It’s no surprise that with the rapid growth of the AR industry over the last few years that intrepid creatives, skilled and prepared to take on the challenge of designing for the next generation of immersive experiences, are in high demand.
The scale of that creative opportunity is really exciting. Designing for AR means collaboratively writing the rules of this newly created digital canvas, pushing the medium as it continues to evolve in terms of functionality, scope and popularity.
To offer a unique perspective on transitioning from a digital design role to working with AR every day, I’ve turned to our Senior Visual and Motion Designer, Anna Broadhurst, to discuss her journey and offer some helpful advice to creatives looking to move into the sector.
Senior Visual and Motion Designer, Anna Broadhurst, joins Senior AR Developer Chris Parker to assess recent ZapWorks competition entries
How to get started with AR design
Dave Mather: Hey Anna, so what made you want to begin designing for AR?
Anna Broadhurst: Personally, I always find a new challenge exciting and creating digital products in AR is definitely one. What makes working in AR particularly interesting is not only the fact that it requires a shift in our thinking about design, but also space and the context in which the experience takes place and how this impacts the user.
Take digital design, for example. As product designers, I think that we find the constraints of the screen particularly comforting. Yes, it could be challenging to layout content which needs to fit a certain screen size, but essentially we’re transferring skills and knowledge from print.
Now, imagine there are no constraints. There is no ‘box’ to work in. The real world is your canvas and AR gives you the opportunity to make it your own. Once you’re stripped of the guidelines you’ve been working within for years, your creative mind is truly challenged. It’s scary at first, but trust me - extremely rewarding once you get it.
“...you’re no longer thinking about how graphical elements will look on a page or a screen, you have to think - how will the design sit within the real world?”
- Anna Broadhurst, Senior Visual and Motion Designer
But while it’s true that you need to adapt your approach to work with such an evolving and relatively new creative medium, it’s important to point out that you aren’t un-learning the skills that have taken you this far! Working with AR is all about adding to your existing skill set and bringing your aesthetic to a new space. It’s about learning a new perspective - the fundamental graphic design principles I’ve developed are still things I draw on every day.
For example, if we’re looking at a target-activated AR experience, you’re still essentially engaging with graphic design on a 2D plane for the tracking image - the only difference is considering optimal image detection for the user’s phone camera.
Another facet to working in AR is that it can open plenty of doors to enhancing your creative skills in unexpected ways. A big change for me has been developing my 2D animation skills, something I’d never previously worked on, but I began purely because of seeing the diversity of experiences that AR can host.
It’s not something I work on, but 3D modeling is another route that opens up for a lot of graphic designers who start experimenting with AR. It’s all about creativity and experimentation, really - once you see what the technology is capable of, it inspires you to make the most of the platform by learning new creative skills.
Anna's graphic design and animation skills were a crucial part of what made our W-in-a-Box connected packaging campaign so special
DM: So what are the technical skills designers should add to their repertoire to begin working with AR?
AB: That’s a slightly difficult one as my answer has certainly changed over time!
When I joined Zappar, about six and a half years ago, I’d be talking in terms of getting to grips with code to truly get working with AR. But since then, the ZapWorks Studio toolkit has launched and moved through several iterations, to the point where the workflow is optimized to be really designer-friendly.
You work in a far more visual way with Studio 6 now, so the code is essentially ‘hidden’ unless you want to delve into it. The features I predominantly use for animating content, such as Timelines and Actions, are largely visual and there’s plenty of drag n’ drop interactions and replication you can make use of. So I wouldn’t say there’s a checklist of technical skills to acquire - it’s about spending time with your toolkit of choice and getting familiar with it.
“Once you’re stripped of the guidelines you’ve been working within for years, your creative mind is truly challenged. It’s scary at first, but trust me - extremely rewarding once you get it.”
- Anna Broadhurst, Senior Visual and Motion Designer
Adapting graphic design to the AR mindset
DM: You also mentioned a 'mindset' for working with AR. How is the mindset different when approaching design for AR experiences?
AB: So where graphic design is traditionally done in 2D space, AR completely flips that distinction, and asks you to think about design from a 3D perspective. This means you’re no longer thinking about how graphical elements will look on just a page or a screen, you have to think - ‘how will the design sit within the real world?’.
As AR uses the world as the backdrop to your creation, context is super important. Where the user will experience your activation remains one of the most important questions to ask yourself before starting any AR project.
