Interview with Adam McIver
Interview with: Grant Rodiek and Adam P. McIver
A short time ago we shared our interview with the illustrator of Hocus, Tiffany Turrill. Well, Adam is the second half of our incredible art team. Without him, Hocus wouldn't look as gorgeous as it does. We pulled him off the intense graphics making furnace to interview him about various things, including graphic design!
Grant Rodiek: Adam! Introduce yourself to the people who might not know you yet. Who are you, what’s important about you, what do we need to know?
Adam McIver: I’m just a guy who realized that board games are much more than a hobby to me, then pursued it with as much energy as I could muster. Luckily, folks seem to have appreciated the projects I've done so far, and I've found myself a part of more friendships and relationships in the industry than I would have believed a year ago. I dunno, is that a good answer? You tell me what’s important about me. That’d be more fun for me.
GR: Where do you live? What personal details should we know? Hobbies outside of this hobby?
AM: I just moved to the Cincinnati area from Chicago with my fiance Kerry. As far as other hobbies, I build 3D crystal puzzles, which I will not expound upon whatsoever so we can move on to the next question.
GR: Before we get into development on Hocus, let’s talk about The Cre8tive Dept. A few years ago you started doing graphic design for folks on the side, but your day job was working with a fairly large creative agency in Chicago. Not long ago, you took the leap to exit the corporate world to focus on board game graphics and art exclusively. Why? How is it working out so far?
AM: I've been blown away by how well it is going so far. I have a schedule of projects that has consistently stayed at least 2-3 months deep which really is a great position to be in as a freelancer.
Prior to CR8DPT I worked for 9 years in the corporate package design industry working with some of the world's largest food companies. I made the switch from a fairly cushy Senior Designer job because as I dipped my toes further and further into creating games it seemed like I would never have enough time to do everything I wanted to. My employer at the time allowed me to switch to part-time and pursue some freelance, and all that did was fan the fire into a full-fledged inferno. I was waking up at 6 am, working on games for 6 hours, then commuting to downtown Chicago to do my serious-business agency work for 4-5 hours, then commuting back home to pick back up and do games for the rest of the day. I really was burning the candle at both ends and I am not really sure how I stayed sane. Maybe I didn't, who knows?
I kept that up for 3-4 months and decided that it was now or never so I made the jump to a 100% full-time board game person. I still don’t have enough time to work on all the games I want to, but I am living the dream and couldn't be happier about it.
GR: A long time ago, like Summer 2014, you approached US about doing art for Hocus. Back then I think it was Wizard Poker maybe? We were insanely touched by the gesture and it was a nice morale boost on a very long project. Why did you come to us?
AM: I've always been a fan of playing cards and games that use them, and I saw a few clever things going on in the early version that really piqued an interest. I played a PNP with a small group of my friends and we all really took to the design, and I really wanted to be involved however I could. Then you went and threw that all away and I thought you were nuts!
Luckily, you guys seem to know what you’re doing and that gamble paid off with a far better game. You weren't just cranking something out rushing to get to Kickstarter, you took your time and made the best game you could, and I appreciated that as well.
GR: Your work on Hocus has been really phenomenal so far. There’s so much detail and humor and life in what you've done. The icons were fantastic, especially the coin with the little sock hatted wizard on the face. Tell us about icon work -- what’s key? What makes it interesting?
AM: Iconography can be insanely difficult, but can often be the most important aspect when it comes to ease of play. For Hocus the majority of the icons are suits, so I had to make sure that they were all immediately distinct from each other from a basic shape standpoint, then I added details that would tie them to Tiffany's artwork as much as possible. There's a delicate balancing act in iconography between form and function: too much detail will end up making an icon difficult to process at a small size but too little detail leaves them looking boring and generic.
GR: Your work on the card back is phenomenal. We showed Tiffany’s beautiful illustration and the final version that you put some jazz onto. It just wowed us. It just popped and was incredible. What’s your process for things like this? How do you go from A to B when framing an illustration?
AM: When I'm working with another artist, I put a great deal of importance on making sure my design elements respect their work while tying everything together. I have to create an information system that doesn't look like an information system, so I pick up some elements from the artwork, while adding pieces that will aid in organization and readability. I also use some of those same elements for decoration and, if I've done my job well, it all comes together as a solidified visual language across all the game's components. If I've done my job really well, players won't even recognize the information as graphic design because it is so well integrated with the artwork.
GR: Good graphic design, user experience design, interface design, all of that is a real unsung hero of game development. I value the work of my UX designers at work so much. What are the keys to good graphic design? What are the 3 essentials?
AM: In board games, function definitely takes precedence over form. It probably comes down to 1) clarity, 2) intuitiveness, and 3) style.
1) Clarity: The first step to clarity is legibility. A rookie mistake I see somewhat often is finding a "cool font" that looks thematic, but then when you apply it to an entire block of game text it becomes unreadable. Past just font choice, good graphic design communicates quickly. Sometimes, beautifully ornate icons may take longer for players to register versus more simplified ones, and the less clear a game's visuals the more it will drag.
2) Intuitiveness: Yes, it's a real word! Players connect with a game and learn it easier when it's systems are intuitive. A lot of that comes from knowing where players will instinctively look first for information, or from knowing how to subliminally guide players to that information. If a card functions the way a player expects, or components are placed on the board in spaces that make sense, there's one less barrier between them and the game.
3) Style: This is obviously "in the eyes of the beholder" and difficult to quantify, but a good designer tends to know how the eyes of most beholders will react to various elements. I think this really comes mostly from plenty of experience, and having a finger on the pulse of what is already out there. Making too many design choices based on what is currently "cool" could result in a game that alienates longtime gamers while also setting you up to look outdated in a year's time. A good board game graphic designer knows how to use style to push the line forward rather than cross it.
GR: With the exception of a few early tweaks, we’ve pretty much approved everything you've sent us on the first pass. What do you do to prepare for a project so that you know what to deliver? It’s fairly uncanny that you showed up and just get it.
AM: Well, I'd love to take all the credit... so I will. Mwahaha!! But no, really, I've found that the projects that go really smoothly are typically a result of a good amount of mutual respect and trust. You trust my expertise to deliver the right visual solutions, and respect my aesthetic viewpoint. Clients can sometimes get in the way of progress when they don't respect their artist's expertise and try to micro-manage or offer their own solutions. It's the same reason why I will never draw my own tattoos: the person I've trusted to permanently insert ink into my skin is going to know better how the art is going to lay on my skin and what will give the best result. I've literally designed hundreds of boxes in my professional career, many of which you can buy at any grocery store. You've got to trust that I might just maybe know what I'm talking about.
Editor's Note: Go check the box at the top of the post if you don't believe him.
On the flip side, I trust that the direction a client gives comes from knowing their game 110%, inside and out. My few plays of a game as I create artwork pales in comparison to the countless times a client has playtested it during development. I have to respect that authority in order to find the best visual solutions for the game. It's a two-way street.
You had a very confident, clear idea of what you wanted for Hocus, and that helped me arrive at the right decisions very early on. We're all clearly the best. Kudos!
GR: Tiffany noted her specialty is creatures and line drawing. What would you consider your specialty?
AM: Honestly, I think my specialty is probably vision. (Not eyesight, mind you - I’m actually so nearsighted that if I’m not wearing glasses or contacts I’m practically blind.) I typically formulate a vision for the look and feel of a game within the first few minutes of being told about it. I tend to shift my illustration style pretty widely to match that vision, and if I don’t think I can pull off the style that would work the best, I have actually turned away that portion of a project so another illustrator who handles that look regularly will be able to do so. It’s much more important to me that the final product be as great as it possibly can be than to have it all be “mine.”
I also tend to love tinkering with unusual board and component uses and arrangements. I love creating interesting modular boards (Gold West, Far Space Foundry, the upcoming World’s Fair 1893) and ways of looking at the same old pieces in a different way (like the score cards for Hocus).
GR: Who are some of the artists or people of any stripe who inspire you?
