Alex Cornell is a student at the Academy of Art Graduate Design MFA program here in San Francisco and he also helps me out around the studio with various design and music related things (in addition to being a designer he’s also a ridiculously talented guitarist and a knowledgeable sound engineer).
Recently he brought over a project he was working on to get some critique. Since I never went to school for design it was great to get a glimpse inside the classroom through his project and also very interesting to hear what his professor thought of my input. I had a great time working with him trying to refine the project so I thought it would be nice to have him do a process piece for the blog. I think this serves an apt companion to the Making of Obama post; a good counterpoint written from the student perspective. I am sure many of you were/are design students yourselves so you can relate, seems to me like the professor does a pretty good job of impersonating a client. The following article is his account of the process of creating the piece and working with his professor to complete the project.
By: Alex Cornell
Academy of Art Graduate Graphic Design MFA
Project: Pantone Product Poster
My assignment, as weird as it sounds, was to imagine what it would look like if the color experts at Pantone were to all of a sudden start selling tongue scrapers. Everyone in class was randomly assigned an equally strange combination of company/product, with the idea being that we step inside the shoes of the company and imagine what we might do if tasked with selling a new, slightly odd product. The assignment was not simply to copy the existing visual style and identity, but rather to predict how to brand might evolve to incorporate the new product line as part of a brand extension. We weren’t to stray too far conceptually from the brand, but we were relatively free to explore a range of visual directions. The final deliverable was to be a large format poster (30" x 44") with an accompanying set of postcards and a CD. The timeframe was approximately six weeks, with in-class critiques twice a week to make sure we were on the right track.
After doing some visual research, I thought it might be cool to make it look like an old combat manual, with lots of diagrams and a very serious vibe. I wanted the overall look to be very straight edge, and the copy to be completely juxtaposed and silly. I couldn’t really take tongue scrapers too seriously, so I wanted to make sure to inject a little humor somewhere, even if it was buried. I brought in a rough mock up [fig1.jpg] of what I thought it could look like and it was shot down immediately. The issue was that it didn’t conjure Pantone at all, and was too far of a stretch visually. It lacked an effective grid and was really just a bunch of elements thrown onto the page. I thought it had some potential, but it was neglecting the main component of Pantone: color.
Not all was lost on this first attempt as some of the elements and copy I developed at this stage made it through to the final poster. I really liked a lot of the little paragraphs I had written and I wanted to keep pushing that serious/silly juxtaposition. [fig2] I dropped the name "tongue scraper" at this phase because I thought it sounded too abrasive and might make it difficult to explain later. (I was having a hard enough time explaining to people outside the field what Pantone did!) I decided to call them "Palette Cleansers" to play off the fact that Pantone was now involved in both color palettes and oral palettes. For all of these versions I spent a lot of time working with the small details, most of which don’t quite come across on screen. Ideally, my finished version would be visually interesting enough to draw people in from a distance, and then really win them over when they got right up close and read it to themselves.
I experimented with a few more visual directions, but kept running into the same problems. I had a lot of my elements in order, most of the copy written, but was having real trouble finding a successful layout for the poster. Usually, the layout is the first thing I lock down and I bring in all of the text, images etc after the structure and flow of the page is determined. In this case, I was essentially working backwards and was having trouble getting used to that process. It had been about two weeks and I really felt like I had not made any progress. It’s normal for me to start out with lots of ideas that end up getting thrown out, and as disheartening as it can be, it tends to help clear my mind and establish a clear set of priorities for the next set of ideas.
The main issue my teacher had with my first attempts was that Pantone, the brand, was really not present in any of my solutions. I needed to conjure, even if it was just conceptual, a poster that said "Pantone". I really had to walk the a thin line between conveying that this was still a Pantone product, but somehow managed to not look anything like one.
I decided to go to the source, something I should have done way earlier, and started looking at Pantone’s color swatch booklets, old and new. I gravitated towards the older versions immediately and started thinking what it might look like to use them as a blueprint for a layout. (I guess I am too young to remember, but apparently the Pantone colors used to come in booklets with little detachable swatches inside, as opposed to the newer ones that come as fan booklets on a key-ring.) I thought that using the layout of the original booklets might be a good way to conceptually evoke the brand, but still allow me space inside the structure to include all the information about the "Palette Cleaners".
