games, interview

Interview with board game artist Jason Taylor

Jason Taylor has worked on many games and products including Star Wars, Marvel, Transformers, Risk, Fireball Island, Monopoly and many more. 

That is an impressive portfolio, you have worked on some of the biggest franchises in the world and created art that will have been seen by millions of people. I am interested to hear you describe if you can, what that is like? 

It’s like eating a delicious bag of very crunchy chips in a quiet, but well populated waiting room.

It’s wonderfully humbling.

I had a bit of a lucky start – to the point I think I’m a bit spoiled really. The interesting part about those larger franchises is there’s a lot of eyes internally as well. Before anything gets out to those millions of people, you’ll need to get it approved by all those internal people. Meaning, it’s often not me making the final call, at least not early in my career (thank god!). So, early in my career I could take solace in the fact that you can’t really fail. The only failing is not actually believing you’re good enough.

The other part about that ‘work that’s being seen by millions’, especially earlier in my career, is nobody will ever really know I did this or that. Which is why I’ve never really focused on that part. Rather I tend to focus on the fact that I’ve been entrusted to create something for people to enjoy. Whether it’s for 10 people or a million, it still carries the same weight.

Hooboy… first question in and I’ve already started rambling. I’ll try to reel it in, but no promises.

Where did it all start for you, how did you get into art and design, and more specifically board games? 

Probably around middle school age. At least that’s my clearest memory enjoying drawing by simply tracing some Dungeons & Dragons covers. Then I’d mix and match designs. Putting the head of this dragon on the body of that warrior. Silly stuff, but I was mesmerized by it. I’m not even sure how I ended up with those books. I had never even played it or even bothered to read any of it. I can’t say those drawings of mine were any good, nor did I ever think I’d make a career around design or art at that point. It wasn’t until I fell into skateboarding and became obsessed with skateboarding graphics and advertisements that I realized people actually get paid to do that stuff.  I didn’t know what that ‘stuff’ was called. Eventually, in college I stumbled upon a program called ‘graphic design’ and it was like it all fell into place. I knew that was it for me.

As for board games, it was again a bit of luck. I think it was in 2000, I found a call for hire from Hasbro Games for a graphic designer. It looked like a fun job and it did not disappoint. I learned so much during my 5 years there, where I worked on small to large games and helped create new brands and refresh old ones. I’ve been working in board games ever since.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your work?

I can’t think of another job in the graphics industry that teaches you more valuable experience than games. Package design, branding, instructional design… in particular the critical thinking to visually communicate the game play within game components. That last part is probably my favorite to work on. That and connecting with the theme that makes a game feel immersive and enjoyable.

But over the past few years, I’d say the most rewarding is actually seeing that people are actually enjoying the games I’ve worked on. Social media has helped open my eyes to this and helped connect just how rewarding that really is. 

Are there any artists and/or art had an influence on you and your work?

There’s so many artists that inspire me out there and it’s an ever changing influence for me. I’m not even sure how it affects the work I do, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the more graphic screenprinted stuff. 80’s skateboard graphics – VC Johnson’s work in particular. And I know it’s a bit of a cliche for graphic designers to say, but the work of Saul Bass will always be influential to me. It’s a cliche for a reason. His work to me is the epitome of timeless graphic design.

What has been the most challenging project you have worked on?

That’s a tough one. For games, there’s not really any I’d say were easy. But I think the most challenging was probably Vampire Hunter. There were so many problems and challenges to solve at every corner. The game itself relied entirely on a light-play gimmick that worked in theory with hand-made mockups, but the challenge was to make it work for mass production. It required so many print and light bulb tests I lost count. All while making sure it all actually looked and felt right for the theme. Then there was the packaging and marketing. Frankly, I don’t think many at the time had a grasp for who this product would target. And at the time the landscape for board games and the marketing headspace was much different. Little within Hasbro was hobby market minded – it was all mass market. Ultimately the marketing suffered because of this lack of direction. I ended up creating four different box covers (after the first three were subsequently rejected) and ultimately I lost the argument for which direction I felt we should go with. We ended up going with my least favorite (a retouched photo of kids over-acting to a little light tower). It was a classic case of trying to say everything on the box but not actually communicating anything. The sales for the game ended up pretty disappointing as I recall (again, by mass market standards). While it is a considerably light game it did see a good amount of playing time in my household. So I guess it wasn’t a total loss.

All artists at some point will go through rejected concepts and designs, how do you deal with that on a personal level and either start from scratch or walk away from a project? 

