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Indie Game Spotlight: How to be a Graphic Designer

By / Posted on 04 November 2011

Though it seems the argument need not be debated anymore, people have been saying for years that games can be an effective learning tool. The U.S. Army recently started using custom-designed videogames to train soldiers for intense combat situations, grade schools use modified versions of quiz games like Jeopardy! to disguise rote test-taking as a fun experience, Valve even gave out free copies of its award-winning Portal computer game at the beginning of the semester because so many college-level physics classes were using the game in demonstrations. The question is no longer whether games can help us learn but what can they help us learn next?

An exciting trend we’re noticing right now is the gameification of basic graphic design concepts. It would be simple to just have standard match-games or trivia about the anatomy of letterforms or styles of bookbinding, but those games would require prior knowledge of the topic and wouldn’t be much fun. Besides, any halfway decent designer—much like a high school chemistry professor—can tell you that textbook memorization is nowhere near as useful as hands-on implementation in understanding these ideas. That’s why these games are all about digging in and getting into the nitty-gritty of desktop publishing and learning along the way.

Kern TypeThe first two games are from Method of Action, a new website all about “peer-to-peer education.” Kern Type makes the most obsessive-compulsive of graphic design skills a genuinely fun toy by putting ten badly-spaced words on screen and having players slide the individual letters left and right, adjusting the space between individual letterforms (the kerning). When the player thinks they’ve arranged the letters properly, the game overlays the player’s layout with the “correct” word and grades according to how close they are. The controls are completely intuitive and the game boils down to simply eyeballing the gestalt of a collection of shapes to ensure the most comfortable spacing. After all, this is the art of making type easy on the eyes.

Shape TypeMethod of Action’s second game is Shape Type, this time about understanding the shapes and curves of letterforms. In Shape Type, one of ten glyphs (characters, as in single letters of the alphabet, numerals, or punctuation) is shown, along with the bezier curves that give the glyph its shape, only some of those bezier curves have been removed and it’s up to the player to pull on the handles to smooth out the letterforms. Again, the game is entirely about eyeballing and trying to find the most eye-pleasing solution possible. Shape Type is noticeably more challenging than Kern Type simply because bezier curves are typically a more foreign experience to non-designers than simply sliding a shape left or right, but the core concept and accessibility are more or less the same.

Both games are browser-based and multi-touch enabled so that they can be played on an iPad. We found both unsurprisingly easier to control with a mouse and keyboard, but it’s nice to see the tablet option is there. We also passed both games along to a non-designer friend who insisted that neither game would be for him as they would require encyclopedic knowledge of the fonts in question and their proper uses, but sure enough he enjoyed both games and scored pretty well once the general idea of each was explained. The games in their current forms are presented without any instruction or pretense, which makes it a bit hard for the uninitiated to understand what it is they’re doing, but we’re sure that will change once Method of Action get the rest of their educational website up and running.

Of course, it’s hard to talk about desktop publishing and graphic design without bringing up Adobe. They’re responsible for the overwhelming majority of industry-standard modern design tools. Adobe’s flagship product is even used as a verb on sitcoms and daily news programs, as people routinely refer to “Photoshopping” things in order to make them seem more appealing to unreasonable standards. Much like letterform construction, though, toolboxes like Photoshop—with hundreds of features and no set structure on how they’re supposed to be used—can seem impossibly daunting to newcomers. Thankfully, Adobe’s Creative Technologies Lab has created a game that can be plugged-in to Photoshop called Level Up. Opening Level Up gives users missions with tiered instructions on how to do basic Photoshop techniques, such as whitening teeth, smoothing wrinkles, replacing colors and changing the background of an image. Level Up keeps track of the user’s activity by monitoring Photoshop’s “Actions” tab so that it knows when certain tasks have been accomplished. Level Up also awards points and badges to incentivize players to keep trying new things.

Level Up can be downloaded as a free add-on to Photoshop here.

Technology continues to make it easier to produce professional design at home, without the need for a big fancy office or studio, but the understanding of design fundamentals still provided a barrier of entry for many. These games mark a new beginning in tearing down those walls so we can all play together. If this is how we’re going to start teaching people to be designers, we can’t wait to see how we teach each other to be attorneys, chefs, venture capitalists and marine biologists. Sure, there are already traditional videogames about those professions, but those were simulations and this is an exciting new method of education.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.