topical media & game development

talk show tell print

visual design

When you are trained as a visual artist, as I once was (in the pred-digital era), you must do many basic exercises with form and color, learn the skills of drawing and painting, including still lifes and portraits. And, to graduate you must make an exhibition of your work over the years.

In the digital era, things have changed. The skills that you need to learn, which include the use of tools for digital content creation, as well as the artistic goals, I would say. What has not changed, however, is the need for basic exercises and the presentation of your work, that is the creation of a portfolio.

In this section, I will give an outline of the course visual design, that I started in februari 2005. This outline is meant to give you a general idea of how to approach design, and to give you some hints on how to acquire the skills needed to act as a designer. If you have the opportunity to take a course in visual design, then don't hesitate and do it!




The overall goal of the visual design course is to establish some basic aesthetic awareness, by providing suitable exercises and assignments. In addition, the student is supposed to become familiar with the craft of design, which necessarily, but not exclusively, involves the use of tools and techniques.

To accomodate for the various interests and backgrounds of the students, we distinguish between several tracks or perspectives, as summarized below:

track(s) -- perspective

  • styling -- concept and presentation
  • digital content -- material, animation
  • tech track -- special effects
To illustrate the various perspectives, I invited guest speakers who showed their work and talked about their approach. A selection of their works is hown in this book. The process of design is very complex, ranging from conceptual explorations and sketching up to the stage of finalizing delivery. It is also very personal. However, as each of the speakers testified to, a significant portion of the time and effort goes into negotiating with the client. Whether it involves taking photographs for an advertisement or setting up a campaign, it takes a lot of back and forth to get an idea of what the client wants. In the agency of one of the speakers Mark Veldhuijzen van Zanten, they have created roles to help eachother come up with the right ideas.

  • e-motionist -- make emotion, rhythm and movement flow together
  • chaoticus -- who sees chaos within order
  • formologist -- who approaches the fabrication of forms as an art
  • infonaut -- who moves in the twilight zone of information and meaning
  • transformator -- who transforms images and concepts into new matter
Although slightly ironic, and in practice not so clear-cut, these roles give you an idea what cognitive modes are involved in bringing an original concept to a stage of finalization.

Coming up with an idea and sketching require a more reflective cognitive mode, whereas finalizing a design requires a more experience-related cognitive mode. It is important to choose the right tools to work with, dependent on which phase you're in, for example paper and pencil when you are still sketching and Photoshop or maya when you put your ideas into production.




However interesting the process may be, design is not about process but about product(s). Such a product may be, dependent on what you ar good at, one of the following:


  • web site -- e.g. conference, campaign (browse)
  • 2D/3D animation -- promotion/ad (temporal sequence)
  • virtual space -- game/infotainment (navigate)
  • ebook -- story (sequential experience)
As indicated between brackets, each of the products favors a particular mode of interaction. Although interaction is not an aspect of visual design as such, it is an important aspect to take into account. In section 9.2, we will look in more detail at the issue of interaction and usability in general.

One easily overlooked issue in a design project, is the creation of a portfolio. There may easily be some confusion here with regard to what should be considered the product of design, one of the items in the list above, or your portfolio. The answer is simple. Both! As a record of the process of design, the portfolio is itself a product of design.

portfolio -- design as a product

  • concept(s)
  • sketches & explorations
  • finalized products
  • evaluation & reflection
What criteria should a portfolio meet? Well, nowadays it is not only common to have your portfolio on the web, I have been told that you cannot do without it. So, first of all, your portfolio should be web-friendly. And your work should not be too many clicks away! And, secondly, it should give sufficient insight in what you have to offer, so that a potential client can decide whether it is worth the effort to contact you.

In our visual design course, I require that the portfolio contains a description of the concept(s) underlying the design, sketches and explorations as well as the finalized products. It is also required, after all it is an academic course, to provide an evaluation and some reflection in the form of an essay on a topic such as 2D versus 3D aesthetics, animation techniques, or (more theoretical), elements of style or theories of creativity.

  In my perception a portfolio is about the
  past and I feel much more related to the
  present especially in my work as a
  photographer. To me the relation with
  the present and the subject/assignment directs
  my creativity, the experiences over the 
  past draw my skills. My challenge is to be
  truly inspirred, to be present in the present.
However, as illustrated by the motivation Jaap Stahlie gives with his portfolio (above), it is perhaps wise not to overdo it!

There are basic exercises, obligatory for all students, and a final assignment, where you have a choice between three productions, each with a different supervisor. In addition, as explained in the guidelines, all students must write an essay, and give a presentation in class. For deadlines, see the schedule. There will be periodic checks on the status of your work. Each year there will be recommended themes.


