Shooting blanks

What client wouldn’t want to see how its new logo might look on a giant poster site, or screen-printed across a T-shirt or canvas bag? Image templates such as those from LiveSurface and PrestoVisual can help designers to show proposed work in the best possible light – but, as the realism increases and work spreads online, does it matter that it’s now becoming so much harder to work out just what is real and what isn’t?

When the Design Research Unit was working on the new identity for British Railways in the early 1960s, the studio produced a series of objects emblazoned with the two shortlisted designs (cutting the ‘ways’ off the name was just one of its modernising ideas). These items included everything from curtains and carpets, to stationery and posters – a whole range of elements that showed what the proposed symbols could look like, even feel like, in real life.

To many designers today, particularly those not in the service of a big name client, this example might sound like a fantasy, as with ever-tightening budgets and deadlines, answering a brief often involves showing a proposed design across a range of applications as quickly and as cheaply as possible. And over the last few years a small crop of designer-focused image libraries, including LiveSurface in the US and PrestoVisual in the UK, have been filling a potentially lucrative gap, selling templates of billboards, poster sites, business cards, clothes, bags, bottles and boxes – anything that can incorporate a designer’s vision.

Seen en masse these stock images have, ironically, a rather unreal quality. A de-branded cityscape emerges from the shots of empty billboards, while familiar household objects become wholly utilitarian, each rendered neutral in a strange reversal of the vibrant colours of the supermarket shelf. But plenty of designers are in the market for these blank products. Hi-res images from LiveSurface, for example, are $29 each and, unlike the flat imagery that more traditional stock libraries offer, are pre-built by Photoshop retouchers with masking, shading and embedded 3D surfaces. “Artwork can be applied by pasting and dragging it onto one of the embedded 3D surfaces, such as the left face of a box,” says LiveSurface founder, Joshua Distler. “The 3D surfacing, in combination with the masking and shading layers, means that a photorealistic result can be achieved in just a couple of minutes. The only images LiveSurface produces are templates for design application; ultimately this means that finding images and applying artwork to them is far simpler and faster, so designers can focus on designing, not doing image production.”

To be, or not to be

And with some decent Photoshop skills, any of LiveSurface’s 400 templates can be used to neatly demonstrate the potential of a new visual identity, or show how a complex branding campaign will work across a range of iterations. This is obviously good for the designer – if the proposed work is strong enough, they might win the job and the images will turn into a physical reality. But it’s also good for the client, whose list of concerns is likely to include whether the new company logo will stand out on a letterhead or business card, let alone a 48-sheet poster.

Yet as useful as these tools might be there are indications that, for some, all this jiggery-fakery is getting a bit much. While not exactly the makings of an existential crisis in design, there’s certainly more at play here when images of work that ‘could’ have been are taken for reality.

In his recent talk at TYPO London, SomeOne founder Simon Manchipp made what can only be described as an ‘image template-related gag’. Alongside one of his slides showing the studio’s Olympics pictograms, Manchipp had added “Guaranteed 100% LiveSurface Free!” His point was that, yes, the photographs of flags and banners from the Olympic Park were real – this was SomeOne’s actual work for London 2012, fluttering in the wind and everything. These images weren’t mock-ups, the kinds of renders that his studio and countless others might use to show what executions of their work might look like. But – and his TYPO joke admitted as much – they could have been. Indeed, one of LiveSurface’s most recognisable template images is of a woman walking past a large poster. “It’s a particular favourite of many design studios,” Manchipp says, no doubt aware that his own studio used it to help showcase their work for the energy brand HomeSun.

But for Manchipp the issue of whether to render new projects within a mocked-up ‘real’ environment is two-fold: it’s both part of the process of making better work for clients, and part of showing the genuine intentions behind the creative work.

“Context is often critical,” he says, “and a cold layout fresh from InDesign does little to convey the emotions felt when [the work] is in your hands, printed in a newspaper. So the LiveSurface system is brilliant at rapidly getting design work in context so it can be more realistically viewed by those paying the bills.”

Designer David Airey uses templates obtained from the Thinkstock catalogue, an aggregate site which gathers images from a variety of smaller photo galleries. “It’s obvious to design clients that the mock-ups aren’t real,” he says, “but at the same time it’s good practice for designers to use as many different templates as possible within our portfolios, because every client is different, and every digitised scenario should ideally mirror that fact. It’s not difficult to find or create new ones, and a designer’s portfolio will benefit as a result of the variety.” Armin Vit, designer and blogger at Under Consideration, agrees. “I never intend for these [images] to be live or consumed by the public,” he says of the files he creates using free templates sourced from Flickr or Google Images. “They are just for internal presentations to the client. But there is nothing like photographing the lobby or façade of your client’s office and Photoshopping in their logo; it’s instant gratification for them.”

Leaking hypotheticals

Earlier this month SomeOne launched its identity for new airline FastJet and in doing so confirmed how the pace of online media could also explain why many images of creative work are seen well before a project is finished. “The paint isn’t dry on the plane, yet the news is out, and so we have to support it with imagery,” says Manchipp. “We’ve used LiveSurface to visualise what the billboards will look like in context. Is it misleading? Are we being untruthful? No. On both counts. It’s just a poster site!” Certainly, it’s hardly disingenuous of SomeOne to be putting out images of what a poster it has designed for an airline will no doubt look like, when there is little other material available. “It’s not being false if it is genuinely created to indicate future activity – it’s there to help,” says Manchipp. “There is a conundrum: projects and press move so fast. Do you provide a static image of a logo and kiss the story goodbye, or push on for a richer more interesting set of visual stimuli to better explain the intentions of the new work? I’d go for the latter every time. Creativity is terrifying for an audience unfamiliar with it; anything that gives it a better chance of survival should be applauded.”

