Friday, February 16, 2007

Three months at McSoft Part One

So, where did I go for those few months late last year? It's all a bit TOP SECRET. After a dreadfully slow period that followed my annual Spring teaching stint, I wound up with a contract position at Microsoft. What I was working on should be released soon, so I think I can talk a bit about my experience, which was pretty good. This post hopefully will reappear once the project is launched and I can show the art completed.

The first thing I encountered at Microsoft was that the department I worked in wasn't set up the same as my home studio. Go figure. At home I have my iMac, Wacom, scanner, printer, and second monitor, a drawing table, light table, big ol’ work table. Plenty of sloppy conventional art/illustration materials. Things such as ink, paint, pencils pens and brushes. Not too mention my library. (I have way too many books to just say "books".) No such thing there in the Customer Design Center, CDC for short (or Center for Disease Control as my wife called it). They had a scanner, (in another area) and they sprung for Wacom tablets for myself and the other Illustrator/designer working on the project. As one would guess I had to work on a PC. So, most of the day I sat at my desk with just a couple of sketch books, the Wacom and “Dell the Funky PC" (my pet name for the Dell computer).

I was aware that some illustrators sketch directly with the tablet. I had never done that because I thought it would be much more difficult to actually start art on the tablet. There's a big difference between sketching on paper and on a tablet. I quickly had to overcome that, or face lugging the scanner across the department every time I wanted to scan something. I made a special Photoshop brush with eraser settings that looked and acted like a nice soft pencil. WOW, it’s fun. Forced to use the Graphire tablet exclusively, I came to really love, and appreciate it. I realised that I had yet to touch on all the things I could do with the Graphire more so even with my Intuos at home. I used layers like tracing paper. Revising a sketch, making alterations and such until I was happy. You can’t really turn the tablet like paper (Okay not in P-Shop, but you can in Painter and that makes inking, say a "Daredevil" comic page, a blast! But that's another post!) but you get over that once you get into what you’re drawing and focus on making a picture. The hypnotic lure of drawing!

Freelancers work alone, very alone. At Microsoft, I worked with a lot of people. Oddly enough, because of where my desk was, my back was to most of them. After years of not interacting with people I felt like an oddity. It was hard for me to start talking and just as hard to stop once I got started! I tend to put my head down and work like a hamster in a ball, pushing through to the deadline, which was 4PM, when my vanpool came to get me for the hour long commute home. (Tacoma to Redmond and back again). I confess to not being the most socially adept person and I have long thought it a failing of mine not to be a sparkling conversationalist. I admit to erring on the side of "stoic worker bee" mentality. But being in that context, talking with people, listening to people and making idle chit chat around the "water cooler" and trying to take lunch it was a very good thing for me as a person.
When I first entered the CDC, I noticed it was very quite, and a lot of people had headphones. I thought they were listening to something having to do with work. Silly me, they were playing music. I quickly logged on to Pandora and set up my SnoopDogg, Propellerheads Big Audio Dynamite, Prez Prado and Louis Prima stations.

There were two other illustrators on the project. One was moved onto another assignment and the other illustrator, Karen Kirchhoff, and I finished the bulk of the themes. We had weekly meetings with the UI designer, Cinthya, (who is Japanese but has a heavy Spanish accent, 'cause she's from Peru. It threw me a bit, but in my case most people don't expect to see a "pro basketball player" when they look for an illustrator, or one that sounds like Kermit the Frog for that matter. Whatever…)
Karen has a different approach than I do and it was eye opening to see her solutions to some of the same assignments I was doing. I learned a lot about my work and what I needed to do, from the meetings with Karen and Cinthya. For one thing I didn't need to use every color! Karen's work is more thoughtful and, gulp, more "artistic" than mine, which tends to be like a hammer on china. There was one person I had known previously who was in the department, Marty. He's great and was invaluable in making me feel like part of the department and answering technical questions and questions about "campus life" at McSoft. Others around me were Greg; who is uncannily like my good friend Jesse Reyes, Jennifer; who has a keen eye for illustration and some really cool ideas about UI, Francie; the only other person as quite as me, Chris; who is a sarcastic hoot and half and got there almost as early as me, 7AM! And lastly, the guy who showed me how to refill the coffee maker. Ah the coffee machine, it was an old Farmer's Brother machine that was later replaced by a spankin' new Starbuck's one-touch-instant-robo-brew-by-the-cup-thing, that made all manner of hot drinks. All the drinks were free, and one day there was an ice cream truck, well more like a motorcycle with a side car, that came around with free ice cream. Another day when I arrived at 7AM, they had placed a espresso stand in the lobby and all the espressos were free, all morning! After years running upstairs at home to reheat my coffee, I felt I had died and gone to double mocha heaven!

