Kidspace, Karma & Concept Art

Developing concept art for exhibition from sketch to completion

One of three pieces of concept art for Kidspace

Since no one in my family understands or cares about the sordid, degrading things I do for money — y'know, designing — I thought I'd write a bit about the process. But if you want to see the final results, go nuts.

Science World is in the early phases of fundraising for a new preschool gallery, and an old chum, Jodie — their one-woman exhibit design army — contacted me to produce some concept art for them. Partially because I'm qualified, but mostly because she is always exhausted. I was happy to oblige. I hadn't worked with Science World in three years and was eager to catch up with some old friends.

Science World is a science centre located near downtown Vancouver that specializes in providing interactive, hands-on exhibits and experiences for kids. It's a magical place, where you can see hydrogen set on fire, or an eight year-old get charged with 10,000 volts. You can bring your small child, and set them free with the other small children, and watch them run around and around in circles until their heads fall off. It's like recess at the schoolyard with chemicals and explosions. Science!

Producing concept art for exhibitions is not radically different from producing concept art for other industries. It's part of the visual process of collating and combining disparate ideas into a coherent design vision. And depending on the status of the project, concept art can serve as a tool — pwetty pictures! — that a development team can present to tell the story of project to donors and investors.

However, there is a wrinkle when producing art for a non-profit institution like Science World. The problem is this: if you show a picture of a 20-foot tall dinosaur to a millionaire and ask them for free money, that same millionaire might actually expect you to materialize the cosmic equivalent of a 20-foot tall dinosaur with all that free money he gave you. Call it expectation management. Call it design karma. It bites a lot of non-profits in the ass when donors are tee'd up with unreasonable expectations.

This differs from, say, concept art in games. Their art can remain fairly aspirational, because the work dovetails naturally into a visual target for CG artists and engineers to achieve as it goes into production. There are limitations, but they are technical; not physical. With any form of actual construction, it's both. The concept art needs to be awesome, but not sooooo awesome it's impossible to construct, particularly for an organization as lean and underfunded as Science World. In order for my contribution to be useful, I have to understand the constraints of an institution's space and resources, and have a half-decent awareness of the cost of making something happen. 

Step 1: What the hell am I drawing?

I met at Science World with Jodie and Alison, one of their content researchers. We looked at the proposed space for the new permanent gallery — roughly 5,000 sq ft, with three large garage doors along one wall. Originally the space was intended to be flexible enough to open up into a neighbouring gallery. The height of the gallery when you enter is relatively standard, but rises to over 20 feet as you cross two columns, where the ceiling is cluttered by hanging ducts and other mechanical features.

We went over the ground rules and design criteria they were developing. Primarily, they wanted a space that would support a Reggio Emilio Approach to early childhood education, which emphasizes many forms of expression and play, and rigorous documentation of a child's work.

We reviewed image reference of exhibits they liked from other science centres. At this point the gallery was unresolved thematically; it's contents were still a hypothetical collection of things they wanted — a climbing structure, a water interactive, light tables, a build area with blue foam blocks. Jodie wanted to cut a trailer-in-half and convert it into base camp for ECE researchers  — mostly because trailers are cool and she's from Alberta. Aesthetically, they wanted a down-to-earth, DIY look-and-feel, which incorporated tactile and natural materials wherever possible. 

Jodie and I have a great working relationship. We're both aggressively passive-aggressive and good at our jobs. We've had challenges working with freelancers to produce concept art in the past. Usually they're limited strictly to producing blue-sky work, and drawing things that are either prohibitively expensive, physically impossible, or both.

While I wasn't expected to produce anything that represented a final design, we both wanted to come out the other end with illustrations that felt somewhat grounded. Jodie didn't want design karma to bite her in the ass, and I just wanted to draw something that obeyed the laws of physics. What's the fun in drawing something that would never, ever happen?

Wut?

Step 2: The Plan

Some artists are brilliant at bullshitting through an illustration. I'm not there yet. So I began by scribbling out a floor plan, as seen on the right. It's what a napkin would look like if Photoshop barfed on it.

Although a floor plan isn't essential, and usually outside the scope of  this sort of work (pwetty pictures!)  there are benefits in drafting one. First of all, it allows you to begin imagining the size and scale of different exhibits in relation to other objects. It forces you to group and organize exhibits — which essentially represent your ideas — within the constraints of an immutable reality. It's no different than an animator storyboarding within a 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratio. I suppose you could storyboard a scene in any dimension you want, but unless it works within a standard aspect ratio, you haven't technically solved anything and you're just breaking your art director's heart. In this case, I had to arrange my ideas around: 

  • three garage doors built into the north wall, for moving large exhibits and expanding into the neighbouring gallery
  • a fire-exit in the far east corner
  • a change in ceiling height on the south-side of the gallery
  • a new washroom and nursing room along the west wall

The second benefit is that you begin to see how certain exhibits and ideas naturally group together, and can be shuffled and massaged into actual themes. For example, I realized that the climbing structure could built like a home-made clubhouse, and the trailer could be part of a camping experience. I began imagining a gallery inspired by the kind of exploration children do in their own backyards: exploring the woods behind their house; playing with flashlights in their pup tent; stargazing at night. The work children produced could be hung in temporary displays to mask the garage doors, or be projected like constellations on hanging screens or high up on the walls, filling the space above. Temporary privacy could be created simply by hanging blankets and sheets, like constructing an impromptu blanket fort. Suddenly, all the disjointed elements coalesced into real experiences, with actual settings and stories.

