Improvisation, Experimentation, and Art.

This other day, I was creating my first vector-based illustration on Sketch. The goal is to come up with a fitting illustration to accompany my short story.

As the short story is essentially about communication, I started running a few ideas around my head. Communication in the modern context means smart phones and the Internet, and immediately the idea of a WiFi station and the beams that are emitted by it came to mind.

And so I plunged into Sketch and started creating circles upon circles, each overlapping one another, so that eventually this whirlpool like image appears:

Illustration of rings within rings within rings, like a whirlpool

The idea was that by masking this image with a triangle, I will get a triangular shape symbol that everyone can tell symbolizes WiFi communication:

The typical icon representing wifi, or connection strength

But once I put this image onto the background of my story, it became clear that this image is not going to cut it, even before I started positioning and resizing it, or even adding colors:

First version of the above mentioned icon, inserted into the story

I can’t explain it, but it just didn’t feel right. it doesn’t look good as a background image, and it’s only going to look worse if I shrink and multiply it to be used as a background pattern.

As a result, idea number one is abandoned, and I had to start thinking again.

Classic Telephones, Telephone Wires, and More.

Now, if the image of WiFi communication doesn’t seem right, how about old telephones? You know, the kind with handset and dials? Now that sounds nostalgic, and probably fun to draw too.

An old-school dial phone

Now, I’m by no means a professional artist, so I needed something as a guide. And so I downloaded the image of an older model of a telephone and I started outlining it with the Vector tool. After breaking up the phone into a few components (the dial, the front face, the side face, the handset and the top face where the handset rests), I started outlining them, sometimes with the Vector tool, other times with the Oval or Rectangle Tool, fine tuning them with bezier curve handles so that they look similar to the original image.

At a certain point, though, I decided too much details was gonna kill me, and that I preferred the rough sketched out look anyway, so I stopped trying to replicate the details of the real telephone image, and left my illustration at this:

Final version of my first vector illustration of a dial phone

I don’t know what professional illustrators who use pricey Wacoms and towering iMacs think, but I am very proud of my first ever vector illustration. Like I said, I prefer the rough look of it, so I left the dials looking non-circular, as though they had been hand drawn. I didn’t know why, but I felt like a dull shade of red will match the color scheme, that’s why the dials became this way. And while I had removed most of the unsightly lines resulting from overlapping of layers, I left some of them behind because I didn’t want it to look too ‘perfect’, or too professional. I wanted it to look like it was sketched roughly with a pen or something.

And, Finally.

I placed the above image as a background for my story, decided it looked forlorn, and so decided to come up with another image, this time of a modern mobile phone. A mobile phone is simple enough in terms of shape, though, so this time I just sketched it out without a reference image.

Finally, I put both images onto the page, played around with the size and positioning without any plan in mind, and through some random serendipity of sorts, came up with this mashed up combination of the two images:

Final version of the story, with red background and the mobile phone illustration overlapping with the dial phone illustration in the background

And that was it, my first vector illustrations for my short story that I personally like a lot. The background image was based on the original red that colored the dials, but I went through a couple of color options (yellow, orange, brown) before finally settling on this red.

But more importantly, I arrived at this final result without any form of plan in place.

No Plan, Ma!

You might have noticed how I emphasized a few sentences throughout the above description of my creative process, such as:

  • “it just didn’t feel right”
  • “I had to start thinking again”
  • “played around (…)without any plan in mind”

While it is true that I wanted to share my creative process (especially as it was a first vector illustration experience for me and it was very enjoyable), I wanted to make use of this opportunity to share what I think is a very important part of the creative process, i.e. experimentation, failure, and instincts.

These days, it seems to me that the Web has become monotonous. Part of the reason, I think, is the over-emphasis on productivity and accuracy. In an average web development team these days, words like ‘timeline’ and ‘budget’ are a constant. Every single feature or functionality has to be measured in terms of time and money. Even designers, who are supposedly the ‘creative ones’, are told to quote the number of days they think they will be able to come up with a mockup or concept. In such a factory-like environment, it is no wonder that designers and programmers —pressured by time — have to start reusing existing templates and plugins so as to deliver. The result is an endless copying and reusing of existing ideas, which, in my opinion, culminates in the current, boring Web.

Commerce Allows Little Room for Experimentation and Instincts.

The way I see it, the main reason behind the above is that most of the design and development teams these days are profit oriented. Time and money dictates the direction and pace of the project, and there really isn’t no room for things that can’t be measured, like experimentation and failures. And because design is, in many ways, a problem solving discipline, it isn’t surprising that designers are expected to explain how their designs solve existing problems.

Art, on the other hand, is a different animal.

With art, we value things like subtlety, imagination, room for interpretation, and so on. Experimentation is necessary, because it tap into the unknown subconsciousness of our minds. (I am reminded of Dadaism and their works evoked by dreams and sometimes, drugs.) And gut feelings and instincts? These are all important, without which we may never get the excitement that comes with the sudden improvised acts by Jazz giants at live performances.

The Persistence of Memory, a painting by Dali
Persistence of Memory by Dali (low res)

Again, We Need More Art.

This probably isn’t the first time I’m saying this, and it won’t be the last.

In this world where everything is measured and calculated, we need art to save our souls, to prevent us from turning into the very machines we invented. While it is important not to waste time unnecessarily, it is critical for us to let go at times. And though plans can take us places, sometimes a day without plans surprises us in ways we can never imagine.

And so if you feel like improvisation and experimentation is in your blood, make art. Whatever your art form is, and whether or not your art gives you prosperity, make art. For in this increasingly mechanized world, art liberates your soul and makes you more human.