The Over-Competency Trap

There are at least two kinds of mastery in any art you care to name. The most recognized form is virtuosity, because it’s easy to quantify. You can follow a musical score to check if a performer is playing all the right notes and in the right time. The second is having a honed intuition, which is harder to capture. Knowing what notes to play is simpler than knowing how to play them. Its simpler than knowing what notes not to play. It’s safer than flaunting the score.

In ages past, virtuosity was elevated because it represented the heights human effort could obtain. Now that machines can perform with absolute precision, a human doing the same is considered robotic. You can train your muscle memory to play Flight of the Bumblebee in double time, or follow the Save the Cat formula to write a screenplay that hits all the right story beats, and still make people yawn. Virtuosity alone is not enough to be engaging. People now look for the human element, which allows for mistakes. In fact, you don’t even need to be that good to be great, much to the chagrin of anyone who’s mastered their craft and been ignored.

I’ve come to think of virtuosity as another plateau on Mastery Mountain, one near the peak. The over-competency trap is so dangerous because it’s almost indistinguishable from greatness. After all, if you’ve mastered the perfect formula to create art that wows the public and critics alike and gives you a steady paycheck, why change at all? It’s not like figuring out the formula to write an A+ undergrad essay, only to move into the real world and have people tell you your writing is undergrad garbage and you only got those grades because the curve was so low. When the whole world tells you you’re amazing, it’s easier to think you have nowhere left to go.

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Mobile Apps Are Not a Web Solution

This came out of an email I typed to my local public library after they kindly informed me that their website doesn’t support iOS Safari and suggested I download their mobile app instead. This response is unacceptable, and here’s why:

A single-purpose mobile app is about as useful as a unicycle. Sure, you might be able to ride it down the street, but it was never designed to get you much further. Apps for every website has always been a dumb idea because it breaks up the interconnected nature of the web itself. The moment the user needs to click a link to another site, they get bumped out of your app entirely – creating friction that makes the experience awful for the user and detrimental to their impression of you.

Back in 2011, every clueless CEO wanted a mobile app (that does nothing a website can’t already do) because they heard it was the latest, hottest thing and wanted to jump on the bandwagon. It was a terrible fad that had its day because it was a terrible idea. Yet here you are, in 2015, telling people, “Please use our unicycle instead of the bicycle we can’t be bothered to fix. Unicycles are still hip, right? Pleeease try out our unicycle. We lost our bicycle building budget over this!”

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Texturing: Part 3 – The Big Picture

Last week I talked about photo-manipulating textures and the week before I talked about finding images to work with. This week I’m going to talk about the bigger picture: design. Or how to integrate textures into your work, whether two or three dimensional.

 

Sometimes a simple texture is better than a complex one.

 

I’ve talked before about the dangers of tunnel vision while designing. A texture might look beautiful close-up the entire time you’re working on it, only to wrap it on a 3D object or slide it beneath some text to find it’s too much. If you can’t focus on the content on a page design, or if every rock and brick in a game is screaming, “Look how textury I am!” you’ve overdone it. Every pixel should not be screaming for attention.

For example, I remember when the game Oblivion came out, starting a fad among modders to make everything look mucho crinkly because somehow people thought more texturerered equals bettererer. That game was fuggin ugly, and part of that had to do with everything looking like someone left the plastic wrap on before baking it in an oven – that and the weird potato people.

Also, too-interesting patterns will more likely give away your tiling textures for what they are.

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Texturing: Part 2 – Making Textures

Last week I talked about how to build a texture library with your own photographs. This week’s post is about how to manipulate them into something you can use in either a design project or 3D modeling. Once you develop skills with Photoshop or its clones, it becomes faster and easier to turn a half-decent texture into a great one yourself rather than scouring the internet for the perfect image. Plus the one you make yourself will be unique to your project, saving yourself the embarrassment of finding out you’ve used a stock photo or texture equivalent to the Wilhelm Scream.

Websites like tuts+ have tutorials in the bag, so I won’t go into heavy detail here. Instead I’m going to compile a list of tips I have to remind myself of over and over again:

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Texturing: Part 1 – Finding Textures

“Where do you get your textures?” is something I’m asked from time to time. I have a huge stock of textures for modding and graphic design. I used to scour Google Image Search for hours, then have to check the copyright permissions on every image I found. It’s frustrating finding the perfect image only to find you have to shell out ten dollars for it or make do with something else. In the end I’ve found it better to make them myself whenever I can. There is a lot to it however, which is why this post will come in several parts.