I learned pretty quickly rejection is part of the process. Everyone handles rejection differently I suppose. And it is tough to see a concept or design you love get rejected. For me the trick is to embrace it. Get to the root of why something was rejected and solve through it (or around it). Even if you feel you have to start over – it’s not from scratch, because you now have the gained knowledge from your rejection to guide you through the process.

Ramble warning: That said, I try not to show anything to the client you don’t want to see get made. If you have 3 concepts but you know two are duds, for the love of God, please just show one! Sometimes I look back at some of the concepts I’ve shown and say to myself, ‘Thank GOD they didn’t pick that one!”

Stores have limited space and games are usually packed tightly together and customers will make a decision based on the art on the box art and packaging which sells the game. How do you approach that and is there anything you can tell me about what makes a game stand out?

The 3-second rule. It’s an old idiom about packaging on shelf. 3 seconds is about all you have to persuade someone to take interest. The biggest mistake you can make on packaging is trying to say too much (see Vampire Hunter above). Your goal for the cover should simply be to convince someone to have a closer look. But you’ll first have to stand out from the packages around you. So this requires you to stay up to date with what’s going on in the shelf spaces you’re package will be on. Then find a way to stand out. There’s many ways to do this that I won’t go into and bore your readers, but the most important thing to avoid is too many competing texts or even over-cluttered illustrations. This will simply add to the noise on the shelves rather than focus the consumers attention. 

During the initial concept design, is seeing the product essential or have you ever designed box art or packaging without seeing the product? 

My preferred order of things is to start on developing the contents of a game first. But it’s very rare that there’s time in the schedule to completely finalize contents before packaging art begins. Which is fine. As long as you have a good sense for the type of product it is, who the target consumer is, and a beginning look at what’s different about this product from the competition, you’ll be in good shape to get started.

Viewing the packaging and the product development as separate projects is often where a project can go off the rails. This is magnified with board games. Each one can inform the design of the other in significant and rewarding ways. If this relationship is ignored it can cause missed opportunities and at worst cause snags in the schedule and cost.

Looking at your work it isn’t obvious each design was by the same artist, how do you approach each project and how does that product inspire the design? 

I actually take that as a huge compliment. At the core of my job I feel it’s important to first focus on what will communicate the unique qualities of the product. What will differentiate this product from the others. If you’re a graphic designer and/or art director you first need to realize, NONE of this is about you. It should only be about connecting consumers to a product or idea. It’s simply my job to connect the two with good design. I believe good graphic design and art direction will always inherently connect to people.

And to go off on yet another ramble, the concept is maybe the other piece to the trifecta that makes a successful product. I say concept but it goes by many names… concept, theme, story. Whatever you want to call it. Good design+Good art+Good concept = Yeah, baby! Many times, grounding the graphics into an underlying thread of visual story or theme helps give the product a bit of a soul and even helps guide you through the process.

I would like to ask you about some of the games you have worked on. Could you tell us what aspects you worked on and a little bit about the creative process behind each, starting with Fireball Island which is much more than just a reprint? 

OK, now you’re just asking for pure ramblings! So no more apologies… 

Indeed, Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar was much more than a reprint. I served as art director, graphic designer, and in some cases, illustrator. But this project was so tightly knit with the team it’s hard to say ‘I’ in any of it. It was probably one of the most challenging projects the entire team had worked on up until this point. It actually felt more like a juggling act. 

We knew we were in for a challenging project, and the art would prove no less challenging. Early on we as a team decided to take the theme in a slightly skewed direction from the original. It would retain the epic adventure qualities, but with humor injected in.  I think it was Rob who said it’s like a Wil E. Coyote and Indiana Jones mashup. We’d embrace the laughter at the table that inevitably surrounds the slapstick fun of marbles knocking tiny plastic people across the island. So we set out to recruit a wonderful group of artists to help us find the right look and feel of the game. We started with early concept art from David Kegg and Jean-Louis Sirois that influenced the work to follow. Eventually we landed on the art of George Doutsiopoulos who nailed the combination of epic adventure and slapstick humor. JJ Ariosa, Víctor Pérez Corbella, and Brian Patterson were brought in to inject the little humor details in the card art. While that’s going on I’m working on the card backs and templates to match the theme for each type of card. 

But the biggest ball in the air for this project was that gameboard. Oh that glorious monstrosity of thermoformed plastic! As you said, we weren’t setting out to simply reprint this. We were setting out to ‘restore’ it to modern day gamers standards. But we also knew our version wouldn’t simply be compared to the original, but rather the memory of the original. Nostalgia does tricky things with our memory – making that gameboard twice as big in our brains than it actually was on the table. So we set out to make it bigger and badder. With more game choices beyond the simple roll-and-move game of the past, with more choices in paths (and more marble unpredictability). Much easier said than done.

