Technology and Design (Part 3 of 3)

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In the early days of commercial digital graphics and design, resolution was a strong limiting factor.  The detail available to the designer depended on the computing power of the intended end product, which could range from a mass-produced consumer item to a specialized industrial tool.  This created some interesting limitations that designers had to work around in creative ways if they wanted to achieve successful results.  In one way the early digital design was a throwback to the ancient mosaic style of creating pictures with tiles, or types of embroidery like cross-stitch, because at the base level they were working with pixels; square tiles whose shape can’t be changed but can be coloured any way the artist desires.

Fifth-century mosaic detail.
Fifth-century mosaic detail.
Cross-stitch designs from early 1900's.
Cross-stitch designs from early 1900’s.
Space invader - 1978
Space invader – 1978
Every Mario ever.

Mario, created by Shigeru Miyamoto, and star of Nintendo’s famous family of video games, was in many ways defined by the limitations of the technology he was created for. In order to provide a relatively cheap product, resolution for artwork in the game was very low, meaning the individual square pixels that make up the images were clearly visible to the naked eye.  In his original iteration in the first  “Donkey Kong” arcade game Mario (originally known as “Mr. Video, then “Jumpman”, before settling into his now familiar moniker) was depicted as capped and moustachioed figure, notable for his large nose and bright red and blue outfit.  All those decisions were defined by the limitations of the medium: the cap and moustache eliminated the need to animate mouth or hair movements, the nose had to be large to make the blob of pink pixels read as a “face”  in profile, and the red shirt and blue coveralls increased visibility and differentiated limbs as the highest contrast colours available to the designer.  The other characters show similar constraints and clever solutions; Donkey Kong’s teeth are represented by just three crosses over a white oblong, but clearly read as teeth, Pauline’s shoes/feet are limited to 4-5 pixels but manage to look like high-heels.  More examples of Miyamoto and other’s clever solutions can be seen in the original Zelda game by Nintendo, which was designed at the same time as the first few Mario titles.

This type of simplification is interesting, one thing it does is allow the viewer to “fill in the blanks” left by the basic design with their imagination. That may have been one of the reasons the character and resulting family of products were so successful. The graphics and images suggest rather than tell, and allow each person to interpret them and mentally embellish in their own way. Miyamoto’s creations continue to inspire the imagination of artists to this day:

As graphics and resolution progress further and further towards photorealism and the line between live action and animation is blurred beyond recognition, how can we use that power to create interesting and innovative things, and express emotion and thought in a way that is entirely novel? Stories are no longer passive, they can interact with the reader/viewer/experiencer, and the potential of that paradigm shift is only just beginning to be explored.


So, getting back to the point… 

Some think that the rise of digital tools like the computer, and the ease of design production they afford, has made trained designers obsolete. For the same price as paying a good designer to create a logo, (or of course for free if one is willing to sidestep certain legal guidelines), one can purchase tools potentially capable of producing any logo imaginable.  As well, there are many “do-it-yourself” templates for basic design needs like business cards, websites, and the like that can provide traditional graphic design services at very low prices or free.  However, this doesn’t mean that designers are obsolete.  In fact quite the opposite, there is so much sub-par design out there that cutting through that clutter with a focused and concise design direction and identity is often the factor that will make or break a new brand. It is only through experiencing and understanding that colour, space, and form can be made to work together, and to create designs with deeper merit than just the message contained within.

To make an analogy to food: anyone can buy and eat a frozen dinner; but that experience is nothing like going to a fantastic restaurant and eating a meal prepared by a master chef.  The basic elements are the same, (cook ingredients, eat food, receive nourishment) and it could even be the same ingredients, but the end result is very different.   One is mass-produced and profit-oriented, the other is handcrafted and experience-oriented.  Each has their place in our world, and while the rules and pay scale may change, I don’t think the true chefs are going anywhere, no matter how cheap and ubiquitous frozen chicken fingers become.

featured artwork by:

Glenn Brogan

Sarah Bolton

Xiao Bao


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