Top 10 Tips for Designers

By Feng Zhu 


In the past 10 years, the concept design industry has grown in popularity. There are now thousands of professional concept artists all around the world. In addition, more and more people are pursuing this career path everyday. 

I've prepared these tips to help guide those of you who are taking your first steps into the entertainment design industry. 


#10. JUST DRAW

Before doing anything else, just draw. You don’t need the latest software, hardware, brush, etc. Find some copy paper, grab a pen or pencil, and start drawing. The goal is to train your brain, eyes and hands to work together as a team. Drawing and painting are physical skills, so the only way to get better is through hands-on practice. Watching tutorial videos, reading books or looking at other artists’ work will not help you get better at drawing. You need to do it yourself. 

When starting, you don’t need to follow any rules or focus on a particular subject matter. Just draw whatever you feel like. Don’t worry about the quality either. Remember, this is about teaching your hands to coordinate with your brain and eyes. The more you draw, the more natural it will feel. This is no different than learning how to play an instrument, riding a bike or playing a sport. 

You have to keep practicing until your brain responds instinctively rather than forcefully (it takes hundreds of hours of practice to reach this stage). 

Here are some of my sketches for a sci-fi project from 20 years ago when I worked at Blur Studio. I used to fill dozens of sketchbooks with these.




#9. PRINT YOUR WORK AND PUT THEM UP

Browsing through your work on a computer or digital gallery does not have the same impact as looking at them on a wall. Having your drawings right in front of you helps to inspire, motive and measure progress. It also makes it easier to brainstorm ideas, find new directions and correct mistakes. This is why so many game and film studios put up work all over their art departments.

In addition, we are all analog creatures. Touching and looking at something physical has a visceral effect on our bodies. Digital galleries can never replace the feeling you get when standing in front of a wall covered in beautiful concept art.

Invest in a color printer, preferably one which can print oversized pages such as 11x17 (US) or A3 (international). Next, find an empty wall in your room and start filling it up with YOUR work. Try to cover the entire wall from floor to ceiling and leave no blank spots. If you have blank spots, make it a priority to fill them up. Overtime, you can keep this wall updated with newer and better work. When learning, don’t worry about how messy this will make your room look. You have plenty of opportunities in the future to decorate your home once you’ve made it into the industry.

Remember, this is YOUR wall. Therefore, put up everything from sketches, rough ideas, paintings, failures, best works, etc. This wall is not meant to show off, but a reminder for yourself that YOU are the one who created it. 

This wall will keep you motivated on those nights when you feel uninspired and frustrated. Just look up and say to yourself, “I did all this before, so I can do it now.”




#8. BE AN EXPERT

Can you identify the differences between a schooner, brig and brigantine? Or know why WW2 fighter aircraft generally carried inline engines while bombers carried radial engines? What functions separate castles, palaces, forts and chateaux? Can you recognize which sword is a sabre, scimitar, katana or cutlass? Lastly, what are the key differences between insects and arachnids?

I bet these types of questions excite you. Not only do you know some of the answers, you can probably explain them down to the smallest details. Am I correct? This is because most concept artists love learning about our world. It is this knowledge which feeds our designs and brings a level of maturity.

To attract the eyes of seasoned art directors, you need to showcase expertise in both technical skills and knowledge. Whether you love history, biology, fashion, technology, etc., put it into your work. Be an expert and go all out. Too many younger students tend to forget this and end up drawing endless generic elves, orcs, zombies and post-apocalyptic New York scenes. These “fan-art” images are okay for practice, but they serve very little purpose in a concept design portfolio.

Your portfolio is a gateway into your mind. Show us what’s in there besides video games and anime.

For example, I love airplanes and insects. My interest with insects started after flipping over a big rock and finding a micro world underneath it (when I was around 6 yrs old?). For airplanes, It was after watching Top Gun in 1986. I even obtained a real-world pilot’s license so I can be in the controls and smell the AvGas. You’ll find these two subjects often in my work, sometimes mixed together. These interests also led me to my first job at Origin Systems, designing spaceships for the Wing Commander/Freelancer/Privateer games. 

Don’t be afraid to be an expert in something and show it to us. You don’t need to follow trends and mindlessly draw whatever is popular. Focus on your interests and express them through design.



#7. REBOOT YOUR OLD WORK

Hollywood makes reboots all the time. You can do the same with your older design work.

Most students see dramatic improvements in their work during the first 5 years of studying and working. They are constantly picking up new techniques, learning the latest tools and collaborating with senior designers. As a result, their design themes and styles will switch often until they settle into a comfort zone. From that point on, it’s more about refinement rather than complete changes. Thus, this exercise will have a stronger visual impact on students rather than pros.

Find an older work of your’s, dating back to at least 3-5 years, and reboot it. Take your time and try to put all the new things you’ve learned into it. Since it’s your own work, feel free to update it in any way you want. You don’t need to produce a perfect 1:1 remake.

