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Portfolio Building 104 - Creating a Personal Design Playground

Setting Yourself Apart By Working Within a Cohesive Design Universe


If you started at the beginning and made it this far, thanks so much for sticking it out! If you're just joining us, this is the fourth entry in January's article series on portfolio building (the series starts here).

In the process of browsing dozens of great portfolio sites from artists that I admire, it's become clear to me over the years that one of the best ways to push your work forward and create a memorable a body of images is to set aside a block of time and force yourself to create a cohesive series of work within a set of design parameters that you've dreamed up for yourself.

A "design playground," if you will.

What is a Design Playground?

Well, first of all, I'm pretty sure it's a made up term. I like the way it sounds, but I doubt anyone else actually calls it that. Most people use the term "universe" for the idea I'm talking about. (Like the Tolkien "universe," or the Marvel "universe" for example.)

What I really mean when I say “design playground” is to create a set of images or designs that all share a relatively cohesive back-story, and work together to support one another as a stylistic, conceptual, and aesthetic whole.

In other words, act like you're working on a professional film or game project.

For Example

I've always been quite fascinated by fiction that takes place in settings where the majority of the plot is set within a self-contained space—like a space station, or an underwater city. Deep Space Nine, Battlestar Galactica, Bioshock, City of Ember, and many, many novels from classic science fiction are all good examples of the kind of “self-contained” settings that I'm talking about.

In light of my interest in this area of fiction, I've been thinking about designing a set of images based around a loose idea that I've had floating around in my head for quite some time:

My “design playground” is a mid-future earth where technology has advanced quite a bit. In my mind, it's a throwback to retro style science fiction, where cars can fly, humanity has become a space-faring race, and the grand ideas of futurist designers like Syd Mead and Ron Cobb have come to fruition. The center of my idea is this enormous mega-structure that has been built out near the Hawaiian archipelago. It's a self-contained city, and it's also the base of humanity's first space elevator, so in a sense it's also a spaceport.

To me it's an interesting setting, because you've got this place that's high-tech and optimistic, and houses a huge scientific research staff (kind of like CERN). But the same time, being a sort of way-station you also have the ability to bring in lots of interesting auxiliary characters that might be passing through on their way to use the elevator—merchants, travellers, etc. On top of that, there are tons of opportunities for interesting settings: Research labs, control rooms, residential spaces, commercial spaces, the underbelly where everything is run. In other words, it's a versatile design space.

It would allow me to design and model a huge range of sets, characters, props, and vehicles, and the sense of a shared back-story helps instill believability into the work and prevents it from feeling generic.

Have any Examples of Real "Design Playgrounds"?

Certainly! This kind of design assignment is very common at schools like Ringling, Sheridan, or Art Center.

Usually in their final year, students are given an opportunity to pursue this sort of work through an extended thesis project. At animation schools, this usually means producing a fully formed short-film project either individually or in a small group. Producing a short is the ultimate test, because it means students gain firsthand experience in every aspect of the CG Pipeline from pre-production and modeling, all the way to animation, rendering, and post.

Here's an example of a really good thesis project from two Ringling students (Stevie Lewis and Avner Geller). Both artists now work at Dreamworks as visual development artists.

What if you're not an animator?

It doesn't have to be a short film!

It can be as simple as a set of related character designs, or a series of related illustrations. Tailor the work to your own personal goals—the important thing is to get your mind thinking in terms of a project-based workflow where the work needs to adhere to a set of design parameters or art direction.

Just to give one final example, I urge you to look up an artbook published a few years back called The Skillful Huntsman. Under the guidance of legendary designer Scott Robertson, three students at Art Center grouped together and set out to create an extensive set of character, environment, and vehicle designs based on the Grimm fairytale, The Skillful Huntsman. Their work is excellent in every way, and the book is a perfect road-map for what a concept art portfolio should look like.

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