Designing Unlawful Good – part 1

Part 1: establishing an art direction

Way back at the beginning of this process, I was actually hoping to contribute art and/or a story to the UNLAWFUL GOOD anthology. Unfortunately, all the space was already filled up but editor/project manager Heather Antos asked if I’d like to contribute a pinup and possibly help out with the design if I was interested. I thought it over for a day or and emailed back to say I’d love to help.

Here’s the thing: I’ve mentioned this before, but working on the design of the anthology gave me the opportunity to really put my money where my mouth is. I think good design is important and I honestly don’t see good design in a ton of comics* which is really a shame.

[*And that’s not to say that there aren’t comics that aren’t well designed out there. In fact, since I first wrote about art direction and design in comics, the quality of the design work in comics has improved dramatically. But my point is that overall, the quality of comics – and artist’s medium if there ever was one – is below that of a lot of other things]

So what I want to do with this series of posts is to take you through the process that I went through working with Heather to design the anthology (which we’re still working on as I write this). And that process started with figuring out just what she wanted the finished book to look like.

To be honest, in the beginning I wasn’t too sure how much help Heather needed and I didn’t really want to step on anyone’s toes. To prep for writing this post and any that follow, I went back and read through those initial emails and I can see that I was trying to find out what was planned without really asking pointed questions. In the end, I finally broke down and asked what she had in mind. That’s where we’ll start.

Establishing an art direction
People often call art direction a “Look & Feel” which is a term that I hate because it’s really inexact when it comes to actually describing what you do when you’re designing. By this I mean that you can use the same images and make them both “Look” and “Feel” completely different simply by cropping them differently, or pairing them with different typefaces or colours, etc. So to me, the term “Art Direction” is a much better way to talk about design simply because you’re making decisions about all of the elements of design direction you want the design to go in and that will end up looking a certain way and convey certain feelings in people when they look at.

UNLAWFUL GOOD in an anthology of crime stories. Now when it comes to “crime”, I love crime novels and TV shows and movies and stuff. But there are all different types and what I needed to figure out was what type of stories Heather was compiling and what graphics best reflected that. To maybe explain this better, let me just say that in my head, when I think about different crime/mystery novels, they all look different. Raymond Chandler novels look different from Dashiell Hammett novels which look different from something modern like John Dunning. What I needed to figure out was what Heather saw in her head based on the type of stories that were going to be included.

When I asked Heather what type of art direction she wanted for the book, she said she wanted a “noir” feel and the stories covered everything from pirates to witch trials to your more typical mob and detective stories. So this definitely helped narrow things down since when I hear “noir” I think of black & white photos and grunge, roughed up characters, loose ties, scotch, spent cigarettes and smoke. All of this felt like it could mesh with the stories as well. We chatted a bit more and Heather referenced the comics THE LONG HALLOWEEN and VELVET which confirmed to me that what I had in mind was on the right track.

For me, when I sit down and design I really want to use things like “noir” books, TV and movies (plus THE LONG HALLOWEEN, VELVET and other crime comics) as influences but not copy them directly. I’m hoping that makes sense. It’s a weird process of putting everything together in my head and sketching out different ideas to try get the design work to look right – which was the next step.

Now the thing to keep in mind is that there were a bunch of different things happening in tandem at this point: we were working on what the art direction for the whole book should be, I started designing the masthead/logo for the book, I also started putting together initial designs for the inside of the book and Tony Moy was working on the cover illustration.

So in the next post I’m going to take a look at the design of the masthead which was really the next part in the process. For now, here’s a look at the research that I did as I started out this process.

There are all sorts of different pulp stories and crime comics that were great reference. Again, there are certain visual “clues” that if you can use correctly when you’re designing, people will be able to figure out what type of stories are inside the book solely based on the design.

When I looked at comics for reference, I not only dug out copies of THE LONG HALLOWEEN and VELVET, but I started looking through other crime stories as well. Things like SIN CITY, FATALE and STRAY BULLETS definitely help shape the overall art direction.

One of the major things that I was trying to figure out was what the graphics would look like. To me Raymond Chandler novels are really West Coast and while hard boiled, have always felt like they have bright pinks and oranges and turquoise blues (something like a David Hockney painting). Whereas Dashiell Hammett novels are very New York or Chicago in my head – so more black and white, big cities and Art Deco. John Dunning’s mystery novels are modern and I read them in the 1990’s, so I feel like they are more muted in colour and use bookish serif typefaces. The point is, all of these look different and it was really a matter of figuring out what Heather saw in her head and then how to best design that.

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