How to design an original sci-fi asset
Lorin Wood concepts a sci-fi craft with historical origins.
for this workshop I’ve decided to create a sci-fi vehicle for a personal IP that I’ve been developing on and off for several years. The subject matter – which is close to my family’s history as it happens – transplants a 19th-century covered wagon into a spacecraft for interstellar migration.
Whenever you develop a design that has its roots in reality and real historical foundations, it’s important to bring in as much of that history to the design as possible, to give the final concept a weight and authenticity your viewer will recognise, even if it’s on a subconscious level.
I’ve found that the best rule of thumb with science fiction is to put as much of the real, functional world into it as possible, then stylise and distort as needed to fit the needs of your story. When you do this, as a designer, you’re mentally building a database of plausible function and believability that hopefully becomes infused into your concept. And the more you do this, the more proficient you’ll become at creating truly unique and original designs.
On the subject of originality, I think it’s achieved by taking an existing object and looking at it from a new angle. So will it be with this sci-fi covered wagon. I’m taking the fundamental blueprint of a wagon and augmenting it for use in a new frontier: space travel. It will have the basic silhouette, but obviously retrofitted to an extreme, to meet the needs of my intergalactic pioneer scenario.
For the bulk of the process I’ll be using my favourite sketching program, Mischief. I’ll then run a final polish in Photoshop. So a basic understanding of both Mischief and Photoshop are required for this workshop.
Before beginning any design process, have a purpose for it. An elaborate narrative isn’t necessary, but some concept of why this design exists should be developed. This step is critical because it creates a realistic design viewers will buy into. A backstory gives context as to why it was made, who made it and for what purpose. This helps you naturally evolve the design.
For reference, covered 19th-century wagons are my starting point. Though the final design will bear little resemblance to a wagon, I want it to carry the essence of one. I divide the morgue into sections, using Mischief’s Pins feature. The canvas is virtually infinite in size, so you can space the groups about, set them with a pin and jump right to them.
This is a good stage to run through, especially if you’re working for a client. They’ll want to see options, and so it’s a good demonstration of your versatility as a designer to show them your thought process. Show some diversity, but be aware of the stated design requirements. Each sketch should maintain the feel of a covered wagon.
Lorin’s rules of design
Here are some helpful rules of thumb to keep in mind during the early stages of the creative process. Will your viewer be able to understand the design’s story just by looking at it? Does the overall design have a good silhouette that exerts an intended mood? Can you identify the purpose and function of the design in three seconds? Does the design seem plausible? If you answer any of these questions with a no or a maybe, then it’s a good sign that you may need to rethink your approach. It’ll save you time later on, too!
I draw a basic perspective grid. I keep it loose – it’s to guide the design, not shackle it. The point is to inspire. I then use the Marker tool and select a grey tone a shade darker than the background. I lay out the basic shapes of the craft here, using broad shapes. I don’t worry about details – just focus on proportion, perspective and an interesting angle.
I use a darker grey marker and solidify the primary shapes of the vehicle. In addition, I layer in tone to further define the mass and light direction. Just like working with real media, I start light and then add darker tones.
Contrast equals greater form change, so continue to cut out the design using the darker marker until you’re satisfied. Remember that the darkest shading will be in objects closer to you. Refer to Scott Robertson’s excellent textbooks, How to Draw and How to Render, for more tips on the fundamentals of both basic drawing and rendering techniques.
Definition through line art
The ship is still a bit of a mess, so we need to define the individual pieces and shapes into a coherent whole. Focus in on the guts of the ship where all the earthly belongings of the pioneers are carried. How are the engines yoked to the main craft? These details come into focus at this stage. At this point I’m more interested in making the design look cool. The story of this being a space wagon is established, so now it’s time to fill in all of the fun sci-fi gizmos!
Next I add in more line-art and decide that the ship doesn’t have enough girth, so I drop the front of the main hull down to round the ship out. In my backstory, this vessel was put together with used or salvaged components, which is why neither engines are identical.
I’m pretty happy with the design, but it still needs some punch and the best way to do this is adding a nice rim light. This further brings the ship into three dimensions. I also add some LED lights next to the cockpit. Their intensity will be brighter than the dull metal hull material so they can pop.
Export the image
Go to Export Image from the File menu. Select the Visible Canvas option to export everything on screen as a PSD file. This enables you to have all of the individual layers when you open it up in Photoshop. Be sure to export at a large-enough DPI value (300 for print and 72 for web).
Clean up in Photoshop
The fun part of working with real media is living with the mess. I also love the freedom that Photoshop affords me to change an illustration. To help focus on the central portion of the ship, I want to remove some of the haphazard marker. I add a mask on the marker layer and use a pressure-sensitive airbrush to gently fade the marker away around the cockpit.
To punch up the shading, I use my rectangular, pressuresensitive marker brush, to produce a smooth gradient. I push some side details back and add an airbrushing of black to the top of the wagon and underbelly, to show it’s rounded away from the light source. To pull out subtle highlights I use a marker tool and select a dim grey from the ship side.
I love monochrome marker illustrations. A smart step to take before adding any extra visual effects is to create a new empty layer, and create a light effect using LensFlare Studio. Because flares require a flattened image, I’m going to make a duplicate. I depict the flares with a blue LED hue. They’re small but powerful. They serve as the equivalent to a candle-powered lamp hanging off of the wagon. I finish off by adding some red beacons and throw a weathered name on to the craft.