When Tiara Lynn Agresta isn’t signing up for too many role-playing games, obsessing about pop culture or writing fiction, she works as a freelance graphic designer in Chicago. She’s worked on print and electronic materials for role-playing companies, helming projects from the pulp inspired feel of Mage Noir to the super-heroic pop of Smallville, applying her artistic savvy to tales of grifters and hitters before and after. Taking a moment out of life in Chicago and a busy schedule, Tiara was able to talk shop about how the look and feel of the books we love come together.
GDG: What did you learn from the first role-playing game you worked on?
TLA: The first game I worked with was some production work on Shadowrun supplements. I learned so much from the way Adam Jury, Catalyst’s Art Director at the time, had set up his files. My technique was already solid, but his layout gave me the foundation I needed to take on the Creative Direction for the SMALLVILLE Roleplaying Game and oh boy did I learn a lot from that project.
In hindsight my template for the SMALLVILLE series was definitely on the complex side, but in a way that can’t be helped from my standpoint. My background in textbook and instructional design makes me a stickler for making meaningful decisions with typography and layout. Therefore, my book designs tend to have a lot of different styles that are all integral to how the book works.
The most valuable things I learned were:
- STYLESHEETS. In InDesign, use them and love them. Learn GREP styling and use Nesting styles. These were things in my bag of tricks from my textbook experience that ended up saving me a ton of time in keeping things consistent. (e. g. want to make sure Daily Planet is always italicized? Using GREP styles, you can make that happen easily.)
- And while we’re on the topic of Stylesheets, work with a writer/editor who’s comfortable using Styles in Word and learn about them yourself. It will make your life much easier.
- Work in Layers and use your Master Pages wisely.
GDG: How does layout for eBook projects differ from print?
TLA: This is something I’m learning more about every day, specifically what people want from an eBook rather an a print book. Working with Layers and Transparency can make eBooks really tricky, and it seems with every release people are demanding more and more digital functionality, so RPG publishing really demands you stay on top of your game. People want more than a simple set of bookmarks. They’re more sophisticated, asking for layered PDFs so they can turn off backgrounds or artwork to save ink when they print the books, and the variety of devices your book now “needs” to function on is insane. Even those of us at the top of the field are still learning how to make our books play nice with every e-reader and mobile device, and I’m finding myself take this into consideration much more than I did with my earlier projects.
GDG: When you worked on the design for Hit a Dude, was the format of a business card sized game a challenge for you?
TLA: The story of Hit a Dude was kind of funny in that it was never a job I was hired to do and the business card thing was just something that was floated about at NeonCon 2010 with Ryan Macklin during the BarCon afterparty. I had the idea bouncing around in my head for awhile after it was discussed because I thought it was, as the Middleman would say, “Sheer genius in its simplicity”. The vision was all there, I just needed to bring it together. One late night nearing GenCon 2011 I felt extra inspired, drafted up a little design and shot it over to Macklin. We didn’t even credit ourselves on the first run because we thought it was so ridiculous and it took off like crazy! That said, the only reason it wasn’t that much of a challenge because Macklin’s idea was just that perfect, and that’s why it was such a hit. I think finding that magic again for a different game would be very, very difficult. I still think we should do a third edition for the 2012 Con season.
GDG: What goes into designing a cover?
TLA: Covers are tough. If you don’t have the right imagery, you’re screwed. Strong contrast, powerful imagery, it’s all necessary to make a book people want to pull from the shelf, and you have to make sure it’s clear immediately what the book is about. That’s all about knowing the audience you want to attract. For example, that’s why I veered from the traditional “licensed photo of the sexy stars” cover for the SMALLVILLE High School Yearbook. I thought the book was an awesome resource for all high school games so we decided on no photography at all for that cover and instead I created what looked like a proper high school yearbook. In that case, I think it helped to bring in an audience who might have turned it aside simply because they’re not interested in Smallville.
GDG: Where does the art director fit in the making of a role-playing game?
TLA: We determine the look and feel of the book, which is equally as important as the content inside. It’s the obvious stuff — checking out the content and the space and deciding what sort of art will fit in what sort of space, but for me it doesn’t end there.
It’s not just about choosing a nice font or background design — it’s about choosing the right ones, and that comes from experience. For Mage Noir, I went to the library to look through pulp novels and I familiarized myself with the look of the genre. I researched the typography and used that as a basis for the design, from the weathered stonework to the old scanned paper. For SMALLVILLE, I was determined to capture the feel of the show. They use color so strongly in that show, but it’s not in the same way a four-color comic book does it. It’s more subtle but there’s a definite theme of primary colors. In the early seasons you’ll never see a scene with Clark Kent that doesn’t feature red, blue and yellow in the shot. Watch it; it’s pretty cool. I did the same for LEVERAGE, and my in-depth knowledge of the show allowed me to simply read a page and know the right episode to pull shots from.
It’s also about knowing how best to communicate ideas. That communication extends to every aspect of the layout. It’s about more than making it fit on the page; the reader should be able to easily skim through a page to find what they need. When you’re dealing with rules, it helps the reader understand and retain the information. For example, with the character mapping that’s so integral to the Cortex+ K system in SMALLVILLE, I thought the how-to section lost its effect when done in digital art so I worked with the team to put handwritten, hand-drawn maps to make it more accessible and let the reader say “I could do that” in a way that a digital infographic couldn’t. With a good art director, all those subtleties go into the decision-making process and make the book more successful.
If a publisher is doing it right, they’ll get their Art Director involved early in the game design process.
GDG: When you’ve worked as a creative director on role-playing games, what were some of the challenges you had to deal with?
TLA: Deadlines. Deadlines are the biggest challenge by far, because in many cases I’m the last one in the chain. That means when all the writers, editors, illustrators, etc. have missed deadline after deadline I’m relied upon to make up lost time, which isn’t always ideal. I’ve been fortunate to work with some awesome people in this industry, and it doesn’t mean anyone’s a bad person. This isn’t an industry that pays the big bucks, so many of us have day jobs, families, etc. and this just happens when you have a chain of so many people doing RPG publishing as their side job or a hobby. Deadlines become more fluid than they do when there’s a traditional work schedule.
The second biggest (but often more frustrating) problem is one I’ve had both in the RPG world and in my day job, and that’s with artists who can’t take criticism. If you can’t take constructive criticism, please, get over yourself or get out of the business. If we tell you to change something, it isn’t personal! We want to help you make your art better and help it look better on the page. It boggles my mind that anyone thinks they can get anywhere without dealing with criticism. My first round on the Smallville book covers came back with criticism from DC that was so harsh my editors were nervous to share it. It was by far the best art direction I have ever gotten to date, and allowed me to nail the art on the second try because DC’s guy told me exactly what they liked and didn’t. Criticism makes you better. Embrace it and learn.
And lastly, in licensed properties, working with the Powers That Be (networks, publishers, actors, etc) there’s the added challenge of representing their brand and the actors. I had photos of Parker (Leverage) turned down because Beth Riesgraf didn’t like how she looked in the black beanie she often wears on the show, or because Gina Bellman looked “too old” (she always looks fab, IMHO). We could use images of Allison Mack or Michael Rosenbaum from certain seasons of Smallville and not others. It got to be infuriating at times, but we ended up with a really cool product on all counts, I think.
Despite the challenges, I love working in RPG publishing and hope for more opportunities in the future. It’s fun, rewarding, and hell, laying out Wil Wheaton’s writing or digging through pictures of Christian Kane or Justin Hartley… that ain’t a bad way to spend an evening.