Shop Talk

Nik Holmes’ Tips for Creating Cool Designs

We’re always keen to peer inside the minds of designers to find out more about their processes and how they work. So when Nik Holmes agreed to share some t-shirt design tips with us we were suitably excited. Nik is a British Illustrator based in North Yorkshire. He describes his work as “a combination of flat and chunky retro cartooning, bold, colourful stylings of old school graffiti with a dash of comic book kapow!” Pull up a comfy chair and switch on your right brains as Nik talks us through his design process … with a little help from a Zombie Fighter.

I use Adobe Illustrator to create my designs, with a touch of Photoshop magic to get them ready to upload to Redbubble. Here are some of my favourite Illustrator techniques in action.

1. Layers
Before I begin, I create a new document to the correct screen size of Redbubble Tee designs. I then divide up my document into several layers. I know I want a logo and an illustration, so I create those layers as well as a generic background image for any extra elements I may end up adding. I also create a ‘rough’ layer, onto which I paste my sketch work and any reference. I set the opacity to 50% so that my other work shows up and doesn’t get lost in the rough.

2. The Pen Tool
With the fill colour set to nothing and a black stroke, use this tool to lay down the basic outline of all your important shapes, using a rough sketch as a basic guide. Once all of the shapes have been drawn, apply a white fill. You now have a basic black and white image to colour.

3. The Brush Tool
Once I have a basic character, he can appear a little ‘flat’, so it’s time to add some more naturalistic strokes. For this I use the brush tool. I have created my own Brushes, but illustrator comes with a great deal of choices already built in. I work my way around the image, adding extra lines and detail to bring it to life. Now we’re ready for colour. With digital colour you have an unlimited supply of colour, and any wrong decisions can be easily undone so have some fun.

4. Outline Stroke

Once I am happy with the illustration, and 100% sure I won’t be changing any of the line work I then convert all the strokes to solid shapes. To do this I select everything on the page (Ctrl A) and choose Object > Path > Outline Stroke. Now I know that the image will maintain all line weights if I need to get the file over to anyone else. Obviously this isn’t a concern when I’m designing for Redbubble, but I find it’s good practice to develop habits such as this.

5. Group
With my Illustration now complete I select all of they layer and group it together (Object>Group). This makes resizing and editing the elements easier further down the line. As each element is completed throughout the design, I do the same.

6. Apply Text
Now I have the character in place it’s time to apply a logo. I lock the Illustration layer for now, to ensure it remains untouched throughout the next stage, and begin work on the logo layer. After typing what I need using the text tool, I’m going to want to manipulate the logo. The simplest way to do this is to transform the type into shapes. Select the text and go to Type > Create Outlines. I now have some shapes which I can manipulate like I would any other part of the illustration. I want a chunky, fleshy feel to the letters so I grab my brush tool again and start to add some detail.

7. Subheading
I have a logo I’m happy with, but it doesn’t make any sense on it’s own. I need to make it clear what the letters stand for, and the easiest way to do that is to add a second line of text. I also want to incorporate a device which ties the figure and the logo together visually, and I figure my subheading can do this nicely. Using the Elipse tool I can create a circular shape for the type, which will sit behind our Zombie Fighter.

Choosing the Type On A Path from the tool bar, I place my cursor onto the circle and whatever I type follows the shape of the circle. Some adjustment is needed depending on the size of font required and the position of the type, but once I’m happy I once again use the Create Outlines tool.

8. Outline

Now I have my image, I need to start thinking about separating the elements so they stand out from each other and for that I like to use outlines. I grab the logo and make a copy of it (Edit > Copy) and then paste that copy directly below the original (Edit > Paste in Back). Then with the object still selected I add a stroke to it. Using the Stroke Window (Window > Stroke) I increase the thickness of the stroke until I am happy and then with it still selected I convert the stroke to paths (Object > Path > Outline Stroke). I then repeat the process, this time with the Illustration.

9. Extra Elements
I’m happy with the image as it is, but it’s sitll looking a little too clean. To shake it up a bit I decide to bring in some splats. There are numerous web sites which offer vector packs of splats, and many other resources. Another option is to create your own splats using ink or paint on paper, then scan the image and use LiveTrace in Illustrator to transform it into a vector you can manipulate.

I like the blood splatters, but they’re a bit too solid and all that red is dominating the lower half too much for my liking. Unfortunately, red can be a tricky colour when it comes to lightening the tone, as it wanders all too happily into the world of pink. Therefore I decide that halftone is the way to go.

First I create a halftone pattern using the circle tool. Once this is done, I simply grab the circles and add them to my palettes (Window > Palette). Now I select my blood spatters and choose my halftone as the new fill pattern. Much better.

10. Don’t Fear (Last Minute) Change.

We’re almost there now but I decide I’m not quite happy with the right arm on our Zombie Fighter. The beauty of Illustrator however, is how easily I’m able to edit my illustration even this far down the line. Because the illustration is grouped, if I double click on it I’m taken into the illustration layer where only this element is editable. This allows me to quickly grab the offending arm, delete and replace with a bandaged stump. Nice!

A big thanks to Nik for sharing his design tips. We hope you’ve picked up something useful or have been inspired to try something new. If you have some design knowledge to impart and think you could whip up an awesome tutorial like this, drop us a line.

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