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The Basics Of Signature Design

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    The Basics Of Signature Design

    Guide progress - 40% Complete.

    After a lengthy wait, work has resumed on this guide.

    "Don't listen to critics, your friends, family, not even your mother. If you venture into a piece of artistic work - whether yours or someone else's - if it hits you on a visceral level, then no other opinion really matters. Does it?"

    Masterworks Family - [MW] [Has been disbanded]

    "Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything."

    Gustave Flaubert
    Writer, About him.


    1. Opening Words - Just saying a few things before we begin.
    2. Realism [Depth, Lighting & Color] - Achieving a realistic, believable result.
    3. Render & Stock Choice - Choosing a proper render or stock image..
    4. Flow - Giving your signature movement & action.
    5. Focal - Determining what your signature's focus will be.
    6. The Rule of Thirds - Proper focal placement.
    7. Blending - Making your render and signature one.
    8. Text & Typography - Using text in a signature.
    9. Closing Words & Resources - Hope you enjoyed reading, and that you learned something.

    [top]Opening Words

    *Please note that when I reference tools in this guide, I am referring to Photoshop.

    Let me start by saying this - this is not a tutorial to any specific signature. You will not be learning how to create any one tag. This is a guide, meant to give you insight on some design principles used in signature creation.

    There are a few things to keep in mind when designing a signature.

    • Never go into a signature without some kind of idea first. You should always have a thought of what you want to achieve in your signature.
    • Try to use colors that compliment your stock or render. Don't just choose a random C4D or background stock just because it looks nice.
    • Always think about the "flow" of your signature. I'll actually go over this more in depth later on in the guide.

    These few little tips can be the difference between a good signature, and one that just falls flat.

    [top]Realism [Depth, Lighting & Color]

    Let's get started, no? First up, we're going to talk about achieving realism in your signatures. Now, let me start by saying that this doesn't mean making your signature "look real". It simply means making it look believable.

    This entails proper lighting and shadows, and maintaining proper depth of field. There's nothing worse than a signature that is flat, and looks like everything is on one single plane of existence, with no real light or shadow.

    This is true for almost any kind of art, such as traditional pencil and paper, or digital painting.

    [top]Depth Of Field

    I've actually touched on this subject before, however, after the site meltdown, that information was lost. Half of the original guide is available, but the other half hasn't turned up just yet.

    Let me start by saying that depth is all around us - it is impossible not to see. If it wasn't, everything around us would just look flat. One part of this, is Depth Of Field [Hereafter referred to as "DoF".]

    Let's take a look at a quick example [see table below].

    No Depth
    No Depth Depth
    Images via PhotoshopSupport.

    As you can see above, there's a fairly big difference between the image on the right, and the image on the left. The left image is very flat, and it looks as if all of the chess pieces are on the same plane. Not very believable, is it? We know they aren't all in the same place, and that some are pretty far away from the camera's "eye".

    The image on the right is much more believable. This is how DoF works. The further something is from you, the blurrier it will be - it loses detail, and if it's really far, it even loses form. It also works for things that are extremely close to your viewpoint.

    The only thing that will be clear to you, is the thing your eyes are focused on.

    Go ahead and try it for yourself. Find something at your desk, or in the room you're in that has objects behind it, and in front of it, and focus on them. You can also do it with the following example:


    Focus on the large word "OBJECT" - notice that the text around it is unreadable when you do. It's blurry, and hard to make out.

    How does this translate to design at all? Simple - without it, your image will look flat, as stated before, it will come off as everything being on one plane of existence. That's not good at all.

    In a signature, if you're using a render, you'll need to create depth by hand, usually. Often, you can choose a good background stock that has good DoF in it already, but sometimes you aren't using a stock, and are simply creating effects by hand. Or your stock, while it has some depth, doesn't have good depth. Maybe things in the background aren't as far as you'd like them to seem.

    There are a few ways to achieve this result - You can use the Blur/Sharpen tools. The Gaussian Blur filter, or, my personal favorite, the Lens Blur filter.

    For me, and my tastes, the Lens Blur filter gives the best result, when used properly. However, the Blur/Sharpen tools give you the most control over what does and doesn't get blurred/sharpened.

    Let's take a look at a signature that has had nothing done to it yet.

    As you can see, it's quite plain. The image is good - but there's nothing really going on. This will be our example signature. Most examples will be made from this one, default tag.