Creating experiences that directly compliment the context in which a user is going to engage with an AR experience is a big part of Zappar's 'Three Cs' approach
And by asking that question you can start to think about how the user will interact and experience your design. You have to remember that AR is ultimately user-driven - you’re letting the user explore your experience - where you position assets and how you signpost the user journey is incredibly important to the overall flow.
DM: Thinking about the design community specifically, how does AR allow designers to expand their creative boundaries?
AB: The design community is definitely driven by innovation. Therefore it makes sense that as early adopters, we’d be prone to start exploring new horizons.
AR is an opportunity to imagine new ideals for the human-computer relationship. It’s a blank slate which no longer restricts us to a single canvas. Our surroundings become the canvas with no natural design constraints (physical space on marketing materials or screens).
“ Working with AR is all about adding to your existing skill set and bringing your aesthetic to a new space. It’s about learning a new perspective - the fundamental graphic design principles I’ve developed are still things I draw on everyday.”
- Anna Broadhurst, Senior Visual and Motion Designer
We have the opportunity to not only re-imagine traditional creative formats, but to create an entirely new way of communicating with our users through visual design.
To do so, we need to expand our way of thinking to create a more immersive environment for our users and spectators. If illustration is one of the best forms of visually communicating a piece of information, then AR is like visual communication in itself.
DM: How can designers start incorporating AR into their existing workflow?
AB: I’d always suggest that you start thinking about AR as early on in the design process as possible. A helpful way to do this is to incorporate AR into your storyboarding so you can iron out the creases and potential flaws in your design.
That being said, from a more holistic point of view AR shouldn’t be seen as a disruptive part of the creative process, more a way of enhancing your existing work and bringing it to life in the most creative and engaging way imaginable.
It’s important to note that if you haven’t got the luxury of time, or perhaps you’ve been brought onto a project at the later stages then AR can definitely be used to add an additional level of interactivity or immersion to the project.
Anna's illustration and animations were the core of our 'The Boy with his Head Stuck in a Book' project - a book to inspire a love of books.
Making an impact in the growing AR industry
DM: We’ve seen huge investment over the last couple of years in the AR/VR/MR space, how do you think this investment will affect demand for designers?
AB: Simply put, it means that in the next few years, there will be a greater demand for AR design specialists and content developers who have a broad, adaptable track record. There's never been a better time to try and get a slice of that pie!
DM: Any final words of advice for graphic designers interested in adding these skills to their repertoire?
AB: I’ve worked in graphic design and illustration for most of my professional career so know that it can be a pretty competitive space to work in. So one thing i’d reiterate is how learning the skills to create for AR is one way to help you stand out to potential employers, or clients if you’re freelancing.
In that sense, it’s not necessarily about specifically ending up in an AR specialist role - lots of agency design positions are multi-faceted, for example. Showing a desire to add skills to your repertoire and a willingness to work with emerging technology in particular, highlights not only your work, but your versatility. A lot of people see value in that.
I’d also recommend looking into case studies and AR best practices for inspiration. There’s so much cool work going on in the creative AR space right now, so look out for projects from the wider creative community which resonate with you - particularly with an eye on user experience and how it meshes with design sensibilities.
Resources like Charlie Fink’s new ‘Convergence’ book is a great interactive example (and you can see some of my handiwork in there!), but it’s also worth keeping an eye on AR communities such as r/augmentedreality and the #augmentedreality content on Instagram
Dig in! Start experimenting, sign yourself up for a ZapWorks account, work your way through some of the tutorials and get creating. And more importantly, don’t be afraid of making mistakes, it’s all part of the process.
Anna gets to work with ZapWorks Studio 6
Here at Zappar, we believe that designing for AR will be a crucial skill for any aspiring graphic designer or illustrator to have on their CV. As overlaying digital content onto the real world and communicating within this fourth space becomes part of our everyday lives, designers with experience with the medium have the opportunity to become innovators in their own right.
If you’re a graphic designer or illustrator, there has never been a better time to learn a new skill and start experimenting with AR. You can start a completely free trial of our ZapWorks Studio complete AR creation toolkit if you want to dive in right away, but you won’t be on your own. We’ve got an engaged and friendly community over on our Forum who are always around for hints, tips, testing and inspiration to get you going. Plus, our expert support team are on hand if you need a helping hand.