AM: I find inspiration literally everywhere, more so than individuals that I look up to specifically. I think an essential element in having a broad style is consuming media from as many sources possible. I keep a little scrapbook of sorts where I'll keep track of things that really catch my eye. Very frequently I'll watch a cartoon, or read a comic, or see a painting, and I'll file it away thinking, "I'd love to incorporate that into a game someday."
GR: What is the absolute “must have” you need from a client in order for things to run smoothly? For all the wannabe publishers out there like us, what do they need to do know when hiring an artist like yourself?
AM: Every client is completely different, but there are a few general tips I would give to anyone looking to hire an artist for a game:
Contract your artists/graphic designers before laying out concrete timelines. I've had to turn down several projects I would have really loved to be a part of where a publisher has said something along the lines of, "Are you available for X, we're launching on Kickstarter in 3 weeks!" Full-time creatives such as myself and other professional artists tend to have schedules and deadlines of their own prior to hearing from you. Don't miss out on your first (or second, or third) choice because you weren't able to work around their schedule!
Provide as much detail about your project as possible up front. Your artist's estimate will be the most accurate when they know how many unique components are involved. "It'll be in a Ticket To Ride size box" doesn't really give me a good idea how much work is involved. I could be hundreds of dollars off in my estimate, maybe even dozens of hundreds of dollars!
This one might be more of a pet peeve, but don't tell an artist that you're going to be contacting several artists to compare rates. We know you probably are - hell, you probably should! But expressing that comes across as fishing for a discount. I have several friends and acquaintances who do the same type of work as I do, and the last thing I want is to feel like I'm trying to outbid them for work.
Plan the project holistically whenever possible - involve the artist and graphic designer at the same time so they can work out solutions together. The result will be far more aesthetically succinct than buying artwork first then saddling a graphic designer to make it work later down the line.
GR: Tell us about some of your designs. I know you have a nifty hacking game signed with Gamelyn. Can you tell us about it?
AM: Vector started out as a free 8-card giveaway game at Gen Con 2015, following in Coin Age's footsteps the year before. It's a take on a worker placement game where players control the avatars of rival hackers, racing them along the circuitry of a network, exploiting weaknesses in their opponent's system, and trying to steal their data. After Gamelyn signed it I've been working to expand it from a 2-player only game to also allow for 3 and 4 players. I'm close to cracking it, so hopefully that will see the light of day sooner rather than later. Michael Coe has been extremely patient and supportive so far, so you can be sure that it'll be solid.
GR: Do you have any other games in the works? I know it was really tough for us to schedule you...you don’t seem to have much time for such things!
AM: Yeah… I have joked a few times about needing to hire an unpaid intern, but maybe I should actually look into that. Correspondence, scheduling, estimates, invoicing, all that “business” stuff - it takes up so much time! It’s obviously crazy important, and I am getting better at it every day, but I work between 50 and 60 hours a week as it is and the actual “making art” part of my job could easily fill that time alone.
Despite that, I have been making a point of scraping out some game design time for myself here and there, and I have a few promising prototypes underway. One is a game I’m calling “Sandbox Kingdoms” where rival groups of kids are building sandcastles in a sandbox. It feels a bit like a mix between worker placement and… checkers, maybe? Another is a dexterity game about urban construction and demolition that Kerry named “Rubble Rousers” where your dice are trucks knocking down buildings, collecting their materials, and building other buildings with them - that your opponents will likely try to knock down themselves. I also have a concept in very early stages that I’m co-designing with fellow beardo Chris Bryan (of Board With Life infamy) that may be the best game that Haba will ever publish that they don’t even know about yet.
(I'm also trying to nudge Kerry into finishing her goblin nail salon game whenever I can - she has an idea that's so perfect the world needs to hear it. But she doesn't want me talking about it. Ask me in private sometime so there's no record that I told you what it is.)
GR: If people want to learn more about you, where should they go?
GR: Anything else you want to add?
AM: If you haven't backed Cosmic Kaboom yet, get your ass over and rectify that mistake! I did the graphic design and it could use a little help hitting its goal/stretch goals. Also keep an eye out for Gold West and Steam Works, both from TMG. They have my junk all over them. Is everybody tired of reading my blabbering yet? Thanks for having me, guys!
GR: Thank you so much, Adam!