Illustrating an App, (my) “Instructions for Use”

While I organize my ideas for this post, I scroll the past ones and worry that you might feel dizzy with all the different works I’m showing you on this blog. A series of Christmas cards in two colors in the last post. An experimental half-analogic half-digital series of illustrations in the previous one. Other different things in the older posts. And, today, an app. It’s probably due to all the changes I experienced in my way of working during this past year. But it’s also very likely due to my normal work routine: being able to adapt my style(s) and my illustrations to different contexts and different media is a daily need. I never get bored, that’s for sure, but I too get dizzy sometimes.

For three years I’ve collaborated with an Italian publishing house, Art Stories, which makes educational apps for children (an educational app is mobile or tablet software – often a game – through which kids learn about a certain topic). It’s one of the most interesting, yet, most challenging jobs I’ve had so far. Interesting because it’s a chance to get to know a whole new world and to directly contribute to a learning process. Challenging because illustrating an app isn’t the same as illustrating a book. And while I learnt how books work at illustration school and through essays and courses, I’ve always found few – or no – explanations about how to properly illustrate apps.

That’s why the first thing I do when I start working on a new app is to study. I download the apps I like most (I’m a huge fan of Yatatoy‘s apps and Meikme, just to name a few: they both mix minimalism and a rigor for colors and shapes that I admire very much). I take notes and see how I can apply some of the things I see – a particular use of textures, or a certain organization of the elements, or a use of colors that is both pretty and useful. The screen has its own rules. There are animations. Elements – characters or objects – are interactive and it has to be easy to touch and move them on the screen with a finger. Images have to be simple and clear. In other words, illustrations for apps have to be first and foremost functional.





I didn’t know that when I worked on my first app (which was also my first job as an illustrator). I used watercolor textures and digital collage. Not a functional choice as I understood later that each element had to be animated and it took me a lot of time to create all the pieces we needed. The color palette had some issues as well, as I worked on tone-on-tone scenes. Delicate and pretty, but I learnt that the contrast in apps is very important to allow all interactive elements to emerge from the background. A trial and error process, as usual.





Maybe the most challenging part of working on educational apps is when illustration and photography have to fit within the same scene. Art Stories, for instance, often works with paintings and original photos of works of art. A lot of times, I found myself dealing with paintings I had no idea how to fit in the illustrated world I had so carefully created. Or dealing with a color palette I was so proud of, but that didn’t work with all the paintings we needed to feature in the app. It’s a delicate balance between different artistic styles and a unique graphics that should be able to add value and give coherence to the whole product.

Project after project I do have found some solutions that I like and that are also functional. The images you see in this post come from Cities, an app to learn and play with some of the most fascinating cities in the world. I worked with Adobe Illustrator which is so far the best tool I used to illustrate an app – this is my opinion, though. Photoshop works as well (I used it for Artesport, the lastest of Art Stories’ apps) and has the advantage of making me feel freer to draw as I would normally do. Yet I think Illustrator works perfectly with animation and looks great on every screen. As for the colors, I like experimenting with textures, but the solid color is still my favourite choice.




Last but not least, the style. So far I’ve changed style every time I did a new app. Again, it’s always me, but the technique and the drawings look quite different. It was both the need to adapt to different kind of scenes and game mechanisms and the will to experiment and see what worked better – and fitted me better. Each time I get more confident with the logic of the app and the screen and I feel like, experience by experience, I’m able to put a little more  “me” in the project. And that’s always a good thing.

Have you ever worked on an app? What are your “instructions for use”?



Photoshop as a Therapy: One Year of Experiments and What I’ve Learned From It

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to therapy. Usually, what happens when you start seeing a psychologist – or a therapist – is that you go there and talk. You talk about what’s been filling your mind lately, you talk about whatever you feel like. And you continue talking each time you go there, not really knowing if something is happening, but you continue. Talking and talking. Until, at some point, the magic happens: that knot which was obsessing you at the beginning, which was leaving you sleepless at night, that knot is loosened. You have no idea when it happened or how, but it did.

Now, my experience with Photoshop this past year has been exactly like a therapy. I can recall when it started. I was teaching at a workshop in Rome and I felt stuck. I had to make a little sample illustration to show our students how I processed a morning walk into creative material for a story and my mind was blank. I remember I had a lot of fear and cold hands. I took a wax pastel from the pencil case and I started drawing something on a notebook. It looked like a dog. I drew another one. Then I drew two trembling sticks that turned out to be a woman’s legs. And I went on. At the end of the afternoon, I had filled lots of pages with this casual drawings.

Instead of throwing them as I would normally have done, I decided they deserved my trust. Afterall, hadn’t I been looking for a more instinctive way of illustrating? And what’s more instinctive than doodles? Borrowing a working method I had so many times seen used by a dear illustrator friend, Laura Savina (check her beautiful work here), I scanned them all and opened each file in Photoshop. I chose the doodles I liked most and started playing with them. Moving the dog from the left corner to the center of the paper, changing its color, adding the woman, transforming the woman into a man, moving everything all over again. At the end, I got these two illustrations. Minimal and raw, but, for once, deeply mine.



It was exactly one year ago. After these illustrations – which were, by the way, used for an exhibition – I decided I would pursue this method. There was something relieving, liberating, playful in it. And the total lack of planning scared me, it’s true, but it was also very attractive. Like with therapy, I kept trying.

At first, it felt confusing. I enjoyed the fact that I could feel free while drawing – or scribbling or stamping – on paper. I had completely stopped worrying about making a pretty drawing and my goal was to see where my hand – and not my brain – would bring me. Yet the lack of planning was something quite hard to stand for a person like me. I envied my friend Laura, the “mind” behind this method, and her way of creating illustrations like “accidents”. Anyway, I went on.

For some time I adapted the method to my needs, allowing myself a little planning before starting playing with Photoshop. Within a couple of months, though, I realized I could trust the method and that, actually, I got best results when I didn’t have no idea about what I was going to do with the computer. I started experimenting, mixing new and old doodles, building a little archive of material that could always come to use – mostly drawings of plants, scribbles and all sorts of spots. I hadn’t realized it yet, but without the pressure of control and pre-established ideas about what I thought I liked – or I wanted to like – my taste, my own, unique taste was slowly coming out. And spots, little imperfections, and trembling lines were definitely part of it.     

I’ve worked in this way for almost one year. I remember the joy and the total surprise when out of a bunch of senseless gouache spots this illustration came out.



Here nothing besides the animals (which were made with wax pastels and then digitally colored in white) has been drawn. What I knew before starting was that I wanted a wood. It came out just by playing with spots in Photoshop.

I could go on and on showing you examples of how this method changed my approach to illustration experiment by experiment. I call it a “therapy” because it really loosened a lot of knots and fears and it helped me know myself better. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to grow and improve. Especially, I saw these changes:

  1. I got rid of anxiety. After the first moment of panic due to non-planning, I started trusting my instinct, realizing ideas often come when you stop thinking and you start doing. The fear of the white blank page – and the anxiety connected – doesn’t come if you start filling that page with whatever comes to your mind. Sense comes after, I promise it comes. This works in Photoshop and on real paper too.
  2. I understood what my taste is. Photoshop has allowed me to experiment quickly and without limits, pulling me out of the paper+pencils comfort zone I was stuck in. I’ve worked without prejudices, confirming things I already knew about my taste and surprising me with a lot of new discoveries.
  3. It changed my way of drawing. Since I realized I like the way I draw in sketches and doodles more, I started developing that kind of style. Now I don’t need much elaboration in Photoshop because on paper things look already like I want them.

Of course, this is what worked for me. But what about you? What about your “therapy”?