As a companion piece to Cameron Moll’s That Wicked Worn Look series, I decided I would chime in with a few kernels of knowledge. Though there are many types of worn aesthetics, as you can see by my site, I love the look of aged print materials. There is a history and esteemed nostalgia associated with old editions of literature and other printed materials that just speaks to me. I often like to entertain a notion where I’m not a general graphic designer (lately, more of an interactive designer), but instead working in book jacket design. Maybe I just want to be Chip Kidd.
A Teaspoon of Theory
Old type and torn edges
The internet is an ageless medium. Obviously, if I put up a site and leave it for a few years, its stylistic appeal will most likely dwindle because of trends moving forward, but it will not physically age and there is no physical decay. When you create something with a worn and aged look, you are emulating the passage of time and the systematic breakdown of matter. Printed materials decay. Yellowing pages, moisture stains, handling, rips, tears, folds bumps, scratches and burns are all signs of usage and breakdown. The more you analyze the real thing, instead of just the reproduction, the more you will appreciate those artists that came before you, and consequently, the more competence and life you be able to impart to your work. As long as I am a designer and an artist, I will study art, new and old. It doesn’t stop when you leave school, that is, if it’s not just a job to you.
A Brief Interlude
Why do you want to make your design look old? Generally, as with most design, you should do it for a reason and to support your design’s concept. Designers are visual communicators, and any one of them worth their salt can usually account for the purpose of a given element in a design. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not living in a gumdrop house on lollypop lane. I realize it’s not always possible in the world of client thumbprints and deadlines, but for personal work where you are the boss this should be a paramount goal. Design that is old looking or vintage for the sake of it, usually appears thin, with barely a leg to stand on. Are you making something look old because it supports a concept, or are you doing it because it looks cool? Substance and style work hand in hand.
Building a Reference Library
Dot Gain, watch it bleed
One of the best ways to educate yourself about an aged aesthetic is to look for reference. Seek out old materials. Good places to start include: thrift stores, garage sales, libraries, used book shops and your dear grandmother’s attic (great for digging up old photos and press clippings) are all potential treasure troves. One added benefit of this is many old publications are obviously pre-computer and consequently have beautiful handmade typography and ornamentation. Pay close attention to where your materials were found (any moisture nearby?), year of origin or time period, and possibly any history attached to them. Look for printing mishaps like too much ink coverage (resulting in blotty letters), poor trapping, and out of register prints, some hallmarks of older print production techniques. These are just a few factors that can aide you in your conceptual execution.
Even if you are designing strictly for the web, you still need to know what you are trying to replicate. When you obtain materials, get a feel for their dimensions and physicality. This will help you better understand how to emulate them. Don’t just look at them. Feel their texture. Study how light is absorbed and reflected by them. The better you understand what it is you are emulating, the more realistic the effect will be.
Over the years I have amassed quite a bit of reference material from aesthetics and visuals for various time periods, styles, and effects. Lately I have taken to using iPhoto to categorize the collection by varying degrees like styles, or effects (crumbling paper).
Making Your Own
Inkjet folding effect
When all else fails, create your own. Most textural effects exist in meatspace already, so why not use them? You can achieve many beautiful aged looks by some simple analog methods. Tea Staining paper will instantly shave years off its visual life, and create some happy mistakes like liquid gradations which are tough to emulate from scratch on the computer. Ink washes and brush splattering can create some amazing abstract wear and textural “decay beatings” which can be used as overlay applications. Scorch the edges of a page with your favorite fire starter (under supervision of a parent or guardian). Create realistic folds and paper splits by printing out a full sheet of flat black ink on your laser jet. Fold it back and forth to break the top layers of the paper and create a bright white crease. Scan it in and apply to your design. This is one of the few times its ok to use to use the Magic Wand tool. Since the resolution is so low for screen production, you won’t notice the stray and cut-off pixels as you would in a printed piece. The web is a much more forgiving medium. Take some invisible tape to that same black print and peel it on and off the surface to create a weathered texture. Use your imagination! It’s so much more fun to create these textures by hand.
Obviously, this is a very generalized look at using weathered and distressed looks. One of the main things to remember is not to overdo it, a little really does go a long way. In the case of this site, I had some comps that were much more worn and beat up looking (especially in the nav and horizontal separators), but I ended up scraping them because they were too obtuse. The amount I settled on was just enough to complete the feeling and get the aesthetic across. These are not hard and fast rules. Some people prefer to do everything in Photoshop with filters in hand (tool). This may work for some projects, but seem generic for others. Above all else, be creative and don’t limit yourself to the tools sitting right in front of you.
For further reading, try on some of these other companion articles: