Oct 1, 2006

Go Forth & Create!

Click art to view larger image.

Pretty much every product or industry has some kind of ongoing rivalry. In soft drinks, it's "Coke vs. Pepsi." You have "Nike vs. Adidas" in the world of footwear, and "Mac vs. PC" in computers.

The communication arts world is no different. Graphic designers and illustrators have been arguing the merits of Macromedia FreeHand and Adobe Illustrator since the early days of digital design. I've been a diehard FreeHand user since 1991. Over the years, as more and more illustrators migrated to Adobe products, some have scorned me for sticking with FreeHand. But I didn't care. It facilitated my creative pursuits, and no one could argue with the results. I've won major awards and received recognition both nationally and internationally for work done with FreeHand. Sure, I've owned Illustrator since Version 8, but only for converting or opening files sent to me. I and a handful of other hardcore FreeHand aficionados have been holdouts, while most of our friends and peers have gone over to the other side.

No, I don't know what the pipe smokin' worm means. It just looked cool.

Bad News
In 2005, Adobe purchased Macromedia. With the merger, FreeHand's future looked grim. I knew it was time to make the change. Dragging my heels and Wacom pad, I knew I must begin the switchover. Little did I know that I was embarking on a tortured journey. Changing my primary drawing application wasn't easy. It was like learning to drive on the other side of the road or read a book upside down. Things that were intuitive, almost second nature, were now unfamiliar. I confess--I resisted the change. I was still fuming that the corporate officers and business analysts at Adobe would make a decision about my most important artistic tool. What if Leonardo was forced to switch to watercolor? You know he would have been grumbling a little, too.

My plan was to learn Illustrator gradually. With a booming year of business and a long list of client projects, I really didn't have room in my schedule, or motivation, to take a class or to switch abruptly. I bargained with Time: when FreeHand no longer worked on my Mac (due to the inevitable hardware and OS upgrades), I'd migrate. Really. But fate had other plans for me.

Bubbling ideas. Or as I like to call it, "Slow Boiling."

Closet FreeHand User
Recently, a Portland agency approached me to illustrate a promotional poster for the Adobe CS2 Creative Suite. Wow! I was totally jazzed and honored. When we met to discuss ideas, I quickly realized they assumed I was a CS2 Illustrator user. Now, I was no stranger to Adobe products. CS2 Photoshop had been part of my creative process for eons. And I actually owned CS2 Illustrator. But I had never created a whole project from beginning to end with any version of Illustrator.

They had no clue that a holdout was right under their very noses! I felt like an agent in a covert operation, a scout behind enemy lines. Should I blow my cover, and reveal my diehard alliance with FreeHand? All kinds of amusing arguments went back and forth in my mind. "Don't worry, Adobe owns FreeHand now, so it's not like you're technically a spy." How about this one: "No problem, we'll just do it in FreeHand, then copy and paste everything into CS2. After we save it as an Illustrator file, no one will even notice." I was starting to get a little nervous. I hoped my eyes weren't twitching and sending a Morse code message that a traitor was in their midst!

Yes, even spiders have duo-colored eyes.

Moment of Decision
The agency explained the project: Adobe wanted to use the poster to demonstrate Illustrator's various features, such as transparent vectors, smart objects, layer effects, VPF Technology, and the relationship of CS2 apps working together. It was a juicy project, to say the least. I would be designing a creative illustration for one of the planet's most famous software companies.

It just got better and better. Trying not to drool, I asked if there was a particular direction, theme or concept. The art director looked at me, and said the words that every illustrator dreams of hearing: "No. It's wide open. I like your art, so just do what you do." An account executive did mention to stay away from "edgy"--guns, nudity or violence were out. Okay, so no naked John Wayne Green Beret homage. Other than that, the door was open. Weird, strange, whatever. Whoopee!

Suddenly I came to my senses. There I sat, with one of the coolest projects ever, with total creative license. But I couldn't use my old friend and accomplice, FreeHand. The tool that was my partner for the previous decade was not invited to the ball. How ironic. Panic time!

I did weigh the idea of coming clean. Should I tell them I didn't use Illustrator as a primary drawing application? I decided against it...they didn't hire me because of my software. They loved my previous work, which was all done on FreeHand. My creativity doesn't come from a tool. However, for integrity's sake, I would have to create the artwork with Illustrator. I would have to get my butt in gear and go on a crash course to learn the software, inside and out.