This exercise is more of a morale booster than anything else. Seeing solid evidence of yourself improving ensures confidence. You realize just how much knowledge and experience you’ve gained in the past few years. It’s also just a fun thing to try out if you are taking a break (as in my case with the example here).

If you’ve put in serious efforts in learning, you will definitely see a difference. If you don’t, then you’ve either not worked hard enough or, actually, there is no “or,” you just didn’t work hard enough. 

My example is from a 2013 in-class demo at FZD. This theme was heavily inspired by the 1982 movie, The Dark Crystal - a film which heavily influenced by childhood and got my imagination going (and freaked the crap out of me).




#6. DANGLE A CARROT WHILE WORKING

Procrastination, the Kryptonite of concept artists. Both students and professionals fight against this demon on a daily basis. For pros, losing this battle a few times a month won’t hurt their long-term careers. However, if students fall into the procrastination hole, they can be trapped there forever and never set foot into our industry.

Firstly, there is nothing wrong with procrastinating from time to time. I’ve seen entire art departments goof off during the day, including myself - it’s just human nature to relax once in a while. The key however, is knowing when to control procrastination and focus on work.

When I’m working, I like to dangle a small reward in front of me. This reward is something easily obtainable such as a cup of latte, lunch, a 30 minutes walk outside or even a quick gaming session. These small rewards give me a goal to chase after and keep me focused on completing a task. I’ve been using this technique ever since my ACCD days back in 96. I remember working nonstop from 7PM to 3AM, and rewarding myself with a good breakfast while playing Warcraft II for 30 minutes.

In other words, I used procrastination as my reward rather than a hindrance.

These days, I don’t pull those crazy hours anymore but I still use this technique. Take this list for example. I tell myself that I’ll go get a latte if I finish writing. Since I’m addicted to coffee, I want to finish this list ASAP! In addition, don’t give yourself huge or unobtainable rewards such as “go on a vacation or buy a new car, etc.” Keep these rewards small and within reach so you can enjoy them immediately.

So put down that Nintendo Wii and get back to work. Mario, Link, Byleth, Rex, Miriam, etc. will all be there waiting, once you finish. Now on to that latte...




#5. KNOW WHO INSPIRES YOU, NOT JUST THEIR WORK

We all have artists who inspire us. However, I’ve noticed that most students only know the artist's work but not about the person who created them. To me, art and design don’t stop at the surface level. Too many students these days treat their career path as a linear progression. In reality, the road to success is full of outside influences, education, random events, pitfalls, twists and failures. These events often play an important role in shaping the artists’ interests and creative content. What you see in their final works are years of accumulated life events.

I suggest looking into the backgrounds of your favorite artists and designers. It will bring a lot of comfort knowing the complex path they all took before any of us heard their names.

Take James Gurney for example. When I was in design school back in the mid-90s, a friend of mine introduced the Dinotopia books to me. I immediately fell in love with Gurney’s work and wanted to draw dinosaurs. But when I tried, I realized how hard it was. I remember being so frustrated at the difficulty gap. By looking into Gurney’s background however, it made me realize just how much knowledge and experience he had prior to illustrating Dinotopia. Here’s an excerpt of his bio from Wikipedia:

“Gurney grew up in Palo Alto, California, the youngest of five children of Joanna and Robert Gurney, a mechanical engineer. Encouraged to tinker in the workshop, he built puppets, gliders, masks, and kites, and taught himself to draw by means of books about the illustrators Howard Pyle and Norman Rockwell. He studied archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, receiving a BA in Anthropology with Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1979. He then studied illustration at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California for a couple of semesters. Prompted by a cross-country adventure on freight trains, he and Thomas Kinkade co-authored The Artist’s Guide to Sketching in 1982. Gurney and Kinkade also worked as painters of background scenes for the animated film Fire and Ice, co-produced by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta.”

Amazing, right? And here I am, at age 18, with a high school diploma and a year of college, trying to draw like him. Who am I kidding? By knowing the backgrounds of my favorite artists and designers, it made me realize how complex everyone’s life is. It is something no school can teach and must be experienced through time. You simply can’t skip 20 years of experience by learning a new Photoshop technique or watching a YouTube tutorial. Thus, be patient and take it one step at a time.

Here’s a list of my favorite artists and designers who kept me inspired during school and continue to do so today.



#4. SEE THE WORLD IN PERSON

Google Image Search is a powerful tool that we all use daily. In mere seconds, we can see details of the Eiffel Tower, interiors of Egyptian tombs or the stone steps of the Mayan pyramids. During production, this instant access to visual information is invaluable. However, a picture from Google can’t convey the scale, grandness, noises, sounds, smells, weather, temperatures and the overall energy of the environment. These are things you can only experience in person.