But aren’t issues of authenticity exacerbated when designers deliberately play the ‘proof of concept’ game? “It’s when things leak out into the real world that it gets a little surreal,” says Michael Johnson of johnson banks who claims that, where possible, the studio tries to only shoot real world applications of any recently completed work. “I think it’s to do with a relatively short list of applications for many smaller projects,” he says. “There’s a website, a Facebook header and probably a business card. After that? Very few clients can afford to do outdoor ad campaigns or change their signage so the frustrated designer, seeing their scheme get drastically reduced, lets a few of those ‘hypotheticals’ leak out into the real world and, before long, they almost become real in themselves.”

“It’s not like we are retouching a product or putting a new logo on a Rolex,” continues Manchipp. “No-one outside of the design industry really cares. Do they?” Well, one company that does care is Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website which launched in the US in 2009 and has gone on to help source investment for all manner of projects and innovations. In September a post on the Kickstarter blog announced that “product renderings” would now be banned from the site’s hardware and product design pages. “Products should be presented as they are,” decreed the site. “Over-promising leads to higher expectations for backers.” Somewhat confusingly though, Kickstarter responded to the hundreds of comments generated by the post by clarifying that by “product renderings” it meant “photorealistic renderings of a product concept. Technical drawings, CAD designs, sketches, and other parts of the design process will continue to be allowed” – “renderings that could be mistaken for finished products are prohibited”. It remains to be seen how this potentially confusing system will be policed on Kickstarter, or how it will affect the number (and types) of projects hosted there.

Ditch the bags, eBay

When one of the internet’s most famous brands recently unveiled its new identity, however, it was accompanied by some renderings that should perhaps never have been made in the first place. On some design blogs the new-look eBay logo was almost overshadowed by commentary on the way that agency Lippincott’s work was shown ‘in-situ’ on an iPhone and iPad, on a giant hoarding and, most bizarrely of all, on a series of Photoshopped shopping bags. In a post on the identity on his Brand New blog, Vit got to the nub of the issue. “I usually applaud prototype and concept images,” he wrote, “because when presenting to clients, they demonstrate potential and pie-in-the-sky thinking – you would be surprised how many times a product idea makes it to reality based on a solid Photoshop mock-up. But the image [of the bags] is completely wrong. Why eBay would need, or how they would deploy, shopping bags is beyond me. More importantly, with such a manicured launch strategy, why would eBay promote what are obviously fake shopping bags that don’t support the strategy or business realities?” For Airey, eBay could have avoided this kind of divergent criticism simply by keeping their mock-ups relevant – “on stationery, on the website, building signage for the San Jose headquarters, perhaps a billboard, too,” he says. It wasn’t that the bags were faked that caused the negative comment, it was more that they bore no relevance to the brand whatsoever, let alone any physical reality.

This professional fail from a huge online business comes at a time when a new blogging trend is taking templating-up work to another level. The ‘speculative rebrand’ is a way of showing how a designer would approach a complete rebranding of a particular project. It’s a valid self-promotional enterprise (one where the creative needs a thick skin) and in designer Andrew Kim’s case, his project was a complete overhaul of the just-launched Microsoft identity. A new typeface and a bold ‘slate’ motif were rendered across all manner of objects, displayed on Kim’s website and then blogged about all over the world. “His rebrand of Microsoft used all the tricks available to a modern designer to make a case for a radical piece of work, from applications on vans to neoprene hoodies,” says Manchipp. “Does it matter that it never ran in real life? Not really, because it shows the intentions of the work, if not the reality. It pushes the conversation about the positive and transformative effects of creativity for business to the surface – people talk about it.” And that, whether Kim’s fellow designers liked his remixed Microsoft brand or not, does sound like a good thing.

Distler started LiveSurface out of a need to create a range of template images to visualise his own design concepts – with simplicity as the key
to solving what can amount to an additional, and time-consuming, aspect of the job. If a designer sources images from a regular stock library, he says, “it’s up to the designer to go in and path, mask, retouch and manipulate the image to ready it for applying artwork. Aside from actually taking the photo, the designer is pretty much doing all the heavy lifting to add their artwork. The images are a canvas and ultimately every expression is different. It’s the design concept that makes the final image what it is.”

For Airey, visualising new work in this way is simply another part of the creative process. “As soon as we put our ideas into a visual format of any kind, they exist for everyone who can access the visuals,” he says. “As soon as it’s out of the designer’s head and onto paper, or onto a computer screen, it’s there for others to see. It’s real. The work might not yet be shown to its full capacity, or developed as precisely as it will be in future, but it’s there, forming the basis of the more tangible items that can follow.”

LiveSurface is set to announce some brand new technology at livesurface.com. More information on PrestoVisual is at prestovisual.co.uk; for Thinkstock, see thinkstockphotos.co.uk

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