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Graphic Design or Artwork First?

I asked Sam Stockton from B.A. Games to write a guest post this week on choosing graphic design or artwork first. His article is filled with lots of insights, as well as some great websites to find additional resources. I hope you enjoy this article and make sure to check out his website and subscribe to his blog, which has lots of great game design content.

Heyo! This is Sam Stockton from B.A. Games. Joe asked if I would do a blog post sharing some insight about a topic that I hold near and dear to my heart. For me, that topic is the art involved in a board game. Whether it’s the graphic design or the artwork, these are the mediums we have to transport our players to a new world, start a new journey, and help them understand the game.

However, the design process can be difficult to navigate. When do I get an artist? Should I get a graphic designer first? Which one is more important?

This guide will give you the way I deal with those issues. Feel free to ask me any questions you may have.

#1) The Vision

When you start the process of designing a game and doing playtesting, you have a vision for the game. This vision can range from being finely detailed to more of a general idea. In every case though, there are certain requirements or goals you have set for yourself. It could be a particular theme, a board game mechanic, emotional investment, campaign, or a player count.

Take all of those ideas and write them down. That is your template during the design process that is now going to guide you through the art process. This is your new mantra. Read it again and again because you are going to need it to make sure your vision comes to life.

#2) The Foundation

You have your vision and you have already been working on your game design. You have already built your first prototypes on scratch paper but now it is time to build your first “more official” prototype. It’s time to start cleaning things up and making the prototypes more presentable.

This means no longer using a pencil and unevenly cut/torn paper but start the process of creating components of actual size. You can use components from old board games, you can use nicely cut paper, but this is the stage where you start to put your vision into the physical look of the game.

I would start this process by writing down all of the components your game will need. This also happens to be the start of your rulebook. (Wooo! Double points for efficiency!) Then create those components as neatly as possible to their actual size.

Without really realizing it, you have already started the process of Graphic Design. Because board games are inherently an entertainment medium for people to interact with, the most important part of the design is legibility and usability. That means you can do a lot of the work yourself by creating simple paper cards, tokens, and boards and trying different layouts. Picture on top, picture on the side, information in the center, information in the corners, go ahead and try a few different designs on your own. I personally use Microsoft PowerPoint and for this but I see people use Nandeck for cards, Microsoft Word, or even an old school ruler and markers with typed text cutouts and printed images. Whatever works for you.

When doing these layouts, the final thing you need to set-up a strong foundation is to start borrowing artwork references. You might already have an idea of what you are looking for or you may not. Find artwork that you want to mimic or find interesting and include that with your prototype components. Incorporate it whenever you need an illustration or art piece. This will make the game come alive and help you see initial issues with design. It also helps you to find an artist in the future. (Again for Double Points!)

Graphic Design or Artwork First? 1
Graphic Design or Artwork First? 2

*There are some incredible links at the bottom of this article to help you find some initial artwork and graphic design elements for icons, symbols, etc. if you need them.

#3) The Test

You have created numerous prototypes and have fiddled with different layouts and positions. It is now time to show your friends. You may have already started this process through your testing but now you need to seek out more friends. Have them play it if they can but even having them look at it while you demo (explain) the game can help you learn a lot about your visual design.

You need to be listening to their questions. Writing down where they get tripped up and what they need clarification on. Part of that will be based on your demo skills but good visual indicators will help to overcome those weaknesses and you are looking to create a game with good visual indicators.

That was test 1. It is now time for test 2, finding people you don’t know. You need to find playtesters who don’t know you personally. You need some of that raw feedback from people who are not close to you. Now, remember that some people are still too polite so you might need to prime them a little with pointing out issues in your visual design. This is a time where you want all that pent-up criticism to come out.

Now, do you have to listen to all of it? No. Some things are matter of opinion and preference but if it happens enough it forms a pattern among a group of people. This is where you spend time making changes if needed or writing down those changes for the final step in this decision process.

#4) The Decision

It is now time to choose who you find first: the graphic designer or the illustrator? At this point in time, you are well prepared for either outcome.

  • Graphic Designer First

I would choose a graphic designer first if you are worried about layout changes or need more help with prepping the final look of the game. An illustrator will want exact dimensions for the art they are going to need to be doing so getting a graphic designer first would be a priority in this situation.

Now, you will need to solidify your art style though. You can do this by using reference art that matches your vision for the game. The designer will then take those references and design accordingly. So make sure you know the art style you want! Meaning, serious photorealism (realistic looking) or maybe whimsical cartoons (not very realistic looking). This coupled with theme will be enough for your graphic designer.

Quick Note – I would also ask that graphic designer to either play the game at least once or have them watch a game. It’s important they also know the functionality of each piece.

  • Artist First

I would choose an artist first if you are confident in your layouts or the game is centered on artwork. What do I mean by that? Some games are looking to set a certain tone or appeal to a particular audience and your artwork is the best medium to convey those ideas quickly and efficiently. It is crucial for certain games that they have a certain look.

For example, superhero games. Superheroes have a variety of artistic aesthetics that are unique to them. It would be vital to have the look and feel of the final artwork in order to do the graphic design appropriately. The game could end up looking very strange or goofy if the art and graphic design do not match.

If artwork is more important to you but the layout is still a little shaky, I would try to build in safety margins for the artwork. Make sure the artwork can be easily cropped or enlarged in order to suit any graphic design changes you may run into.

Final Thoughts

This is the process I use when working on a board game. You don’t have to follow it, but much of this process is born from the experience of publishing a game.

I wish you good luck with your games but if you have any questions, let me know. I am happy to chat, e-mail, video call, whatever you would like.

Until next time…

-Sam Stockton

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If you want to see where I was able to apply some of these lessons, you can check out our Kickstarter page for Cult of the Deep.

Links as promised:

For finding artwork and artists –

For Game Icons, Symbols –

For More Game Icons, Symbols –

I hope you enjoyed Sam’s article! Make sure to leave a comment.

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    Interesting article and great information!

    As a product designer, illustrator, and graphic designer, I would have to say the graphic design would be first. All of the packaging and print jobs I have worked on, the layouts and design were in place before I was contracted to create an illustration.

    You can always use ‘placeholder’ images as you mentioned, or have an artist create a couple of main images to set the tone, but a graphic designer is going to be crucial.

    A good graphic designer will improve your layouts for legibility and functionality. They might even be able to improve your game mechanics if the layout impacts how it is played. A graphic designer should also help you save money when you go to print by adjusting sizes and ganging up similar components to shave printing costs.

    All of your printed components (cards, player mats, game boards, instruction sheets, packaging, etc) will need layouts and design before any illustration is completed since that artwork will often have to conform to some specific space restrictions.

    Your graphic designer may even be able to help you figure out how your game components are packaged by creating a pack-out diagram and creating the necessary dividers etc.

    I agree that those final illustrations are the eye-catching elements, or the “wow factor”, but without good layouts and design, they will fall flat and your game will lack that finesse needed to stand apart. I’ve seen great illustrations placed poorly onto sub-par designs and it’s a waste. Conversely, I’ve seen mediocre artwork incorporated into nice layouts, and the whole design soars.

    As an illustrator, I am saying never underestimate what good graphic design can do 🙂

    Thanks again for your article and insight! Well done.

    Great insights, Chris! Thank you so much for sharing your perspective.