Exercise – Abstract Cities

Create a series of 10 abstract designs in which you balance blocks of subordinate,
dominant and accent colours. These designs are going to be used as covers for guidebooks to the following cities:

Madrid Malmo Managua Manchester Manhattan Marrakech Marseilles Melbourne Montreal Mumbai

The books are going to be A5 landscape (210mm x148mm) size. You can use as many colours as you like and need to include the name of the city – where you place this and its colour are also important decisions to make. You may want to find out more about each city to help you develop your colour palette and also the size, shape and positioning of the colour blocks.

Design Ideas

I started this exercise exploring ways in which I could give the abstract designs some meaning or association with each city. My thoughts on this were as follows:

  • Is there a colour associated with the city that I could use as a basis of the colour palette, for example  the colour of the dominant stone used for the buildings? After reading a very tedious paper on colmenar stone used extensively in the buildings in Madrid, I decided this was going to take a lot of work to determine the stone used for each city and the variation in colours would not be enough to make the designs sufficiently distinct from each other, so I rejected this idea.


  • Could the  colours of the country’s flag be combined with some abstract motif associated with the city, such as an iconic building? I decided using the colours of the flags was an obvious solution so I rejected this as an idea for the colour palettes. I did like the idea of an abstract representation of an iconic city building, however.


  • Given all the cities start with the letter ‘M’, could I assume that there would be guides for all letters of the alphabet and assign a base colour to each letter, so M would be dark red, for example. Could all the designs then be variations of a colour palette based on dark red? I didn’t think I could vary the palette enough for 10 cities (but this would have been an interesting exercise 🙂


  • Could I create a linear spectrum of colours ranging from coolest (blues) to warmest (reds) and map each city onto the spectrum based on their latitude, with cities nearest the equator being near red and further away from the equator, blue? Designs for each city would then use their ‘latitude colour’ as the basis for the design.


  • Could the colour palettes for each city be based on well known, traditional or indigenous art for the country, with the design incorporating a silhouette of the main art gallery in the city (making them art guides to the city)?  I liked the art idea as a basis for the colours but research on the art gallery buildings made me think that the building outlines would not be varied enough.


  • Could I incorporate an outline of a  silhouette of the city’s skyline into my abstract design, where the skyline is made up of iconic buildings of the city? I started researching iconic buildings in each city but after a while felt that constructing skylines like this for each city was going to be too much work.


  • I decided instead, to work with a colour palette of the art of the country and an abstract silhouette of a single iconic building of each city.

Thumbnail Designs

I first did a quick check to make sure that each country did have some form of art that I could use as the basis for the colour palette. I then started by researching the outline shapes for iconic buildings associated with each city.

My idea was to have an outline of a building embedded in a series of background blocks or bars with the building standing out in one colour and the background blocks in another.

Initial Test Mockups

I decided to try out my ideas for the designs with the first city, Madrid, using a colour palette inspired by Miro. The mockups are here:

These designs were just not working for me. My main issue was that my abstract building didn’t make sense – it wasn’t obvious what the large block of red was representing and I felt it was just distracting. I was putting too much effort into trying to work out which colours would make the building stand out and was not thinking about how the blocks of colour were working together.

I reviewed the designs with my husband, who agreed that he could not tell that the large block of red was meant to be a building. We decided that it was too difficult to create a design that was both abstract and yet representative of a building.

After a lot of thought, I decided to drop the idea of including the building silhouette and instead would just focus on a truly abstract design using my chosen colours.

It was back to the drawing board, this time researching abstract artists such as Kandinski, Miro, Ben Nicholson, Mondrian and Malevitch for inspiration.

Revised Test Mockups

I decided to try two abstract layouts, the first was based on Mondrian’s paintings. I thought that this layout also I had a feel of a street map, which would fit quite well as a city guide, I tried to make my ‘Mondrian’ layout look a bit like a street map.

I also tried a layout based on an abstract painting by Malevitch. I liked the tumbling shapes as they gave a sense of movement, fun and energy, which for me also worked well for a city:

These mockups where working much better for me. However, I wanted to check that these two abstract designs weren’t just working because the colour palette is one that is associated with abstract paintings, so I tried with my colour palette for Managua.

I felt happy that both of these abstract designs would work, so I had another review with my husband, and we both agreed that the ‘Mondrian’ inspired design, which had the feel of a street map, would work best, so I decided to move forward this idea.

Building the Colour Palettes

I had decided to base my colour palettes on art work associated with the country, either indigenous art, an art movement or works of an artist associated with that country.

I did have some concerns that doing this meant I wasn’t really putting my own colour palette together, but it was still quite a lot of work. Sampling colours from images of artworks found on the internet, gives quite a variable result, so I used sampled colours as a starting point and then refined them (with the help of Adobe Colour) to try to identify complimentary colours, triad colours etc. to put together what felt like a comprehensive palette which resembled the artworks I had based them on.


The colour palette was based on some iconic works by Spanish abstract artist, Miro


Miró: The Experience of Seeing


This was quite a difficult colour palette to put together as I struggled to find examples of typical Swedish art. Eventually I did a Google search for ‘Traditional Swedish Art’ images and found quite a lot similar to that below, which I have based my colour palette on.


