Category: Graphic Design

I had a very busy summer. I built this:

They say if you build a better Gen Con stand, the world will beat a path to your door. No, actually, they don't say that. But Cubicle 7's stand at Gen Con was pretty darn busy.

Perhaps you might wonder to which “this” I refer. I refer to the stand you see there: Cubicle 7‘s booth at Gen Con. It’s hard to see exactly what you’re looking at there, so here’s another picture, taken (from a different position) while we were setting it up.

Apologies for the really terrible picture quality. Cell phone camera. You know how it goes.

Cubicle 7, publisher of the extremely awesome The One Ring (the new Lord of the Rings RPG), Airship Pirates (take note, Abney Park fans), Doctor Who, and about 630 other RPG game lines, is one of my marketing clients. They’ve made a huge leap in status over the past year, vaulting from the indie field to become one of the biggest publishers of RPGs. And they had not one but two major launches for Gen Con—and that meant they needed, for the first time, a real, grown-up looking Gen Con stand. They had 400 square feet to work with (in an unfortunately odd shape), and, well, nothing else.

And being located in Oxford, England, with approximately 5,000 miles, an entire ocean, and half a continent between them and Indianapolis, they weren’t in much of a position to put a stand together themselves. Tough to make a 400-square-foot space look nice with the contents of your suitcase.

No problem, I told them. I’ll arrange it. (Potential clients take note: I am a full-service marketer.) When I said they had nothing else to work with, I lied: They gave me a budget, an amount of money that wouldn’t seem unreasonable to the average person—unless that person had ever had anything to do with arranging stands at major events. Got a thousand bucks? That’ll rent you a table and a potted plant for four days. I exaggerate, but to give you a real example, having internet access at our booth would have cost nearly $1000. For four days. I quickly determined that the reasonable budget available to me wasn’t going to cut the mustard.

Stability testing an early prototype.

The obvious, sensible, simple alternative was to build the stand myself. With my own hands, and my own extensive building experience (I wrote that last part with a straight face). In my own garage. (And in, as it turned out, a massive East-coast heat wave.) All I needed to do was design a 400-square-foot stand that could display roughly 200 RPG products, provide visual impact to support two major launches, fit in an odd-shaped space, and look highly polished and professional. Oh, and I had to be able to transport it in my car and set it up in one day with just a small assortment of hand tools.

A slightly more finished prototype, incorporating some improvements gleaned from the first one.

I was able to anticipate roughly 1 million things that could go wrong with this plan, and throughout July my restless sleep was haunted with visions of Cubicle 7 toughing out Gen Con with nothing more than a stack full of boxes. My nightmares did not include a flood in my garage, soaking 32 triangular braces I’d meticulously built over the preceding week. Or running out of gas outside Pittsburgh and having to abandon my car on the narrow side of a busy highway while I went running up mountains in the 95-degree heat looking for petrol. Or IKEA having only 9 of the 42 shelves I needed, despite their web site promising they had hundreds. Actually, my nightmares did include that last one.

The design reaches its final state. Lessons: Slatwall weighs approximately 400 pounds per square foot. Cutting it generates insane volumes of fine, powdery sawdust that covers everything in your garage, with no regard for whether it belongs to you or your not-so-keen-on-sawdust wife. And bevel cuts create edges similar in sharpness to a moderately honed surgical scalpel.

Despite those issues, and a razor-fine margin for error in the timing of getting it all together, it all was pretty much gotten together. Come the opening bell at Gen Con, we had a stand. It looked pretty good. It displayed the product nicely. Nothing collapsed; no animals (or gamers) were harmed. My nightmares were for naught.

The kids give the final product a sense of scale. The whole shebang involved eight of these towers, which provided structural support for wall-sized graphic panels and were also faced with shelves. Each tower was made of two of the prism-shaped elements in the previous photo, stacked. Each prism broke down into two slat wall panels, two triangular braces, and a cross-brace, all of which basically flat-packed. I should get a job with IKEA!

So that’s how I spent my July. I’ve spent most of August recovering.

Another look at the final product, with Dom and Francesco being interviewed about The One Ring. Almost looks like I knew what I was doing!

Were you there? Did you stop by the stand? What do you think—did I pull it off, or should I keep the day job?

Oh, wait. This is my day job. . . .

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So yesterday I’m in the passenger seat while my wife looks for a break in the A3 traffic swinging round the Ham Barn Roundabout. And in the lane to our left is a white commercial van whose graphics include a shiny-looking icon-like image, somewhat like an iPhone app. I stared at it for several minutes as the traffic failed to give us a gap, and my graphic designer hat must have slipped on, because I started analyzing it in my mind.

Rounded edges. Soft emboss. A couple highlights. And a kind of uneven line across the middle, above which it’s brighter and below which it’s darker. All the Photoshop 101 basics to make a small symbol look like a small symbol in a glassy bead. And that thought made me think (as thoughts do): These Photoshop tricks can be applied to anything. Do they really make their subject look inherently shiny, or are we sort of trained to see the subject that way? Put another way, if a caveman saw that image, would he think it looked like a glass bead, or just an image that happens to have a wavy line of darkness across it?

My mind can make anything connect to gaming, and of course that’s where it went next. My Magica campaign is set in Europe in 1199. So you’re there, and you’re one of the 90% of people who live in an agrarian village and toil on the land all day. Your beverages are stored in wooden casks and served in earthenware (or wooden) cups. Your house has no glazed windows—there might be a few in the manor house (might be), but that’s it for the whole village. You don’t own any jewelry, nor does anyone you know. The village church might have a few baubles, as might the lord’s lady. But how often do you get a close look at those? (“Keep your eyes off the lady’s baubles, peasant!”)

So this white commercial van slips though a time portal and ends up in your village. Do you even have a context to recognize the glass-beadiness of that icon?

Well, maybe. You probably visit the local market town a few times a year: It’s no Constantinople, but the odds of a glazed window or bit of jewelry are somewhat higher. Maybe you’ve been on a pilgrimage, to the nearest cathedral if not farther. Glass and jewels abound. Heck, it’s not as if you’ve never seen a drop of dew.

So what’s the moral of this story? Societal context allows for shortcuts in visual media? Medieval people know less than you might assume—or maybe more? Dropping a Transit van into 1199 Aquitaine might make for a cool adventure hook? Or maybe just that the A3 needs a overpass at the B3006?

Am I the only one who derives trivial insights into one’s game campaign from van graphics? What eureka moment have you pulled from a traffic delay?

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