The OpenPilot Logo

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A little over two weeks ago, I got an email from one of the developers of a project called OpenPilot asking if I’d be interested in creating a logo for the project. OpenPilot is an open source project developing an autopilot system for model aircraft – interesting stuff. Always looking for a creative challenge to focus on, I accepted the offer. It was an interesting challenge and I thought I would post a little about the process I went through.

Before I get started I must thank Troy Sobotka for doing his usual best and being a great soundboard for ideas and great creative discussion. It’s good to have someone around who’s willing to encourage but also throw out some really honest opinions on things – even if you don’t ask for them! :)

I emailed the developer back and asked for some background information on the project. Its primary use was on model aircraft, so the audience for this would most likely be aircraft enthusiasts. Also figuring that they’d be more technically minded, I knew I wanted it to be simple, but interesting. The goal was to give the project an identity that was modern, and which expressed a feeling of quality and accuracy. After all, would you want to risk your expensive model aircraft by using an autopilot system consisting of duct tape, and a few bungee cords?

I first frittered around and sketched a few things. The first idea I had involved a sort of ‘horizon flyover’ concept:

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A quick trip to Inkscape yielded this:

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That initial quicky mockup felt devoid of any character to me – and it looked a bit too thin and wispy. The bottom line was that I didn’t like it, so I dropped it and decided to pursue other ideas.

More sketching yielded this sketch of a sort of takeoff flight path:

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While I thought it had some potential, it looked like it would end up too complicated for a logo. So I simplified the concept somewhat and came up with these:

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The lower one really caught my fancy as something that had real potential so I chose to pursue it. First I attempted a traceover of the sketch in Inkscape but immediately realized that I’d get the perspective all wrong, so I dropped that and decided to model a simple square path in Blender to get it right (the initial part of the path is semi-transparent so that I could see the shadow beneath):

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I took the result into Inkscape and traced that. An initial mockup gave this:

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This really had potential. Unsurprisingly, I made my usual mistake of going a bit far with gradients and shadows. This was too complicated and fiddly for a logo. Troy suggested stripping it down until it broke – and that didn’t take long. ;)

I found that without the gradients I lost the feeling of slope in the path. And without the drop shadows.. well, let’s just say it broke – big time. I had to try playing with the path more to get that elevation feeling without the drop shadows and gradients.

I found that by crossing the path over itself, I could ensure that the path moved ‘up’ in elevation. Even better, I found that by adding some subtle breaks in the path I could even give the feeling of a shadow at that crossover:

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At this point I also had to confirm how this would work in monochrome options as well:

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Two things became apparent. First, I had the happy accident of getting the letter P in some of those orientations. Second, it was so much better to have the plane going up instead of heading down. Even with the paths crossing, (arguably) inferring increasing elevation, the overall direction of the plane is downward. And that can’t be good. ;)

So the next iteration involved horizontally flipping one of the options and coming up with:

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In addition to rotating the logo slightly to better achieve the ‘P’ effect, and squaring off the dark grey background pill, I also decided to have a play at the text. While I hadn’t been terribly disappointed with it, I wanted to try something different just to see:

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I felt I was almost there. Troy suggested I man up and create a simple style guide for the logo. This would better guarantee against misuse of the logo (stretching, colouring, bling-ifying etc) and may teach me a thing or two about how these things should actually be done in the ‘real’ world.

Also useful is that creating a style guide can surface issues you hadn’t initially considered. In fact at this point I had to come with a horizontal orientation of the logo for potential uses as a wider format web header graphic. I simply hadn’t thought of that. Of course Troy had to stage a mock conversation between a few swarthy Italian-Canadian web designers over Google chat for me to understand how this situation might arise. If you don’t believe me, I’ll post the chatlog. ;)

The final logo with alternative horizontal layout turned out like this:

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I’m proud of the style guide as well. Not proud that I used Inkscape instead of Scribus to do it. That’s kind of like using the back of the pliers to hammer in a nail. It works, but it’s far from the best way. In any case I plead newbieness for mistakes like that. It’s all a learning process.

Here’s the completed style guide if you want to have a look.

OpenPilot Logo Style Guide

This was a fun project. I’m proud of the logo because it took a lot of work (at least compared to most things I’ve worked on in the past), it proceeded rather logically, and I feel good about the result. As usual I learned a lot of useful things along the way which can’t be a bad thing either.

The One Word You Need to Think About Today

Are you creating something?

Maybe it’s a blog post like this one. Maybe it’s a logo, or a desktop wallpaper. Are you writing a piece of software? Maybe you’re helping to create the next great Linux distro (HA!). Maybe you’re busy crafting an email to a prospective client or developing your own video podcast. Heck, are you busy writing a tutorial on how to best prepare a grilled cheese sandwich? (if you are, I recommend this method).