    Most tutorials tell you to simply "Apply Image, then sharpen the focal and blur the sides." This can work, but it is a very simple and somewhat cheap method that yields an "OK" result - but it's not completely believable.



    The next method, often says "Apply image, then run a Gaussian Blur filter at this number of pixels, then erase over the focal." This yields a better result, but you still don't have that much control over it, and it's still not completely realistic.



    The method that I use, the Lens Blur filter, gives a good amount of control over the result - still not quite as much as the Blur/Sharpen tools, but more than Gaussian Blur - as well as giving a fairly believable result.

    For this method, I use the Quick Mask feature of Photoshop - accessed by simply pressing "Q" on your keyboard - or by clicking the little icon on the Tools palette at the very bottom. It looks like a rectangle with a white circle in the middle.

    This allows you to use you paint brush to select the areas you don't want to be effected by the filter ( This also works well with the Gaussian Blur method, and can yield a better result than simply blurring everything and erasing over the focal. ).



    Another way we can achieve a sense of DoF - is to place effects or C4D renders in front of and behind our focal point.

    This is easiest to do with a render/cutout - since there is nothing behind it. With a stock, it takes a bit more work to pull off.

    Let's add something to our example, no? Nothing better than visual representation!

    First, we're going to add a C4D render behind our focal point.


    "Wait!" I hear you saying, "How did you do that?"

    There are a couple of ways. You can either

    1. Take your Eraser tool and erase the C4D from the focal point.
    2. Or you can use a Layer Mask to hide the C4D from over the focal.

    Pros & Cons
    Method Pros Cons
    #1 It's simple and requires fewer steps. It's damaging to the image and can't be reversed.
    #2 Simple. Preserves the original image. Can adjust the opacity, or even color, of the brush to increase or decrease the effect. Requires a little practice to get used to. Must make sure the Mask is actually selected before you start working.

    You can add a layer mask to any layer by simply clicking the layer you want to add the mask to, and then clicking the "Layer Mask" button at the bottom of the layers palette. It looks just like the "Quick Mask" button on the tools palette - only it's dark gray, and turns green when you hover over it. ( The Quick Mask button is white, and turns pink. )

    I actually highly recommend using Layer Masks whenever you need to do anything that requires erasing something - it can save a ton of headaches.

    When using a layer mask, you actually use the Brush tool to remove ( or restore ) parts of the layer - simply by using the colors Black and White. Black removes while White restores. You can also use any shade of Gray to remove parts at a lesser intensity - the lighter the shade, the less it will remove.

    You can also reduce Opacity/Flow of the brush for even further control.

    Now, let's place another C4D in front of the focal.


    Chances are, you are now seeing what I was talking about earlier. Everything looks flat - like it's all in one place - 2 dimensional? We're going to fix that now - using my preferred Lens Blur Method.

    First, you Apply Image ( Either Image > Apply Image, or press CTRL + SHIFT + ALT + E on the top layer. ). Once done, press "Q" on your keyboard to activate the Quick Mask.

    Choose your brush tool, and a small, Soft Round brush. Around 30-50px ought to be good enough.

    Brush, in black over your focal point - and try to avoid any of the C4D that might cover it.

    What Your QM Should Look Like

    Once you have the selection done, press "Q" again - you should now see the "Marching Ants" of an active selection.

    Go to "Filter > Blur > Lens Blur", and play with the settings until you get an effect that you like. You want your blurring to be noticeable - but not overpowering to the point that nothing can be recognized.

    When you're happy with your results, click "OK" and the filter will be applied. Oh, and keep that selection active - we're going to use it again in just a second.

    Here's What I Got

    With your selection still active, press "CTRL + SHIFT + I" - this will invert the selection. Your focal should now be what is selected. Once you've done that, apply the image again, this time using the "CTRL + SHIFT + ALT + E" method - The "Image > Apply Image" method would only apply what has been selected, and we want to apply the entire image.

    Once that's done, head to "Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask".

    What's that? "What's Unsharp Mask? Isn't it 'Filter > Sharpen > Sharpen'?"

    Usually, this is true - most people simply use the default "Sharpen" filter, and I do to, occasionally. Usually when I want to sharpen effects. I use "Unsharp Mask" when I want to sharpen up my focal - it allows you to control just how sharp your image will be.

    When the dialog comes up, play with the settings until you like them - you want the focal to be sharp, but not jagged or blown out.

