Art direction and design of comics – part 4

putting it together

I’ve covered a lot in the first bunch of posts and the question now is how to apply it all to your comic. For me, the first thing to do is to establish what your book is and what it isn’t and then what you want everything to look like based on your answers. There are so many different styles and a ton of design history that you can dig through and reference and/or tap into to help shape what your book looks like. So what is appropriate? What does the audience expect? What does the client expect? What do you expect?

Design is a balance between what you’d like the piece to look like, what the content will let you do and what the client wants. It’s this tug-of-war between the elements that is at the heart of every project. A good designer learns to work with the material as well as the client to shape the way the project looks to match the desired direction (although sometimes this isn’t always possible).

Once you nail down an overall art direction, you can start to play with the various elements to help establish the desired “look”.


A case study: how I’ve applied art direction and design to On the Verge

So how do I put everything together?
One of the first things that I did for On the Verge was to sit down and think about what the world I was creating would look like and what design would be like (i.e. how would the characters experience it). For me, a really good example of how this kind of thinking has been applied is the Harry Potter movies. I decided that I wanted to draw on Swiss typography and the International Typographic Style for my design inspiration. There were a couple of reasons for this:

1. Swiss typography and the International Style really came to a head in the 1950s which ties nicely into the history of alien abductions (which in North America really started in post WWII – i.e. the 1950s). This might seem silly, but I really liked the idea of tying the overall art direction into a time period into know for the emergence of alien abductions and UFOs, etc.

2. This typographic style also really started to make a mark in North America between the 60s-70s and this ties into classic futuristic/space age design that was going on at that time period and again, I like how this creates certain mental images and I want that association with the world that I’m creating.

3. Swiss typography also really contrasts nicely with my illustration style. I’ve always found it hard to do design work over top of my artwork and I had an inkling that the contrast between the sans serif type, the grid systems of Swiss typography and the organic ink work and textures of my artwork would create an interesting visual.

4. The website is an important part of On the Verge and I knew the art direction could be carried across to it easily (stay tuned for the website update that is coming shortly).

Establishing a design system
Once I had a set art direction in mind I needed to do some experimentation with various designs to see what would work and what wouldn’t and then try to establish some rules that I could apply to everything. I had already completed several pages as well as months of planning, sketching and work had built up quite a stockpile of imagery that I needed to use as a basis for the designs. I really had to be conscious of the colours and textures that I was already using and make sure that everything tied together. Here’s an overview of things:

Colour – I always try to simplify things and limit my colour palette. I find this helps me from getting overwhelmed with the possible choices I could make. I learned this technique ages ago and I still use it because it works so well. So for this project, I decided on using four main colours: white, black, a dark grey and a red/orange. I really tried to take a look at Swiss design and I made a conscious effort to pick colours that weren’t outside of their colour palates but at the same time were modern and worked with the art. This took a little trial and error to find the exact colours, but it was pretty straightforward.

Type – I usually try to pick the fewest typefaces that I can for a project. A good rule of thumb is two (at most!). For On the Verge I decided on using Helvetica because it A) it fits with the whole Swiss thing, and B) I can use it on the website and it will be on virtually every machine! I also built a custom typeface based on the On the Verge masthead that I designed when I was starting out. OTVface (as I dubbed it) will be used for titles and headlines and probably not much else. It’s a display face for impact and emphasis and I’ll try to use it that way going forwards. I also use a different typeface for lettering but more on that in my next post.

Graphic elements – As I mentioned in Part 3, graphic elements like bars, rules and symbols are a great way to establish a visual language for a project. I’ve decided to use a variety of stuff that ties either directly into the story or plays off of Swiss design. Some examples are in the images below.

Photography – From the start, one thing I wanted to create was actual stuff from the world of On the Verge. I’ve done quite a bit of design work for things like name badges, books, magazines and newspapers for various back story elements that I’ve written. So I decided to use photography of actual items and put them together with the artwork to create an interesting juxtaposition between the illustration work and photography.

Textures – I love textures, but my artwork already uses quite a lot. Because of this there wasn’t a need to use more and I tended to stay within what I’d already established with it. I was conscious not to have too many textures since that would create a visual mess.

Overall, the process of art directing On the Verge has been a case of trial and error. Like any design project that I work on, I try to make some concrete decisions at the very start and then figure out how to apply that to what I have to work with. I find that I always start with a very simple layout and not much going on and then gradually add to it over time. By using all of the elements of design I was able to layer things and create the overall “look” or “aesthetic” I was going for.

At this point in the project, my hope is that I’ve given On the Verge a distinct visual identity that sets it apart from other comics and that will help it get some attention. Art direction and design can’t help a story with weak writing and art, but I think (hope) that my stuff is good and deserves some attention. What a lack of art direction and design can and will do is not draw attention to good (maybe even great) art and stories. I don’t want to take that chance with my stuff, so the investment of all of this time and thought in art direction and design is more than worth it in the end. Plus I end up getting a cool looking book and website too. 

Here are some examples of the art direction in practise:

Above: An example of the art and the title combined with graphic elements – in this case slashes and a rule.

Above: Graphic elements and OTV face – a custom typeface that I designed based on the On the Verge masthead.

Above: Two of the main colours that I selected to use on the project – a dark grey and a red/orange.

Above: OTV face combined with graphic elements.

Above: An example of photography use.

Above: Textures from the artwork are combined with various graphic elements and type.

About jason

Illustrator and graphic designer. When not working full time as a Senior Graphic Designer, I am usually working on the graphic novel On the Verge: the Arrow of Time. Artist on Andrew Jackson in Space and The Sisters.

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