Excuse me, Stewardess, I speak Disney.

I was thinking about something that no one talked about in school, but has come to have a great deal of importance to me as I create artwork AND as I work professionally.

Design Language

What is it?  What does it mean?  How does it relate to style?

Ok, the first thing we need to remember, ALWAYS as we make art - We are not copying reality, even a cartoon reality.  Those of us who draw and paint are faking it.  We are creating a representation of something, not the actual something.  I'll speak in terms of environments, but it applies to characters too:  Our worlds end a millimeter after the edge of the frame.  You can't enter them, regardless of what illusions we spin.  The end result of our labours is a message to people's brains telling them what to think.  It is the visual equivalent to an essay describing a place.

Just like essays, our work is made up of sentences - The subject, the lighting, the angle, the camera lens....and just like sentences, these things are created with language.  It is this language we call a design language.

Humour me for a sec, and continue with the essay metaphor - I could write an essay in English, French, Japanese....that's the broadest of categories, and visually could be likened to "painting", "drawing", "photograph" or whatever.  Let's pick English for our essay.  Now, who is your target audience?  You're going to use different words for old people, college educated people, teens or toddlers.  There are generally understood ways to communicate with each group.  In design terms - There's a look to concept art, to architectural drafting and to book covers.  As you write your essay, you might pull words or phrases from other target audiences for colour, or to punch an idea home, and that is how you see different techniques blend together in visual communication.

At the most granular level of essay, you're going to write a different way than I will.  The lowest level of your design language is your "style", that which separates you from someone else making the same image.  Someone used to writing for toddlers might not do a great job writing a college essay - There will be design languages that work better with your techniques than others.  The design language often used by French comic artists  meshes well with my personal drawing style.  If I tried to use a tonal language like a water colourist, I'd have a much harder time.

Think of your style as your accent, and the design language is the actual language you're trying to use.  Some accents lend themselves well to the language, and some....don't.  It's much harder to change your accent (although not impossible) than it typically is to switch languages.  If you grew up speaking Japanese, French is probably going to be hard for you....and Spanish will be much easier.

Ok, so a design language is a way to simplify information and convey it in a way that is understandable and appropriate to the audience.  The design language of stereotypical toddlers for a house is a triangle for a roof and a square for the structure.  The sun has a smiley face.  If you wanted to replicate that language, you'd use flat perspective and simple shapes, with no real worry about scale.

Most cartoons try to have a unique design language that represents them...so you know instantly when you flip by on the tv that your show is on.  Colour, shapes, textures, size relationships - all important.  If you want to work on that show, it's not enough to be a good artist, you have to be able to bend your personal style into that design language framework.  If you can't speak English without an accent that makes your words almost impossible to understand, I'm not going to hire you to be my mouthpiece.  This is why it is important to work in multiple mediums and with multiple methodologies.  The more languages you can speak, the more useful you are as an interpreter.  

The other cool thing about design languages is that you can make NEW ones.  If you did a good job, people will understand what you are saying.  If you do a very good job, you can be like Mike Mignola with Hellboy, and create a language that will be emulated for years by people with things to say.  

My drawing style, as I mentioned, has a fair amount in common with the French comics artists of the 60s-80s.  When I copy from photographs, I'm less trying to copy exactly what I see then I am to try to find a way to abstract into repeatable shapes - to create words for my design language.  I can draw thousands of rocks in my own way, and they *look* like rocks, because I have tapped into a design language that makes sense.  I don't have to copy a real rock, or someone else's drawing of a rock, to make one that looks "right."

This last week, I've been trying to do the same thing with industrial, man-made spaces.  I want to strengthen my ability to speak "factory", so I'm not limited to parroting back other people's way of expressing that idea.

I hope you found this interesting, and that when you look at someone else's work, you spend a little time trying to see the design language they are using - What are the rules?  What ties how they draw rocks to how they draw trees, to how they draw characters - and what's different?

To all my friends at CTN-Expo this weekend, have a great time!  I wish I was there with you :)