I felt like a man emerging from a concrete bunker, after years of solitary resistance. I must learn CS2 Illustrator...and quickly. This would be a great test of the product's capabilities and ease of use. FreeHand wasn't an option, and it was time to be baptized by fire.

Happy little bee

Creative Process
Hmm, having a wide open creative brief wasn't as easy as it sounded. I had no idea where to start! For several days, I just let ideas slow boil. Then came a period of furious sketching. An idea started to take shape. I thought about what the AD had said, "Do what you do." That was it; that was the idea. So I did. I began "to do." I didn't hold back either. I stretched myself and created art that I thought would be inspiring for other artists. My idea was based on the premise "Why do artists use Adobe products?" The answer is, "To create."

No art is complete without a winged Roman worm

The End Results
I wasn't sure how Adobe would respond. Was the illustration a little too weird? Would the concept clash with their branding somehow? After all, this was a respectable software company, not MTV. But because creatives were the target audience, quirky is good. The agency loved it! They didn't have any changes, and presented it as created. Thankfully, Adobe was thrilled as well, and everything was green-lighted. I made some minor tweaks, then finalized the art.

I wish I could say the switch of software went as smoothly. Honestly, it was sometimes difficult and frustrating. Menus were different. Shortcuts weren't the same. And some tools just didn't exist in Illustrator. However, I found that Illustrator had some great capabilities I never dreamed existed. Later this year, I'm taking an intensive class for former FreeHand users. I'll miss my old buddy, but when you work in a creative environment, you have to be willing to upgrade and adapt, or technology will leave you behind.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Every Good Story Needs a Villain
Lest you think that this fairy tale had no cliffhanger, there was a bit of drama mixed with humor along the way. After many meetings, multitudes of eyeballs viewing the design (including both Adobe and agency staff)...after the artwork was finalized and just about ready to be handed off, along comes the "Ogre of the Audience Demographics and Financial Returns." Uh, I mean, the marketing person, who said, "Why is the worm guy wearing a Nazi helmet?"

(Cue sinister music)

We all know that marketing people have their place in business. And every creative professional knows there's often a tug-of-war between creative expression and the realities of the business model.

In this case, Mr. Worm was not wearing a Nazi helmet. Mr. Worm was sporting a vintage World War I German officer's helmet. The Nazi Party wasn't even around at that time. But no, this was going to be a problem. The marketing person was not going to budge, Nazi helmet or not. Someone might take this image the wrong way. They most certainly didn't want anyone to think they supported militaristic worms with suspect ideology.

I understood the concern, but, hello! What we had here is a winged worm wearing spectacles and a metal helmet. Perhaps we should take another look at the other worm, who wasn't wearing any clothes at all, only a fedora. He's actually smoking a pipe, too.

I can just see it now, protests at Adobe headquarters over the company's implicit endorsement of nationalistic, drug-smoking, nude invertebrates.

(You can probably tell that designers can be sensitive about their work.)

But hey, I'm a professional, and this isn't the first time someone has nixed an element in my artwork. We had to find another helmet for Mr. Worm. I finally settled on a Roman soldier's headgear. And unless you're from Carthage or fought in the Punic Wars, a Roman helmet shouldn't offend anyone. Here endeth my rant, and an amusing anecdote about worms smoking pipes and wearing helmets.

(By the way, I preferred the German helmet because of its sub-culture nod to one of my childhood favorites, Ed Big-Daddy Roth. He was a California illustrator and custom car builder who was influenced by hot rod and motorcycle culture. We illustrators like to include subtle references like that from time to time.)

Anyway this story has gone on long enough, so I'll end it here. I hope I provided some insight into the processes, challenges and zany episodes in an illustrator's average workweek. If you're interested in seeing more behind-the-scenes views of how the art was created, I'll be posting a project tutorial at IllustrationClass.com.

I think it's funny how things work out. For a while, I was dreading the idea of switching from FreeHand to Illustrator. I was that skinny kid at summer camp, shivering at the end of the diving board, scared to jump. Along comes this project, with a not-so-subtle push that got me in the water.

Life is an adventure. I'm really thankful to be able to work on such cool projects.

RIP, my old friend, FreeHand.

If you'd like to see this project from concept to completion you can view it via a free tutorial by clicking here.