The colour palette was based on the Nicaraguan Primitivista painting movement which originated from a community of artists founded in the 1970’s on the islands of Solentiname in Lake Nicaragua. This style of painting is influenced by the Haitian paintings of the late 40’s and 50’s and shows idealised scenes of community life and lush natural environments in bright colours.  Noted artists are Alejandro Benito Cabrera, Victor Santiago Crespin, José Ignacio Fletes Cruz and Rosa Delia Lopez Garcia.


I based this colour palette on paintings of British countryside by John Constable.


This colour palette is based on American pop art. I decided to use one of Andy Warhol’s images of Marilyn Monroe.



This colour palette was based on a design for Moroccan border found on shutterstock


I based this colour palette on paintings of the Cote D’Azur by Van Gogh as these were based on countryside near Marseilles.


This colour palette was based on colours typically used in aborigional art. I particularly focused on the image of Uluru by Danny Eastwood (the image with kangeroos below).


This colour palette is based on the artworks of Willie Seaweed, a First Nation wood carver and artist from Canada.


This colour palatte was based on traditional indian ‘Rajput’ paintings.

Final Designs

Adobe Illustrator vs Adobe Photoshop

I created most of these designs using Adobe Illustrator with the exception of Manhattan and Marrakech, which I created using Photoshop. I found Illustrator the easier tool for these designs as is it easier to manipulate shapes and manage colour palettes. In hindsight, I’m not sure it was a good idea to create 8 designs on 8 different art boards in one Illustrator document as it made managing the layers in the document very difficult. I also had a lot of problems exporting the individual designs, with components being missed off an export or ‘extra’ components from other artboards getting included in an export. it took a long time to unravel!

It was perfectly feasible to create these designs in Photoshop, but because you can’t ‘click’ on objects to select them, I needed to be very disciplined in naming and managing my layers so that I could find objects within the design, which was quite time consuming.

Also in both tools, I had trouble with the colours in the designs changing when I created the final files. I think this was due to issues with the colour profiles used by the files. I had created the designs in CMYK mode but in exporting the files as JPEGs for display on my digital blog, the colours changed. I fixed this by exporting the files as PNGs from Illustrator and by saving the files as JPEGs from Photoshop but manually changing the colour profile in the JPEG from ‘US Web Coated (SWOP) v2’ to ‘sRBG IEC61966-2.1’. This seemed to do the trick!


Thoughts on this Exercise

This exercise was a lot of work – it has quite literally taken me weeks to complete!! The research took me a long time, first reading about types of stone, then endless research into iconic buildings and then different types of art associated with each country.

I also realised that what seems like an inspired idea in my head often looks anything but when I actually mock it up. I should test the design with mockups sooner before doing a lot of research (I wouldn’t have needed to spend so long researching iconic buildings as I decided against this design as soon as I saw the mockup).

I did most of my research using Google Search which is quite a dangerous way to do research given the amount of irrelevant junk that gets thrown up! Searching for ‘iconic buildings in Managua’ for example, returned buildings from all around Nicaragua so I then spent more time trying to cross check to see if buildings really were in Managua.  I need to find some more reliable sources for my research. The internet was useful, however, in helping to discover more general concepts like the typical style of art in Nicaragua.

I am conscious that I also needed to do more research to ensure that I haven’t committed any cultural faux pas! Would the residents of Mumbai be offended that I based the colour palette for their city on  Rajput art? I have no idea.

I was a little concerned that using colour palettes taken from existing art works was not quite in the spirit of this exercise, as I was not defining those palettes myself from scratch. However, it was very interesting analysing the colour palettes from existing artworks and trying to decide how to use and lay those colours out in my abstract designs.

Finally, thinking of a design concept AND colour scheme AND layout together is very difficult!


Part 3 – Exercise 3: Seeing the Light

Using only an image of a light bulb, the word ‘light bulb’ and a block of colour of your choice, create different designs that explore visual dynamics.

I began this exercise thinking about the colour I would use for my ‘block of colour’. I really felt that I wanted my chosen colour to somehow represent ‘light’ but I didn’t want to choose yellow as that felt a bit obvious.  Instead, I decided that my chosen colour would be white and therefore the background of my designs would need to be black.

This raised some interesting questions..

Is white a colour?

If I remember correctly from my school physics lessons, in the world of light it is. Combining all colours of the spectrum makes white light. Conversely, black is the absence of all colour, so choosing my colour block to be white and background black, felt like it did make some logical sense to me.

However, from a printing sense, we typically start with a sheet of white, ‘blank’ paper on which coloured inks are placed, so in this sense, white is the absence of colour.

Despite some misgivings that white would not be considered a ‘colour’ for this exercise, I decided to try it anyway, with my black background and white block of colour to see how it worked out.

Interestingly, because I am so used to white paper representing ‘nothing’,  I found it quite difficult to draw the thumbnails on paper when my colour block was white – I found myself almost having to think in reverse. For this reason, I drew my colour block on the thumbnails in yellow, so I could more easily see what was ‘colour’!

I approached this exercise by drawing as many different design layouts as I could think of, without thinking too hard about the visual dynamics of the individual designs. I then picked about 20 which I thought represented the different layout styles. I recreated these selected designs using Adobe Illustrator.

My thumbnail designs are below.

My edited set of designs:









Thoughts on the Visual Dynamics of these Designs

Designs where all the elements of the design have a role to play in the overall message worked well for me, such as the design below, where both the white block and the word ‘Light’ are representing the spread of light from a bulb. The word bulb is clearly relating to the small object that is creating the light. The spread of light from a bulb is much bigger than the bulb itself, so it made sense for the word ‘light’ to be bigger than ‘bulb’ in this instance.

