How to work with an art designer and go about picking one in 3 not-so-easy steps
First of all, let me apologise for talking about the stuff that so many of you know so much more about. But as the lessons of developing a game and taking it directly to the public via Kickstarter accumulate I’m having a lot of those “a-ha-so-that’s-how-it’s-done” moments. I thought I would write them down and send them back in time through the black void of Internet in the hope that thy will find my less-experienced self. Or maybe someone at a similar stage of game (and business) development will find it useful too.
Who this post is for:
Let’s say you have great illustrations already (finding an illustrator is another matter which I’m not discussing here), but the next step is to have an art designer realise the look and feel of the whole game so that all of its elements are internally consistent with one another. This is no mean feat and can be pretty daunting to try and accomplish. But there are things you can do by yourself or with the help of an art designer, before any of the actual design work gets done.
My game is a card game (with a small board for a doomsday clock called Depravity Meter), so the steps I describe bear some specifics of my game, but the basic principle of what they illustrate, (a-top-down approach from concept to its execution), is what is important here. There are certain decisions that are made at the very top level, such as the mood of the game and the placement of the elements that will ripple down throughout your whole project.
So this is the first thing you should do is:
Step 0. Describe your vision
So you know what your game is about and you even have the illustrations and you are looking for someone who will turn your vision into a reality. An internally consistent reality. If you don’t know what your vision is exactly, it is better to pause now and think about it rather than struggle though this process with an art designer, looking for an unspecified something which you will “know when you see it”. That’s why I called it Step 0. It is fundamental.
If you have a clear vision of what things should look like this is great, find visual materials out there that fit in the same stylistic universe. If you don’t, then you are like I was, I had but one phrase to go on, that I knew to be true about my card game about politics — that it was “darkly funny”. So with this as a starting point I wrote out what made my game “darkly funny” including the illustrations and the flavour text as well as the theme of the game itself and embarked on an exposé of what it it is that I am looking for and what things are consistent with these themes and what things out there already have sort of the same look and mood.
Even if you don’t know exactly what it is you are looking for it is good to describe everything you can articulate as the more you articulate, the more likely your future art designer is to be on the same page as you and will help you to come up with something that will be the on the same page as you as opposed to something different. It is banal, but true and worth repeating, it is better to talk about the specifics rather then in vague terms. You are sparing yourself disappointments down the line, when on the surface, you have agreed on the details, but in reality you have agreed on the words, and each one of you had a different visual interpretation of what you meant by those words in your mind. And then the inevitable confrontation of what you have imagined with what other person has imagined can be pretty disheartening. But it does need to happen that way. You just need to make sure that you are are really on the same page not just in terms of words but in terms of visuals too.
So from the general “darkly funny” I went down the road of self-interrogation and arrived at Rick and Morty “Snake Jazz” episode as my benchmark of what “darkly funny” is for me and then searched the web to find pictures that would have the right visuals for what I needed — a world on the brink of falling apart, the opposite of revolution: where it is the oppressors that are violently ceasing power. Think of the movies, movie posters which gave you the same feeling that you want your designs to trigger in the viewer. Get examples. Be as specific as you can, say for example, what doesn’t work in the illustrations you’ve chosen: “this is the mood that I am after, although I don’t think that the particular colours here would work for our design”. Pause and think about what makes a particular illustration fit with your vision. Sometimes details become apparent only after a closer examination. That’s how it was with me and this illustration found on Deviant Art:
I wrote the following in the brief for my art designer:
“I think the background works because it is filled with barely noticeable at first glance blotches of colour as if there was an explosion and there is still fallout from it raining down”. This “explosive” background design is something that we have agreed in the end with my art designer to be a light motif running through the overall design of the game, from the box cover to the different card backgrounds.
And on and on it went. Picking at your own “feelings” and finding artwork out there that matches them so that you could make your art designer’s job easier.
Step 1. Create a Key
By this I mean a Master Design that is going to show where all the elements belong on each card. Hopefully, by this stage you have done enough play testing and enough playing around with different layouts that you are able to come up with something that is not only visually appealing and neat from the art design point of view, but also makes sense from the UX (user experience) point of view. That is, it is easy to understand and maybe even makes intuitive sense.
One way of going about it is to draw, but another is to have all the elements cut out on a larger-than-life mock-up. I used both approaches but found the latter approach faster and more efficient. You get to try to layout all the elements on one card (or on 3 in my case, because I have 3 different decks in my game). This way you can take decide placement, size, colour etc. You then take photos of the different layouts that might work.
Because a picture is worth a thousand words… And a decent video has at least 24 pictures per second… here is what I mean.
Step 2. Look book/Mood Board for the entire game
The mood board test. Given your brief ask the prospective art designer to prepare a mood board for your game. They might need a few illustrations of your choosing for that to do mockups of their ideas.
This task will separate those who know what they are doing from those who are good at talking about how good they are. It is also okay to work with someone gifted who doesn’t have as much experience. I also depends on your budget and luck. An experienced art designer ended taking on my project for a modest fee (a special, discounted start-up price) because they haven’t done a game before, found the project interesting and wanted to add it to her portfolio. I hope that when you see her artwork you will agree. The game really started to shape up graphically beyond what I imagined could be possible and all of a sudden I also feel a lot of responsibility not to let her efforts and that of my illustrator go to waste. I guarantee that’s how things will be for you too. It will add some weight on your shoulders but will also give you a boost in motivation.
A word of caution
It’s been said many times that when you make a game, you are starting a business. You are going to start seeing a side of people you maybe wished you hadn’t seen before. You have to put on your businessman hat on sometimes and make sure you tread carefully here in terms of what you are going to pay for and that once you pay for it you are entitled to use it. I have met one art designer in my fumbling travails who was so vague about what it is that she was providing and on what terms, that it left me suspicious that if the project were to be successful she would have been able to cause a lot of trouble. When I tried to clarify her terms and make sure each vague point was made clear, she refused to answer and promptly declined to go on with the project.
You can go and see the original post on my website:
To find out more about the game: