Flat Graphics and the Return of Minimalism in the Digital Age

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I figure it’s time for a break on game dev news and progress, and bring up a different type of discussion, one that would better fit my blog’s direction in the past. Since there are some articles done on this topic already, I won’t bag you down with the details, but of course as usual, I am open to discussion on the matter!

“So what exactly are flat graphics?”, you’re probably wondering. Well, if you noticed Microsoft’s rebranding of their sites and particularly, the Windows Phone and Windows 8 OS, and later on even eBay’s new logo, there’s much less detail involved with the graphics than they have in the past. Flat graphics are characterized by the use of vector illustrations and a simple colorscheme (usually monochrome but there are some exceptions). Unlike their predecessors, they don’t have a shiny, glossy look to them, nor any drop shadows.

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Flat graphics are also popular with HTML5 design, due to its use of a grid layout. Since those types of sites tend to cram a lot of information all on its grid, more detailed graphics that have irregular shapes and sizes would be ineffective and too distracting. Since HTML5 is better optimized for mobile and tablet viewing, flat graphics help convey this better as a design aesthetic. In fact I noticed this use first when it came to digital design, and with everyone pushing HTML5 further, it was only a matter of time until the trend picked up elsewhere.

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Of course, the use of flat graphics as a graphic design trend goes all the way back to Soviet propaganda war posters, due to printing limitations at the time. As part of a minimalist trend though, the practice has been in use since the 1920s, influenced by both contemporary and Japanese architecture and interior design. More information about its origins can be seen at Oleg Mokhov’s article, “Minimalist Design: A Brief History and Practical Tips“.

While some can call it lazy designing, flat graphics are no different than the rest of minimalism – it’s modern and contemporary, and if you don’t believe me, visit your nearest Ikea. Doesn’t mean you have to like it in your living room or on your tablet.

Of course, the downside to all of this is that minimalism is hard to pull off, believe it or not. While it follows a “less is more” principle, how much less can the designer contribute without discarding the message and purpose they want to convey? In terms of interior design (say, an Ikea chair), how drastically can you alter and trim down the chair before it just turns into some piece of crap that fails to work as a proper chair? This is a common question for the designer, and it always has the same answer – it all lies in the execution.

As a final note, of course I like flat graphics and minimalist design. I personally love vectors, much of my digital illustration and design is that, so it makes sense for me to like all of this. It’s probably why when it doesn’t work properly (so far it has, knock on wood), I almost cringe internally and want to scream at the designer for being lazy. If you’re already ahead of the game and hate flat graphics, give yourself a pat on the back! It’s good to see people go against the flow, and if you’d like to discuss more about it, comments are open for discussion!

Next week I’ll have some actual finalized character designs for my visual novel (gasp), so if you prefer more of that stuff, hang tight! Once again, thanks for reading, and take care!

What’s old is new again – the rebirth of illustration

When I graduated from high school, I already had considered 3 other careers I wanted to go into before finally going into Digital Art and Design. One of them was Illustration. I was all ready to go to the School of Visual Arts in New York City, when I realized I would be paying way too much for higher education when most illustration work was freelance, let alone still rather scarce at the time.

After embarking on my second to last semester of college (which is ending on Wednesday), I had considered at least 4 career paths after my time at C.W. Post was done. Even before the semester began, my career list imploded when I suddenly began thinking of being a cake artist. Starting from scratch all over again, feeling the same anxiety about my future that I did when I was a senior in high school, the list has since been rebuilt.

And Illustration is a huge avenue, ironically.

Many things have changed even in the past 4-5 years. Touch screens are on everything you can think of. Everything Apple makes turns to gold. Ke$ha has invaded the pop music scene for absolutely no reason, and sadly with no end in sight. But even in this crazy world, fate has finally smiled upon the old world of illustration, and is giving it another chance in the industry.

More and more students are drilled to use stock photos every day for their own projects. There’s nothing wrong with photos, I’ve used them many times, but many professionals (such as Charles Hively of 3×3) are starting to throw in the towel on them and are starting to look into using illustration once again. Many imaging programs (such as Adobe Illustrator and even GIMP) have improved greatly over the years, and creating digital illustrations in them has never been easier. Even for the more traditional types out there, retouching programs like Photoshop have been able to assist illustrators in cleaning up and refining their works for their clients. There’s an original touch to an illustration that cannot be matched by a photograph, and it’s this freshness and originality that is luring businesses back to it. More and more people are starting to show how illustration can be used outside of its classic newspaper editorial stereotype.