Designs where  the elements don’t all appear to be serving a purpose, do not work so well. In the design below, I am questioning why there is a block of white floating in space, without any obvious connecting with the other elements?

Designs where the white colour block is merely serving as a background label for the text, as in the designs below, generally work but are less interesting. I feel there is a missed opportunity for the white colour, which could be contributing more to the overall design.


Designs where the layering does not follow a logical order, do not work so well for me.

In this example above, I am questioning why the bulb is hidden behind the white colour block, which is quite distracting. That said, I quite like the design below, which also follows a somewhat illogical layer order, but I am more accepting of this as I think of the image of the bulb as the most important element, so I am happy to see it first. It feels more playful to me that the image is so dominant that it is blocking out the text.

The design below works well for me in terms of the layer order. I am reading the words naturally from left to right and diagonally across and down the page. Each word feels like it is associated with the correct visual element and the bulb, which is more important that the colour block, is layered above it.

Designs that are a little bit playful and make me work a little bit to understand them, work well for me, such as the two designs below:


The design below does not work at all for me. I can’t easily read the text and there is no logical reason why the text is half black ad half white.

The design below is the one that works best for me.

I like the balance between the position of the text and the image and the symmetry and simplicity of the black and white colours. The diagonal split is visually interesting and I get a sense of that sudden transition when you switch a light on and the room is instantly flooded in light. It also feels very natural for me to read the text first in the top left corner and then for my eye to travel to the bottom right to see the image.

Interestingly, despite thinking I had pretty much exhausted all possible designs, I have now noticed that almost all of my designs have the text positioned horizontally with both words running in the same direction. I could have had more designs with the two words split and running in different directions, more designs that could make use of diagonals or I could have had some text upside down. I can see that escaping your conditioning and designing something which is less obvious can be quite hard!

Part 3 – Exercise 2: Signs and Symbols

Choose one of the following concepts: Danger, Movement, Love, Here

How does existing visual language represent these concepts? Research the different similes and metaphors that are in common use. Document them through drawings, collecting examples and mind maps.

Now create an alternative symbol to represent at least one of these concepts.

I decided to choose the concept of ‘here’ for this exercise as it wasn’t immediately obvious what signs and symbols would represent ‘here’ apart from the obvious ‘map pin’ and pointing arrow and I was interested to see what I could come up with.

Signs and symbols for ‘here’ involve indicating a location. They draw the eye to a specific area or object of interest. Typically symbols can be map pins, pointing fingers or arrows.


Signs for ‘here’ can also be lines that mark an area or boundary, such as:

The word ‘HERE’ is also often used to indicate ‘here’.. such as ‘Ice Cream Available Here’

My mind map exploring the symbols relating to ‘here’ is below.

My thumbnail sketches exploring symbols for ‘here’ are below:

I chose the concept of a pointer dog as an alternative symbol for ‘here’. The dog is still effectively a ‘pointing’ symbol but is a different form of pointer from the more usual fingers, arrow heads and map pins.

I sketched the outline of a pointer dog in his ‘pointing’ stance and then simplifed the image into a series of angular shapes.

I used Adobe Illustrator to digitally create the same shapes and then combined them together into the dog outline.

I made the outline of the dog red to attract the viewer’s attention and gave the dog a pointy red nose, intended to pin point exactly where the viewer should be looking. My final symbol is below:



When I put my new symbol into practice on a map, I was a bit concerned that it wasn’t standing out, so I reversed the colours to make it predominantly red (and easier to see).




Part 3 – Research Point: Visual Dynamics

How do your eyes travel around the items you have collected? What do you look at first? Where is the contrast in what you are looking at?

Emma Dunbar: A Riotous Bunch on Yellow

My eyes travel first to the colourful flowers, then to the jug and then left to the cup.  I then become aware of the background – the table that the jug is standing on and the slight difference in the shading of the panels of the background. I then go back to the flowers to look at them in more details.

The contrast in this image is in the red, pink and purple colours of the flowers and the yellow of the rest of the image. Layering of the jug on top of the table gives context to the image. The slight panel of yellow behind the flowers help to frame it and make it stand out.

Ed Ruscha – Standard Station 1966 (Colour Screen Print)

In this image, I look first at the word ‘Standard’, then the white building (from left to right), then the petrol pumps, then the orange background, particularly the boundary between the orange and blue,  and finally, the blue background.

My eye is naturally drawn to the text first because I want to read it, it is quite large and prominent and is naturally on the left of the frame, travelling right. The building follows the same line as the text, so my eye travels quite naturally to it. The contrast in this image is between red and white, with the white really standing out. The orange and blue background give a sense of context, looking like the hot desert ground and cloudless sky. The gradient in the orange background also gives a sense of depth.

Ed Ruscha – Made in California

My eye is drawn straight to the text in this image, which I read from top to bottom. I take in the orange background and then go back over the text to examine the ‘water droplet’ details of the letters.

The only contrast here is the writing which is slightly darker than the background (and also is picked out with some highlights).

‘Apricot rose’ by Volontaire (Malin Åkersten Triumf and Yasin Lekorchi) with a photograph by Niklas Alm for Amnesty International, 2007.