To grow as an artist (see tip #5), I highly recommend visiting real world locations which interest you. These trips will forever influence your art. Personally speaking, traveling played a huge part in my career. During my early freelancing days in Los Angeles, I visited at least two locations a year (outside of the US). I usually split these locations between “man-made” and “nature.” Today, some twenty years later, I still continue this yearly ritual.

At this point, you might be rolling your eyes and saying, “yeah, but you’ll need lots of money to travel.” Actually, you don’t. These trips are not vacations but personal investments for your mind. Remove the word “vacation” and replace it with “exploration.” With this mindset, you don’t need to stay in 5-star hotels, eat expensive food or shop all day - that’s not the point of these trips. Your days should be spent researching, exploring, looking at the details, feeling the materials, etc. - all of which can be done on a budget.

Even if you are on a tight budget, start with the areas near you. Take a day or overnight camping trip. The point is, step away from the computer screen once in a while and go explore the world. These experiences will strengthen you as an artist.

Try to make traveling a part of your career progression. You need to invest in yourself with outside stimulus and not focus solely on improving technical skills.

Here are some of my favorite places I recommend you visit. Notice many of these locations are used in games and films. See them in person and find out why.




#3. READ BOOKS

Reading books is perhaps the biggest source of inspiration for me. In fact, reading is probably what got me into drawing in the first place.

Growing up in the 80s, I was heavily influenced by movies such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Aliens, etc. However, these films didn’t immediately make me pick up a pencil and draw. I was more into playing with their toys. What got me started in drawing were the “choose your own adventure” books. I always kept a stack a paper next to me, sketching out dungeons, monsters, weapons, etc., as I read. It was my way to capture the imagination as words on paper materialized into visuals in my mind.

As with many kids of my generation, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books became my gateway into addictive reading. I just couldn’t get enough of fantasy and grand adventures. I remember treating these books like video games - waiting for the weekend to come so I can spend hours adventuring from the Shire to the Misty Mountains. I would reread these books over and over again, exactly like replaying games or re-watching movies.

I’m sharing my brief history of reading because I want to inspire you to read. Books are such massive resources for concept artists. By not reading, you are missing out on a whole new world of visuals. It’s such a shame sometimes when I ask students to raise their hands to see if they’ve read a particular book (well known classics), and only one or two hands go up. Cue Captain Picard’s facepalm.

Next weekend, brew a nice batch of tea, find a comfortable reading chair, silence your phone and pick up a book. Within minutes, you will be in another realm, surrounded by new friends to go on the grandest of adventures.

I recommend starting with these books. They are all easy to read, visually strong and guaranteed to stir your imagination.




#2. PLAN YOUR PORTFOLIO INSTEAD OF SHOWING EVERYTHING

With so many different designs, artworks and styles out there, it’s easy for students to get distracted. They often mimic their favorite artists or trending themes and end up with a random collection of images. These portfolios generally contain a mix of generic fan-art, experimental images and obvious school assignments.

Simply put, most students are not systematically building a portfolio but rather just throwing whatever they have into it. To a student, this is showing “range.” But to art directors, it’s a clear indication that the student is not ready. Unfortunately, portfolios such as these are very common. I’d say up to 95% of what I see online and at trade shows fall into this category.

In order to land a job and convince someone to pay you, your portfolio needs to contain value. It must demonstrate great craftsmanship, design abilities, consistency, maturity and production pipeline understanding. To achieve this, you have to plan your portfolio in advance. Professionals naturally build their portfolios by simply working on real projects. For students, this is not possible, so you’ll have to emulate it.

Start by giving yourself three design projects. I recommend having two grounded industry themed projects (90% real world theme with 10% alterations), and 1 personal project (refer to tip #8, Be an Expert). Plan to finish at least seven to ten images per project (totalling 20-30 images). For each project, keep your drawing and painting styles consistent. More importantly, you must keep your design languages uniform.

Avoid doing one-off images. Design is not about producing a single image. It’s about solving an overall problem by recommending multiple solutions within restricted guidelines. In other words, you need to show a lot of cool images belonging to the same theme.

In summary, your portfolio needs to be project based and not a random collection of images. At your next portfolio review, if an art director asks you, “what project is this from?,” you are probably doing pretty well.

Here are some examples from our FZD graduates (work done in school). All their portfolios are designed to be project based.




#1. DON’T FORGET YOUR ROOTS

The design industry is tough. There are high amounts of stress on every project. It’s easy to get frustrated and want to give up. On days like these, try to remember your past and recall the moments of joy and euphoria which brought you into this industry.

I became a concept artist because of my childhood influences. Growing up playing video games, reading books, watching movies and collecting toys, I was deeply invested in the entertainment industry. The memories I had as a kid continues to inspire me today and keeps me going even after twenty plus years in this business.

Here are some of my favorite childhood influences. What are your’s?



DESIGN CINEMA EPISODE 100