoBzV

Or download the complete set to get the images.

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.