My eye is drawn straight to the light coloured rose, in particular the centre where the petals are close together. Then I examine the sutures which I find very disturbing and which look very out of place stitched into the rose. I find the rose and sutures very compelling but eventually notice the darker leaves of the rose. I eventually look at the background. I don’t know what it is and I find I don’t feel I need to know but I am quite distracted by the blob of what looks like plasticine as I don’t know why that is there. The last thing I look at is the text. Because it is small, I have to make an effort to read it and I only read it when I have seen enough of the image to want to know more about the poster.

The contrast in this image is in the light coloured rose and the rest of the image, which is dark. There is also contrast in the soft and natural nature of the rose and the violence and injury of the sutures.

I thought I would try out some visual dynamics analysis on a promotional card on display in a local coffee shop.  Interestingly, my eye was not drawn straight to the most obvious element, which was the red writing, instead it went straight to the drink and then to the lemon. It was a hot day and the long, cold drink and bright, sunny lemon just looked too enticing! My eye then went to the title writing, although I think I noticed the green ‘zesty lemonade’ more than the red ‘summer goodness’. Then I looked up at the bunting and then down to the logos at the bottom. To me the black and brown coffee shop logo looks out of place and is quite distracting.

Part 2 – Exercise 5: Point of Sale Display

Your local green grocer has asked you to produce a point of sale display to go above the fruit and vegetables in their shop. They want the display to be seen from the street through the shop window to attract passing shoppers in order to boost their trade. The shop is in a small precinct which also houses a baker, a newsagent, an independent shoe shop and is on the route to and from a well respected primary school.

The final reproduction size will be 2 x A1 landscape so you will need to produce your artwork at a smaller scale.

Analysing the Brief


To create two A1 sized point of sale displays, one for fruit and one for vegetables, to be placed above the respective produce in the grocery store.

The displays should be visible from outside the store, through the shop windows. My assumption is that the ‘precinct’ where the shop is, is outside (rather than an indoor precinct), so the displays will need to be quite bright to be visible through the windows from outside.

The displays should include images and wording.


The objective of the POS displays is to attract attention of people passing the store, draw them into the store and subsequently boost trade.


  • Local Greengrocer
  • Small Precinct
  • Fruit and Vegetables
  • POS Located Above Fruit and Vegetable Displays
  • Eye Catching
  • Seen from a Distance
  • Seen in Peripheral Vision
  • Clear
  • Dynamic
  • Attract Passing Shoppers
  • Local Primary School
  • Boost Sales

Target Audience

Local  shoppers – the precinct that the greengrocers is in is quite small and also includes a baker, newsagent and an independent shoe shop. The shops are likely to attract locals who need a few items or some fresh produce in between their main grocery ‘shops’. The surrounding shops sound quite ‘down-to-earth’, rather than ‘luxury’ shops, so are probably not attracting ‘luxury’ shoppers.

Mums with primary school aged children – the greengrocer is on the route to a local primary school so there will be a lot of Mums and their children (presumably both boys and girls) who will pass by. The children, in particular, are a valuable target audience, if they can be actively attracted in to the store with their Mums. (Some children might be with their Dads but this is more unlikely).


The Proposed POS

Because the POS needs to be seen from outside the store, through the windows, I decided that I would propose each POS display being in the form of a bright, backlit digital display. I checked that it was possible to purchase A1 sized digital display monitors and that the cost of them was reasonable to expect a small greengrocers to purchase. NEC sell 43 inch display monitors for £634 each which I felt was a reasonable cost, given that the monitors could be reused for other future campaigns.

I also wanted my POS digital display to be animated and involve some form of movement, so that it would attract attention, particularly if it was being seen in someone’s peripheral vision.

I wanted the content of the display to attract primary school age children but I also wanted the ‘message’ to be something that would resonate with Mums and give them something that they could share or discuss together with their children while shopping in store.


Research / Developing Ideas

I don’t have children so I first had to research what sort of thing appeals to primary school aged children and would get their attention. I was looking for a message that would encourage children to want to eat fruit and vegetables:

Based on my research, I decided that my POS displays would use bright, simple colours with limited text and fun animated cartoon characters. The message of the POS displays would play on the concept of belonging to a ‘club’. I also wanted the message to be something that Mums would understand and could talk with their children about and which would support them in encouraging their children to eat fruit and vegetables.


Superhero Fruit and Veg

My first idea was to develop POS displays featuring ‘super hero’ fruit and veg characters. My research suggested that young children love superhero characters and I considered a message promoting the idea that ‘superheros eat fruit and veg’. After a lot of thought, I decided that this idea was too ‘male’ and would not appeal as much to young girls. Most superheros are male and they generally involve killing or defeating ‘bad guys’, which I felt would appeal to boys more than girls. I felt my idea had to be more gender neutral to be equally appealing to the primary school boys and girls who would pass by the store.

Who’s In Your 5-a-Day Gang?

The 5-a-day message is well known and I believe is also taught to children in primary schools, so I felt that this was a good message to promote in my POS displays. I considered using a concept of belonging to a ‘5 a day’ club, team or gang that young children might want to be part of. If the child felt part of their own, personal ‘5 a day’ gang, they might be encouraged to look more favourably on the fruit and veg in their ‘gang’.