    Bad Sharpening
    Good Sharpening

    That's pretty much it - not much left to say about DoF. It's not completely necessary, depending on what kind of signature you're creating, but it definitely helps to keep it looking believable.


    Ah, lighting. Lighting is actually a tad bit simpler to deal with. There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to lighting.

    1. When choosing your image - be it a stock or render - choose one that has definite light and shadow. If it's all evenly lit up, the effect won't really work as well.
    2. Try to keep your lighting synced throughout the signature. Nothing worse than having good lighting get broken by adding in a C4D with light being reflected on a completely different side from everything else.
    3. When defining your "light source" try to use either white, or a color from the signature.

    Let's start with the first tip.

    [top]Choose an image with defined light and shadow

    You want to choose an image that has a fairly well defined light source. Let's take a look at the stock I chose for the example signature ( Resized down for guide purposes. ).

    As you can see below - the light is very clear. It's obvious that the light source is shining down on the subject from the upper left.

    This is good, and we can work with it.

    [top]Keep your lighting synced throughout

    When trying to achieve proper depth and lighting, it pays to pay attention to the lighting of the resources that you use. If you are using a render/cutout - then you want to have a background that follows the lighting of the render itself.

    Whether you choose to use a background stock, or simply create a background from scratch - it must match the lighting of the render.

    Having a background that doesn't match the lighting of your render can completely destroy any attempt at creating believable depth. After all - if your background shows light coming from the right - it wouldn't appear on the character's left shoulder.

    Bad Lighting

    Good Lighting

    See how in the first example, the render seems to be disjointed from the background, but she seems to fit right into the second? This is simply because of the lighting in each stock.

    The render's lighting is coming from the top left. The first example has a background with light coming from the bottom right. The second has light from the top left.

    [top]Defining your light source

    Sometimes, it isn't enough to just have your light sources match. Sometimes, you may need to make the light a little more defined.

    There are a couple of ways you can do this. The first, and probably the simplest, is just using a large diameter soft round brush. In the 300 - 500px range.

    Simply create a new layer, take your brush, and brush, in white - using the edge of the brush, where your light source is.

    Make sure it syncs up with the rest of the tag!

    Optionally, on another new layer, using the same brush, brush in black where your shadows should be. Again, using just the edge of the brush.

    Once done, you can either leave the layers as they are, and just adjust opacity/fill.

    White Brushing
    Black Brushing

    Or you can set them to soft light, and then adjust opacity/fill.

    White Brushing
    Black Brushing

    The choice depends on the signature - sometimes just leaving the brushing as is works perfectly fine.

    The next way is to give a signature colored lighting. This can help to create atmosphere sometimes, in a signature.

    Create a new layer, and fill it with black. Best way is to go to "Edit > Fill" and then choose "Black" from the second dropdown menu.

    When you have your black layer, change it's blending mode to "Screen" - it should seem to disappear. It hasn't - it's just gotten rid of the black. "Screen", "Lighten", "Color Dodge" & "Linear Dodge" all remove black from an image, and leave the other colors behind - the differences are in how those colors react to the layer below. Lighten and Screen are similar - they leave the color pretty much as is. Screen has a brighter effect than Lighten.

    Color and Linear Dodge are also similar to each other - they leave a much brighter, and more translucent version of the color behind. Glowing almost. Linear is brighter than Color.

    Now that you've gotten your layer ready, take a color from your signature - preferably one that matches the light, in this case, we're going with a pale-ish green color.

    Like the last method, use your soft round brush's edge to dab the color in a place that matches the lighting on the signature.

    You can also do other things with this method - like create glowing, colored orbs - simply follow the same steps, but use a much smaller brush, and set the layer to Linear Dodge.

    If used properly, this can create an impressive, gorgeous effect.

    One last method, is to use the Lighting Effects filter, found at "Filter > Render > Lighting Effects". The most commonly used are the default spotlight, and "Soft Omni" - but you can of course feel free to experiment with the others.

    Like many other things, this starts with you applying the image. Then head to "Filter > Render > Lighting Effects", as mentioned above.

    The default spotlight is good for angled lighting. When you've chosen the filter, simply start adjusting the handles of the light on the left side of the dialog.

    It's the same for Soft Omni, or any of the other Lighting Effects settings.

    Soft Omni, by the way, is more akin to the Soft brushing method of lighting - it's rounded.

    Once you have the filter chosen and set, click "OK" to apply it.

    When that's done, you can then set the filtered layer to either Soft Light, Lighten or Screen.

