The Power and Practicality of Personal Projects

Without deadlines or the need to please others, we can develop new skills and techniques that will serve when time is short and clients call

As an aid to creativity, I think personal projects fall somewhere between brainstorming and “shower moments,” those “Eureka!” events when ideas seemingly come unbidden. I’m reminded of the famous Louis Pasteur quote, “chance favors the prepared mind,” or perhaps picture a movie training montage, with inspiring music turned up to 11. However, my “training” involves a bit less sweat and running than those and looks a lot more like play. Examples…

I love Celtic knots and Islamic geometric patterns and working out how to create them. (I am enamored of other tessellations and tilings, too, but many of them are algorithmic, and so harder for me to generate in Adobe Illustrator.) I've spent hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Islamic galleries and bought books on how such patterns may have been made in centuries past just to get in a headspace conducive to creating similar things in the software I teach.

I was so pleased that it was a short hop from my tile doodles to a technique I could recommend to a favorite client—not for making tiling Islamic patterns, but easy-to-edit maps for travel guidebooks! It was deeply gratifying to help people I sincerely like and to know that the skills arose from play.

Of all the gin joints…

I enjoy making good cocktails for my friends. Over the last several years, however, getting together has been problematic. So I've taken to bottling a couple drinks' worth. Whether a classic or one of my inventions, I have fun designing the labels. Many times, to achieve a vintage look, I learn a few techniques worth passing along.

In this case, I took time to carefully compare and contrast ways to warp content in both Illustrator and Photoshop. Now, I can advise more confidently when one is going to yield the best result.

Here's looking at you, Kid

For the last 14 months or so, I've been obsessively generating graphics and images inspired by the movie Casablanca. I claimed it was all to commemorate the film's 80th anniversary in November 2022, but really, I just love that movie!

A year before the anniversary, I sought to enhance the images I was using for my personal social media accounts. As an avatar, I used a picture of Paul Henreid portraying the character Victor Laszlo. Avatar as heroic inspiration rather than identification, I guess. As a banner image, I used a publicity photo featuring the entrance to Rick's Café Américain, with its lovely neon sign.

At some point, I thought it'd be fun to colorize the neon sign. To achieve the right neon look, I recreated the neon tubes in Illustrator as they’d look viewed straight on, then, at first, giving perspective in Photoshop.

Round up the usual suspects

I was content for a week. Adobe had just given Illustrator the ability to export 3D models from objects using its 3D effects. I ended up creating 3D models of the neon, the arch around it, and more. These I brought into Adobe Dimension to light and compose. (I also tried Blender, but I’m more facile with Dimension and Substance Stager.) With a few more nuances added in Photoshop, I recreated the entire publicity photo image with perspective I could adjust for banner images or other purposes.

It's no coincidence that this workflow made it into one of my YouTube videos and parts of it into my advanced Illustrator curriculum. A friend followed the procedure in the video and went further: he showed the entire doorway and placed the dancing figure of Rick Astley in front of it. He rickrolled Rick’s Café!

Since then, the likenesses of several Casablanca stars got cast as lock screen images for my phone, each with a slightly solarized color effect.

Of course I wanted a poster for the movie. I can’t afford actual vintage ones and I wasn't fully pleased with the posters I’d seen online. I designed my own, leaning heavily on some design conventions that I found in the historic ones1. With a bit of digital aging, I like it. A good friend with a large printer very generously printed it for me—two copies!

It was nice having a fun reason to use some of Photoshop's newest features and functions. The poster project allowed me to make a thorough assessment of them. As with all software features, there are shortcomings and things to praise. Of course, I'll pass along to my students the wisdom I so enjoyably (and obsessively) acquired.

I'm finally moving on to other obsessions. Well, just as soon as I figure out how to frame and where to hang one or both of those posters…

I'm lucky to have a job in which the prep is usually a blast! Even when it's a dud, there's something learned that can be passed on. Like Nelson Mandela said:

Here’s hoping you find time to make things for yourself. You’ll have fun and your boss and clients may benefit, too!

What have you been up to?

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