This is the final installment in a three-part series based on a lecture Rachel Berger presented to the Pinterest Design Team in August 2015 on current trends in graphic design.
Young designer, are you looking to stand out without getting tossed out? Are you feeling discouraged by the brainlessly simple digital design and brainlessly complex analog design that’s getting so much play these days?
Don’t panic! There is a great place to find innovative and inspiring visual communication today: digital game design.
Truly great games are a world unto themselves, with their own rules, their own norms, and their own visual language. They break out from the crowd by being different, but to be playable, they must be coherent. In great games, the degree of visual simplicity or complexity is deliberate, informed by and informing the play experience. Here are two recent cases.
The puzzle game Threes! is a great example of so-called simple design. In Threes!, the user slides numbered tiles on a grid to combine multiples of three. That’s it. WIRED called it “so utterly simple and exquisitely satisfying it seems like the type of thing that doesn’t get invented so much as discovered.” If only that were true. The Threes! design process was long and difficult.
Threes! demo animation
Development began in late 2012, when Asher Vollmer, a game developer, sent Greg Wohlwend, a graphic designer, a sketch for a sliding numbers game. A day later, Greg sent back some mockups. A game that was prototyped in a night would take more than a year to perfect.
As they worked on the game, Vollmer and Wohlwend made dozens of prototypes. At points in its development, Threes! included holes, monsters, flags, extra walls, planets, atoms, arrows, sushi, and argyle patterns. But basic gameplay kept getting buried under tricksy features and whimsical design touches. The designers were continuously building the game up, stripping it down, building it up, and stripping it down again.
After months of development, the idea for having tiles merge to make new numbers surfaced. Wohlwend worried that it was too simplistic, but Vollmer argued on behalf of simplicity, telling WIRED: “I actually like that it’s so clean and pure. It’s incredibly gratifying to have a system with such simple rules that you can play over and over again and constantly get better at.” So far, Vollmer’s been proven right. Threes! is very easy to play and very difficult to beat, giving it the elusive quality he calls “foreverplay.”
If Threes! is the minimalist version of Foreverplay, the yet-to-be-released but feverishly anticipated game No Man’s Sky is the maximalist version.
No Man’s Sky is being developed by Hello Games, a tiny studio in the UK led by a programmer named Sean Murray. The game is an homage to the pulp science fiction novels that Murray loved as a child, and to the vivid cover art that often accompanied the stories.
No Man’s Sky will let virtual travelers explore eighteen quintillion planets in an infinite, procedurally generated galaxy. Every player will begin on a randomly chosen planet at the outer perimeter of that galaxy. The goal is to explore, survive, and head toward the center. “Procedurally generated” means that the game has an algorithmic structure. Just 1400 lines of code make the rules that determine the age and placement of stars, the presence of asteroid belts and moons and planets, the physics of gravity, the arc of orbits, the composition of atmospheres, and the appearance of life on a small fraction of those planets.
A recent New Yorker article about the game described a game artists’ process for developing visual archetypes that the coders’ algorithms would mutate. She spent a day making insects: looking up images online, designing features for an insect archetype, studying how the algorithms deformed the archetype in hundreds of permutations, then making corrections.
In the NOW, designers can draw inspiration from so much amazing work, both simple and complex, and choose which stylistic levers to pull for maximum impact. In the NOW, designers have to resist the overwhelming pressure to follow the crowd to a safe, unoriginal spot that Squarespace has already made a supremely adequate template for.