    Lighting Effects Result

    Set To Soft Light

    Set To Lighten

    Set To Screen

    Once you've chosen your blending mode, simply adjust opacity/fill to your liking.

    That does it for lighting. This portion is fairly important - more so than depth of field. It can really make or break any sense of depth in your signature.

    Pick a method that works for you, or, better yet, combine methods, such as white brushing and colored lighting, to create even better effects.


    Color is actually a little more about atmosphere. However, atmosphere is still a part of depth.

    A few tips for color.

    1. When using a render/cutout - try to either use a background stock that has similar colors to your render - or create your background from scratch, using colors from your render. This said - it's not completely necessary, but it helps in making your image believable - A Gundam in a bright field of flowers wouldn't really work, you know?
    2. Photo Filter, Color Balance, Hue/Saturation and Selective Color adjustment layers can help in adjusting colors to get everything to feel uniform. You can also use "Image > Adjustments" and select an option ( Such as Hue/Saturation ( Shortcut CTRL + U ) - but be careful - as this can be damaging and irreversible. )
    3. If you want the adjustment layer to effect only the render - then use a clipping mask to attach it to the render - CTRL + ALT + G with the layer to want to clip selected. It must be directly above the render.
    4. Stock images don't have to worry about this too, too much. However, you may want to use a certain stock, but give it a certain feel that it doesn't have color wise - tip number 2 comes in handy for that.
    Let's take a look at another basic signature. One using a render.

    As you can see, it looks alright. The colors work well together - the render looks like it would belong in a locale like that as well - I'll go into more detail on that in the next section, for now, we're just focusing on color.

    Now, while these colors do work pretty well with each other - he still sticks out a tad too much - we want a little ambient lighting kind of effect. With that kind of haze, his jacket and gun wouldn't really be that blue/gray - they would actually have a slight brownish look to them.

    To achieve this, I used a simple Photo Filter adjustment layer, and clip it to the render, as explained above. Take a look at the next example below, and you'll see the difference.

    See how his coat, gun and gloves now have a brownish tint? Now he fits a bit better with the background. You can adjust the density of the Photo Filter to get a stronger or weaker effect. If you feel it's too strong, you can adjust opacity/fill until satisfied.

    That's pretty much all there is to that. You can use any of the adjustment layers you want - just choose the one you feel most comfortable with.


    Contrast is basically how much the tag "pops" - the brightness and vividness of the colors, and difference between colors.

    There are a few ways to adjust this. You can use the Brightness/Contrast, Levels or Curves adjustment layers. Or you can use the Black/White adjustment layer, or a Black/White gradient map - and set to either Soft Light, or multiply.

    Poor Contrast

    Good Contrast

    Pretty much - you want the image to be bright, and the colors to pop - but you don't want to increase the contrast so much that you end up blowing out some colors - this means when a color, basically turns either super bright, or white.

    That pretty much concludes this segment of the guide.

    [top]Render & Stock Choice

    1] Now time to cover what is probably the biggest part of signature design, choosing your render or stock.

    First, of course, a few tips:

    Category: Description

    Action: Always try to pick an image that has something going on - but not too much. You want something that has a fairly obvious "flow" to it.

    Size: The bigger the better. Always go large whether it's a stock or a render. You can always shrink it down, you can never stretch it out and have it keep the same quality.

    [b]Clarity[/b: ]Another big deal. The clearer the image, the better the final result. You want an image that is high quality - blurry is bad.

    Copyright: Always, always, always, always look into your resources - check around and make sure your image is actually available to use with permission. I'll go more into this a little later in the guide.

    [top]Stock Choice

    Now, first things first - there are a few different kinds of stocks, and there are a few different kinds of renders. For stocks, you have focal, effect, & background. For renders, there are focal/character & effect.

    All of the above tips/rules apply to each kind of stock or render - do not forget that. None of them are exempt.

    First, let's take a look at a poor stock choice:

    This image is fullsized
    What makes this bad, exactly?

    1. It's extremely small. It's way to small to really do anything with. It's too big to fit properly into a signature canvas - but it's too small to shrink down without creating white/transparent space that would have to filled by some other means later.
    2. Quality. It's very low quality and extremely blurry. No amount of work could really fix it.
    3. No flow. There's nothing going on here. Any and all characters that could possibly be used, are pretty much standing straight up and down.
    4. No clearly defined focal. There are about 4 or 5 characters in the image - who should we focus on?
    Now, I'll go over the different kinds of stocks.

