Bringing Real World Elements Into Your Designs

As you may have noticed from a previous post of mine, Creating a Graphite & Watercolor Poster in Photoshop, I’m a big advocate of “humanizing” designs. I do this by integrating as many handmade or real-world elements into my work as I can. You may have noticed that this trend has been growing ever more popular over the last few years, as scanned images and textures are making their way into high-end design pieces and websites all over the world.

I wanted to spend some time talking about some ideas regarding the use of a few simple resources that could very well help you to define a style all your own. By incorporating elements from your environment into your work, you can become a stronger hybrid classical/digital artist! Most importantly, we need to know where to obtain the elements we want to use.

Option 1: The Almighty Scanner

So, you know that printer/copier/scanner you have sitting next to your desk? You could start using the scanner functionality to collect your own design elements. Whether it be something natural, like leaves or feathers, or something you’ve created, like sketches, illustrations, or paint splatters, this tool can serve as your best friend. You could find old books with strange illustrations that you can borrow for use in your not-for-profit work. You could even scan more three-dimensional objects like pieces of wood or flowers.

Here’s some scanned felt, which I turned into the banner for an online store.

I personally find myself buying art supplies and making a bit of a mess on a sheet of drawing paper so that I can scan in my work and create Photoshop or Illustrator brushes out of them. A can of black spray paint and some newsprint makes for a fun afternoon of creating your own splatter brushes by hand. Old maps or technical illustrations make for great line work in the background (or foreground, if you see fit) of a design. Finally, scanning in the texture or colors from any kind of paper can add a bit of the handmade look to a sterile design when placed in the background or used as an overlay. Ultimately, you should try to build up a massive, organized system of folders on your computer for all your scanned-in elements to reside for use in future projects.

Option 2: Use That Shutter Release Button of Yours

You can also use your camera to quickly get materials for use in designs. You don’t necessarily have to possess a high-end DSLR to get usable results – a simple point-and-shoot will do the job just fine. Get out into the world around you and capture some shots of architecture or nature that you can edit for use later. Random, street-level photography will give you shots of plenty of objects you can digitally cut out and place into your masterpieces.

Some examples of textures from my archive.

Probably the best use of a camera for our purposes, however, is to get shots of textures. Wood, cloth, concrete, metal, or old rusted doors to name a few will instantly work as overlays or sections of a design. You’ll be amazed at how much texture can lend itself to artwork. Really hone in on minute details, the natural design of everyday life, and the beauty that can be found in even the most rundown locations. You can also use a camera to capture landscapes that can be chopped up or used outright within illustration or text work as accents. Just look around you and start shooting!

Option 3: Using the Internet as a Resource

And finally, the option that is most familiar to all designers…the all encompassing internet. Don’t have time to scan objects or take pictures yourself? Surely you’ll be able to find something usable on sites like deviantart, flickr, or a host of design sites by using Google. Textures are easy to come by, as are brushes, handwritten fonts, and vectorized illustrations.

Here’s part of my brushes folder. Most were found online, and I’ve included a gaudy example of some of the handmade elements within them.

The problem with this is that you’ll rarely have the rights to use the elements commercially when you come across them (this is the same reason I can’t show examples of artists’ work here). And even if you do, these resources have surely been used time and time again by other designers. Finally, there’s nothing gratifying about just grabbing an image of something (even if it is high-res enough to print) from the web. The real joy of bringing real world elements into your work is that you’ve gotten away from your desk for a while and made (or captured) everything that makes up your final design. Variety is the spice of life, and simply saving someone else’s work to your hard drive robs you of the freeing experience of doing the scouting and creating yourself!

Bringing It All Together

Once you have your elements, start editing them as you see fit to make them as flexible as you can. Keep your source files at the maximum resolution and quality that you can and build your directory of your own files, ready to use in print, web, video, etc.

When integrating them into your work, try out different blending modes and use them as overlays, keep them bold and beautiful to have them act as your background layer, or chop them up and use them as subtle accents to your existing designs. You might be surprised as to how much a design can benefit from the human touch.

Now go create your own unique take on the world by capturing and manipulating your own environment into your next project!

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