Design Darwinism

Do designs just magically pop from mind to screen? Lord I wish so. Any artist will likely tell you that design or art is a process. A thought or inspiration sparks in the mind, then the fun of making that spark into something real.

My prime design, the data monkey, was no different. Born about 7 years ago, it started off in a much different fashion. The concept was fairly simple: make a path with a monkey and tabs to say ‘secret’ and ‘data monkey.’ Seemed easy enough. Well… As you can see below, the early attempts were pretty basic. You’ll also see a multitude of spin-offs that came quickly from the original.

Most of these early iterations were very much design, not so much art. Combine elements to get a thought across. Since then, as you can see from the overall theme of this blog and my portfolio, I found a little more art to use with the design.

I admit at times to fixating on the initial design/concept, but have learned to sometimes stop and let it rest for a bit. While elements may carry through, the difference between initial and final can be striking at times.


Six years ago, around the 4th of July, I received a message from one of my best friend’s boyfriend. He and I never talked directly. The message was simple. Jacquie, my best friend since middle school, had died. At the time, my family and I were on a drive through rural Nebraska during a family reunion. Sadly, I had not actually seen Jacquie in years. Our last attempt to meet in person was 7 years prior during a layover on our way to our honeymoon.

So, what how does this connect to design? Jacquie was a talented artist and had her own design business, Enso Blue. I wasn’t anywhere near hobbyist designer I am now, but we did chat about it.

When I started my portfolio site, I dearly wished I could’ve sought her advice. In many cases, she comes to mind whenever I start a major project, especially those that take more artistic approaches.

If you’ve checked out the portfolio site, you’ll also find a small memorial message about Jacquie.

Can You Tweak This Photo?

We’ve all heard the universal phrase “can you photoshop this?” Yes, Adobe’s raster/image manipulation software has become part of the English lexicon (at least American English). But is it the only tool out there? Short answer: no. Long answer: there are a number of programs that are free.

The one I have installed and use occasionally as the need presents is GIMP. The Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) has been around for quite some time and was actually the first FOSS program I recall using.

If you need to work with images (photos and such), GIMP is a good tool. You can adjust, paint, skew, filter, etc. most JPGs, PNGs and even RAW files. Prefer to ‘paint’ rather than ‘draw,’ then GIMP is probably better suited for you than Inkscape. Keep in mind that Inkscape and GIMP can compliment each other as well.

As with Inkscape to Illustrator, GIMP replicates many of the core functions of Photoshop. Does it do it all? No, but it’s not really meant to. Tools like Adobe have the benefit of millions of dollars in revenue to support development, which means more power and capability (in general). That’s not to say FOSS tools are inferior. It just means development takes a different path, but can create the same output in many ways, but might also present new ideas.

As with Inkscape, GIMP is cross-platform, which means it works on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Are there others, besides GIMP? Yes, but I haven’t used many of them personally.

Design is in the Cards

Playing cards. Usually 52 cards in a deck (I have one that’s only 32, but another with 100-ish). Each one (can be) a work of art of design on a 2 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ canvas (for a Poker card). A nice way to create a collection around a theme, and make it more than just a wall hanger.

I’ll fully admit – my wife is the card player in the family. She and her family usually play at least one card game when we are together. Me? I’ve developed an interest in designing the cards more than playing.

Looking at most card decks, a lot of the real design falls to the backs and the face cards (A, K, Q, J). Amongst these cards, there can be lots of hidden meaning. Does that mean they have to stay the same across all decks? Nope. Take a look at Kickstarter and one can see a wide range of takes on playing cards. Another fun place to look is Portfolio52, where one can not only search decks, but you can even catalog your collection (we have an ever growing collection).

You will likely see some of my concepts on here over time. In addition to the Trigrams deck, I’ve also started a few others. Some are just partial decks, others are well more developed. And sadly, a few may never really see print, but I’ll talk about that in a separate post.

My current design collection of cards:

Layouts without payouts

Last time, I talked about using Inkscape to create many of my logos, patches, etc. This time, thought I would mention what I use when the need is more of a publication, not so much a single graphic. For these cases I use two primary tools/systems: Scribus and TeX/LaTeX.

The FOSS realm provides a lot of tools to replace/supplement proprietary tools. For creating publications (books, flyers, and so on), the main industry tool is InDesign. Unfortunately, even with the subscription model, InDesign is still not a big option when starting out. For me, I found Scribus to be a workable replacement. Again, as with Inkscape, you get what you pay for. With Scribus, you get basic Desktop Publishing (DTP) capability in a free and open tool. Unlike a word processor like LibreOffice (think Office for FOSS), a DTP like Scribus does more than simply put words on a page. A DTP takes words and makes them work on a page. Any time you see a book, magazine, (most) flyers, you are seeing the results of DTP.

