Secrets of the world's best designers and illustrators

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The following article is excerpted from Digital Arts.

Meet your deadlines, treat clients well, don’t use the Photoshop Lens Flare filter unless you want to be ostracized by the entire creative community. Yeah, yeah–we get it. And you’ve read about it. Tips for designers tend to follow a set formula–and they can be both practical and useful, but they don’t always provide much of an insight into the more hidden, intangible parts of the creative process.

For this feature, we turned to the best of the best, and the brightest up-and-comers, across the creative industries. We asked them to tell us a secret–a tip that helps them do their best work, sparks ideas, or gets them through the day.

What we got is a glorious mix of practical information, instinctive and personal working methods, wise words, amusing quips, and a hint that hula-hooping might cure the creative industry’s ills.

We hope you’ll find these glimpses into the innermost thoughts of the designers, illustrators, and filmmakers we spoke to as exciting as we do. Whether it’s a Photoshop tip for making images sing, or a tea selection that’s guaranteed to inspire, there’s something in here that will help you work better and be more creative. Enjoy!

Tip 1

“Developing, building, and stubbornly maintaining a successful visual style will ultimately kill your creativity–and your career. Change constantly or die.”

Bob Staake, illustrator, winner: Time Best Magazine Cover 2008

Tip 2

“Keep your desk tidy–not like mine. I spent an hour this morning looking for a DVD of images for a book cover, and finally had to ask the client to upload them again to our FTP. It turned out they’d mistakenly sent the DVD to a ‘Ryan Hughes’ in California, but with all that mess, I assumed it was under there somewhere.”

Rian Hughes, font designer, illustrator, and occasional comic-book artist

Tip 3

“Think before you start to work. Something should be in your head or your sketchbook before you switch on your Mac. I never let my Mac control me–he knows his place; he is only a tool that helps me execute my thoughts.”

Noma Bar, illustrator, creator of the new book, Negative Space

Tip 4

“When stuck for material, think back to some terrible childhood trauma and draw it. Works every time.”

Gemma Correll, illustrator and fan of “drawing, pugs, and coffee”

Tip 5

“Brainstorm and rapidly prototype–force yourself to come up with as many ideas as you can, but spend no more than five minutes on each one. It’s surprising how quickly this can expose ideas that work and those that don’t. Often, ideas you least expect work best.”

Simon Crab, co-founder, digital agency Lateral

Tip 6

“For video, storyboards and animatics are crucial, but they needn’t look beautiful–mostly, they’re just a guide. Carry a notebook and pencil for sketching out ideas, and use basic storyboards to test out ideas as a sequence, and to make important storytelling, timing, and editing decisions.”

Chris Sayer, animation director at Wyld Stallyons

Tip 7

“Create seminal pieces that tell the world about what you love, where you draw inspiration from, and where your enthusiasm peaks. This could attract a dream client or collaborators you share a common bond with. I love nature, so I create pieces to attract clients needing something nature-themed, to work together promoting, recreating, or enthusing over nature.”

Ben O’Brien, illustrator and creator of the Speakerdog line of paper toys

Tip 8

“Take photos of anything that tickles your fancy to use as inspiration later on. Don’t worry about quality or reflections—the pictures are just reminders. I love a badly stuffed weasel at the Bristol Museum. Its unnaturally arched spine and placid face are beautiful. I never got a good picture, but found something on my camera recently, and turned it into a character illustration.”

Phil Corbett, illustrator and creator of the Kitten Parasites clothing label and book

Tip 9

“Take advantage of software integration. I create artwork in Illustrator and develop it in Photoshop. Vector elements pasted into Photoshop become Smart Objects that can be subjected to treatments like adjustment layers, masks, and smart filters–great for creating subtleties of texture and color that are lacking in designs made purely in Illustrator.”

Matt Lyon, designer and artworker

Tip 10

“Work without distractions such as ‘new e-mail’ alerts, and play your favorite music–that which affects you–to do your best work.”