Fruit and Veg Explorers

This idea was about young children being curious and encouraging them to be daring and try new things. My research suggested that one of the main issues that stops children eating fruit and vegetables is that children consider them ‘new’ or ‘strange’ which makes them reluctant to try them, (hence the parents’ trick of chopping vegetables into tiny pieces and adding them into more recognisable meals). Children who were Fruit and Veg Explorers would ‘collect’ the experiences of eating new fruit and veg. Intrepid explorers would relish the challenge of eating their fruit and veg rather than shy away from it!


Critique of Ideas

I reviewed my ideas with my husband. He wasn’t comfortable with the concept of a ‘5-a-day’ gang or club as he felt there was an element of ‘exclusion’ inherent in it. We both quite liked the ‘Fruit and Veg’ explorer idea but struggled to think of what the visuals would look like for this idea. My husband preferred the ‘Fruit and Veg heros’ idea, which I still rejected on the basis of it being too male.


The Final POS Displays

My final displays used the idea of ‘5-a-Day Kids’ which, to a certain degree, combined the concept of ‘superheros’, i.e. you are somehow ‘better’ if you eat fruit and veg, and the 5-a-day message, and was inspired by a sticker I saw on a VW camper van which read ‘VDub Dads ..like normal Dads but Cooler’. My research had suggested that messages to children should consider their values, so they won’t react to being told something is ‘healthier’ but rather that it is ‘cooler’.

For each POS display, I used Adobe Illustrator to draw 5 simple cartoon fruits and vegetables. I created a series of frames for each to make the fruits wave and the vegetables jump and used Photoshop to convert the frames into a simple animation which could be displayed on the A1 digital display screens in the Greengrocer’s store.

I used simple bright colours for the display (and for consistency, used the same colours on each display), on a white background which, combined with the animation, was intended to attract the attention of young children passing outside the store.

The final POS displays




Thoughts on This Exercise

I really enjoyed working on this exercise 🙂

Using Adobe Illustrator for the exercise, really advanced my rudimentary Illustrator skills. It was also only the second time I had created an animation, and I was really excited to have produced a simple animation using Photoshop, for this exercise.

Some interesting observations were:

  • How difficult it was to let go of my first idea and consider other ideas. I was conscious that my first idea about the superhero fruit was probably the most obvious one, but I also thought it was a good one and it was hard to allow myself to seriously consider other ideas. It also took quite a lot of subsequent research for me to admit that the superhero idea wasn’t gender-neutral enough and that I should drop it.
  • Getting critique from one person, particularly one who isn’t in my target audience, probably isn’t very representative.
  • I wondered if my husband liked the ‘Superhero fruit’ idea best, because it was the most obvious idea and, like me, the first thing he thought of. Does that devalue his feedback if he just considers the most obvious solution to the brief?
  • Is it acceptable to appropriate someone else’s idea (the VDub Dad) and use it as the basis of my own work, or is that plagiarism?

Research Sources:














Part 2 – Research Point: Available Software

Identify the software you have available to deal with desktop publishing, image manipulation and graphics/illustration. How familiar are you with it? What do you need to learn?

I am quite an advanced user of both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, having used them both extensively for a number of years when I worked as a wedding photographer. I have a lot of experience in manipulating and correcting colours and in manipulating digital images. I don’t have so much experience of working with text.

I have very little experience of Adobe Illustrator but am trying to learn it. I have been working my way through ‘Adobe Illustrator Classroom in a Book’ and am about half way through. I would really like to be proficient at using Illustrator and understanding what it is used for and how it is used.

I have access to MicroSoft Publisher and have had some limited experience of using it. At the moment, I do not have access to Adobe In Design. I would like to become more skilled and more creative at laying out documents.

Part 2 – Exercise 4: Too much or not enough information

Look around locally and identify a coming event and design two posters to promote it. Make the first poster full of details and descriptions about the event, when and where it’s taking place, what’s going on, how long it lasts, how much it costs and what to expect. For the second poster apply Occam’s Razor to pare back the information to a bare minimum.

Now ask yourself and other people if you can, which of the designs works best. What is the key information you need to include?

I chose to design posters for the Surrey County Show, a large agricultural show that takes place every year near to where I live. I started by reviewing the Surrey County Show website to collect information about the event. There was plenty 🙂

I decided that the poster would feature a striking image of an iconic farm animal. The image would be taken in the summer, showing countryside in the background, to give a sense of a summer, agricultural show. I also wanted the image to be a little humorous as the County Show is very much a family event and I wanted an image that would appeal to children and families.

I decided to use a stock image for the poster. Originally I had planned to use a Highland cow as a very typical animal that you might see at a country fair but I could not find a suitable image which had been taken in the sun (it is always raining in the Highlands, apparently!). Instead I found an image of a sheep that I could use.

My sketched design ideas for the two posters are below.

The Final Posters


My General Thoughts on the Poster Designs

I wanted to try to make the detailed design still work as a poster, so I spent a lot of time experimenting with fonts, font sizes and layout to try to keep all the information of the poster readable. The size and style of the fonts were important in making the different elements of the text stand out, and spacing was also important in separating the different pieces of information on the poster.

In the minimum poster design, my rationale was that, because the show is a big annual event in this area, most people will already know about it and really just need a prompt that it is coming. For people who are interested and need information, they would know to do an internet search to go to the website for the details of the show. The image and font design in this poster are critical as they are also conveying valuable information about the event – the image indicates that the show involves farm animals, it’s fun and it takes place in the summer. The font suggests strong and no-nonsense – words that I would use to describe a farmer. The font is also very easy to read.

