A note to the reader: This post is an expansion of the concepts first related in eXperiment (part I of this series). MLM is an acronym for Mac Lab Media, our nascent student-powered commercial art foundry.

UPDATE: We—the students and I in conjunction with Real World Scholars—have officially launched Mac Lab Media

Goals: For the Mac Lab, our goal is to become a self-funded learning environment by the 2020/2021 school year. For the students, our goal is to provide the training and experience necessary to launch their own individual commercial art foundries upon graduation.


Geometric patterns from Youandigraphics.
Hand drawn patterns from Julia Dreams.

Patterns just might be one of the gateway drugs for Illustrator. (Getting kids hooked on creativity and creative tools is a good thing!)

Plus, introducing patterns might just wean my current students of their (unhealthy) reliance on stock photography for every poster they design. (Some addictions are bad!)

Our ethical dilemma will be to consciously avoid slavishly copying existing patterns. Drawing inspiration from, yes. Methodically copying and claiming as our own, absolutely not! Of course we’ll still create stripes and grids and repeating geometrical elements—virtual archetypes in the pantheon of patterns and decorative boarders—but hand drawn patterns will most likely provide the means for many students to express their creativity using their own voice.

Inspiration surrounds us. I believe pattern creation will help students become more aware of the rhythms of visual richness that we move through each day. (And heightened awareness is another good thing.)

Pattern detail from Zac Posen (I took the photo at Adobe MAX 2016). Note the interesting intersections in the grid (center triangle). Food for thought! (P.S. I’m not a fashionista—I mostly wear jeans and t-shirts—but I can still appreciate the creative details.)


Textures from 2 Lil Owls.

Denise Love, founder of 2 Lil Owls, is one of my all-time fav texture designers and she’s set the bar high for us. I love her rich colors, her multi-layered textures, and, most especially, her aesthetic. Explore her site, sign up for her newsletter, and soak in the inspiration.

I’ve downloaded a bazillion or so textures—both free and commercial—yet when I actually use a texture, I almost always create one from scratch (even though I have a large collection of 2 Lil Owl textures via DesignCuts bundles).

Go figure.

All year long my students have learned to work non-destructively in Photoshop—using smart objects, smart filters, adjustment layers, blending modes, etc. Even our vignettes and dodge and burn layers harm no pixels and are editable.

Why is this important? We could assemble an in-house texture library comprised of editable, multi-layered PSDs, each capable of generating scores of different textures. In addition to the usual collection of hi-res JPGs, we could also supply collections of PSDs that our customers could modify to suit their needs. Imagine including a pre-made stack of Layer Comps with each PSD to get users started with the customization options.

So many more possibilities…

Bottom Line: It’d be sweet to push the texture envelope. And besides, what a great learning tool these resources will be for the kids.

Stock Photography

Photo by Diana Alsindy while a student in the Mac Lab. (Currently at UCSD.)

Every year we have a few students who develop a keen photographic eye. Once stock images are in play—and they are now—I expect a few new students to step up and deliver. We’ll also use photographs for some of our textures and background imagery.

The image below, taken by a Mac Lab student, sits between stock photography and background images as what you see is straight out of the camera. Light painting—long exposure photography—offers yet another gateway students might choose.

Light painting by Aaron Lopez.

Background Images

Look familiar? Yep, that’s one of the images that accompanied part I in this series ⇒ eXperiment.

Background imagery is wide-open for interpretation and should generate a lot of interest for the tutorial-driven student. I can supply a flexible recipe (try this, this, and that, then…) along with a collection of ingredients from which to choose (smart filters, blending modes, adjustment layers, etc.), and voila! Custom images will pop out of the Photoshop oven. (Some will be more palatable than others.)

Of course it’s a little more complicated than that but these projects should build workflow skill-sets that our cooks can use to step up to other challenges.

Plus, there are certain types of images that lend themselves to interesting manipulations. More fodder for our photographers!

I must confess that I have a soft spot for these types of images. The one below was designed for a calendar back in 2011 and repurposed earlier this month (trying to inspire the kids, y’know). Hmmm… Calendar Mockups? (Just thinking out loud.)

From a photo I took in the Embarcadero in San Fransisco (2008). Factoid: The text appears to sit too low in the image (above) but it looks right when used as a desktop picture (wallpaper) on my MacBook Pro (below)—which was what it was designed for.
See? 😛

Symbols and Shapes

Heart Symbols from ctrlastudio.

Not to get too corny with the hearts, but I absolutely LOVE the endless possibilities presented by creating symbols (Illustrator) and shapes (Photoshop). Besides the fact that they give everyone from designers to doodlers a relatively simple path to that first taste of success, these resources can also be repurposed as patterns and decorative borders.

And what about dingbat fonts or Photoshop brushes? Before rejecting the latter, think about Photoshop’s brush engine (try using shape dynamics and scattering then maybe even color dynamics just for starters). Yeah, there are so many ways we can leverage the untapped power within a single shape. Can’t wait to get started with this one!


Hand drawn font from Vítek Prchal.

Since I mentioned dingbat fonts in the prior section, perhaps this would be a good time to add a fonts category to our growing list.