To make things easier on myself, I drew up a story in my head that would help center my imagination on what this poster should end up looking like. I imagined that Pantone had tried to extend their brand into oral hygiene, sometime in the 60’s, and that my poster was all that remained from an old, discarded catalogue they had put out. I worked up a rough layout, based on their old version, which you can see in fig. 3. I used their fonts (Claredon and Trade Gothic Bold No. 2), layout, and overall vibe, which was sufficient to get the green light from my teacher to continue with the new direction. I had a lot of work ahead of me, but I was happy to have finally nailed down a layout.
I chose the color pink mainly because it was unexpected. Everything I had been bringing in previously was very drab, dark and muted. I was using a lot of earth tones and all of my work was far from colorful. I really wanted to keep the combat manual look, with the greens and browns etc, but finally decided to break away from it in the loudest way possible. I tried a few different colors, but pink always felt the best. (It’s also the color of your tongue, just to keep things consistent)
I was able to bring over some things from my initial drafts, but I found that I didn’t have nearly enough images or copy to fill out all of the squares on the new layout. I began writing more copy and sketching many more dental tools. Since I had repositioned the product as "palette cleansers" I was able to get away with including all sorts of mouth related objects. I am getting better with the pen tool, but the process of vectorizing all of the dental tools was frustrating. As you can see in fig 4. I was able to fill up most of the squares with some kind of information. It was all over the place, had no structure whatsoever, but at least it was on there. It helped to see it, just to know what the overall poster might eventually look like, but still didn’t feel anywhere near done. [fig5]
One of the main issues was the font I was using for the headlines and copy. For some reason, I had chosen Helvetica Rounded for all of my titles and it was giving the piece a very friendly look. I guess normally, for products relating to mouths this might be a good thing, but it didn’t fit with my overall serious look. I pictured my fictional Pantone Oral Hygiene Department to be a bunch of very methodical and precise people, so it didn’t make sense to be using such a carefree font. Scott suggested I use Trade Gothic Bold Extended and that really helped to give it the older, more mechanical look. You can see the comparison in fig. 6.
With the font in line it was time to address the grid, or lack thereof. When I formatted the content initially, I just placed it all around semi-randomly, with no regard for any sort of alignment. [fig7] Scott pointed out that this was inconsistent with the overall theme of the poster and might look better if there was some sort of structural relationship between squares. Unexpectedly, my teacher was constantly excited about the random aspects of the piece, and didn’t want me to change it when I mentioned I might tighten things up. I wasn’t sure what to do at this point because I knew it would look better if I got in there and really tightened it up, but my teacher (essentially the client) wanted it to stay as it was. I decided to implement the grid, and to phase out the old version during my in class critiques. [fig8] I hoped that this slow transition to the new version might assuage any lingering concerns my teacher had for the new way.
With the content, grid, and layout all in place, it was time to put the finishing touches on the poster. Up to this point, I had been working only in Illustrator, since I was working almost exclusively with type, but I needed to bring everything over to Photoshop for the final steps. I had presented two versions in class of what I thought might be the final poster; one clean, done completely in Illustrator, and one all roughed up in Photoshop with lots of distressed elements. I assumed that my teacher might prefer the clean version, but again to my surprise, she preferred the banged up one.
I didn’t have to do too much to make it look old, given that I was already using the vintage layout, but I did want to make it look like the page had been through a lot and was recovered from a vault somewhere. The first thing I did was darken the edges, especially on one side, to try and make it look like the page had been scanned in. (mainly trying to recreate the shadows that are sometimes present on poor scans) To do this I used a large fuzzy brush on a new layer around the outside edges with a 10% opacity. That gave it just the right amount of tint so it looked like it had actually aged or been scanned. [fig9] To accentuate this I also did a similar technique with a slightly yellow tinted brush to artificially stain the sides of the poster in some places. If you look at old magazines or books, you see this happening naturally, usually from the sides inwards. I also overlaid a light brown layer, with a color burn at 7% opacity to give the paper that nice cream color. I did a couple versions in bright white, but they weren’t consistent with the vintage feel. (and, as you know, white
The finished version is one giant compromise between what I had in mind, and what my teacher was pushing. [fig11] I am very happy with how it all turned out in the end, and it was a valuable learning process to try and balance my visual tendencies with the requirements of the assignment and client. The hardest part was probably continuing to stay motivated and keep churning out new ideas when so many of the early ones were being rejected. I’m not sure if six weeks is a long time to work on one poster, but it sure felt like it. It took many failed attempts to arrive at this eventual conclusion, but I think the project was that much more successful because of them. I get it back from the printer this week and can’t wait to see how it comes out. I won’t be using pink for a while.
You can learn more about Alex Cornell’s various projects at his website.