David Carson, designer, and author of bestselling book The End of Print.

Tip 11

“Aim to spend a day entirely focused on creating one particularly special piece of work. Do everything you can to make this possible–avoid distractions in your schedule, and ensure you’ve had a good night’s rest and have a clear desk.”

Alex Mathers, illustrator and admirer of bold, simple, smooth forms

Tip 12

“Breaking your routine encourages your powers of observation and critical judgment, enabling you to view work from a wider perspective. Tunnel vision is the enemy of the single-minded worker, so take a side-step and look at something you don’t expect. Go for a walk, head in a new direction, to a place you’ve never been.”

Holly Wales, art director, illustrator and lecturer


Tip 13


“I got this Twinings tea multipack recently. It’s made up of Assam, Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Breakfast, and Ceylon, and I find dipping into it perfect to spark that bit of creativity.”

Matt Dent, D&AD Black Pencil winner for UK coinage redesign


Tip 14


“To work as an illustrator, don’t think you need to be born talented–it’s not about holding the best cards, but playing the ones you have well. Know yourself, work hard, and understand your weaknesses, but also what you’re good at.”

Murilo Maciel, illustrator and designer for clients including Pizza Hut and Sony

Tip 15

“Paste flat shapes from Illustrator to Photoshop as Shape Layers. Smart Vector Objects are great to maintain vector information in complex art, for choosing spot colors, and for rescaling. When working on murals or billboards, you can start at a third of the finished size and later upsize without losing quality.”

Radim Malinic, art director and designer, for clients including Mini and MTV

Tip 16

“When creating complex layered compositions, stroke thickness needs a lot of attention. Use a smaller stroke thickness in a lighter color to make background items subtler, and a thicker, slightly darker stroke for foreground items, so they appear more clearly. For the focal point, use the thickest stroke and darkest fill color.”

Stephen Chan, vector designer and illustrator

Tip 17

“Save time creating digital artwork by learning keyboard shortcuts. In Photoshop, use Actions to record specific tasks, such as changing the resolution of a batch of images rather than amending each one manually.”

Yee Ting Kuit, pattern-obsessed illustrator

Tip 18

“Interesting compositions help retain interest in a drawing when there are many details–for example, mathematically dividing a page and balancing black and white equally. Working with rules like this keeps your brain creative–because you always want to break them, and when you do break them it makes sense.”

McBess, illustrator, director and Dead Pirates noise-maker

Tip 19

“If I’ve hit a creative wall playing with color, and pushed hues in a direction that appeals, but not created a cohesive image, I’ll make duplicates of the image, add a layer of color and go through blending modes to see what more is possible. I’ll then pull color ideas from these variations.”

Autumn Whitehurst, Brooklyn-based illustrator of streamlined figures

Tip 20

“To get inspired and think of fun new ideas, half an hour hula-hooping in the garden usually does the trick.”

Alex Godwin, illustrator and owner of Tikki Tembo greeting cards company

Tip 21

“Don’t rely on plug-ins. Have ideas that are interesting and communicate effectively. Visual art and design is nothing if it doesn’t make a connection with the viewer and solve the communication problem. Learn how to use visual language to communicate in a way that is simple and smart.”

Danny Yount, creative director at Prologue, title designer for Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man

Tip 22

“When starting a project, I grab visual reference. With a blobby, blocky sketch as a background, I layer reference images in Photoshop, with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer topmost that knocks back the color to a low-contrast greyish look. I assign a layer mask to each layer image and invert the mask, turning the image invisible. Using a radial gradient, I work into the mask, exposing parts of hidden images, moving through the layers until something takes shape. The vagueness and lack of precision allows for happy accidents, where bits of exposed image work on other exposed images. From that foundation, you can refine masks, resize or reposition images, or start the illustration proper.”

Mark Harrison, concept artist for TV and videogames, and comic-book artist


Tip 23


“Every few years, a creative group or individual affects the immediate culture of artistic individuals and their peers. It’s then up to those people that find it inspiring to go off and make their own innovative solutions, not just copy what inspired them."

