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An Interview with Von Glitschka on Vector Basic Training

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Cathy Fishel-Lane interviews Von Glitschka, author of Vector Basic Training: A Systematic Creative Process for Building Precision Vector Artwork, about embracing new technology, the problem with being a "tooler", and why life is too short to be a Design-O-Saur.
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Artist, designer, blogger, teacher, passionate art advocate and curmudgeon–wanna be, Von Glitschka inspires many with the sheer complexity and creative thought and humor behind his illustrations. He is a favorite speaker at many conferences and a go-to resource for software companies. His clients include Adobe, HGTV, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Major League Baseball, Microsoft, Pepsi, Disney, Ogilvy & Mather, and Landor Associates.

In his new book, Vector Basic Training: A Systematic Creative Process for Building Precision Vector Artwork, Von shows how analog and digital—that is, sketching and on-screen work—must work together in order to efficiently build intelligent, well-rendered art.

Cathy Fishel-Lane: One thing that is really impressive about your career is your willingness to embrace new technology and even publicly demand improvement in it when necessary. So many designers and artists are freaked out by technology, especially when changes are looming. How do you stay receptive to change, especially when it means altering your methods?

Von Glitschka: I've always been a geek of sorts. I enjoy sci-fi, grew up on Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica (the originals, not the reboots, which I also enjoyed), and was heavily influenced by one of Apple Computer’s earliest models, the Apple II, so much so that I was writing my own basic programming and designing games and hacking stuff with my cohort and best friend, Lincoln.

Lincoln is now a pilot for UPS, and we both still use Apple computers. That said, I only ever so slightly interacted with computers in art school. A quarter of that time was spent using a green monitor and writing two pages of basic line code to form a cheesy onscreen graphic. (Think Battlezone arcade game quality.) So I learned my core skills in analog form. But when our industry moved into digital full force in 1990, I jumped into it with a passion.

I view technology as a facilitator of creativity. Why fight that? It just opens up more opportunities to a creative person. Life is too short to be a Design-O-Saur.

Cathy: What would be your fondest wish if you could demand any change in software / hardware development to come true? Do you think this will happen any time soon?

Von: I wish software developers would make their applications a la carte, kind of like how car companies will have a base model which will get you from point A to point B fine. You pay less for it, but if you want AC, heated seats, sunroof, GPS, satellite radio, etc., you buy the various options you want and pay more for the car.

So, for example, I wish Adobe made a base Illustrator app with just the core fundamental tools for building vectors—just selection tools, pen tools, shape tools, pathfinder, and so on, sold at a lower set price. Then other specialized features that cater to specific workflows or design disciplines could be sold as either individual add-ons to the base app or grouped into genre-specific category add-ons, like Web Dev add-on or 3D, Perspective & Lens Flair add-on. This would allow end users to customize their work environments as they prefer, thereby avoiding all the continued feature bloat we have to deal with in each new incarnation of an app, from one creative suite to the next.

I can ask, but I won't hold my breath.

Too many new features added to software cater to those who prefer to noodle around and lack any distinct systematic approach to design. Not to say the new features can't serve a purpose; they clearly can. But many designers misuse new features because they find their creative identity within a pull-down menu or filter rather than generating it through a well-conceived and informed methodology. They have fallen into a software-driven habit over time.

Cathy: Something you warn strenuously against in your blogs, teaching, and writing is being a "tooler." Can you explain what this is and why to avoid it?

Von: Toolers don’t draw. Instead, they rely on software for their creativity.

I can't say it any better than I did here.

Cathy: What has turned out to be the most important decision you have ever made concerning your artistic development?

Von: TNT: Try New Things. Everything I'm enjoying now only came about because I stepped out of my comfort zone and either experimented or moved in a new direction. It's good to fail because that means the next time you try it, your chance of succeeding will have increased.

Cathy: In addition to your work as an artist and designer, you are also a teacher. What encourages and/or discourages you about students today?

Von: Most art schools don't teach core drawing skills. When I went to art school it was for "communication arts," but we still had to take a live drawing class with nude models. This wasn’t because they expected us to all become illustrators; rather they expected us to become better equipped by developing the skill of taking that intangible idea in our heads and drawing it out on paper to work through concepts and visually discover solutions.

Students today for the most part don't do this. And many in our industry who I'd label as "toolers" don't do this either. Rather they noodle around on the computer hoping to find a solution rather than thinking through a solution and building it.

I'm so encouraged when I find a student thinking, analyzing a problem and taking into context the big picture of how that is going to drive their pursuit.

Cathy: What inspired you to write Vector Basic Training?

Von: To be completely honest, I wasn't inspired to write it. Nikki McDonald, an editor at Peachpit, saw me talk at the HOW Design Conference in Austin back in 2009 and approached me about writing a book. I basically put her off for a year, but she really kept after me and for that I'm thankful. Nikki’s prodding inspired me to write the book, and I love the fact that Peachpit let me write it in my somewhat snarky style. I think that surprises some people, because I've had many now come to me after reading it and say, "This is actually fun to read."