    [top]Stock Type: Focal[/size]

    3] Focal stocks are the most common type. These are the stocks you choose to base your entire signature on. They usually feature a character or human being - or whatever the focus of your signature is.

    Let's take a look at the choice of a good stock.

    Click the above image to see it fullsized.
    So, what makes this a good stock choice? A few things.

    1. It has a great flow to it. The character is not static - as you can see, she is obviously leaning to the right. This is something we can accentuate in our signature.
    2. It's clear. It's extremely high quality. Very sharp and well defined. The colors pop and the focal point is very easy to see.
    3. It's big. At 1920 x 1200 - it's extremely large. this is a very good thing, because we can now resize it down to fit our signature, and it will stay just as clear and sharp as it is right now.

    [top]Stock Type: Background

    Background Stocks are just that - stocks used as a background, usually for a render - you can also make signatures just from these, but that's not so common.

    A background stock is usually some kind of scenery, but it doesn't have to be. It all really depends on what you want your background to look like.

    Take the stock below - which is the same one I posted earlier. It can be used as a background stock - the lower portion especially, can be used to create a pretty nice background for your render.

    Click the above image to see it fullsized.
    Now, let's take a look at another background stock - below, is what most would call a "space" stock.

    Click the above image to see it fullsized.
    What's something in common between these two images?

    Color. Both images have very vibrant colors - this is quite important. Even if you're using an industrial kind of background, it should still have good color to it. It should still "pop" - dreary ≠ flat/boring, keep that in mind.

    Another important thing to focus on, when choosing a background stock, is lighting - make sure it matches what's going on in your render.

    You also want an image that's detailed - but not so much so that it detracts from everything else. So detailed that things are actually unrecognizable.

    [top]Stock Type: Effect

    Effect stocks are similar to effect renders - they are purely used to create effects in our signatures, and nothing else. These are often things like images of smoke, fire, lightning, or even light streaks.

    Here's an example of an effect stock - known as "bokeh".

    And here's one of a colored smoke/light streak kind of effect.

    You may be noticing that these images aren't quite as large as the others. This is because they don't really need to be that big - though that tip of "bigger is better" still applies here, most certainly.

    These can stand to be a little smaller than normal, since they are going to often be resized down anyway.

    That said - quality is a must. Effect stocks need to be fairly high quality - as they will often be set to blending modes that can highlight their flaws, usually.

    [top]Render Choice

    First and foremost - what is a render, anyway? Well, there are a few different meanings for the word - one being related to 3D modelling ( Definition of 3D rendering here )

    The meaning we want, however, is as follows -

    A render is an image that has been removed from it's background. It has a transparent background, in the case of character/focal renders and some effect renders.

    First, let's take a look at a poor render choice. Renders follow pretty much all of the same rules as stocks - they must be a good size, clear, and you must have permission to use them.

    So, what actually makes it a bad render? Quite a few things, and I'll explain them now.

    1. The image is poor quality. It's blurry, and lacks real detail. If you used in, and weren't careful - you would end up losing it in your signature. It would be hard to really tell what it was. The edges are also kind of "soft" when they really shouldn't be. Almost like it was cut just using the magic wand selection tool and a feather radius of 2-3px.

      Not good.
    2. It's small. This is a big no-no. Tiny renders are all but useless. Sure - it might work for a small canvas - but what if you want a larger signature? You can't stretch the render out without ruining the quality further.
    3. It lacks flow. Another big no-no. A render with no flow, equates to a signature with no flow. You can't build off of something that doesn't exist - you need a foundation.
    4. The dreaded "white halo". This is when a render has a white "edge" left around it. Usually remnants of the background that it was cut from. This can kill a signature pretty good, as it destroys most attempts at blending the render in.

    So, what makes a good render then? Let's start with a focal/character render.

    [top]Render Type: Focal/Character

    Click Image To View Fullsized



    [top]Rule Of Thirds


    [top]Text & Typography

    [top]Closing Words & Resources

    Last edited by Fox; 04-13-2012 at 07:47 PM. Reason: Formatting Updates, 35%

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    Fox is offline
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    This thread is only open for the sole purpose of continuing work on it. PLEASE refrain from posting in here at the moment.

    - The Management

    This post will also be reserved for any FAQ's that may come up, once the guide is complete.
    Last edited by Fox; 04-09-2012 at 10:26 PM.

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