Feedback on the Designs

My Husband

My husband felt that the detailed design worked better. He felt that the layout was more ‘balanced’ and he felt it was important to know the location of the show – information which is included on the detailed poster and not on the minimal design.  He didn’t really like the layout of the text on the minimal design poster, particularly the date, which he felt was cumbersome to read.

OCA Thames Valley Group

The group also preferred the detailed poster as they felt it provided more value in the information it gave. Interestingly no one suggested that it needed less information or that it appeared too cluttered! The only feedback was that the ‘exciting’ and ‘unmissable’ words needed to be separated out from the rest of the text a bit more, possibly using speech marks, and that the attractions should come before the prices, as logically you would want to know what was on first before you decided whether to pay for it.

For the minimal design, members of the group felt it needed the location where locals didn’t feel this was so necessary as they knew where the show was held each year.

What was very clear from our discussion is that the intended audience for the poster and its location, paid a large part in dictating its content. If the poster was located by the side of a road, the minimal design would work better. On a notice board, the detail design would be better as people would be more likely to step up to the board to read it. If it is a well established event, locals don’t need as much information on the poster.

Because both posters were deemed to ‘work’ depending on their location, I revised both following feedback:

Some Thoughts on Requesting Feedback

It is not clear to me at the moment, how much I should explain the rational of my designs when requesting feedback. Is there a danger that I might prime or lead the reviewer towards my preferred option? If I don’t provide any context, is there a danger they will ‘miss the point’ of my design? If the reviewer is in my target audience, should they even need any context and if I feel I have to explain my design then does that indicate it’s not really working? Is there a danger that reviewers just jump on the most obvious design without thinking more critically about what they are looking at? If only get a suggestion for a revision from one person in the group rather than the majority, then should I dismiss it? Lots of things to explore further here!

Part 2 – Research Point: Critiquing Your Own Work.

How do you approach being self-critical? What issues does it raise?

When I critique work I have done, I will try to step away from the work for a while and then come back to it, with ‘fresh eyes’ in an effort to see it in the way someone viewing it for the first time might see it. I try to put myself in the viewer’s shoes and see the work as they would see it.

I will also ask myself the following questions:

  • Did I meet the brief? Have I done what what required?
  • Have I really thought hard about what I’ve created and made an effort to create something good, rather than been lazy and produced the most obvious thing?
  • Am I pleased with what I have produced? Do I think other people will like it? Do I think the intended audience will ‘get it’.
  • Is there a clear rationale to what I have done? Can I justify what I have done and explain it.
  • Are there any little ‘niggles’ about what I have done? Anything that doesn’t feel quite right? In my experience, ‘niggles’ should always be listened to as they indicate an underlying design problem with the work.

Issues with being self-critical:

  • Trying to judge what is ‘right’. It is hard to know how far off the mark you are when you have no idea where the mark actually is!
  • Having to second guess what the target audience thinks. I can only critique within my own experience – other people my have a very different view.
  • Comparing my work with what others have done and deciding it is rubbish, when maybe it is just different.
  • Being so familiar with my work it is difficult to make an objective judgement on it.
  • Being too hard on myself – nothing is ever good enough.
  • Conversely – becoming too wedded to one ‘brilliant’ idea, especially if I have invested a lot of time and effort in developing it that I can’t contemplate having to let it go.

My husband is the person I will most likely go to for a second opinion on my work. I am also fortunate in that I can attend the monthly OCA Thames Valley Group meetings where I can meet my OCA colleagues face-to-face and where we regularly critique each other’s work.  I can also share work on the OCA Facebook pages and forums.


Part 2 – Exercise 3: Visualising Your Ideas

You have been asked to design a leaflet for an organisation, inviting people to to volunteer for a task. In addition to a title the information has been broken down into four chunks each of about 120 words. You will also need to leave space for contact and address details.

Working with a sheet of A4 paper or larger if you prefer, and ignoring the actual words and subheadings, explore the different formats for leaflets that are possible. Consider and experiment with options for final size and types of paper as part of your visualisation.

The organisers are particularly interested in trying to attract new people. Your job is to find a way to make people want to pick up the leaflet.

For this exercise, I chose to design a leaflet for a cat shelter which would encourage people to come forward to volunteer to temporarily fosterer a cat while it was waiting to be re-homed.


To create a leaflet based on an A4 sized sheet of paper, encouraging people to temporarily foster a cat. The leaflet should attract new volunteers and should entice people to pick up the leaflet.


I did my research for the leaflet by reading about cat fostering on the Cats Protection website and pet fostering on the RSPCA website.

Target Audience

  • Most likely women, although cat ownership by men is becoming increasingly common.
  • Cat lovers
  • Older women who have no kids, older kids, or whose kids have left home (young children can make a nervous cat stressed and scared so it is not recommended to bring a foster cat into a home with young children).
  • Someone who spends a lot of time at home and will have time to care for a foster cat.
  • Someone who has a calm and stable home environment.
  • Someone who owns their own home (as opposed to renting as pets are typically not permitted in rental accommodation)
  • Someone who is patient and caring. Someone charitable who would like to give something back.
  • Ideally someone who does not already have pets.