I think that's a good thing, right?

Cathy: My 19-year-old design major son has absconded with my copy of Vector Basic Training and (so far) refuses to give it back. As a design writer, I have a large library of books and magazines to which he has access but completely ignores. Why do you think the new book appeals to him so much?

Von: Reading aside, it is full of colorful, fun artwork—a carnival for your eyes, if you will. I also think creative types enjoy when other creatives pull back the curtains and reveal some of their methods and processes behind their work. I know I do, and the book is dense in that type of content.

And if you like B-level acting you'll really dig the DVD videos we created. (By the way, I'll never shave my goatee again. No matter what.)

Cathy: In the new book, you really stress the importance of moving back and forth between analog drawings / sketches and digital rendering. Clearly, you have found that many people don't draw out their ideas thoroughly before they move on to rendering. Why is this back-and-forth process so important?

Von: I view drawing, in the context of design, as a road map. If you're creating a logo, the style might be very iconic, simple, and geometric. Therefore, your drawing will be less intricate. If your logo has a circle in it, there's no need to get too anal with your drawing by trying to draw the circle perfectly since you'll be able to build it perfectly using the ellipse tool.

But on artwork that is more illustrative and intricate, you'll want to draw out an initial refined sketch you can build on top of. It's a precise guide for your vector rendering. Working this way removes the guesswork as you build your vectors. You've thought through the shapes prior to building them. Once you’re done building your initial base art in vector form, you may need to think about adding other details like shading or highlights. This is when moving back to analog makes sense. Print out your digital art and work out your shading by literally drawing on the print out, scan that back in, and use it as your guide to render the new vector shading or whatever.

This is what most of the new book is about.

Cathy: You describe a lot of techniques in the book, like layering, that are simple yet effective housekeeping/organization options.

Von: When it comes to layering, I'm like Felix from “The Odd Couple.” (Industry Padawans can Google that.)

I'm surprised how many designers don't use layers. Many times I'll send off a layered file to a big agency client and I tell them in my email, "You'll have to turn layers on or off to see each of the design directions." Many times I get back responses like, "I'm only seeing one direction?" or "I never thought about using layers like that." To which I just kind of shake my head and think, "Huh?"

Layering is a good creative habit to get into. Once you get use to it, it'll become second nature, and those you pass along your files to will appreciate it.

Cathy: What advice can you offer to other artists and designers who are valiantly trying to stay creatively inspired, technologically current, and just plain organized today? It's a really tall order.

Von: I depend on RSS feeds to keep me up-to-date on important technology inside and outside of our industry. It's an easy way to browse though vital information and glean necessary facts that will keep me relevant and informed as a creative. If you've never subscribed to an RSS feed just visit a great technology blog like http://www.engadget.com and click the RSS icon. If you use Apple Mail, it will automagically update that every time a new post is added to their site.

You won't leverage every bit of tech you see for your own purposes, but many times you'll see something that would improve your workflow or open up a new venue you could move into or pursue. An example of this would be iPhone and iPad apps. It's a whole new market for graphic designers.

I found out about the back-up system I now use through a feed. And my archive is now secure even if my HD gives up the ghost. I use RSS for other types of content too, such as Physics, Curated Image Portals, and personal interest feeds.

Cathy: What or who inspires you most these days, and why?

Von: What really inspires me day-to-day is just life in general. That tends to influence so much of what I do and where I move creatively. In terms of a person, I'd have to say my buddy Justin Ahrens has inspired me a lot over the last year. His firm (http://www.rule29.com) does a lot of great work for non-profits, and I had the privilege of helping the team he led shoot a documentary in the slums of Africa last year. You can watch a trailer here.

I designed a custom typeface for Rule29, and we're using it within a photo book set based on our time shooting and working in the Nairobi slums. I also created the linear line titles used in the film and some print material, too.

The whole experience was very inspiring and life changing.

Cathy: Has the role of illustration changed in our semi-digital, semi-analog society?

Von: Unfortunately, neither design nor illustration is considered very important within general public opinion. With cheap home computers, and an endless parade of software-savvy, marketing-clueless, concept-weak, drawing-inept, off-shoring-facilitated base of toolers, our industry has officially become a commodity. We are in what I call the "Creative Industrial Complex."

My hope is that more and more creatives will turn back to basics, integrate drawing into their creative process, leverage new technology, become better thinkers, and provide work on a level no do-it-yourself non-designer could ever achieve and create. That level of work will hopefully change the public opinion for what we do.

But whether the public perception ever shifts back to an appreciation for what we do, each of us as creatives should dedicate ourselves to excellence when it comes to our work and avoid the pitfalls of exploits such as crowd-sourced design.

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