The gameboard went through multiple revisions both in digital and clay versions… the more practical clay version winning out in the end and only making it to digital form after a lengthy week long 3D scan. As you can imagine, it took quite some time to get to the point where Rob, Justin, and J.R. could actually have something to physically playtest on. Eventually playing directly on that clay model gameboard. 

Meanwhile, I had an evil little Vul-Kar on my shoulder whispering with his hot, heavy breath in my ear. “You’re already behind schedule and you haven’t even started the art on the gameboard!” Vul-Kar was right. I’d never done anything like this before. Perhaps a better art director than I could’ve worked with an artist and explained what was needed for a plastic board that would be printed flat and then extruded through thermoforming. But it was all very convoluted. The manufacturer informed us to only illustrate the gameboard from the top view and they would ‘fill-in’ the stretched areas with their proprietary software. Uuuhhh. OK? Sure?

On top of all that I wouldn’t receive the final 3D board until there were only days left until production (not weeks). Oh ya, one more thing… we should probably make sure it’s actually usable for the game.  At this point Vul-Kar is straight up guttural laughing at me.

Thankfully our team never cracked under the pressure. I set out to do the first illustration pass but also ended up figuring out a way to preview what I was doing with some 3D projection mapping software. You can actually see some timelapse of that progress on my website. After that Lindsay Daviau (our production super hero – but also an awesome art director/graphic designer herself) and I went back and forth on game spaces and visual aesthetics and reviewed with the team just about every day.

Even though it all sounds kinda stressful , I had an absolute blast working on this project. The mixture of humor and action made it easy to dive into the visuals.

There’s so much more process for other things on this project (I didn’t even mention the Kickstarter campaign itself), but I’m not sure how much more Vul-Kar will allow me to say. 

Monopoly 70th Aniversary Edition.

This one was when I still worked at Hasbro as an art director. I was simply told to just do something that’s a celebration of Monopoly – but make it special. Tins were big then, and my creative director said he’d like to see it done as a tin.

That was a pretty broad scope… and in that sense, very overwhelming. So I set out to just do some research and focus on the concept first. This will help me put some context and parameters on the project to narrow the scope.

I think the thought process went something like this: “When was Monopoly invented?, Oh it’s 2005. minus 70. 1935. Sphew.” Math. Not my thing (I probably needed a calculator).

What if we did this Monopoly like it was a luxury item releasing in 1935, as opposed to the humble beginnings of it’s roots. To me, luxury for the 20’s and 30’s translated visually to the Art Deco stylings of buildings. So let’s redesign every piece through the eyes of Art Deco.

Pretty simple idea, but also a fairly easy one for the team to get behind.

At this point I had an artist in mind to work with, Dan Cosgrove. I had previously worked with him on another project and I knew his style would be perfect for this.

But I knew I wanted the package to be more than just a monochromatic tin. So I worked closely with Dan with some sketches to work on a design that would print onto a transparent sleeve, but show through to the tin underneath.

I then had to work on simplifying the cover design so it worked on the dimensional tin with an outside tin manufacturer.

During this process we had an internal team working with the inspiration provided by Dan and myself to develop the new physical game pieces that embodied the Art Deco era. From a 30’s style speedboat to a new hotel design. I wish I could remember who actually did those sculpts but my brain has lost that information over the years. But they really did an amazing job.

Overall, I’m really happy with how this one turned out. There’s been some really wild and beautiful anniversary editions before and after this one as well. Those editions are often a ton of fun to work on.

Sorry.

Just about every 5 years or so Hasbro tends to do what’s called a refresh. Something to update the game to give it new life on shelf. Sometimes it’s a new look. Sometimes gameplay. Many times both. At the time there was a large concern that the Sorry brand itself was losing steam more-so than many of the other brands. Internally there was concern among management that it wasn’t a brand worthy of investment.

So my marketing partner on this project at the time, Christy Boudreau brought these concerns to me in the hopes we could not only refresh the brand but also convince upper management of the validity of the brand among Hasbro games.

It took some time and some brand ‘soul searching’. The game of Sorry! is obviously very simple, based very closely on a Parcheesi style game with cards instead of dice. But the thing I kept going back to is those pawns. They’re used in several games. But for many, the game of Sorry is most associated with them… so why not embrace that and completely personify and ‘own’ these pawns. Give them attitude and personality. I ended up creating a short video with different Sorry pawns being interviewed in a documentary style as part of a presentation to management before showing them the new graphic direction for the game.

