What Do They Do?
by Michael G. Ryan
Working for Wizards of the Coast as a graphic designer is a long ways from painting a mule. But that's how Dee Barnett made her first dollar in the field.
"I was still in high school when I was asked to paint a large mule on a banner for a Democratic Convention in Kansas City, Missouri," she recalls. "I think the pay was fifty dollars."
This, however, was step one on the road to commercial art (at Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design, where she majored in painting and minored in sculpture) and then to graphic design (at TSR, Inc., in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin). "It was my first experience with the gaming industry," she admits. "We didn't have computers to work on then, so everything -- our covers, type galleys -- were pasted up on boards and sent to the printers to have the plates made, so the product could go to press." The computer finally arrived a few years later, but it was still a foreign object to Dee. "I had never touched one before. The company helped me out by sending me to take some classes in Quark XPress, Photoshop, and Adobe Illustrator." These are still many of the tools of her trade, years later.
Dee's work back in 1990 involved designing and pasting up roleplaying games, novel covers, and type galleys; she also illustrated numerous design elements for the interiors of various game modules. "One of the first ones I remember was a pen-and-ink border that ran across the top of the interior pages," she recalls. "It was of a crumbling stone wall with arches and bones, and skulls were scattered among the ruins. This was quite a leap from the corporate brochures and menu designs that I'd been working on in the past... and it was a lot more fun."
Like many TSR people, Dee made the transfer from Wisconsin to Washington in 1997, when she had just begun to work on the interior layout design of a new product line called Alternity. "I had begun the job in Lake Geneva," she says, "and when we moved, the work was collected to disk to be shipped to Wizards in Renton. Somehow en route, the files were corrupted, and I had to rebuild them when I arrived. After that rebuild, I had a computer crash, and the files were lost again because our backup system was not working properly. So we needed to do another redo."
Over the years, her responsibilities have shifted some, but the core of her work remains the same: graphic design. "I do design work and am expected to get the product ready for production," she says simply. The task itself, however, is not simply done. It requires a great deal of care and attention to detail to meet the necessary guidelines. "The size of a document must be correct and the files put together the right way," she notes. "If there are any questions, we have a great staff that's always willing to help us assure that the product will print correctly."
Her art background is in constant use. "I build my final files in CMYK -- that's the four-color process used in the printing industry," she explains. "The beautiful full-color art that you see reproduced is made up of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black inks in a very fine dot pattern: CMYK. We in the design department need to be aware of the limitations of this process. If I want some of my type to be purple and it's a small size, I shouldn't use more than two of the four colors, and if it's smaller than 8 or 9 points, you're safer to stick with black."
For example, to create a purple color, Dee could use 70 percent Cyan and 100 percent Magenta. "If I tried to add a little yellow or black, it would create a sort of halo and fuzz out the type," she points out, "and there just wouldn't be enough room to include three or four colors in a tiny dot pattern in a small letterform. There are ways to plan a design around this. You can use process colors, which come in any color or tint that you want, and they would print clearly because the color wouldn't be made up of three or four separate colors in a dot pattern, only one." There are other choices, too: opaque inks, such as white, that show up if a designer used a dark-colored paper to print on, and even Metallic inks are available.
"If you were to add a fifth color to a job such as a process color," Dee notes, "the cost of printing goes up, and some of the other choices might even require more than one pass through the press. Cost is always a factor that designers have to keep in mind when designing a job, and they need to know the budget that has been is allocated for it. I can have two or three jobs on my plate at the same time, sometimes more. They are usually in different stages of development, and if one is routing through the different departments for approval, I can pick up on another."
The Making of a Book
Recently, Dee has designed the look for a new series of adventure novels based on the new edition of the D&D game. "I've finished the design for the first three books and am now in the process of getting the information for books four and five," she says. "The book department will decide what art they want on the cover and send me the cover copy."
This process of designing book covers is a little different from choosing and mixing colors. "In this book series," Dee explains, "I have been picking up a heroic figure from a previously published D&D product illustration, clipping it out, and combining it with a monster illustration that's appropriate for the story. Then I meld the two in Photoshop in a kind of collage effect. I have some other book covers in progress, and a D&D module cover coming up. I'm also finishing up three decorative rune symbols that will go on some of the chapter start pages in the Forgotten Realms module Silver Marches. I always like to know what jobs are coming my way as soon as possible. If I'm not ready to start to work on them, I can still start the thought processes."
Her involvement in a project usually begins with a meeting with an art director and/or with the game designers, editors, product managers, and marketing. This meeting gives them all an opportunity to discuss the feeling they're looking for, what the product is going to be, whether it has more of a fantasy or science-fiction feel to it. "If I'm working on the interior design," Dee says, "I need to know if it's going to need any special requirements, sidebars, or charts. What do they expect the word count to be per page? That could determine what typeface I decide to use. In fact, it's always good to get a sample chapter that is representative of the product to use when working up sample designs. There might be just me or other designers from the RPG group working on initial designs. We explore typefaces that we feel would be appropriate and develop designs that we feel meet their criteria."
Next, the group holds a second meeting to present the design options, and the group chooses one of them. "At this point, whoever's design is selected finishes the product, our art director places the art order, we get together with typesetting to show them our design, and they set up a Quark template for the new document," Dee explains. "The pieces begin to come together."
Though she spends much of her time now on RPGs and novels, even these are not without their design oddities. "I've had to draw a page full of grublike worms to be used as a background on the dust jacket for R.A. Salvatore's Dark Elf Trilogy and another background full of spiders for Legacy of the Drow, a novel by the same author," she says. Her favorites, though, have been those that commanded much more of her talents than drawing bugs. "The Birthright campaign," she says, was one of her favorites. "I designed the interior layout and painted the frames that held the illustrations, and the watercolor page backgrounds that were used in the first few modules."
For the Planescape Campaign Setting, which Dee also cites as a source of pride in her work, the game designers and editors strove for a look that was new and different, something that really "flowed."
"Everyone involved with the project did a great job. I think it was an Origins Award Winner that year," she says with pride.
Since moving to Wizards, Dee has enjoyed designing the collector's edition of the TSR Silver Anniversary Collectors Edition boxed set and booklet covers, and she recently completed the interior page design for the new Robert Jordan Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game. "It was a great collaboration with my art director, Robert Raper," she says. "He had a great vision of what we needed to do to capture the right feeling for the module and I was very pleased with the way it turned out."
In the end, Dee sees the process a graphic designer uses to be much like the way a painter feels when looking at a canvas. "You need to have a strong composition, a balance, a way for the eye to travel through the page, a way to make the important information stand out," she says. "You can achieve this with color, the weight and style of the typeface you have chosen, and the design elements you use on the page."
Here's hoping that those Democrats recognized Dee's commitment to detail when they first saw their painted mule on that banner all those years ago.
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