Even now, a rising trend in web design is to illustrate the design elements of the site, whether it’s digitally or even by hand. There’s a level of detail and creativity that can’t be remotely recreated, even if one tried. There’s a saying I heard from my brother many years ago that every artist draws their own line differently. They’re all the same one line, but they will always look distinct from one another. It’s this key to originality that holds true to even digitally illustrated work, especially if it’s for professional purposes. It’s one of the old ways to stay new in the game.

Combined with the increasing use of UI content in sites, it wouldn’t be surprising if illustration begins to turn into a huge medium for representing visual content in the future. It’s already starting, after all. For too long people have complained that the use of illustration the past 20 or so years has dwindled drastically. Little do they know that its uses are actually being applied elsewhere to rising technologies (such as the Web) instead. Illustration isn’t just for fancy covers for The New Yorker anymore.

From Monet to Scher – the argument of “high” vs. “low” art

In the ongoing debate of what makes a work of art to be considered “high” or “low” on its sophistication (and therefore value), there are two standing arguments. Some claim there still is “high” and “low” art, and it stems from how society and the classes make them readily available and for how much. For instance, classical music played by symphonies usually sell their tickets on the high end; this is therefore considered a “high” art since only those with enough money to attend the concerts can enjoy them.

But then there’s the other side of the coin, posted at the very same site. If article A can claim that “art shapes society through audiences”, then does it matter if it’s “high” or “low” art? Article B claims that there is no such thing anymore since technology has since outgrown whatever restrictions the upper classes held on art. Whatever was once considered “high” art has either been reproduced or made more available at museum showings so it isn’t so exclusive anymore, and whatever was thought to be “low”, such as graffiti, is now just as appreciated as a Van Gogh masterpiece.

To side with the latter, I will be comparing Impressionistic painter Claude Monet with Postmodern designer Paula Scher. And not just because they are a few of my favorite artists.

Upon Googling both, I was surprised by how similar some of the results were on their artworks. Although Scher is a designer and therefore her works are more graphic, not all of them are bold and in-your-face. Her famous maps series even holds a fragile similarity to the famous garden paintings of Monet, and are just as carefully detailed as his ripples of water and tree leaves. If you put either paintings side-by-side, at a glance you wouldn’t be able to tell which is oil and which is type. The only giveaway would be the fact that Monet never used black paint once he adopted the Impressionistic style.

Although Monet did very well as a painter during his time, his work was initially rejected and thought of lowly in the art world. It only took a couple of years for Impressionism to be permanently placed in the art history books alongside the likes of the Baroque period as a vital art movement. If at one time Monet was considered “low” art, then the convention of something being “high” or “low” really went out the window years ago if society is just going to change its mind every time something new comes along.

As highly as the fine arts are placed, the work done by designers over the past 30-40 years have been severely overlooked at the same time; while budding and upcoming artists and musicians can name several favorites of their own, new designers have very litte knowledge of other famous names in their own field. Whether this is because commercial art is not “art” (let alone “high” art; it’d be way too harsh to label it anywhere near “low”, even by the coldest of cynics) is uncertain. Unconsciously it can be a good argument as to why this is so, no matter how many art history classes you throw at a student designer.

Regardless, this is no excuse, even if you’re not in the design field. If art really does influence society, this is blatantly obvious in the advertisements and branding we’re surrounded by on a daily basis for the past 40+ years. Paula Scher herself has been responsible for many rebrandings of famous companies and places, notably Citibank, the MoMA, and Tiffany & Co.

Rebranding and the whole nine yards doesn’t come cheap either; companies will spend millions in order to get their name out there in style, reglammed and ready to take on the world. If they’re willing to bring out the pen and checkbook, how is that any different from a collector buying an original Da Vinci illustration? Both cost a fortune, both are in one way or another accessible to even the everyday person (even if it’s through the use of books and the Internet). So how come commercial art can’t be considered “high” art if it supposedly costs as much to being with?