It went over very well and even inspired a couple more games, including Sorry Sliders and the actual talking electronic Sorry Revenge game.

That was back in 2002 or 2003 I think. Even though it has since been refreshed once again, I do take pride in knowing that it was one of the longest running designs before being refreshed.

The Risk games. 

I’ve worked on a few of the Risk games over the years… 

Risk 2210: I think I worked on this during my first year at Hasbro. I developed the look of all of the contents and served as art director on the cover. This was probably the game that taught me how important (but also how fun) playtesting is to the process of graphic design for games.

Risk Black Ops: After I left Hasbro I worked as a freelancer with Lindsay Daviau on a refresh to Risk that focused on some new game mechanics. The intent was to make this a very limited edition release that introduce the media and gamers to these new mechanics. We approached this with a more minimalistic style that helped it feel a bit more elevated than the traditional Risk. While I really love how this one turned out, I also had alot of fun exploring different packaging and content explorations for this one.

Risk Star Wars (2015): For this one I mostly developed the gameboard. This one clearly was influenced by the Queen’s Gambit mechanics, which I’ve always enjoyed and appreciate the graphics from. Ryan Noonan, the art director, was interested in the gameboard being in the shape of a tie-fighter. So the challenge was to make the game work under this restraint. I LOVE challenges like that. I’m very happy with how this one turned out. Ryan did a great job making this entire game feel special within both the graphic design and production.

Risk Legacy: I had worked with Rob Daviau on many games prior to this and it’s always been a pleasure. But I knew this one was special as soon as I heard about it. I’m honored to have worked on this game that started the ‘legacy’. Sorry, had to do it.

Anyway, I worked with both Rob and Hasbro’s art director, Richard Edwards, to develop the graphic design for all of the components and packaging. I clearly remember working hard to both make the game immersive with story, but at the same time clean design elements in areas that needed to be very clear about the legacy elements. Mostly because we knew this would be a very new feeling for people – ripping up cards, adding permanent stickers, writing in names.

While it was alot of fun to work on this game, the one obvious downside is you know all the spoilers. But given the choice, I’d still do it all over again.

Star Wars Galactic Heroes 

Embarrassingly, this ones a bit of a blur. I believe I was freelancing and working with Lindsay Daviau on this at the time. I remember working on many of the components and the cover design. This is one that was all about head-to-head dueling  action but also was at a time when Hasbro was starting to get wise to cross promoting their toy lines with games. So the Galactic Heroes toy line was already existing and we were taking that look and applying it to the game. This all really revolved around the work of Roger Andrews illustration. Roger is an illustration wizard. Like, no really! I’ve watched him work and it’s freaking mesmerizing.

Downforce.

This one has a special place in my heart. Well actually the first three by Restoration Games do (Downforce, Stop Thief!, and Indulgence). At the time Restoration Games was forming, I was in transition from taking a break from freelance and working full-time with an apparel company. It was not working out and I was working on serious plans to get back into freelancing. At this same time Rob  and Lindsay just happened to hit me up to work on the logo for a new company headed by Justin Jacobson called Restoration Games. This eventually lead to me working on all of their games. But these first three were while I was transitioning from that apparel company. So much of Downforce was actually done on a commuter rail to and from that job.

So, I handled the art direction and graphic design with Lindsay also doing graphic design and handling the production. But in reality it’s usually Lindsay and I working in tandem on many things. We blur the line quite a bit in the work we do. We’ll often go back and forth on artist selection all the way down to finer details like graphics for movement on the gameboard.

This is so important to note because one thing I’ve found over the course of my career… embrace working with people on your projects. Don’t design in a vacuum. It’s easy to work alone and think you’ve done something great. But you never actually know just how great things can be until you bring more talented people in. I’ve always felt the luckiest part of my career is that I’ve been surrounded by people smarter than me. Be open to seeing things from other perspectives. This is especially important for games and usability. Make revisions. Tweak designs. It will pay off in the end.

We worked hard on making this game accessible to many, from the size of the cars and spaces to care in color and texture choices for color blind.

We also worked with some extremely talented illustrators on this one. My first choice for the cover art was Tavis Coburn. I had my eye on his previous work and immediately thought of him for this. His use of color and action lines coupled with his dimensional feel was perfect for this. Michael Crampton stepped in and did some beautiful gameboard illustrations for the core game. 

