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Illustration Without Research is Just Doodling

When I was asked to create a poster for a conference entitled “Family and Genealogy in the Study of Religion” at Brown University’s Department of Religious Studies, my first thought was: “Easy, I’ll do a family tree.” But the more I ruminated on my first instinct, the more it seemed like a very generic route to take. Instead, I decided to look up the significance of trees to different religions. Having being raised Catholic, I was well aware of the Tree of Wisdom in the Garden of Eden, and the fig tree that Jesus had cursed. But I was to find inspiration in a different religious tradition altogether.

This was an assignment for a prestigious Ivy League university, with international guests that would probably be taken aback by any crudely-rendered tree wrapped in a talking snake. I had to step up my game, so I knew I had some research to do. My inquiry lead me to some fascinating stories like that of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat in meditation while attaining enlightenment, and of the Celtic wisemen known as druids which were reputed to know the magical properties of the oak tree, and finally, the one that ended up being my muse — the holy ash tree of the ancient Norse religion: Yggdrasil.

The Norse religion held holy Yggdrasil in high regard, as it was believed to be a superstructure of the universe itself in tree form, connecting the various home worlds of the Gods (Asgard), humans (Midgard), giants (Jotunheim) and six others. I needed a larger than life tree that would stand out on the poster and draw students walking by from a distance, as the poster competed for attention with all the other conference posters found on campus. I had found my inspiration in Yggdrasil. But rather then depicting it as a tree with gods and giants hanging from it, I drew an ash tree with nine branches that stand out (representing the nine worlds of Norse cosmology) ,and I tried to fill it with as much energy and motion as possible to convey the feeling of the cosmic forces of galaxies swirling and suns churning.

Illustrators and designers are given assignments that often make them feel they are thrown to the wolves with not much in their arsenal to fight back. In my own experience, I have been expected to be an expert on the imagery of politics, science, history, linguistics, soda pop, etc. and to perform each and every time. I believe what always makes the difference between a successful design and one that fell flat is knowledge. Whether you are working for yourself, for an ad agency, or for an in-house design department, if you are not given the time to research and become somewhat knowledgeable on what you are designing or illustrating, then you are setting yourself up for failure.

My clients at Brown were very happy with the result and appreciated that I had taken my time to learn a little bit about their field of expertise. When it comes to client relations, it is a bit like traveling overseas and knowing at least a few key phrases in the language of the nation you are visiting. As long as you take the time to learn those phrases, your effort will be truly appreciated.

Here is the final poster design below, I hope you like it, and I hope the gods in Asgard are smiling upon you!

P.S. Here is a nice song right out of the Poetic Edda about this holy tree.

P.P.S. If you want to learn about the world of Norse mythology as well as Greek and Roman mythology, check out Edith Hamilton's classic book.

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