If you’re doing almost anything creative – and it’s hard to find people on the net who are not – I implore you to consider the following term:

Audience.

Write it down. Stick it on the side of your monitor, or write it at the top of your page. And if you’re not sure who your audience is, stick a big fat question mark beside it and make it your goal to erase that question mark.

Once you do, once you define exactly, and succinctly, who it is, you’ll arrive at a better, more rewarding result when the proverbial day is done.

And that exactly and succinctly part ain’t easy. If the word “everyone” appears anywhere near your audience definition, double back and redefine it – you’ve obviously done it wrong.

I’m not here to preach. I’m here to learn. And as I do, I intend to share what I manage to soak up. Sure, there is a lot more to creativity and design than just audience (a LOT more), but I can’t think of anything more important. If you’re looking for a starting point for your creative endeavour, audience is it.

Who is the audience for this post (and hopefully others that will expand on this subject)? People of the Free Software ilk who are interested in discussing and learning about the concepts behind creative design.

You honestly didn’t think I’d arrive at this point completely unprepared did you? :)

The impetus for this post comes from a good friend who very recently pointed me to a three (yes three) year old mailing list reply from Havoc Pennington. Do yourself a favour, get a beverage and head over to his posting. It’s definitely required reading.

Let’s ban plastic – not shopping bags, but sharpeners

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In the name of all that is good, can we just ban plastic-bodied pencil sharpeners? Please?

My daughter loves to draw. I have purchased several little sketchbooks and a multitude of pencils and pencil crayons to help feed her creative wants. Of course she also has the obligatory pencil case and a wide assortment of little plastic bodied pencil sharpeners. They come in loot bags, they find their way home from friends, they somehow magically appear in various places at various times. However I don’t think I have purchased a single one of them directly out of my own pocket. Why? Because I hate them.

Yes, hate is a strong word. The darn things are so colourful, they’re practical in that most of them provide a place for all those pencil shavings to go (although invariably they end up on the floor anyway when little one wants to empty them out). But still I hate them because they just don’t work.

Her own use of them always ends in frustration. She holds up the sharpener and the rounded, flattened or plain broken pencil crayon silently demanding some assistance. As the father-hero figure of course I try. I hold the pencil as squarely in that hole as humanly possible and slowly turn it. But it hardly ever ends well. The lead or pencil crayon core breaks off just inside the tapered wood end of the pencil or worse yet, a small piece of the lead gets stuck in the end of the sharpener itself.

If you’ve done this, don’t put it down to your own ineptitude. Yes, you were holding the pencil arrow straight. Yes, you were rotating it at a smooth enough cadence. Quit blaming yourself. The problem is not you.

I making a vow to fall off my wallet and buy ten metal-bodied sharpeners (maybe even Staedtler’s if I’m in an overly generous mood). I will sprinkle them throughout the house, and maybe keep two in the car (she’s got a sketchbook and pencil that stays in the car).

There’s even a good looking twin sharpener with a place to store and subsequently spill the shavings. It’s a Staedtler, so I’m assuming there are metal bodied sharpeners within it.

So let’s end the frustration and ban the plastic bodied sharpener once and for all. Let’s make the move to metal.

And listen, don’t even get me started on cheap pencil crayons…

Ole’ Faithful – The Pentel P205

p205While almost all of what I post about here involves techy matters like Linux or more creative subjects like graphics and photography, I am by profession a structural engineer. And like many engineers (structural and otherwise) I value my mechanical pencils.

I’ve tried all kinds both expensive and cheap, but I always keep coming back to Ole Faithful: The Pentel P205. Today I picked up a two pack after muddling along with a three pack of very similar looking (but very different acting) Staple’s house brand Metrix pencils. They looked very much the same as the Pentels but broke off leads with alarming frequency.

It turns out that the P205′s have quite a good reputation. Doing a quick search, I found a very interesting site for fellow mechanical pencil afficionados aptly titled: Dave’s Mechanical Pencils.

The niche-ness of the internet never fails to amaze me.

Facing down a perfectly blank Moleskine alternative

We spent a few days down near Buffalo (Cheektowaga to be exact) just prior to the new year to do a little swimming, resting and shopping. Now when I say shopping, that means my wife and her mother hunt down various bargoons (at least 80% off or fuhgeddaboutit) for several hours at a time. For me (and my daughter) it just means a quick trip to Borders and maybe Barnes & Nobles to have a look around. It all amounts to about 15-20 minutes of shopping time for me. Which is plenty. I grabbed a copy of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, a copy of Car magazine (what the hell did everybody do with the latest version of TopGear anyway??!!), a word search book for Emily and on the way out I spotted some Picadilly notebooks at Borders. Hmm.. looks like a Moleskine, but costs significantly less. I picked up a plain medium notebook (5″x8.25″) for a little over 7 bucks I think.