I could ask you about so many more games but with such a long list of games you have worked on, it would be impossible to go through them all. Maybe we will get another chance in the future to talk about more of them. 

I’m always happy to talk about games!

What advice would you give someone who wanted to get into art and design, and any thoughts on what helps makes an artist stand out from the rest of the competition? 

Let’s start with standing out from the crowd: Early on my mentors drilled into my head that ‘concept is king’. And I feel like no other piece of advice was better than this one. Spend time on the concept first and the rest will follow. This is more important than any art technique or any style you develop. Illustration techniques and graphic design trends come and go. A great concept never goes out of style.

So spend time on what the project is all about and the direction you want it to go before anything else. The awkward part is that this will feel like you’re either wasting valuable time that could be spent actually ‘working’. It’s easy to get impatient with yourself at this stage. And to an outsider (or a boss) it may even look like your slacking off. But finding that core idea or concept will pay off and will help the work flow much easier later in the process. It’s also what folks in the approval process will respond to the most – even before you have visuals buttoned up.

Another somewhat related thing I look for when looking for illustrators or graphic designers to work with in games… beyond it looking great…  something in their work that shows critical thinking? How to visually portray the effect of a card? How to solve that usability problem on a gameboard. And does it effectively connect back to the overall concept of the game. These kind of things are a really great thing to have in your portfolio. Not just the piece of art, but also a little explanation of the ‘why’ it exists as it does.

For advice, I guess just work hard and be open to feedback. It takes time to get better at art and/or design. I’ve had many whippersnappers reach out to me on email showing me their work and looking for feedback. But I find that many are either not willing or not ready to hear the feedback. I try to be as constructive as possible and take time to respond thoughtfully. But more often than not, I’m left with crickets in response with not even a ‘thank you for your time’. To me, that’s the true test of being able to make it in the field… figuring out how to respond to feedback or criticism in a way that’s beneficial to both yourself and your clients.

A lot of artists have work stolen or published through channels and products without credit, or at least made clear who the artist is. I imagine that can be frustrating and I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on that? 

Two different things there… 

1. Stolen art: Personally I haven’t ran into too many issues with my stuff getting knocked off. But since you asked… Art that is stolen or published without the artist’s consent is a crime (EVEN IF THEY ARE GIVEN CREDIT). The problem is we as illustrators and graphic designers tend to forget that. Treat it like a crime! Treat it like someone came into your house and stole that picture off the damn wall! It sounds overwhelming or costly but find a lawyer to help you. But you might be surprised. There are folks out there who will help you with this. The only way to stop this from happening is to do something about it. But it’s up to the artist to do something about it.


2. Due credit. On the surface I always find this insulting to the hard working illustrators, graphic designers, production artists, or anyone working on these projects. Dig a little further though and often it’s these same hard-working folks that need to stick up for themselves at the start of a project. Something designers and illustrators don’t do enough of. I’m guilty of it as well. I often find that credit is not given simply out of oversight or it was never asked for at the start of the project. More illustrators and designers need to request this at the start of a project. That said, credit should never be used as a negotiation tactic for lesser fees. Due credit or ‘exposure’ does not put food on the table.

For games in particular, I personally feel it’s important for credit to be given to folks who work so hard on these games beyond the game designers. I don’t mean to diminish the obviously valuable work of the game designers, but I feel strongly that a healthy growth of the industry should be accompanied by an added awareness to just how much work goes into these games. I’d actually love to see this mindset change everywhere. Even on BoardGameGeek.com there’s only credit given to game designer, illustrator, and publisher. I find that art director, graphic designer, sculptor, and even manufacturer are worthwhile footnotes for a game. And I’m sure there’s plenty more. I’m sure that’s a big challenge for the site, but I’d still like to see a move in that direction somehow.

I truly feel everyone in the industry can be helped by transparency. To learn and help each other succeed as an industry rather than fail individually in our little bubbles… but also I just wanna see my name plastered everywhere.  😛


Thank you very much Jason for taking the time to chat with us. We wish you all the best and will be keeping an eye out for future games you will be involved with.

Thanks so much for listening to my ramblings!

Yes, please keep an eye out for some of my upcoming projects: Unmatched, hitting shelves in September… and Return to Dark Tower coming next year to name a couple.

A Full list of Jason’s games can be found here.
You can follow Jason Taylor on Twitter @eyepeace, Instagram and Dribble. Website www.jasontaylordesign.com, LinkedIn linkedin.com/in/jasontaylor/.

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