Initially placing Paula Scher to the likes of Claude Monet would be a negative visceral reaction to many. But rest assured even I at first wasn’t too thrilled of her work either, but like the flowers Monet paints, it grew on me. There’s as much genius packed into every tightly-kerned poster Scher creates as any other piece of classical art that has ever existed. If design is so heavily sought after and yet found all over the place, why can’t it be art as well? If art influences the masses, it’s because it motivates and inspires all, no matter what the medium or what it was created for.

Bigger influence – Printing Press or the Internet?

(We’re pretty sure where this is going if this is on a blog instead of being printed off of Microsoft Word.)

There’s no doubt both the printing press and the Internet had major influences on civilization, both Eastern and Western. The spread of knowledge and literacy progressively boomed upon the advent of their creation, and both became vital tools of technology that are used in everyday life. However, the growth and availability of these technologies are vastly different, and it’s this passage of time that can determine which has made a greater impact on society.

Movable type goes as far back as the T’ang Dynasty in China, when as early as circa 618 ink on carved wooden blocks was used to place characters onto paper for multiple transfers. Although the invention of paper was made many times over across the globe over the centuries, Johann Gutenberg is largely credited for his invention of the printing press in 1452. The press was eventually perfected over the centuries as printed work became more available. The Industrial Revolution caused the boom of mass production of practically everything used in everyday life, and this was also reflected in the printed word.

The Internet is a much newer technology however, and was first created in 1957 when Sputnik was launched. Alarmed by this groundbreaking feat, the US Military created a web of networks across the country for the sake of homeland security. Due to the post-World War II boom, the technology quickly evolved and by as early as 1971, Ray Tomlinson created the first email program. By the late 70s and particularly throughout the 80s, the Internet increasingly became more readily available. Establishment of the World Wide Web in 1991 signified its start as a new and upcoming (not to mention vital) technology.

Now consider the progress of movable type from its advent to the modern day, in comparison to the progress of the Internet. It took nearly 1200 years in order for Gutenberg’s printing press to emerge and jumpstart the modern Western method of movable type as we know it. The Internet’s everyday availability to the masses only took about 30.

In terms of longevity, the printing press hands down takes the cake. But in terms of sheer progress, the Internet’s is purely remarkable.

The fervent use of the Internet is still progressing today though. Even despite economic recessions, technology still grows and enables us to incorporate the use of the web into everyday life. As seen in the graph below, the popularity of the Internet has sharply spiked the past 20 years, and will continue to do so as computers become more powerful and as “cloud computing” becomes more refined as a new method of electronic storage.

Due to the Internet’s growing popularity and evolution, it’s become more accepted by businesses as well as the entertainment industry. More and more companies are issuing mail (be it junk or statements) in favor of using email and websites as a more green alternative. And although the graphic novel industry has been picking up speed the past few decades, a new generation is on the rise, and it’s caused the preference of digital downloads.

Ask my brother about his independent graphic novel publishing company. Aside from asking for a small donation kudos to Kickstarter to help sustain his business (which over the past few years is quite the little engine that could!), he’ll tell you people don’t buy single issues of comics anymore. Even for those that still like owning carbon copies of items, such as myself, it simply isn’t cost-effective. Larger volumes of graphic novels sell better, and so early on my brother adapted his business to publish larger compilations of stories rather than single issues, and then also have the same stories (and other exclusive titles) available as PDF downloads. Personally I can’t stare at the monitors for too long due to my eroding eyesight, so I’ve gone back to reading actual graphic novels on paper. But to force a division of the printing industry to do this for its survival proves how powerful the Internet has become.

That’s not to say the Internet is as glorious as everyone thinks it is. The creation of Wikipedia and social networking has enlightened many and helped others get in contact with long lost friends and family. On the other hand it’s taken the 1st Amendment up the creek without a paddle. Everything more than ever needs to be taken with a grain of salt. My Psychology professor has once said, “Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.”

And as big as Youtube has become, looking at the main page for more than 5 seconds personally makes me nauseous. Granted there are many things of merit on there (albeit posted outside of copyright and eventually taken down), but try scrolling through the popular videos of the day or week. They’re nothing short of pure garbage and cheap laughs.

As powerful as the Internet has become, it’s also been a good and bad influence on our society. But akin to every other technology available, we need to learn more than ever how to use it effectively and most of all, how to think for ourselves instead of what everyone else thinks we should be like.

Now return to your ongoing pursuit of cute kitten videos.