On Teaching

This spring, I’ll be teaching my age-old 2D Graphics course. Every time I teach it, I spend waaaaay too much time wondering what I should include in the course content. I change it every year.

Adobe is the go-to graphics software company, and that hasn’t changed since they bought Macromedia long ago.

I started off in 2001 with one of the best books ever written on this stuff, Luann Seymour’s Design Essentials. 

Not sure what Luann is up to these days, but it isn’t, and hasn’t been for a long time, making awesome books. Unfortunately, the text stopped updating after a few years of said awesomeness, and as much as I’d like to keep assigning it, Adobe has moved on. Last spring, I assigned the closest thing I could find to Luann’s Masterpiece, and it fell waaayyy short. My course ratings dipped lower than ever.

So I’m back to my age-old question: What are 2D Graphics? How do I teach students about 2D Graphics? What book should I assign; or do I have to write my own book?

On light

We see because of light reacting with our crazy eyes and ocular nerves and brains.

But there’s a lot to learn about where that light’s coming from. It’s either being emitted or reflected.

The primary point of emitted light, for most of our existence on this planet, has been very hard, even dangerous, to look at. I’m talking about the sun. Other points are intriguing and inspiring: fire, candles, fireflies, stars, lightning, but they’ve been fleeting. We’ve never stared at them for more than a few moments, dreaming of things.

Our eyes were always concerned with reflected light. Light that revealed the skin of those we loved and feared, the places we lived and travel to, the words that formed our literature. The light that reflected off gardens that enveloped us and blades that killed us.

Our eyes now focus on emissive sources. We’ve harnessed the power of the sun and stars and flames and can represent those things with a single binary point of light. We call those points pixels, and they can be as big or small, bright or dim, red or blue as we want. They can be wherever we want them to be, and change according to our magnificent instructions. They constitute our stories.

 

 

Multiple master icons

Just like fonts, icons can be designed in different weights. Here’s how it works in my current design, chubbicons:

 

These are all rendered at 32×32. The bold weight was designed with 1 pixel wide stroke on a 9×9 grid, while the light weight was 1 pixel on an 18×18 grid. The solid is just solid with some white 1 or 2 pixel details.

Everyone’s so big on the outlined icons, but I have a feeling solids will come back in style.

A standard for user interface icon design

Editing this article to discuss general icon design standards, which I believe are needed. Icons should down-rez gracefully to small sizes, with vertical and horizontal edges aligning to the pixel grid at sizes as small as 9 pixels. A 3×3 sub grid should be adhered to when designing icons.

See the Pen base-8 grid icons by Ben Dunkle (@empireoflight) on CodePen.1

As you can see in the last icon, the 3×3 subgrid isn’t honored and some edges get blurry:

Cooper Union

As soon as I was considering life after high school, I had my heart set on Cooper Union. I wanted to make “cool looking shit”, I was good at it and CU was where the best in the world did it. Plus it was in Manhattan, my favorite place in the world and a 45 minute train ride. Plus it was free, and that to me was everything.

I could have afforded to pay for Pratt, or SVA, or RISD; I applied and got into all of them. My parents told me I could go anywhere; and considering my sister was at Amherst College, one of the most expensive schools in the world, and my brother ended up at Harvard, they weren’t kidding. But for me, it was the street-cred that getting into CU, where only 5% of the kids who think they’re good at making cool shit get in, that was so alluring.

I remember attending the info/interested students day thing, sitting in an auditorium, being handed a packet of instructions on cool shit I had to make to prove my worthiness, and hearing the MC, and oldish white dude who was probably pretty good at making cool shit, send us off with a “now go work your little butts off!”

Something about that rubbed me the wrong way. I got it; me the the hundred-odd other art nerds were a bunch of wannabees  and CU owed us nothing. I looked over the packet when I got home, and saw 5 or 6 assignments: draw the plans for a new invention that tells time, paint an interior space with only solid black shapes, render an object as it morphs from one thing to another, and a couple others.

And I let it sit there. I had no inspiration to do it; it felt forced, and I kept thinking of that asshole treating us like sheep, as I had come to think of him. Days flew by as they do, and the deadline was in a week. I panicked.

It must have also been a very hard time in my life, and other things were causing me stress—my brother Matt was a constant source of disruption, I was trying to make state qualifying times for the 50yard freestyle, I’m sure my romantic heart was being torn up by a variety of love interests, and none of my friends from the previous class were around at school; they were around though, distracting me with all the things we loved to do and no island of school time in common to do it. I missed classes and my grades suffered.