Stan Zienka, associate creative director at Attik

Tip 24

“You need to work on being original and make work you’re passionate about—don’t let people tell you what’s cool.”

Noah Conopask, associate creative director at Emmy-winning VFX and animation studio Shilo

Tip 25

“Don’t spend much time looking at other people’s work. Know what’s going on and be aware of it, but do what you want, how you want to do it, and worry about who else is doing it later.”

Sean Freeman, illustrator, published in Wired, VH1, and the Guardian

Tip 26

“The Photoshop Brush tool comes with loads of soft-edged airbrush-type brushes. Everyone uses them, which is why so much Photoshop painting looks like bad airbrushing. Seek out the one hard-edged pressure-sensitive brush and make copies of it at different sizes. This will give your work a much more organic, hand-painted look.”

Matt ‘D’Israeli’ Brooker, comic-book artist and illustrator

Tip 27

“We keep a library of 3D models we’ve built or purchased. This enables us to quickly mock up 3D scenes for style frames, preliminary composition, or a rough pre-viz. Also, a ‘dirt’ pass–otherwise known as ambient occlusion–enables clients to get an idea of form without getting into texturing and lighting, which may complicate the approval process.”

Scott Sindorf, principal and co-founder, UVPHACTORY, designers of Lady Gaga’s MTV Video Music Awards set

Tip 28

“Keep a collection of sketchbooks. One for ideas, concepts, and thoughts, one for inspiration and accumulated stuff you like, and one for your own work, stuff in progress, experimentation, and alternate client proposals. Keep the ideas sketchpad handy, as you never know when that ‘Eureka!’ moment will hit you on a bus, out in the park, or in bed just before you fall asleep.”

Johann Chan, art editor, Digital Arts and CIO

Tip 29

“The capacity to endlessly experiment with Illustrator is fantastic. You can start with an outlined letter and apply all manner of functions to see what happens. Duplicate combinations of tools to create unusual patterns, scatters, and vortexes. Have no expectations or plan–just slice, dice, duplicate, stretch, and repeat, and the results may surprise.”

Seldon Hunt, designer, and cover artist for ISIS and Kid 606

Tip 30

“Try to find time to read books, listen to music, watch movies, and do sport. I spend so much time in front of the computer that I need to give my eyes, body, mind, and spirit a break from time to time.”

Catalina Estrada, illustrator and designer for print, fashion items, and consumer goods

Tip 31

“I favour roaming antiques markets for the aesthetics encoded within their archaeology. It’s there I find the DNA that shapes my work and where I picked out the trembling chromosomes that determined the shape of my current body of work, Animalia.”

Mauricio Ortiz, painter and winner of Shelter’s House of Cards competition

Tip 32

“If in doubt, turn your work upside down, flip it, watch it in a mirror, play it backwards–anything to get a fresh perspective. Then you’ll notice all the faults. As a last resort, show your mum. She’ll spot the flaws immediately, but it won’t be pretty.”

Ubik, directing duo, BTACA winners (best animation in a commercial) for 3650

Tip 33

“I sometimes walk the streets for hours, sketching and taking photographs. Getting lost in the city can be a great thing. I often get off the Tube at a random station to see what I can find. I stumbled across a fair in south London one day and took a picture, returned to the studio the same day and was inspired to create the accompanying illustration.”

Jimmy Turrell, graphic artist, art director for the Guardian at Glastonbury 2009

Tip 34

“Loosen up with the oldest exercise in the world: drawing a nude model. Make it new by doing it on a tablet in Photoshop. If the legs look too short, try ‘perspective’ to make them longer; if the color is too drab, bump it up in layers. No mess, no mistakes! And if you’re timid, try it first with a mirror, in the privacy of your own home!”

Jan Pienkowski, artist, pop-up book pioneer and creator of Meg & Mog



This story, "Secrets of the world's best designers and illustrators " was originally published by DigitalArts.

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