Where to place the leaflets (based on the target audience)

I considered my typical ‘cat fosterer’ as a woman aged late 40s upwards,  a ‘lady-who-lunches’, quite community spirited and involved in community activities. Possible locations for the leaflets could therefore be:

  • Community centres, arts centres or adult education centres
  • Coffee shops
  • Garden centres
  • Churches or religious community centres
  • Charity shops

Styling of the Leaflet

As the leaflet needed to grab attention and attract cat-lovers, I decided that the front cover would feature a large photograph of a cat, either looking cute or slightly forlorn, with the question ‘Could you foster a cat?’ prominently displayed on the front cover.

I imagined the four sections of text would cover:

  1. A statement of the need for cat fosterers.
  2. How fostering helps / what are the rewards
  3. What is involved and do you qualify?
  4. FAQs – how will you be supported?

I also had to print out blocks of text with 120 characters (I used a 12pt font) to get a rough idea how much space would be needed on the leaflet for the text – it was a lot more than I imagined.

In the leaflet designs, I mixed text with images to break up text and make the leaflet more interesting to look at. The images would be photographs of cats.

I was also careful not to have text crossing over a fold in the leaflet as this would make it more difficult to read.

Leaflet Designs






Visualisation Methods:

Thumbnail Sketches

These were quick and simple to produce and would probably serve as a useful tool during a face-to-face discussion for quickly explaining an idea. I’m not sure they would be ‘professional’ enough to present as a proposed design layout for a client.


This was a ‘neater’ version of the thumbnails above. I am not sure they add much value over the thumbnails other than they look neater.  These drawings would not be appropriate to quickly visualise an idea in a design ‘meeting’ as they take too long to create. I might consider presenting these to a client, especially if the design was complicated enough that to produce a digital mockup would take a lot longer than the drawing. However, if the client wanted to make changes to the design, then it would mean drawing the whole layout again from scratch each time.

One significant disadvantage of these two dimensional drawings is that it is hard to visualise how the user would use and interact with the leaflet. In this leaflet, the content of section 2 is on the back of section 1 but this is not obvious in the drawings. I thought I had got the drawing wrong and had to look again quite hard at the physical leaflet to check!

‘Wireframe’ Layouts

I created these digital layouts in Photoshop. One significant advantage was that I could easily create the layout to scale as I used an A4 sized document and was able to place blocks of text with 120 characters. They also have the advantage of looking professional and of being editable. Disadvantages are that they take a bit longer to create and again, it is difficult to visualise how the leaflet would be used. In the layouts above, the front cover is actually the last layout, which logically does not make sense.


I thought a series of photographs of my mockup worked quite well as they give more of a sense of the three dimensional nature of the leaflet.


It occurred to me that if one of the issues of a two dimensional drawing is that it is hard to visualise how a user would interact with it, then one method of visualisation would be to show a video of the leaflet being used. I thought this method worked well, particularly for a leaflet with a more complex design (like this one) which is harder to represent in a two dimensional drawing. Perhaps combining this method with a drawing that showed the leaflet sections in more details would be an effective solution.

3D Modelling?

If the video gives a good representation of the leaflet in use, perhaps an even better method would be to create a digital, three dimensional prototype of the leaflet which shows an animation of how the leaflet would be used. The disadvantage of this would be the time, effort and specialist skills needed to create this type of mockup. I think it would depend how much the client was paying 🙂

Face-to-Face Meeting with Mockups

If it was possible to have a face-to-face meeting with the client, possibly a very effective way to review the leaflet designs would be to take the mockups to the meeting and let the client play with them.


In terms of visualisation method, I think it depends a lot on who the audience is, whether they are remote or present, how often the design might change (i.e. do the drawings / mockups need to be easily ‘editable’) and how much time and effort it is worth spending on creating the mockups or layouts.  Thumbnail designs would be fine for a ‘brainstorming’ design session with colleagues,  physical mockups would be good for clients who are present with you, wireframes and video may be a good solution for remote clients, and perhaps 3D animated modelling might be worth the investment for a high-value product. I also felt that the more complex designs would benefit from multiple visualisation methods.

In terms of the leaflet designs themselves, leaflets that you traversed in the same way that you would read a book, worked best. Some of the designs, such as the one shown in the video, did not work very well because the flow of the sections did not feel logical. I also felt that the final ‘Next Steps and Contact Details’ section needed to be quite closely connected with, and visibly close to, Section 4 – FAQs. This was because if the reader was inspired by the leaflet to apply to become a cat fosterer, I wanted the contact details to be immediately visible for them to take action, not hidden around the back of the leaflet, so for example, on the leaflet shown in the wireframes, I felt quite strongly that section 4 and the contact details should be on the same page on the back of the leaflet.



Part 2 – Exercise 2: Book Cover Design

Your brief is to design a stunning and contemporary cover for one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed authors, HG Wells. Your challenge is to create cover designs for three of his books that work as a set and establish the books as timeless fiction.

The books will be published in a paperback format and need to include
the title, author’s name, publishers name and trademark. You only need
to design the front cover and spine.

Making notes in your learning log:
• Identify the research you might need to undertake and the gaps in
your knowledge. Can you identify any primary research that will help
you? What resources could you use to undertake secondary research?
• Use the mind mapping technique to explore your keywords. Explore both extremes of obvious and radical solutions to the brief; what’s the most obvious way of responding to it and what radical creative solutions can you come up with?

