Creating illustrations based on complex concepts such as remote sensing, open data or the internet is a fun and challenging aspect of my work at Development Seed. Behind these illustrations is a process that involves contemplation and visualization before coming to a final design that successfully communicates the intended message.
Finding meaning through process
The first step in structuring this thought process is to create a Mind Map, which is a great tool to capture one’s thoughts and bring them into the visual realm. In this case, the resulting illustration will accompany an article that focuses on the open data movement and its collaborative relationship between government and citizens. So I pulled a couple evocative key words (data and government) to use as a central focus to branch off more ideas.
The thinking in this initial stage is meant to be naive and playful, and without fear of making mistakes along the way. Being willing to run with ideas and having them fail is a crucial part of this thinking process because it allows us to be foolish, experimental, and mentally available for anything that might be influential. This is best described as serious play, a methodology developed by Graphic Designer Paula Scher who warns designers about being solemn in their design thinking.
“Find out what the next thing is that you can push, that you can invent, that you can be ignorant about, that you can fail with, because in the end that’s how you grow and that’s all that matters.” — Paula Scher
The next step is creating small thumbnail sketches to find general shapes that achieve an appealing form. Making many rough sketches means more options to compare and eventually determine which ones are most successful in terms of composition.
In these thumbnails I isolated two ideas from the Mind Map: the government buildings and internet as tubes ideas. I wanted these to be central elements of the illustration since they are very representative of the core aspects that this article describes, as well as providing great visual inspiration to draw from.
A select few are then sketched out and digitized in a larger format to allow for more detail to be introduced.
Based on the initial explorations, I usually make a couple iterations of the chosen concepts. Then, incorporating some substantial play, I embellish, simplify, or even rule out the rough versions. I often refer back to the mind map to keep the ideation process fruitful, flowing, and most importantly fun.
Once the version that is most successful in communicating the message is selected, it begins to be crafted and pushed further towards a final image. Sometimes this requires changing large aspects to accurately demonstrate the meaning of the content, and sometimes it only requires minor tweaks to get to a finalized point.
Each illustration has a voice that coincides with its surroundings. Limiting the aesthetic details of the image that define that voice, gives the image another level of quality and establishes an illustrative style.
A signature style
A distinguished illustrative style that reinforces the content of our website was thoroughly deliberated with the team. This particular style includes a monochromatic color scheme to better suit the duo-tone color palette of the site, which ended up being a fiery orange pulled from our branding. It also follows the minimalist style with a focus on linear motifs which can be dynamic while still complementing the text, as opposed to completely absorbing the reader in the image.
Developing concepts within an aesthetic guideline creates visual consistency and reinforces the brand identity and visual style. Concurrently, setting design limitations actually promotes ideation and works much like a compass to focus creative thinking in a specific direction. These processes may not be for everyone, yet all design requires some form of methodology and play that speaks to one’s own vision and makes the end product unique and well formed.
“Play prepares us for the unexpected” — Marc Bekoff, Contemporary Biologist
The final illustration now lives harmoniously in the Open Tools for Open Data article.