Anonymous said...

absolutely wonderful. a great illustration and a great story. i, too, fear software change (and can definitely claim that not knowing crap about a PC got me canned from a temp job about 5 years ago).

josh mishell

Anonymous said...

Hey Von
Great illo and great to see you have finally come over to the "dark side".

Greg Bakes
Smoking Monkey Illustration

Mary Ann Miller said...

Wow, so wonderful! And thank you for the history behind it. The story about the helmet was great. I resisted learning Illustrator, too, but I've come to love it and can't imagine being without it.

soupablog said...

wonderful illustration. welcome to illustrator! :)

paul soupiset
toolbox studios inc

jPaper said...

Welcome to the new software. A lot of us are nervous from the buyout. I'm a big Flash user and really wonder what will happen to my little program(especially since I'm just starting to get comfortable with it.)

Here's to the chaos of the industry.

lew! said...

Great illo Von. Quite a good read to boot!

What a dream project, glad it went so smoothly. The helmet is a little annoying, but i have seen/heard many people call that WWI style helmet a nazi helmet. I think if it looks militaristic and german - people just say nazi. Ah well.

Great jorb.

Jason McArtor said...

Say it ain't so! ...sweet illustration as usual. Are you really going cold turkey on FH?

Anonymous said...

It is official now. You're an icon of illustration.


Teresa said...

You'll love Illustrator once you get used to it. Take a look at this link. If you can go to this class, it's a very fun thing. Russell Brown from Adobe is there. I went once but can't afford it anymore. If you go, tell 'em who sent ya... Hey, maybe they'll let you in as an Adobe Guest?
PS. Great pics you do...

Lou Vega said...

ummm... this took me six minutes to read. Ok, ten minutes if you add my staring at the cool illustration. Great story and insight. Especially the marketing bit. I feel like it happens all the time when showing artwork to editors. You should have quoted the Mark Twain's comment on the poster just to see what kind of reaction you get. But, for what it's worth I like the splash of color on the Roman helmet.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous illustration, Von... love it love it! And, what a great story, too. The Illustrator camp welcomes you with open arms :) -- aren't we lucky to have you.

Kim Buchheit

Anonymous said...

ha! i always knew that you were a freehand guy, but i thought it'd be good for you to come to the dark side. that said, i didn't tell the rest of the folks about it over here. as far as they're concerned, vector is vector :)

super great work, btw. i'm glad that i brought you in.

todd the evil agency guy.

Anonymous said...

Von - Great story. Glad to see if you've come over to Illustrator.

I'm surprised you didn't get any concerns about the USC Trojans helmet. Come on, they didn't win the championship last year.

Jeremy said...

Thanks for the insight and honesty! Welcome to Illustrator.

John Dowdell said...

... maybe the Big Daddy reference didn't go, but I liked how you got Chuck Jones and Marvin the Martian in there in his place.... ;-)

erika said...

Thank you for being you. I have learned so much from your blog, illustrationclass.com, etc. Wonderful work! Can't wait for a step by step on how you created this. I want to learn how to do those gradient circles in the background and incorporate texture so it is part of the piece.

thanks again.

RobSchwager said...


Nazi helmet... BAH!

Curse that marketing person!

Daniel Davis said...

Yeah Von, I'm trying to make the exact same transition. The pen tool in Illustrator is killing me.

But you're right, it's just a tool... it's just a tool. I keep telling myself this.

Mordy Golding said...

Welcome aboard my friend :)

There's a seat here right next to me -- i've been saving it for you :)

:) Mordy

Michael Campbell said...

Great Story! Thanks for sharing! Illustrator is an intimidating piece of software. But with your skills you will catch on pretty quickly.


artbitz said...

Reads like a novel...great story!

Jeope said...

Beautiful. Stunning. And everyone can walk away with their own little favourite part of it. Me, I'm weird: for some reason I adore that bee. And it's just a few circles and ovals!


Karen Larson: Larson Mirek Design said...

Von you rock! I was once a Freehander as well -- change is hard but good!

All the best - K

Karen Larson: Larson Mirek Design said...

Von you rock! I was once a Freehander as well -- change is hard but good. -K

alittlehut15 said...

love the story and the illustration is amazing!

Mattias said...

No art is complete without a winged Roman worm, so true so true ;)