Rough, hand drawn fonts are experiencing a renaissance of sorts and that provides a most excellent opportunity for a big adventure in font design. Creating all the diacritical marks for alternate characters will be a great lesson for the kids. Hey, we’re entering a global marketplace where the unadorned alphabet falls short of the collection of letterforms our customers will require.

True Confessions: I’ve had a love affair with typography ever since I painted my first sign when I was 15 (Ace Hardware on Main Street in downtown Watsonville, CA) so this will be an opportunity to share my bliss with the kids (and a great reason to make my own fonts, too).*

*Thinking back it’s more likely the posters for the music scene in San Francisco in the mid-to-late 60s lit my fire. (If you get my drift.) Ooh, and comic book titles (Marvel had the best artists when I was a kid).


Product image from Retro Supply (Scroll through the thumbnails on that page and look through all of the images).

Dustin Lee, owner of Retro Supply Company, has been an inspiration to me from the start. He had a vision that he acted on and his Creative Market shop grew so successful that he had to hire help. I love small business success stories—especially when they happen to genuinely nice guys like Dustin. Today Retro Supply is a creative force to be reckoned with.

You might be wondering why I chose that image (above). Read the text in the black band at the bottom. I’d never seen that image nor read that message but deconstruction is what I’ve been doing for well over a year. We all see the end products. But how many of us wonder about the journey? How many of us wonder about the decisions people like Dustin made along the way?

I want kids to begin asking themselves those questions.

Brushes, be they Illustrator or Photoshop, are, for the most part, an under-utilized element in most students’ creative tool box. The mere act of declaring our intention to create our own should bring brush options into focus for many of the kids.

I’d say that’s reason enough but just imagine what it would mean to the students to work with their own custom brush libraries?


Plus, using their own custom brushes to create new design elements would add one more layer of originality to their end products.


Objects from Qeaql.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a collection of isolated hi-res objects to drop into any design?

The image (above) contains a well-considered collection of (mostly) related objects one might use to do just that (and is an excellent example of the genre).

I’d like to make one small adjustment to the original question.

Wouldn’t it be great to have an eclectic collection of isolated hi-res objects to drop into any design?

I’d like to see the kids (eventually) build a library of hundreds of hi-res isolated objects—the weirdest, most bizarre collection of (school appropriate) images ever assembled. Whether scanned or photographed, the kids would need to hone their post-production skills to compile such a world class library.

How cool would that be?


Illustrator actions from Borges Lettering.

I know what you’re thinking because I was thinking it, too.

Do we really want our students using Actions? How will they learn if they just click a button and the automated steps do all the work?

Hey, do you let them use the Spot Healing Brush or Content Aware Fill in Photoshop? Why not restrict them to the Clone Stamp Tool?

Back in the day I used to draw every letter by hand because there was no other way for a kid to create letterforms in his room. Should we restrict the use of the Type Tool, too?

Silly, right? But I still feel your reluctance. I feel it because I resisted, too. Or at least I did up until I asked the real question.

Do we want our students creating Actions?

Of course. Who wouldn’t?

As my favorite comic book author used to write, ‘Nuff said.

ZIM! The Zone of Intrinsic Motivation

ZIM! Adapted (with permission) from Bud Caddell’s How to be Happy in Business Venn diagram. (Bud’s original post is now a 404.)

All year long I’ve challenged students to engage in academic entrepreneurship in order to earn creative freedom with a purpose (for more information, see the (re)Imagine post). Some students have risen to the challenge while others became frustrated with my insistence that their projects benefit others in addition to themselves.

When my explanations failed to convey the meaning of creative freedom with a purpose to one particularly frustrated young man who insisted he had the right to do his own thing, I said something like, Imagine the Mac Lab is Wendy’s and you’ve been hired to cook hamburgers but instead of cooking hamburgers you’re building shelves. What’s your boss’ going to say?

I have no idea where that analogy came from since I haven’t been to a Wendy’s in decades but I could see the light in his eyes. He finally understood what I’d been trying to say. I told him to come back and pitch me again when he was ready.

It’s been two weeks with no pitch.

I tell kids that ZIM! (The Zone of Intrinsic Motivation) is a conversation, a negotiation, and, for those who succeed, a celebration. I challenge them to grow my circle (the WHAT I WANT YOU TO DO teacher stuff). Some do. Others…

Mac Lab Media expands my circle in radical ways. Kids like the one who was building shelves (drawing robot heads) now have a stairway to their own digital arts heaven. He can say the robot heads are intended to be used as symbols, shapes, patterns, decorative borders, dingbats (for a font), or even Photoshop brushes and I’ll say, Great. Make more robot heads!

I’m still uninterested in some kids’ obsessions with celebrities, sports stars, exotic cars, money, gold, diamonds, and the like but I did recently add two new items students may purchase (with our digital currency—see Game On: A Work in Progress)—to escape my disdain and (temporarily) follow their bliss ⇒ store items no longer available—replaced with perks for 2017/18. (They have to work on Mac Lab stuff to earn their gold. Who am I to tell them how to spend it?)

Freedom with Responsibility and Deeds, not Words are two of Valhalla’s old mottos. They still serve us well in the Mac Lab.

Now, after all these words, it’s time for some deeds. I can’t wait to spring this on the kids when they return from Thanksgiving Break.

Feels right. Now it’s polishing time. I keep finding more mistakes and clumsy phrasing with each (re)reading. Plus more content to be added.

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