10 Ways To Develop Your Mindset As A
Graphic Prop Designer  

The power of learning

When I decided to make the transition from working in freelance illustration to learning about designing graphic props for film, I thought it would be a straight forward process. I thought I had the artistic know how and the technical ability and and I could transfer those skills. What a breeze. Or so I thought. I underestimated the mental transition I needed as well to make to enable me to create what I wanted.
Yes I did have what I thought was the skills for the job, but the one thing I didnt have was the mindset. It takes a very different mindset to be a prop designer, one where you are always inquisitive, where you never settle for second best and you are always pushing your knowledge in the pursuit of quality and authenticity.
 In this post I would like to share with you the importance of learning and how it stretches you to become a stronger visual thinker. I would like to share some of the things I've learned that challenged my mindset as a prop designer and how those things transformed the way I work now.  But first let's look at what mindset means in the context of making good design.
What exactly is mindset?
 According to the renowned mindset researcher Carol Dweck, Mindsets are a set of beliefs about yourself and your most basic qualities.  Most people fall in to one of two mindsets:

Fixed Mindset

"In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong."

Growth Mindset​

"In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities."
To be a good designer requires you to develop an endless desire for learning and improvement.  It requires a growth mindset. What you need to learn and develop in yourself will depend on what your goals are. So let's look at some strategies for developing a growth mindset specifically for graphic prop design.
How to develop your mindset as a graphic designer for film
If you are an artist or a designer wanting to transition your skills toward graphic design for film, or even if you are starting at the beginning with your design career then the following 12 steps are all things I have put in to practice that have transformed the way I approach design challenges mentally as well as practically. I hope they may be of use to you:

1. Be a great detective

Research is vital to the outcome of an authentic prop design. You need to be tenacious when it comes to finding the relevant information to support your graphic props. There are some things that may be so obscure that finding references or information about them can be tricky, but you have to keep going.
Whether you are recreating something from the real world or creating something for a made up world, having appropriate references will make your work so much more interesting. You may need to get out of the studio and visit archives, experts, private collectors and collections. The advantages of this are that you may often find real world examples of what you are trying to reference. There is no substitute for that.

2. Become a forager​


Search, search and search some more. Then collect what you think might be of use to you either now or in the future.  A prop designer will store away the most unusual items for later referencing. You should develop an acute interest for ephemera, historic or modern and collect different sources so that you have them to hand when the time is right.
Foraging is a very personal pursuit and employs your own tastes and interests. The more you go looking for printed ephemera and items of interest, the more your visual awareness improves and you become more discerning in your understanding of design. If you can, make regular time to get out of the studio and visit second hand shops, car boot sales, whatever it takes to find that one thing that could unpick the creative lock you may have been struggling with.

3. Fall in love with books​

Books are possibly the most useful, interesting and precious resource you can build for yourself. Collect books not only on design but on all sorts of different subject matter; butterflies, chemistry, gardening, games and puzzles, recipes from the 1930's, architecture, poetry, aircraft schematics, knitting patterns. The list is endless. Having a visual dictionary at your fingertips will be your best friend when you need to design something that requires a particular reference.

One of the other beautiful things about books is that you can thumb through the pages and compare and connect information in an instant. This can be a little harder to do on the internet. And besides, designing graphic props is often about creating physical ephemera so working with books keeps your mindset in a tactile world.

4. Become a time traveller

To go one step further and simply imagine what it was like to hold and use the prop in the era you are designing for will improve your mindset for design. Let your mind travel to a place and time where your prop has a real function. What would it feel like? How would it serve the user? What was it made of? What is it communicating? 
Remember you are bringing an ephemeral recreation to life so understanding as much as you can about it's physical and functional properties is highly beneficial​ for authenticity.

5. Ask the question What if?

What if? is the question every designer should ask. This powerful question shifts your understanding of reality and pushes your mindset to a new place.  What if? makes you explore the unknown and while that can be a scary place to visit at first, if you make what if? a regular mental habit then your mindset will expect this process to occur every time you work.
A graphic prop designer will ask questions like 'what if I age this document a bit more?' 'What if I place information in a different order?' 'What if I change the colour palette?'
Your prop design may go through various iterations before you find the most suitable. What if? pushes your ideas beyond the boundaries of acceptability and strengthens the quality of your work.​

6. Study human nature

The very concept of graphic props are that they replicate things that are designed by people, for people. Human behaviour will often leave a trace of history, from the stain of a coffee cup placed on on a newspaper, to the felt tip that is slowly running out or the dog eared corners of a document left in the back pocket. Human nature affects physical things none more so than printed ephemera. Watch how people behave with printed things. How do they hold them?, how do they store them?, how do they care for or discard them?
These observations will teach you how to employ a storytelling mindset to your designs.

7. Become obsessed with type

Typography is the driving force of graphic prop design. While much can be communicated pictorially, type communicates quickly. It levels information in a way everybody can understand in the same way. When type is used effectively it can convey it's message in seconds. And sometimes seconds is all a graphic prop may have.
Typography dominates the way printed matter communicates with and serves it's user / reader / consumer.  Immerse yourself in the world of the printed word. Learn about typefaces from various different design era's. Collect alphabet books, type sheets, photograph as much as you can and archive it.

8. Take some history lessons

We are the product of everything that has come before us. Our evolution, inventions, languages, wars, everything. Researching human history will allow your mindset to develop a timeline that will connect seamlessly with different design era's, often formed by social, political and cultural events of the time. Historical ephemera is so often a recording of world changing events.
Learn about people that changed history and the various ephemera that recorded their endeavours.​  I recommend the book A Little History Of The World by Ernst Gombrich.

9. Experiment whenever you can and don't be afraid of failure

A graphic prop designer needs to be fearless when it comes to experimentation. Develop an ability to push materials, concepts, techniques and processes to their limits. The one thing that often holds people back with experimentation is a fear of making mistakes. But some of the worlds greatest discoveries were made by accident by people striving to achieve something entirely different.
When an engineer once rested his hot iron on his pen, he witnessed ink eject from the pen's point. This became the first principal of inket printing. 
Failure is a really important part of experimentation. It's what allows you to measure the success in your work and learn from your mistakes. Don't be afraid of failure. Failure is often opportunity wearing a different coat. There is always another piece of paper, a new pot of ink, a different color or another way to organize pixels. Always.
Embracing Failure and learning from it is the single biggest skill you can cultivate that can move you from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.​

10. Be cool with your work in a supporting role

Graphic props contribute to a bigger story and sometimes they are only on screen for a split second. Often a lot of work is created but never makes it to the screen at all.  ​Graphic props are not usually the main focus of a story unless they are absolutely integral to the plot, so a  graphic prop designer needs to be ok with this being a natural part of the design process.
Film props serve the story in many more ways than just being visible. They make the cinematic universe more credible for the director, the crew and most importantly the actors who work along side  them. If the prop is convincing, then this will contribute to greater convincing performance from the actors. Graphic props also make a massive contribution to world building in general and open up the visual tone of the story.

11. Work hard on the details, they are what makes a good prop work

​Never cut corners when it comes to the details. It's the small details that brings a prop to life and adds to the story and functionality. Many elements of ephemeral design contain lots of small print, icons, logos and other information. Although some things are too small for cameras to pick up, an audience can still recognise the shapes and placements of these details, which all serve to make the prop believable to the audience and function properly in the context of the bigger story. This is what will help to make your props authentic.

12. Watch as many movies and tv shows as you can

I've saved the best one for last. You need to watch movies and tv shows.
A lot.
If you truly want to work in graphic design for film then you need to study what makes a great story for film and television. The main genres of film & tv are: Adventure, Comedy, Crime & Gangster, Drama, Epic & Historical, Horror, Musical & Dance, Science Fiction, War, Western and Factual. Each genre also has many sub categories as well. Consume them all.
Pay attention to the graphic props. How are they used in the context of the story? Are the props there to dress the set? Do they advance the plot? Which props do the actors come in to contact with and how do they do it?
To understand just how useful a graphic prop can be in a film, try this small exercise: Watch a film of your choice and study every scene that contains a graphic prop. Now try and imagine what that scene would be like with the props taken out. Would the set appear less authentic? Would gaps in the story emerge? Would there be plot a hole? I am guessing that the answer would almost certainly be yes.
​Change your mindset from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset
With practice, you can stretch and challenge your mindset so that you have the skills and mental strategies to improve the quality of your work. It takes passion, dedication and a lot of focus but once you commit to regularly implementing these strategies you will see results. 
The right practical skills combined with mental clarity and a clear direction of where you are headed will bring results. A growth mindset will become second nature to you and you will begin to see the value of learning and improvement as the most important thing worth applying yourself to.
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