Why meeting your design heroes can be
the best thing to happen to your work
In part 1, I shared the story of how I unexpectedly met Minalima, my design heroes for the first time and how it changed my life. In this second part I am going to share what happened next and the impact it had on the creative direction I took next.Entering a creative paralysis/coccoon
It's a strange feeling when you are motoring along, day by day creating the work you do and obliviously moving on to the next commission, the next personal project or collaboration. There is very little time for reflection when people are asking you for your work yesterday.
Up until meeting Miraphora and Eduardo from Minalima, I'd been a freelance illustrator for twelve years. Admittedly it was a relentlessly hard slog with some amazing experiences and successes peppered amongst it. There was a lot of competition out there and there still is. I did of course try and create the best work I could but I began comparing myself to others, their successes and their infinitely higher cool factor that I felt my work just wasn't coming close to. This wasn't a very healthy thing to do.
It's only after after a period of reflection that I began to realise I might be stuck in a mindset I didn't want to be in. Meeting Minalima changed that. It resonated deeply with me on an emotional level that I didn't really realise at the time. In the first instance it gave me the most gratifying surge of creative inspiration I have ever felt and an unshakable urge to to turn my attention toward film design which is something I'd always had a secret passion for.
But with that inspiration came paralysis, partly out of the fear of doing something new and partly out of no idea where to begin. I didn't design anything for six months and I didn't know how to get started. All the while I remained inspired to change my work but I wasn't very productive. I was emotionally excited but practically stuck.
I needed to do something that would unlock the door...The first graphic prop I ever created
Just before Christmas, I found myself browsing in a book shop and came across The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien; a collection of illustrated letters by the author himself to his children. Tolkien created a complete mythology around Father Christmas and events at the north pole.
I'd loved this book since I was a child and rediscovering it was a great reminder of how Tolkien created a completely fictional world by pretending to be someone else.
And this gave me an idea.
I decided to write a letter to myself as someone else; a younger version of myself with instructions for the letter to be opened twenty years in the future.
What did I do next? Well I bought a typewriter and I set it up on my desk. I sat down on a sunny afternoon in March and I created my very first graphic prop:
(Apologies for the rubbish photos!)
It was so much fun to make. A proper Back To The Future moment! To this day the letter has sat on the shelf in my studio. I see it every day and it reminds me of how I got started and how my future self would eventually have to answer for the actions he did or didn't take.
Up until this point I'd been writing ideas for stories and fictional worlds for years with no concrete idea what to do with them. I have journals full of half conceived stories and characters and like many, ambitions to write novels, scripts and create fascinating fictional worlds.
It wasn't until I met Miraphora and Eduardo that I realised graphic design for film was something I could learn to create. It was the perfect medium for visually describing and telling stories in a fictional world and it had been hiding in plain sight. ('The wand chooses the wizard Harry'.)
I decided to give myself 2 years to learn as much as I could about graphic design for film and implement as much as possible to create a body of my own work.
What eventually became The Seven Worlds of Maurelius Babenko began life as a long journey into a slow and experimental design process I had never undertaken before. I was going in to the unknown, creating something I had never experienced; a slow uncertain process so very different to the fast paced deadlines of freelancing. I had no idea if I would emerge successfully. It was exciting and yet way beyond my comfort zone. I was pretty sure I needed to use skills I wasn't sure I even had.
Once I was fully committed to designing a set of graphic props, I needed a story to build props around. At first I considered working from an existing film script but I didn't want to be influenced by existing designs that had previously served a story well.
Instead I begn to work on my own story ideas, at first making lots of notes. From these notes I wrote a 10 page treatment for a story which I felt needed to feel as real and grounded as I could make it.
I focussed on the following four elements:
I realised that nearly every single graphic prop that exists in a fictional world is there to serve the characters in it, so I designed every single prop around a set of characters to try and tell their stories in the most visual way possible by keeping each prop authentic and personal to each characters journey.
I focussed on personal possessions and ephemera that would motivate characters to make decisioqnsand ultimately move the plot of a story forward.
At first I thought about setting my story in the fifties as mid century design is one of my favourite design periods. But then I began to consider story ideas that would allow me to work in multiple eras and that would ultimately challenge my design skills further.
So I settled on a story synopsis that spanned the 1920's to the 1980's.
I created various locations where ephemera would be connected to potential human activity. For example; internal institutional paperwork and reports and archives. I imagined lots of different functional ephemera including posters and newspaper hoardings on street corners, personal possessions such as ID cards, record collections and historical artifacts.
My production method ended up following three initial processes:
1. I put a lot of time into researching real world references for some of my ideas. I made countless visits to museums and private collections including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Museum of London and the British Museum and gathered hundreds of photographs. This gave me a clear understanding of the physical directions my work could go in.
2. Where appropriate, most of my prop design started life in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. Much like an athlete who needs to warm up before a race, I discovered that I needed to warm up my design brain before any good stuff began to happen.
So I started 'playing' with prototype designs and just start trying stuff out including typography, information placement, colour etc. I payed close attention to where ideas were heading and slowly I brought in reference images to help nudge the aesthetics of my designs forward.
3. I discovered that the physical production process is where the work becomes most transformative and the magic starts to happen. In my first year of making props, I was more or less working blind and making them on no money, foraging materials and tools and inventing ways to get the job done. I created little bottles of aging formulas made from pencil graphite, rust and balsamic vinegar. (A process I still use now.)
I experimented a lot and achieved some truly spectacular failures, often right at the end of the production process. This taught me a valuable lesson to always print and prepare more than you need.
Meeting my design heroes three years ago was a life changing moment. It inspired me to realise I could do and be anything I wanted to. One of the best moments and as it turns out, most important days of my life.
I have shared a very personal story about a major shift that occurred in the work and one that I hope that inspires you and if you are searching for it, to make that change and take a leap of faith:
So start today.
Don't regret it.
You'll make mistakes, but eventually you won't.
You might be afraid, but eventually you won't be.
Others will say you can't do it, but you will.
Find the best parts of yourself and lead with them.
Be proud of them.
Journey to the unknown and set your own quest.
Be true and honest with all that you are. You are probably already an inspiration to someone and you don't even know it. You are already a hero to someone else.
You are your work
Sometimes defining yourself by your work is a good thing and sometimes it's not. Sometimes it motivates you and sometimes it can stifle growth. But every once in a while an opportunity may present itself that asks you to let go and embrace change. Being open to change I believe is one of the best states you can keep yourself in.
Admittedly I have condensed my story down for the purposes of this blog, making it sound as if my life changed with a lightbulb moment. It didn't.
I had to do a lot of work and a lot of soul searching to leave behind a familiar world and step into an unknown one. The point is that some small part of me was receptive and aware of the change I needed. Finding your true creative direction is not a simple process and I'd be lying if I said it was. It may not solely be one thing you are destined to do. You have to try new things, be open to new ideas and ultimately be ready to learn from others.
Writing that letter may of seemed like a strange waste of time for a lot of people. But it helped me. Not only did it allow me to see that I love creating documents that tell stories, it became the catalyst I needed to truly begin writing my own creative story. And I continue to do so. After what feels like a lifetime looking for the right path, I now feel like I have found it.
A simple trip to a comic convention and a chance meeting with my design heroes gave me so much more than toys, movies, video games, posters, celebrities, panels, costumes and art.
I found the best parts of myself.
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