This is a guest post by Mike Rohde. We hired Mike to illustrate original art for REWORK. Each one of the 90 essays in REWORK is accompanied by an illustration that captures the key message of the essay. We asked Mike to share the illustration process with you here on Signal vs. Noise. This post is part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 will be posted within the next few weeks.

In September 2009, I began work with Jason Fried to create a series of 90 sketchnote illustrations and 10 chapter illustrations for the new 37signals business book, REWORK. In December 2009, I completed the illustration project, delivering final illustrations to the publisher for book production.

Photo of sketches in my Moleskine notebook, featuring “Everyone on the Front Lines” and “Take a Deep Breath” — two illustration concepts for REWORK that are ready for inking. –Photo by Mike Rohde

Project Background

I met Jason after he saw the sketchnotes I’d captured at his first SEED conference in 2007. Those sketchnotes were featured on Signal vs. Noise and led to an invitation to sketchnote the SEED 3 conference in June 2008. The SEED 3 sketchnotes led, in turn, to sketchnoting Jason’s talk on business at Milwaukee’s Discovery World in September 2008.

SEED 3 Sketchnotes: First Spread
Photo of the opening spread of my sketchnotes from the SEED 3 conference, June, 2008. –SEED 3 Sketchnote Set on Flickr

It was important to me to keep in contact with Jason after my sketchnote work at the SEED 1 conference. Our first contact opened the door to two more sketchnoting opportunities and ultimately led to the REWORK illustrations.

No Time to Waste

When Jason contacted me in September 2009, the REWORK book production process was pretty far along. The deadline for the galley proofs, a mocked-up paperback version of the book used for final proofing, was a little over a month away. Timing was tight.

Jason, David and the 37signals team felt the art created by the publisher didn’t quite capture the personality originally envisioned for the book. They sought something loose, sketchy and hand-drawn to capture the tone of the essays. Something like my sketchnotes.

Selling the Illustrations

With a tight galley proof deadline approaching, we had to convince Crown Publishing, that creating new art for all 90 REWORK essays was a good idea.

Our strategy? Create several sample illustrations, drop them into actual book page mockups so the publisher could see the proposed art in context.

Our plan worked. Crown loved the sketchnote illustrations. I was given a green light to create as many illustrations as possible before the galley proof deadline in early November.

Establishing Specifications

One of the most valuable moves we made was gaining direct access to the production team at Crown. Jason connected me with the project’s production artist, who provided details on page size, trim, gutter and safe zones.

The production artist also verified illustration resolution and suggested I add additional margin outside the trim area of each illustration. This was key, as each page in the book required a slightly different horizontal positioning to account for the book’s binding.

Leaving more margin on the edges of each piece allowed the Crown production team to adjust each illustration to fit the book’s precise binding specifications.

Leaning on Basecamp

Once the project began, we immediately moved from email messages to a new Basecamp project. Having Basecamp as a central hub worked great for sharing ideas, discussing changes, managing milestones and much more. Most importantly, Basecamp freed me to focus on the task of illustration.

Pencils vs. Inking

Initially I’d planned on inking each illustration in a Moleskine sketchbook, making the reviewable artwork as close to final artwork as possible. But after thinking about what would best suit the review and feedback process, I decided it would be smart to review uninked pencil sketches instead.

Pencil concept sketch for “Everyone on the Front Lines” from my Moleskine notebook. –Photo by Brian Artka

This proved to be a time-saving decision. Had I inked pieces as near-final art, I would have lost time re-inking multiple illustrations to accommodate changes.

Because I invested up-front time in solving the illustrations as pencils, I only had to ink once before moving to Photoshop for final artwork.

The Concepting Process

Jason started things off by providing a list of about 25 chapter titles to sketch from. Some of the titles came with very descriptive ideas on the imagery 37signals were seeking, while others were completely open to my interpretation.

Pencil concept sketches for “The Best are Everywhere” and “Test Drive Employees” from my Moleskine notebook. –Photo by Brian Artka

Sketching the Pencil Concepts

Using a large Moleskine gridded notebook, I began sketching out batches of numbered pencil concepts with notes included within the sketches.

I intentionally left thoughts and comments as I was sketching, to help me remember my thought process. I was able to use those penciled notes later as a reference for creating detailed comments on each message.
Pencil concept sketch for “Nobody Likes Plastic Flowers” from my Moleskine notebook. –Photo by Brian Artka

Pencil concept sketch for “How to Say You’re Sorry” from my Moleskine notebook. –Photo by Brian Artka

Pencil concept sketch for “ASAP is Poison” from my Moleskine notebook. –Photo by Brian Artka

Pencil concept sketch for “They’re Not 13” from my Moleskine notebook. –Photo by Brian Artka

Scanning and Posting Sketches

Once a batch of 10-20 pencils were completed, I scanned and posted in a new Basecamp message with detailed commentary.

This combination of sketches and descriptive notes helped communicate my thoughts with Jason and provide a quick way for Jason to review, approve or add feedback in the comments of the message.

Viewing sample sketches in Basecamp was very convenient.

Jason and I would typically go back and forth on batches of sketches until each individual essay concept was finalized. A few times during the concepting process, it became clear that a new sketch would be needed to truly capture an essay. I would sketch a new idea in my sketchbook, scan and post the revised sketch with comments for Jason’s review and approval.

When a decent batch of pencil sketches were completed, I would shift gears and move to inking the illustrations for production.

Part 2 coming soon

In the next post I’ll go into depth about the inking process, production work in Photoshop and the workflow used to produce and process final inked illustrations for REWORK.