I’ll put a caveat – you won’t likely see many results of Scribus here or on my gallery pages. Unless I need to create a book-like product, I don’t use DTP much. Now, one example that will likely use DTP for some final production processes will be the Trigrams deck. This is mostly due to the needs of a potential printer.

Are there other ways to create well-formatted things like books? Yes there are. Another tool I’ve used (mostly for a handbook project) is a system called TeX (not a typo). TeX is a typesetting (or document production) system, not so much a publishing software like Scribus or InDesign. Instead, TeX focuses on the text itself, using tagging to create the output later on. Because of this, TeX tends to resemble HTML or other tagged documents. However, TeX needs other tools to actually render the pages. For this, I use LaTeX editors like TeXstudio. Keep in mind with things like TeX – it looks ‘ugly’ while making, but create some nice looking results. One final note about TeX – if you need to do fancy math equations or similar things, TeX is really good at rendering those things in a document. You’d be hardpressed to replicate them in a regular word processor.

TeX Users Group:


Design….on no budget

As I’ve mentioned, design is a hobby of mine. So, I get to spend lots of money…. Not really. Then how does design work on no budget? One solution: Free and Open Source Software (FOSS).

In nutshell, FOSS encompasses a wide selection of software that’s free and open sourced, meaning the code is open to the public (generally). For me, this means I use free and open tools for my work. Yes, I know ‘real’ designers use things like Adobe and such, but they also do this for a living.

The next part of this explanation gives the details. Yes, my first exposure to vector graphic design was through Illustrator (8.x) in my college cartography [mapmaking] class. We used it to make our final map projects, as the main GIS software at the time really didn’t cut it for nice looking maps. Cutting my design teeth with maps, I discovered a taste for making designs. Mind you, it’s taken time to develop skills and I’m still far from well-versed.

But Illustrator is neither free nor open source… what do I use. Many years ago, I discovered a FOSS alternative to Illustrator: Inkscape. While not as powerful or prevelant as Illustrator, Inkscape has served me well and continues to do so. I have many of the core tools I need and have learned to adapt when I can’t use the fancier stuff. All my designs for Data Monkey Designs are crafted with Inkscape primarily, although I do use other programs once I start projects such as playing cards or more book-like concepts. More on those later.

So, I would encourage anyone wanting to try their hand with vector (points, lines, etc.) design to give Inkscape a try. If you prefer more raster (photo)-based work, I would recommend GIMP (perhaps a topic for another post).

A More Mature Monkey

If you’ve seen my portfolio site, you’ve likely seen reference to Cheeky Monkey. Cheeky was a creation to ‘brand’ some of my more mature designs and concepts. Some of them are just not-safe-for-work snarky graphics and such. I’ve also worked on more adult-themed ideas as well. Some of these are just one-off graphics based on random thoughts. Others are more developed ideas, like a couples-focused card deck to spice things up through different theme, location, and other suggestions.

So, why this post? Well, I wanted to let folks that not all of my entries and ideas will be family-friendly or shareable at work. Just realize that I will try to flag/tag these posts under the ‘NSFW’ tag. I also ask that we be adults, and if you aren’t interested in those topics, just don’t visit that area.

And with that…..enjoy the more mature monkey…

The Snark Side

Many of my designs are on the snarky/sarcastic side. To those who know me, this won’t be a surprise. I’ll admit some of them are ‘not safe for work’ (or NSFW). As my design work is largely a hobby, much of my design inspiration comes from my ‘real world.’ In my life, I know many veterans (including both my parents), so I tend to find sarcasm and snark in many things. As you look through my portfolio (either on my website, Facebook or Instagram), you will find a snarky side to many of my designs. Each designer/artist will have their own identity…mine just happens to be from the Snark Side.

Design versus Art

The other evening my wife made a comment why I didn’t pursue graphic design in college. The response was I really hadn’t ‘found’ my design interest at that time (although I did enjoy a fairly freeform art class in 8th grade). The conversation then proceeding to a comparison between my design work and the work and education of her best friend. That brought up the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘design.’ I describe my work as ‘design’ as I tend to use existing elements to compose a piece. The ‘art’ side of things uses original art for most of the piece. While I do have and use original art, much of my work lies in the combining of different elements. I also freely admit that my hand drawing skills are far from art-worthy.