When you have a range of ideas, as well as the notes in your learning log, make some
rough drawings or sketches to show your ideas. You can do these on paper or on a
computer. If you are using a computer don’t forget to keep some of the tryouts and early ideas. Call them something like idea #1, #2, #3 and keep them in a separate folder. You may well want to come back to them later and use some of the ideas that you didn’t use this time for another exercise.


  • Develop three designs that work as a set for HG Wells books.
  • Covers should be contemporary but ‘timeless’.
  • Design the front cover and spine for paperback books. The design should include the title, author, publisher’s name and trademark.

Research for the HG Wells Book Cover Design

Primary research could involve:

  • Reading the books (or listening to an audio book). Establish what the books are about – what is the ‘mood’ and atmosphere of the book (light hearted, comedic, dark, sombre, sinister..)? Are there any iconic symbols or recurring themes that feature in the story?
  • Review the covers of other editions of the books – what kind of designs have been done before?
  • Does the publisher have their own specific design requirements for the book covers?
  • Who is the target audience for the books? Are they particularly masculine, feminine etc.?

Secondary Research

  • Read a book synopsis (I tried this and found the synopsis did not describe the mood of the book).
  • Watch a film adaptation? This can be risky as films often deviate from the book and may leave out parts of the story.
  • Ask someone who has read the book to describe the story. Also risky as it relies on this person to give a full an accurate account of the book.

‘Swipe File’ Ideas

I reviewed the covers of other contemporary HG Wells books and other books in a similar gothic genre. I also looked for ideas for design elements that would reflect the Victorian times in which the books were set.

Developing Ideas

I felt that it was imperative to have a good understanding of the book to be able to design an effective cover, not just the details of the story but also the general mood and tone of the book. I felt that the best way to do this was to read the book. Due to time constraints, I chose to read three of HG Wells’ short stories:

  • The Empire of the Ants
  • The Moth
  • The Door in the Wall

I started by taking brief notes of each of the stories and picking out key words and themes for each:


Mind Mapping

I then used mind mapping to explore the general themes and tone of all of the stories.


All three of the stories are told ‘after the fact’ by a narrator who was a witness to events in the story. They are all set in ‘the present day’ which, in effect is Victorian / Edwardian England. The ‘victims’ in each of the stories and the narrators are all educated, professional men.

There is a theme in all of the stories of normality being irreversibly disrupted by some sinister event. The ‘victims’ in the stories are all ordinary people who have done nothing to deserve or invite their misfortune. The stories are recounted with an air of resignation or sadness that ‘things will never be the same again’.

Another common theme of the stories is that they all play on the idea of ambiguity as to whether a sinister event is real or imagined.

Design Rationale

The brief requires the designs to be ‘contemporary’ but ‘timeless’. For a contemporary look, I decided to work with a design that was quite simple and minimal, with lots of white space and possibly in black and white. Gothic novels very often have a black background but I wanted to try something different. A common thread of all of the stories is that of an ordinary life impacted by a sinister event, so I wanted to book designs to convey this sense of ‘normality’ with a hint of something hidden or lurking ‘in the background’.

Thumbnails for my design ideas are below:


Sketches of Ideas

I created ‘sketches’ of my design ideas using a combination of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to create simple mockups of the designs. The images used in the designs where created using preview image files from Shutterstock, which I manipulated in Photoshop. The text used in the moth images I constructed myself in Photoshop.

Idea #1

In these designs I wanted to combine the silhouette of a key object of each story with another element of the story’s theme – an ant head with a background of the Amazon, a moth with a background of an academic paper about moths and a panther with a background of a beautiful garden.

Idea #2

This is a very simple design using the outline of the key object of the story, i.e. a moth, an ant or a door or panther.

Idea #3

This is a variation of idea 2 above where the silhouette is black. The book cover is then just black and white.

Idea #4

This design idea again combines the silhouette of the key object of the story with another element from the book. This time the silhouette is white – effectively a negative space. I liked this idea as it hints at the object (the moth, the ant, the panther) may or may or not actually exist.

Idea #5

This idea is the same as Idea #4 but introduces coloured backgrounds with each book having a different colour. I liked this but felt it looked a bit similar to Penguin Classic book design.

Idea #7

This design uses a simple black and white colour scheme. The image was printed out, drawn over with charcoal and then scanned to a digital file. Again, I like the slightly sinister effect of the black lines drawn over the moth and ambiguity of the moth being partly hidden.

Idea #7A

This design is a variation on Idea 7 above but uses a coloured background.

Idea #8

This design uses a large silhouette of the key object (ant, moth, panther). To increase the sinister feel, the silhouette is in blood red. There is no title on the front cover (just on the spine). With no title on the cover, it may encourage people to pick up the book to investigate.

Idea #9

In this design the book title and author are dominant. The key object (ant, moth, panther) are small silhouettes. This hints at the seeming innocuous nature of the object.

Idea #10

This design uses a lot of white space and an abstract layout for the moth image.

Idea #11

This design uses a small repeating pattern of the key object ( ant, moth or panther) which is used to form a border around the edge of the front cover. A closer look at the border reveals the ants hidden in the design. This plays on the idea of something sinister being hidden in the ordinary and everyday.

Idea #12

Similar to idea #11 above, this design creates a pattern from the story’s key object (ant, moth, panther) . A closer look at the pattern reveals what it is made up of.

Thoughts on this Exercise