Old is the New New
April 04, 2011
Trying to describe how I do what I do is hard, since the creative process for me is always organic, flowing from one stage to the next in a way that’s usually dictated by the individual requirements of the project at hand. No two projects, it seems, ever begin or end the same way. Beyond the usual trolling of the creative blogs and logo sites, and then finding that spark of inspiration that has you putting your coffee mug down and reaching for your pen or (as is usually the case for me) mouse, it’s probably most accurate to say that my process involves taking the least amount of steps necessary to achieve my desired ends.
That’s not to say I ever sacrifice quality for the sake of expedience – if my solution requires fastidiously rounding off every corner of every letter in a logo design containing 30+ letters, I’ll do it – but I probably won’t waste any time hand-sketching a preliminary layout first. When inspiration strikes, I grab the mouse and draw – which is to say, I've found over the last few years that, despite my image of myself as old-fashioned and only reluctantly technologically proficient, I draw better with a mouse than I do with a pen. I will occasionally scribble out a rough idea of what I need to do, but it's usually a crazy, unintelligible scrawl that has little visual merit for anybody but myself. Still, if I'm finding that the twenty second scribble reinforces the vision in my head in any way at all ("yeah, that K looks fine next to that swirly bit underneath the Z"), then that's enough for me to get going on-screen.
I have little or no patience for drawing and refining and scanning and then, finally, vectoring. I'm not certain whether that's laziness or impatience, but I'd like to believe it's the latter. However, if my idea absolutely warrants some preliminary refining with a pen or pencil, I will succumb to it eventually (if impatiently), and, when it feels ready, either take a photograph of it with my phone and email it to myself, or sometimes even hold the sheet of paper up to the screen – or possibly even tape it up there – so that I can see my cursor beneath the paper, and then proceed to "trace" it with my mouse. I figure the monitor is a kind of light-box, so why not use it that way, except in reverse?
I attribute what success I’ve had so far with letters to the discovery of turning on the grid in Illustrator and clicking "snap to grid", and then going to town trying to create fonts of my own. "Snap to grid" can be a little restricting in that it doesn't always allow you to achieve some of the subtleties of the more sophisticated typefaces, but that, in turn, only serves to make you aware of those subtleties and make you want to seek to replicate them yourself. Any way you look at it, I’ve personally found that while my type creations aren't always perfect, they’re usually more interesting and intriguing than anything in my font catalog, at least in terms of so many of the new brands I’ve been asked to create. The trick is to go beyond the relative comfort of sans serif letters and try to create some serifs and scripts, and begin to understand the relationships between all those damn thicks and thins that make other people's fonts so irresistible. It doesn't always work out, but it's pretty great when it does. Usually the client thinks so, too.
More than my type explorations, I think the aspect of my work I’m most often questioned on is my technique for distressing type to achieve that weathered, warped, blown-out, old-timey print look. I have a small bank of textures that I’ve been using for years now to achieve the end result, but there is a general process for taking a smooth, clean, vector font and making it look like it’s seen hard times.
I start by using Illustrator’s “roughen” effect, found under Effect (in the top menu bar) > Distort & Transform > Roughen. The trick with this effect is to take your type and first make it literally huge on your screen before beginning. For whatever reason, it’s a difficult process to control when your type or object begins small on the page. Scale your type up a few hundred percent and then go to town noodling with the subtleties in the pop-up window. You should find (as in the image to the left) that only very slight adjustments of “Style” and “Detail” will get you the best results. (I generally prefer to set “points” to “smooth”, but sometimes setting it to “corner” will also get you the look you want).
The next step – and this takes some time, but is worth the effort I think – is to take all those corner vector points on your letters that bulge after applying the “Roughen” effect and delete them. This gives you rounded intersections (not just on the outside of your letters, but on the inside, too, as on the inside of the “D”) that when you zoom back out, give your letters that natural, press-printed look of warp and age.
The process of then adding texture isn’t easily explained in words, thought it’s straightforward enough, I think, once you get the hang of it. Obviously you need to begin with an existing texture file. As I mentioned earlier, I have a small collection of textures that service my needs pretty well: some found online, others “borrowed” from other designers over the years. Some are raster, others are vector, and most of them are saved in a way that the textural part of the image hasn’t been flattened onto a background color – which is to say, I can easily select just the pixels or vectors that visually create the texture, which gives me more flexibility down the road.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat here, but the fastest and most effective way to apply texture to type, I think, is to slap your type or art into a photoshop document and work from there. Place the texture layer above your type layer and make a selection of it (command-click the layer thumbnail in the layers palette); with the texture selected, click on the type layer beneath; hit “delete”; deselect the texture and hide or delete the texture layer.
Hand-created lettering (especially when it’s digitally manipulated to feel weathered and aged) resonates so strongly among designers, I think, because it reflects the history behind brand-making – which is to say that before computers it was all hand-made, all the time. Hand-painted letters and signs grab our attention because despite our love for technology, many of us are clinging to the nostalgia of those whose footsteps we follow in: craftsmen, artisans of style, purveyors of a trade and a highly sought-after hand-skill.
I've been watching classic movies with my wife over the last couple of years – something I'd never done before marrying her – and found that I felt very comfortable in those lost worlds. But I get really excited when watching some obscure Italian thriller from the 30's and I see a sign on a window or a poster on a wall that any self-respecting designer today would suffer mid-level carpal tunnel syndrome to have designed themselves. And they're often so simple – a graceful, understated arrangement of lines of type in varying arches or diagonals. No drop shadows, few colors, no clever icons (not necessarily anyway. There's nothing wrong with these things, but they don't necessarily "make" a great logo).
Whatever the reason, audiences seem to respond well to nostalgia, and it's for that reason that I personally feel more drawn towards capturing the visual romance and history of a brand – even one that's essentially brand new – than making it "clever". To be fair, I still love clean, simple logos driven by a clever concept, and still seek those solutions myself when it seems appropriate. The kind of neo-nostalgia many of us are trying to embrace will more than likely pass into something new in a few years. Nevertheless, at least one thing about logo design has never changed for me, and that's something that my design instructor from college taught me: that a logo, if nothing else, should be memorable. Not easy to do, especially when you're drawing so much inspiration from what others have done and continue to do. But if the drive to create something completely new and memorable is always there, you'll find your successes in all kinds of unexpected ways.