In the visual design course there are basic exercises, obligatory for all students, and a final assignment, where the student has a choice between three productions.

basic exercises

  1. develop a logo
  2. create a sign
  3. design a collage
  4. write a story
For the final assignment, there is a choice between the following assignments: developing a house style, creating a non-linear visual story, and designing a suitable game environment For this assignment) the students are allowed to work in groups. However, the contribution of each individual must be reflected in his/her own portfolio.




The first requirement when working in an area such as visual design is that you acquire sufficient self-discipline to find the challenge in the assignments and to complete the tasks involved. Since a department of computer science is not the natural habitat for a course in visual design, I have laid down some strict rules:


  • be present -- 2 omissions max.
  • be in time -- hard deadlines
  • be online -- have your portfolio available
  • be creative -- don't steal without a reason/mentioning
  • be smart -- there is no 2nd chance
These rules may well apply when you work, after you graduated, as an individual designer/developer or as a member of a team in some agency. To finish this section, I may remark that design is an interesting field, full of implicit (not always so obvious) wisdom and apparent paradoxes. Whatever you do, deliver! Silence is lethal. And, as another item of colloquial wisdom, be authentic, but only if possible!



research directions -- on creativity

One of the assignments in the visual design course is an essay. As one of the recommended topics we have a reflection on theories of creativity. As such it is not a training in creativity. This section contains some random thoughts on the processes and products of design, and ends with the provoking statement there is no theory of creativity. You may, however, try to find some counter-arguments, for example in the line of  [Similarity].


Multimedia is a promising technology, and (nowadays) affordable. So we see that multimedia (which includes 3D-graphics, video and sound) is increasingly being used, also in information visualisation. But what is it good for? To quote  [Magic]:

multimedia's promise is terribly generalized,

it simply lets you do anything.

As with any new technology, the early multimedia productions (in particular CDROM and CD-I) were not optimal with respect to (aesthetic) quality. To quote  [Magic], again:

shovelware -- multimediocrity

... far from making a killing, it looked as if the big boys ... had killed the industry by glutting the market with inferior products.

Perhaps the industry in the late eighties did not have the right business model. But, then again, what are the chances of multimedia in our time. One more quote from  [Magic]:

if multimedia is comparable to print then yes, we'd be crazy to expect it to mature in a mere ten years.

eliminating complexity

So now, in the new millenium, we are (sadder and wiser) in a position to approach the effective deployment of multimedia afresh. What we look for is aesthetic quality. How do we find it? Easy enough, just be authentic.

"Learning how to not fool ourselves is, I'm sorry to say, something that we haven't specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you've caught it by osmosis."

Richard Feynman

Authentic in creating multimedia means, apart from not fooling yourselves, that you must become aware of the message orinformation you want to convey and learn to master the technology to a sufficient degree. But beware, an effective multimedia presentation is not the same as scientific argumentation:

the media equation

We regularly exploit the media equation for enjoyment by the willing suspension of our critical faculties. Theatre is the projection of a story through the window of a stage, and typically the audience gets immersed in the story as if it was real.

These quotes, as well as the following one have been taken from an online essay on eliminating complexity which provides an argument against inessential gadgets and spurious complexity and bells and whistles in whatever you can think of, including user interfaces and scientific theories. Back to the subject, what does master the technology to a sufficient degree mean? Just remember that what you do is a form of engineering.


"engineering is the art of moulding materials we do not wholly understand ... in such a way that the community at large has no reason to suspect the extent of our ignorance."

A. R. Dykes.

In other words, learn the tool(s) that you are using to a degree that you master the basics and easily cut through its apparent magic.

theories of creativity

Producing multimedia, in whatever form, has an element of craftsmanship. But, given the need for aesthetic quality, whatever way you approach it, there is an element of creativity. That means, you're in for a challenge. And, to quote  [Magic],

The best thing is to empower yourself. But before you can do that, you need to understand what you are doing -- which is a surprisingly novel thing to do.

Now it is tempting to look for a set of guidelines and rules that give you a key to creativity. So let me be straight with you:

there is no theory of creativity

On the other hand, there are techniques for producing ideas. And some recommend a sequence of steps, such as:


browse, explore; chew it over; incubation, let it rest; illumination (YES); verification,does it work?

And in addition, still following  [Magic], there are some general rules:

general rules

  • if you aim to please everybody, you will please nobody
  • constraints come with the territory, you must learn to love them
  • emotional charge is the key to success
Now, if you'd ask me, I would say, just

make your virtual hands dirty.

(C) Æliens 04/09/2009

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