The Process Behind Visual Vocabulary

If you've ever wondered what goes on deep inside an artist's brain, here's your chance to find out.

"I need to draw another visual vocabulary soon. Shit, what word do I want to do? Rictus? Bailiwick? Riposte? Hmmm...gotta pick one. Oh yeah, I should also pay the PECO bill. I want coffee. My toenails need to be painted, I hate looking down at them in pilates, my feet look gross in comparison to all the soccer moms in my class. What color should I go with? Maybe the gold, it's less obvious when it starts to chip..."

OK, all joking aside, I do want to talk about the process behind my visual vocabulary series. My initial "rules" for myself were that I didn't want to strive for perfection, I just wanted to start the series, learn the words, and stick with it on a weekly basis. So no, my illustrated type is far from the ridiculous beauty and frequency of something like Jessica Hische's Daily Drop Cap project. Although I find that as the weeks roll by and I am preparing the words further in advance, the extra time allows me to do more complete illustrations. Meaning that the illustrations have a little more context or detail to them. 

First, obviously, I pick out a word to illustrate. I usually like to arm myself with a few of them at any given time, and think about how I would illustrate them. This is the fermentation of ideas part of the process, and because I like to multitask, I usually do this while running laps at the gym. Because running laps is particularly boring and having something to mull over makes it infinitely more entertaining. So I gather up all of my weird ideas and try to work out a good idea of the composition and different elements in my head. (Not shown here because I don't want to try to take a selfie of me running and thinking at the gym—I'm sure you understand.)

The Process Behind Visual Vocabulary, Julie Rado Design

  1. Next, I do a quick thumbnail sketch of the layout. Since the app I use (Paper by 53) has a notebook set up in a landscape rectangle and all of my visual vocabularies are set up in squares, I like to know how I want to use the extra space (usually it's so I can cram in the definition. I know it's not very designerly of my to say I'm "cramming in" one of the most important elements, but as I mentioned earlier, I'm not going for perfection here. Perfection is what I aim for in my job at Untuck! But not here.)
  2. Then I draw out the entire scene in black and white with the pen tool in Paper. I add in all the little details. 
  3. I'll duplicate my black and white drawing and begin filling in the color. I duplicate it in case I make a horrible mistake while coloring and need to go back to the original (save as! undo!) I typically fill in any of the solid color here with the marker tool. With larger areas of solid color, sometimes I won't color it in with the app because it's a pain in the ass. I'll just color a swatch and fill it in in Photoshop. 
  4. The word is always drawn separately and I add it in with Photoshop. This allows me to get more detailed without worrying about overlapping in the paper app. It's just easier to use the layers in Photoshop and do any extra cleaning up or detail work as well.
  5. I set up the definition as a smart object in Illustrator so I can easily change it every week.
  6. If there are large areas of watercolor in the illustration (like the ground or the sky in this example) I will also do those as a separate page in Paper. Again, it's easier to erase and edit in Photoshop than adding extra, less-easy to edit layers in Paper.
  7. And then you see the final product! 

I hope all y'all find this interesting. I love reading about other peoples' processes, so I like to share mine as well. If you're interested in reading other process posts, here's one about the wedding invitations I worked on with my sister and brother in law, and here's one about an annual report I worked on for the Penn Institute for Urban Research.