Now I know nothing about Moleskine notebooks, never owned or used one. But when I have seen them, they always seemed a little too overpriced to me. At least these Picadilly things are a little more reasonable. And they seem to be perfectly capable competitors, at least thats what these guys think. And they seem to know a lot more about notebooks than I do.

Anyway, I’m now sitting with a nice pretty notebook with absolutely nothing in it. I’m almost afraid to sully it. Maybe I should have bought a ruled version instead so I could at least jot some semi-important notes. Ahh.. but I guess I bought this thing for doodling (y’know, logos, graphics and the like). We’ll see if it fills up with anything substantive in the coming weeks. I hope so.

The Screencasters Flickr Group

About a week ago, one of our faithful screencast viewers zombiebrainz had a great idea and created a Flickr group as a place for people to post their inkscape work. This was done so that people could show off what they were working on with or without the help of our screencasts.

It’s turning out to be a nice place for getting feedback and discussing things like future screencast ideas. After 7 days we’ve already got just under 40 group members and over 50 images. Even if it doesn’t get any bigger, I’m already happy with the little (okay, tiny) community resource that’s been built.

If your interested in checking it out (heck, even if you don’t have any Inkscape chops you want to share), you can find it at: http://flickr.com/groups/screencasters

Too much free time…

My internet connectivity has been down for a little over a week now (crossing fingers that it gets fixed sometime today). As a result, I’ve had a little more “free” time on my hands lately. I’ve been thinking about drawing a comic for quite some time, but never seemed to find the time until now.

I was initially going to sketch something on paper, scan it in and use it as a base in Inkscape, but then just threw caution to the wind and started playing around with my Wacom Tablet and the freehand tool in Inkscape. I created the whole thing in about 90 minutes using just the freehand tool, node editing and some other really basic stuff. Adding the text and speech bubbles was very easy and flexible.

As I suspected all along, coming up with a good idea (not sure this one really was) is far harder than drawing it. ;)

Like it? Hate it? Does nothing for you? Let me know what you think.

More Inkscapey New-ness

Jon Phillips has an excellent Inkscape 0.46 related post on his blog. It outlines some of the new and neat features of Inkscape 0.46, complete with screenshots. If you were wondering what kinds of new things are available, then make sure you check it out.

The path tweaking effects in the first screenshot in his post sounds like something I could really make use of. Seeing it demonstrated on John Bintz’s art doesn’t hurt either. ;)

WordPress theming update

A few days ago, I managed to work through part 3 of wpdesigner.com’s WordPress theming tutorial. This left me with a locally installed copy of WordPress, a plethora of test posts (which are invaluable), and a rudimentary theme. And perhaps most important of all, I learned a lot about how a WordPress theme works (and a little bit about php along the way too!).

So now I’m mulling over how I want this blog to look. I’ve been following Lauren’s posts over at Creative Curio which have provided valuable discussion on the topics of design and layout. I’m probably going to go with something infinitely more pedestrian than Lauren. I’ve also been mulling over the huge amount of examples at Design Meltdown and I think I’m zeroing in on something closer to minimalistic. While I like these types of sites, I can’t deny that a minimalistic design might also be easier to code! :) It’s really the css part of things that scares me more than anything.

I’ve also finished reading Dan Cederholm’s book Bulletproof Web Design, and that has taught me that things may not be as difficult as they look. Most of the methods he uses for things like rounded corners and expandable boxes make common sense and are easy and clean to implement. That bodes well for a CSS simpleton like me.

So for now, I’ve come up with a very rudimentary layout. It’s pretty much a standard two-column layout but I’ve added a left column to hold the ‘header’ image. I decided to put in the side purposely just to avoid the header+2columns+footer monotony that seems to prevail in WordPress blog designs. Does shoving the header in vertical left side column change that? Likely not, but we’ll see where it goes. I’m not fixed on the layout, it’s likely to change, but it’s a starting point. I’m also determined to likely keep everything white -especially the posting area- since I’ve been stung by posting images and photos on top of a weird background color only to be disappointed that things look better when they show up in Google Reader than they do on the blog itself.

In the end, I want the design to be clean with a generous amount of whitespace. For now, I’m thinking of marking off the various areas with curved corner hatches, likely very thin and grey coloured to denote the different areas without loading up the page with images:

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I thought I’d scratch something out. It’s kind of ‘inside baseball’ – or “inside linux podcasting” so to speak, but what the hell. For J.C Hutchins – 7th Son fans, it’s not Kilroy 3.0 who is ‘everywhere’. It’s Verbal (from Chicago) who’s really everywhere… ;)

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