Building a solid texture library will take some strain off finding them every time you start a project. I started my library with a free download of low resolution textures, which are no longer good enough to use even in my hobby work, but it gave me a solid foundation to learn from. It came with folders filled with tiling metal, stone, wood, leather, cloth, water, and so on. It taught me how to value a simple textures that don’t out-shout the content they’re meant to compliment, which I’ll talk about in Part 3: The Big Picture. It also taught me how to kludge a handful of lesser textures together in Photoshop into something serviceable, which I’ll cover more in Part 2: Making Textures. But mostly it taught me what to look for as I roam with my camera – a texturer’s best friend.

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Sense is More Important Than Accuracy

Accuracy is overrated when it comes to portraying something in a way that makes sense to most people. Outside a research paper or an architectural drawing, you’re more often looking for verisimilitude. Verisimilitude captures the essence, or appearance, of a thing. Today that means distilling it down to pertinent details rather than describing every boat in the harbor and their moorings (during the frickin climax, Dickens, wth). I’ve run across the distillation principle again and again in different contexts, so I have plenty of examples:

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So What Makes Great Design?

Last week I tackled the question, “What makes good design?” to spell out the rules of basic competency. But knowing all the rules and putting them into practice doesn’t necessarily make someone a great designer. Mastering the art requires a more – that “more” requires intuition and the ability to recognize what’s needed on a project by project basis. This is where things get tricky and require tons of practice. Here’s the more difficult rules I’ve discovered. Also, many of them work for every art, including writing.

 

Your imagery has to communicate as much as the type.

 

Sometimes the imagery is the type, if you’re doing funky things like making letters morph into horses, but when you do make sure people can see the horses. I know from experience how working on a design can give you tunnel vision, making you imagine you’re communicating a whole lot more than you actually are. You can spend hours arranging a bunch of swoopy lines into the shape of a cowboy, only to have the first person you show cock their head, decide they have the right-side-up image upside down, and turn it over saying, “Is it supposed to be an elephant?”

This also goes into what I was saying about symbolism a few weeks ago. People, designers and clients alike, can get way too caught up in the significance of their chosen imagery when it doesn’t communicate squat to anyone outside their circle. You can’t think like a Freemason when you’re trying to bring people in, not exclude them.

 

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What Makes Good Design?

The simple answer to this question is: whatever looks good and does the job. But that’s hard to quantify, so let’s break it down. Here are the basic rules to making yours designs not look like crap:

 

The information is readable.

 

Believe me, I’ve seen people screw up this basic requirement. Back in art college, I and a couple other students were tasked with making a poster for our art show, and I actually got into an argument with them over some stupid font they thought looked cool, but was totally illegible. They wanted to use it for where the show took place, when it was, and all the other important information people needed to know to go see the fucking thing.

To make extra-sure what you’ve done is readable, take a step back and look at it from a few feet away. Then look at it again sized down to a thumbnail. Is the most essential information still readable at a distance or tiny?

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Your Generic-Ass Cover Makes Me Think There’s a Generic-Ass Book Inside

“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” Screw that. We all do, which is why you need to get your cover right. It’s the first thing people see. Before they figure out what your book is about, the cover has already made an impression. If that impression is boring, I don’t even let the title sink in. I’ve already gone on scanning, for a book that stands out and looks sexy.

So what makes a book cover uninteresting? How about rows and rows of samey shit. I don’t care if it’s as slick as a movie poster. If your cover is some Photoshopped stock model jobby with a dude on a horse, or a leather chick in the boob-butt pose, or some corseted lady swooning in Fabio’s arms, all your cover says to me is: “This is a McDonalds burger, just like every other McDonalds burger you’ve ever eaten.”

This is all some people want. I get that. I’m not here to denigrate that choice (much). I’m writing this for the authors who want to find success by standing out, not blending in. If you haven’t written the literary equivalent of a McDonalds burger, then holy crap do not package your book like a McDonalds burger. Avoid slick movie-poster covers, because everyone has one. Everyone but the trad pubs…

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Higher Poly Does Not Equal Betterer

I’ve been quiet the past few weeks due to a manic cycle in which I could not stop working on my latest obsession, 3D modeling. At some point I’m going to have a rant about how terrible Blender is to work with, but for the moment I have to rant about something else: the modding community’s confusion about what actually improves the look of models. I’ve seen people simply save original game textures at a larger size, call them higher resolution, and slap them up on a modding site for download. I’m not even going to be nice about this. Anyone who believes that improves anything is a moron. Resizing does not equal resampling. All that does is make the same level of pixelation take longer to load.

I’ve also run across tons of people who assume a higher poly model is going to look better, which is easier to understand because in most cases higher poly models do look better, when those extra polys are actually doing something to define the shape of the object. It’s not easy for people to spot models with a ton of superfluous vertices, because they’re not as obvious as pixels when viewing them outside a 3D modeling program. So, I’m going to show you:

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