When they hired me they wanted an illustrator to make pictures. What I actually did bordered more on design. We (Karen, J.D. and myself) built themes. For a lot of reasons we had to be original but not obtuse, not create all the art in any one style. Since I was working for the MAN, I certainly didn't want to use/give away my own style. Not everything was strictly illustration. I did a lot of illustration but also a lot of design and iconography. None of it with type. All of the work is unrecognizable as mine even the illustrations I did complete. As I learned more about patterns and the technical limits we had for cutting assets, I began to experiment more and had a great time pushing the boundaries of what we could do. Also got deep into working with both Photoshop and Illustrator side by side, back and forth.

I would start my day with about two or three themes that I wanted to get done to stay on schedule. In my sketchbook I would do a few very rough thumbnail ideas and make notes as to what I wanted to see and any stylistic riffing I could do. Then it was onto the web to find reference.

We kept in our minds that anything we did had to be very clear of any sort of copyright infringement. I would even go with something I though wasn't as good if it was at least original. After that, about 8AM, I would start sketching with the Wacom for the main image or pattern tile to be used in the background or header bar (go to to see what I'm talking about.) By the time Greg got in I'd normally have the image about half done, or at least looking good. Once the main image was done I could use that to set my color palette. Before lunch I would start sketching for the second theme of the day, being warmed up, full of coffee and all. After Lunch I would begin the modules and create any tillable images or single image if needed. Most of these were better in the idea stage than in reality. We had severe size limits and that with resolution made small images almost a waste. Near the end of the day I would be developing color ways for the type, selected and unselected, apply those and double check for legibility. Legibility was a big issue for me since my color sense was so, um…freakin' aggressive! Sometimes they were too harsh and other times all a bucket of mud. Karen's work was a beacon of tastefulness and Cinthya was good at pointing out what needed to be changed, nice art direction. At the end of the day I would save the file and pick two more for the next day. Given time, both Karen and I got into the habit of creating several different versions of each theme for client approval. Sometimes we had four versions for a single theme. Once I had two solutions with a couple of versions on each! Got to be kind of fun. Most often they picked the first versions anyway, such is life…

Creatively we were left alone. At first we were given a list, with some partially completed by the previous illustrator, J.D. Then Karen added to the list and the I added to the list! Shortly after I arrived J.D. was pulled of the themes and onto something else. For a week I worked just to streamline the template we had and get a handle on the technical constraints since the process had not been fully tested. Once I had the template file cleaned up and stripped down, it was time to get busy. Being the illustration fool that I am and given that they didn't want any particular style it was a blessing to go romping through the history of design and illustration. I love to do research and so I allowed myself the luxury of going deep. It might not be readily apparent to the casual viewer, but I like to think good research is what makes the image rich and appealing and supports all the creative decisions along the way to a successful graphic.

Recently I looked back over my 13 sketchbooks that cover more that 13 years. I was struck by the swing from style to style, medium to medium that is there, and not in my paid/published/commissioned work. Each page was a small experiment, a small adventure that lasts anywhere from a few minute to s few days depending on how long it takes to complete the page. In a way, each theme was the same. My range is something that few art directors have seen or expect from me.

For three months I didn't have the usual freelancer concerns of looking for work! That and free coffee!
Before I end this I'll answer the one question I get asked most. Yes, I did see Bill Gates, up close! I was getting into the Vanpool van there was a car next to it. Two guys got out of the front and walked past me, a third got out of the back and started to put his jacket on. I was about 10 feet away from him. I was going to say hi because I thought," He looks familiar, I think I know him." It was Bill. We nodded and I got into the van. As we were leaving, the traffic was bad, and one of the other riders, Beth, said it was all Bill's fault (Bill was also the name of the van driver) I said ," Yeah I just passed him."
"Bill's driving." she replied, "what do you mean?"
"No, Bill Gates." I said.
"He was going into the building."
And I was on my way home.

Well, that's about all I can say for now, the rest is TOP SECRET, so you'll have to wait until Part Two. Next post will be about something I can show!

Live fast, draw hard.


Anonymous said...

Nice posting Stan! :) one one nit pick...i'm from Peru! not brazil :P was good to have you over here. I think your work will be live by october :)

Stan Shaw said...

Gah! I apologize, what a gaff. I'll change that.
Glad to hear that the work will have a life soon.

Rob Christianson said...

Hey Stan - great to hear the project was a success! Glad I could help. I hope to see the work you did soon, next time I surf over into "Empire" airspace. ;)

keep drawin'!

rob c.

Stan Shaw said...

Big thanks! This was the gig I got from the info you passed on to me. Anytime I can help out. I owe you one.
Live fast, draw hard.