Of course the greatest benefit of creating a plan, literally and figuratively, is having a plan. It serves as a roadmap of what I'm going to draw and how I'm going to draw it. Drawing without a plan is like writing without a plot — you can do it; people do do-it; but you're going to waste a lot of effort and throw out half the work you generate (assuming you care whether or not the work is good). 

Without a plan, I wouldn't know when I was finished drawing.

Clean sketch of floor plan, organized into themes and approximating exhibit footprints and traffic corridors

Step 3: Sketches

Along with the plan, I provided Science World with thumbnail sketches of the three views I was going to illustrate, and reviewed them with the staff. The priorities for each illustration, from left to right:

  • An interactive water table, slate wall and climbing structure (or club house)
  • A light play area, with a large build area in the background
  • A trailer, cut in half, that would serve as a base camp for ECE research, and where facilitators could work one-on-one with parents and kids.

Science World's fundraising goal is to raise $1.3 million. If I had to provide a WAG estimate of the cost of constructing what I've drawn, I would put it anywhere in the $660 — $960K range (there's a lot of elements not illustrated). The biggest potential swing in costs are the water table and the club house, depending on the size and complexity of each. You're not getting a custom-built, multi-story climbing structure for less than $200K. But who knows? You probably could, and it would probably stink. 

Step 4: Layout and Revisions

After gathering feedback from the thumbnails, I began producing the art in grayscale at full-resolution. I'm a true believer in making sure an illustration works in black-and-white before thinking about colour. It insures the final artwork, regardless of how it is shaded and colored, will be readable. It is also a way for me to mitigate personal risk because, secretly, I suck at everything (shhhhh!). It takes me a long time to take a piece from sketch to a final rendering, and I wanted to avoid a situation where I would be making revisions to fully-coloured, nearly completed work at all costs.

For this project, I sent the final grayscale artwork to Jodie for review (left), for her to provide a final round of notes (middle). I then quickly responded with a sketch incorporating the revisions (right) and sent them back for final sign-offThe alterations to the illustration of the Build Area were quite dramatic. While revisions at this stage can be tough to swallow (especially after your thumbnails have been approved) it's better to resolve them now than when you think your 90% complete. It's also lot easier when you have someone like Jodie as a client. All her requested revisions were sound, and actually improved the final art. 

Step 5: Work until you almost die

With the artwork finally approved in grayscale, I took a moment to lean back and settle into the waking nightmare of the deadline hanging over my sad, stupid head. I can assure you, this really wasn't a case of bad design karma or poor contract management. It was the culmination of a few too many obligations, while still wanting to rise to the occasion and do the best job possible. I was very cognizant of the degrees to which I was screwed as the hour and minute hands spun and the deadline descended, lower and lower. 

So I compromised. By compromise, I mean I worked 36 hours over the span of two days. Colouring for twelve hours; sleeping for three, than pushing through and working twenty-four hours straight; taking a break at four in the morning on a Wednesday to eat a Sausage and Egg McMuffin sandwich and take a long, mollifying shower afterwards; reminding myself that Yes, I am a human being with dignity, and not some filthy designer trapped in a black pit of sleep deprivation and despair.

The final result was a charming series of illustrations that capture the magic and wonder of childhood discovery.

Conclusion

So there you have it. Things turned out well. Jodie and the rest of the staff seemed really happy with the results and I slept for infinity-hours.

You may be wondering, "What are the chances of these pictures ever becoming reality?" Ehhhhh … probably slim-next-to-none. While all the proposed elements of the gallery might come to fruition, their appearance, size, configuration and complexity will deviate wildly from the illustrations, after the ideals they represent are fed through the meat grinder of a schematic design and budgeting process. Interactive exhibitions are not designed by sleepy contractors in 48-hour, caffeinated sprints. They're shepherded, built, polished and refined by a full team of intelligent, dedicated people.

And yet still, concept art is purposeful. It gathers the best ideas from a team of collaborators and stakeholders and consolidates them into a portrait, forcing them to define the scope and scale of their aspirations. It turns feelings into expression; criteria into goals;  a whiteboard full of random thoughts and whims into an actual, bona fide project. 

If I had to identify what I could improve on, it would include … everything. I could probably write another two thousand words on subject. I'm terrible like that. I still have a lot to prove as an illustrator; and I'm grateful Jodie showed up with a fun opportunity to hone my craft.  

If you would like to donate to Science World (of course you would), please visit their website.