As a consultancy, 8th Light focuses heavily on its people, and in my few short months as an apprentice I’ve seen firsthand the care taken to make sure employees here are supported and given everything they need to do the amazing work that 8th Light is known for. As the company’s 10th anniversary approached, senior leadership decided to do celebrate with a surprise gift for each employee that focused on them: an employee trading card. My mentor told me I’d be working on the project, with one of the senior directors as my “client,” and that I would have to keep my work a secret so that everyone could be surprised on the day they received their cards. I was excited to jump into the world of print design, which I knew nothing about, and to work on a meaningful project that would help all the incredible people I work with feel appreciated by their company.
Print design is a huge field all of its own that people study for years and get degrees in, and as someone who already feels shaky in her visual skills, taking on my first print project presented a lot of challenges. My main focus was on quickly learning how print design differs from web design, which always appears on a screen. I had no idea that screens are far more forgiving of tiny flaws, and that a pixel-perfect design in sketch might look great in a web browser but terrible on a physical piece of paper. I was also pretty shocked at how different colors appear on a screen versus on paper - the first time I printed my design, excited to see it in the physical world, I was dismayed at how my carefully chosen shades of blue and yellow were suddenly all wrong.
There are also a lot of other small differences when designing for print - you have to set your colors to be in CYMK rather than HSLA, (PUT EXPLANATION ABOUT THIS HERE), small text and details and easily get lost when there’s ink involved, and you also have to remember to plan for the “cut area” (the line where you’ll cut your design away from the rest of the paper it’s printed on - sometimes this can shift, so you have to plan for that) and “bleed area” (the area outside the cut area where ink can bleed out).
This project also presented an interesting challenge logistically - keeping it completely secret from everyone except for my “client” (a senior employee at 8th Light), the office administrator who was helping plan for purchasing, and my mentor. I wasn’t to talk about in the daily apprentice stand up, when all the apprentices discuss their current work and blockers and offer each other help, and I had to make sure that none of the dozens of employees in the office walked behind me and saw my laptop screen, lest they see their own photo staring back at them and understandably got curious about what I was doing.
From my new, more secretive work spots, I got to work. With a lot of help from my mentor, who is an ace in print design, as well as a very informative phone call with the man at the printing company we had hired to print the cards, I started to get a grip on designing for print. I learned to never assume anything until I had printed my design out and viewed it in its physical form.
I started off thinking through different theme options, and after some research and inspiration found online, settled on three versions: a vintage sports trading card, a Pokemon-like game card, and an authoritarian regime identification card. I would use these as a starting point to get closer to what my client wanted. I spent a few days creating my prototypes, printing them out often to see what they looked like on paper, making adjustments, and printing again. When I was happy with my designs, I printed them off on card stock, cut out the front and back of each design and glued them together in order to be able to give my client a physical prototype to interact with at our next meeting.
The Pokemon-style card was designed to encapsulate a fantasy world of magic that 8th Light crafters exist within. Players must assemble a winning team of developers, designers, salespeople and administrators to run a successful magic consultancy. Completing quests and collecting gems allows players to go from apprentice to crafter. Each play has a special set of skills that allow them to do things like close tough sales and defeat the evil bug monsters who lurk in the shadows.
The sports card was designed to illustrate a world in which the various offices of 8th Light - Chicago, NYC, LA and London - are each a sports team competing against each other in an International League of Crafters. Player positions are determined on the role of the crafter (development, design, sales and admin). The teams compete in a friendly yet constant competition with each other, and every team member is a star player.
The authoritarian regime card was inspired by the Hunger Games and designed to showcase a post-apocalyptic dystopian future in which we all live under an 8th Light authoritarian regime. Much as I had fun making this card, the design simply couldn’t work from a business standpoint.
Feedback about the three versions of the cards I had made helped me pinpoint what my client was looking for, and I went back to work on a card that was simpler and had less of a strong theme than my original versions. With more help from my mentor in choosing a font that brought about the feeling of computers from our childhood, I created the new design. One of the elements my client liked the most was the icons for the various “statistics” about each employee, and now that I was getting closer to the final product, I took the time to make my own icons. A ping-pong paddle was used for the hobbies fact because 8th Light has an affinity for the game, while the computer and vacation stats received a more straight-forward mouse and airplane.
I also created small icons for each location (Chicago, New York, Los Angelos and London) based on the city’s crest, but the details were lost at such a small size. I replaced them with a simple line drawing of a significant building from each city based on the existing branding on 8th Light’s website. I also and decided on a color palette for each location to give them a distinct flavor, and spent a while trying to incorporate the 8th Light blue into each of them. The blue with the other colors simply looked strange, and I ended up sticking to one main color for each location, and gave Chicago the 8th Light blue in honor of the company being created in Chicago’s suburbs and remaining the largest office.
I also made various versions to determine how the employee’s photo would be placed on the card. At first I tried cutting out the background, leaving only the employee’s head and torso, as I had done with the Pokemon card. I tried putting a gradient behind the employee, leaving white, and then using the full photo, none of which worked. Since the photos were square, they didn’t take up the entire space I had created for them. I ended up creating a rectangle mask of each employee’s photo to create the shape I wanted, and used the original photo to fill up the space.
Another area that needed iterating on was the statistic icons. My mentor helped me see how the space of each of the three icons was varied to a significant degree, and encouraged me to find a way to make them each take up the same amount of space. I redesigned the ping-pong paddle to have and empty center, and replaced the mouse icon with a monitor that also had empty space in the middle. I traded out the plane, which was much too small in terms of height, for a palm tree on a beach that had the same height as the other two icons. I kept the palm tree leaves open, and added a small sun to take up space to there left of the tree, evening it out with the space taken up in the width of the other two icons.
Finally, I also created the back of the card, which included binary, a great idea from my mentor. My client sent me a binary translator so that I could make the binary mean something, and chose 8th's light logo: "Software is our craft."
I spent a while tracking down new photos for the few people whose current photos wouldn’t work with the design, as well as going through people’s survey results and modifying their answers to be shorter so as to fit on the card. When that was done, I shut myself in a quiet room for an entire day to build each person’s individual card, including extra padding around the edge to account for the printing “bleed” area. I double and triple checked that their information and picture was matched with the correct name, and then exported them and sent them to the printer. A week later we finally got to see the final cards, and I was really happy happy with how they turned out. Even better was the day the director who had been my client explained that they were all getting their own employee trading cards, and seeing everyone excitedly opening their envelopes and checking out their cards.
Print design does not equal web design. I have a newfound respect for people who can design on a screen and have it come out beautifully when printed - this is a craft all of its own. Being a proficient web designer doesn’t mean much about your ability to design for print.
Clients often need to be primed before giving feedback. I loved working with the employee who managed this project, and our rapport was great - until I realized that he was actually looking for the project to go in a completely different direction, but hadn’t exactly said as much. As the consultant, it’s my job to make sure that people feel comfortable giving feedback that’s not 100% positive. I learned not to take “yeah this is good” type of feedback as a go-ahead to continue in that direction, but to instead probe further and frame my language in such a way that invites an honest critique. Asking something like “what would you like to see changed for the next version?” is going to elicit a more honest response than “so you’re good with this version?” Clients are people too, and people generally don't want to hurt other people’s feelings. Since this project, I’ve made sure to remind clients that I appreciate honest feedback and won’t get my feelings hurt when they want changes made to a design. Putting that little note in a slack message works wonders.