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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Notes from a Designer's Logbook - by George Ledo » » Illusion and prop design, Part 4: Design Development (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

George Ledo
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In the previous post, Schematic Design, we looked at how to begin a design with very small and loose sketches in order to define the overall look, feel, proportions, and dimensions. In this phase, Design Development, we’re going to take those loose sketches and continue the process, focusing on the actual details. At the end of this phase, we’ll be ready to do the shop drawings and build the prop.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, I spent nine years at a large architectural firm in upstate New York. One of the first things I noticed during early project meetings, and which took me a while to get used to, was when someone would talk about an element in a building in terms of, this is going to be a such-and-such, but I don’t know the details yet. The usual response to this was, okay, we’ll find out later. It could be a series of engaged columns, or an archway, or anything else, but the designer knew what it was in concept, and everyone was okay with the idea that he or she would develop it when the time came.

This is totally different than rushing from a sketch to construction. It’s a way to give design a chance, to work out the final product on paper before committing money to materials and labor. It’s also a way to catch mistakes while they’re still on paper and relatively easy and inexpensive to fix.

Incidentally, a couple of weeks ago Chance Wolf posted a very nice piece in the Food for Thought section, titled "Step inside my Brain! Part 1: My Creative process.” In it, he focused on what he called “Going all the way,” which is about taking the design beyond the initial stage, where a lot of people tend to stop creating in the mad rush to start building. Chance used his Funhouse prop as an example, describing how he detailed the bars and other elements based on what the prop represented and on what was logical for it to have. The final product, pictured on his Web site, is a wonderful piece designed for its intended audience of children. It works, and it tells a little story all on its own. Read his post while you’re looking at the prop – his logic in designing it is beautiful.

Going back to my own example of a Square Circle from “Phase 3: Conceptualization”, the first step in Design Development is to do a detailed drawing, showing the prop from all sides. This drawing should be to scale, or at least enough to scale that the finished prop will look like the drawing (i.e., no surprises later).

A method used by many designers for years is to develop these drawings on inexpensive tracing paper (not vellum), which comes in rolls and is available at art suppliers and some stationery stores. You can start with a rough sketch, then tape a piece of tracing paper over it and refine it or try something different, then add more layers as you continue. Pencil works fine, or you can use a fine-tip marker or a combination of the two.

You can now select the hardware and decorative elements (from the local hardware store, catalogs, or on-line) and draw them in. Keep a pile of research materials on the table to check details, or just for inspiration; in this case, you can have books on ancient and modern architecture, castles, antique furniture, maybe da Vinci’s or Palladio’s sketches, and so forth. If you don’t like how a design is turning out, just toss away that layer and start on a fresh layer.

A very useful technique during this phase is to draw a person next to your prop to give you a good idea of how the prop will look on stage. If you can’t draw a person, just do what a lot of designers do: find a photo in a book or magazine, scale it up or down to the correct size (using a photocopier), and trace it. Your tracing doesn’t have to be perfect, since all you really need is the overall proportion.

Once you’re happy with the basic prop, you can use colored pencils to try different color schemes. Another approach is to make several photocopies of the final sketch onto regular white paper and color those. Nowadays, with Photoshop and similar programs, you can also scan the sketch and color it in the computer.

As far as selecting colors for theatrical purposes, the best approach is to forget about the spray cans and define your own color scheme using your research material as a guide. Colored pencils blend nicely, or you can use any other medium you find comfortable. Once the color scheme is satisfactory, you look for those colors, either in spray cans or on the fan decks at paint stores, or you can always mix your own.

A trick we were taught in design school is to find a painting from the period you’re working in, and adapt the color scheme from it. Generally, you’ll want one predominant color and two or more supplementary colors. By studying how the painter combined and contrasted his or her colors, you can develop your own palette and give your prop a nice “period” feel. Interior designers sometimes use basically the same technique when they select the carpeting first and use the colors in it to develop the palette for the room.

There are a number of good books on color theory at the library and the bookstores, and they all basically say the same thing. Introductory books on watercolor, acrylic, and oil painting sometimes have chapters on color theory and how to apply it to a project.

Can you use a 3D rendering program during this phase? Sure, but I’ve seen any number of designs (including trade show booths, theatrical sets, and illusions) done directly on these programs, and they tend to look stiff and mechanical. If you want to go this way, please remember these are drawing programs (as in illustration and rendering), not design programs: they can help you illustrate your design, but the design has to come from within you.

By the time you finish with Design Development, you will have a fairly “tight” drawing that shows your prop from all sides, in scale or reasonably so, and you’ll be ready to sit down and figure out how to actually build it. We’ll look at the working drawings in my next post.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine
www.georgefledo.net

Latest column: "Sorry about the photos in my posts here"
George Ledo
View Profile
Magic Café Columnist
SF Bay Area
2871 Posts

Profile of George Ledo
"Okay," I can hear some of you saying, "that's fine for you, George, but I can't draw!"

No problem. As I said elsewhere, you can always take your sketch to an illustrator and have him or her clean it up and draw it to scale. This is done all the time in the real world; these people do this for a living, and they're not in business to steal their clients' work.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine
www.georgefledo.net

Latest column: "Sorry about the photos in my posts here"
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