So, staring at the pile of assignment sheets, and in a fit of white hot frustration, I punched my bed. I thought I was punching the mattress, but that was just the sheet hanging over the wooden railing. I shattered two metacarpals in my right hand—my art hand. The cast that ended up there shortly afterward prohibited any of the deftness and agility I relied on in my making of cool shit. I did the best I could with my left, but the results were hurried, shaky, and incoherent.

I took the train in and dropped it off a few minutes before CU closed on deadline day, although I knew I was wasting my time. And I was; the rejection letter, probably written by the asshole MC, came a few weeks later. It’s been a source of regret my whole life.

I ended up at a variety of SUNY schools, sometimes making cool shit and sometimes blowing it off, but never really feeling like I was in the right place. Eventually things worked out, once I connected with the right people and found faculty who didn’t put up with my bullshit, and inspired me to actually work. Still, any time I see CU on a resume, or meet people who’ve gone there, I’m confronted with feelings of immense respect, burning jealousy, and nagging curiosity: why were they able work their little butts off when I couldn’t?

Had to be the most beautiful day

Went up to Canada with Nancy and her friend. Stopped at the grocery, got the guac stuff and some burger meat.Chased a few house wrens away. Cleaned the cottage up while the girls made guac. Went surfing at Pleasant, watched Nan and her bud get sweet rides. Got a ticket there and almost towed but that’s fine. My fault. Back to the cottage, ate some Mabel’s pizza, made some burgers. Checked in with the neighbors. Came home to a wide open Peace Bridge, no wait, no hassle. Sky was epic with clouds and light all day. Home now and idling until Twin Peaks. Let’s hope Audrey Horne finally shows up.

Sketch

I have the app, I’ve played with it, made some icons, and I still don’t get it.

think folks who use it a lot aren’t fluent html/css coders. For me, it’s a lot easier to do the things people say Sketch shines at directly in code.

Do you use Sketch? Do you consider yourself a fluent front-end coder? I’d love to know if I’m just doing it wrong.

Mystery Meat Icons

Icons are everywhere. As the contexts within which we interpret content become more unpredictable, so does our reliance on iconography to communicate ideas and messages. The use of iconography has exploded as dissemination of information must reach a multitude of user contexts. Icons can summarize universal ideas and complex actions with a few shapes.

Icons undergo intense scrutiny. They clearly “work” or “don’t work”. If someone is confused by a message, icons are often to blame. An icon which is not understood may be assigned the undesirable label of “mystery meat”; the stuff found in the lore of public institutions tasked with filling countless sandwiches to feed cretinous populations.

What we are experiencing is the construction of a new, universal language. But instead of taking millennia to evolve, it’s happening as you read this post. Symbols that best express universal messages are hotly debated, not only regarding what index they carry (see Meggs’ History of Graphic Design), but on whether the style they carry is appropriate (google skeuomorphic design for more on this).

My question is, who has the loudest voice as this language is constructed? The answer may carry insights about who determines what, as well as how, we communicate.

Frottage

This was one of the first techniques I learned when I began art school, back in fall ’89.

It was eye-opening. For the first time, I wasn’t responsible for every nuance that came along. The surface dictated what marks were left. Suddenly, I felt a sense of freedom from that burden of decision in art; micromanaging every line, discrediting hours of work based on unsound logic, those things were no longer mandatory.

I never recognized the role this technique played in my development as an image maker. Maybe the school I attended (SUNY Buffalo) was enamored with stuff built with frottage, or maybe it was the current “flavor of the day” in the academic art world. I never stopped using it, though.

Summer Gouaches

These have been really fun to make and gouache is just the best medium IMHO. I made a bunch of prints of them at the local shop, and after a couple of shows sold quite a few. Contact me if you want one!

Software and Experience

The longer you’ve been using an application, the less value you hold to the app developer as a user. Take Facebook. Once upon a time, it was a linear, flowing post stream. If you missed something, you missed it. Now, I have no idea where my posts go or who sees them or in what context. Facebook doesn’t give a dang about me; it’s catering to new users, trying to hook them. It doesn’t want new users to be confused. So it abandons behaviors and functionality that experienced users have become accustomed to, and absorbs whatever stuff the latest shiny hot flavor of the day social media platform might have.

It’s not just Facebook. I love Adobe products, but I feel like they’re trying harder and harder to compete with Sketch and the like. The reason Adobe software is so great is because it’s extremely powerful, and it takes a long, dedicated time to get good at. Lately though, Adobe products seem to be stripping away functionality that may seem daunting to new users, afraid that those users will head to more familiar territory.

Software should reward experienced users, not ostracize them.