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Exclusive: Kevin Tong and Tom Whalen's Info•Rama Art Prints

By Norman Chan

Two awesome artists take on the art of infographics in a new gallery exhibition.

Artist Kevin Tong is one of my favorite movie poster designers. If you've watched the videos shot at our office, you may have noticed his Overview print mounted on our studio set wall, as well as his Avengers Iron Man print in my garage in Tested member videos. We've also shared his design process videos on Tested before, which are fascinating for anyone who appreciates Adobe Illustrator work. I've had the pleasure of meeting Kevin at various conventions like the Renegade Craft Fair and Comic-Con, and it was at this year's SDCC that he let me know about an infographics exhibit that he had recently been working on. Called Info•Rama, it's debuting this Saturday at the Phone Booth Gallery in Long Beach. The show is a collaboration with artist Tom Whalen, whose work you may have recognized as part of the recent Gallery 1988 Ghostbusters exhibit. (I bought his awesome Stay Puft 'Kaiju' print.) Kevin and Tom have designed a dozen prints for this show, covering a range of topics from spacesuits to dinosaurs to celebrated vehicles of the 20th century. And I'm delighted to be able to show you guys two of the prints here.

The coolest thing for me about this show is that Tested was actually able to help with some of the information for one of Kevin's pieces. For the infographic on NASA's Extravehicular Mobility Unit, Kevin told me that he sourced some of his information from our video about the EMU shot at NASA JSC. Terry Dunn, who we interviewed in that video (and now is our RC columnist on Tested) also helped fact check an early proof of the print design.

Check out our exclusive print reveals from both Kevin and Tom, below, as well as some in-production and close-up photos!

Extravehicular Mobility Unit, by Kevin Tong
O-Yoroi, by Tom Whalen

I also corresponded with Kevin, Tom, and Phone Booth Gallery owner Garry Booth about the upcoming exhibit.

Why an Infographics show? What was the origin of this idea and how did you decide on the topics and themes?

Garry Booth: I think the infographics show was an attempt to do something different. As a gallery, and as artists, we tend to always aim for something new, different, unexpected, or even innovative. Infographics have been around for a long time, and so has screen printed posters, but what this show became is really special.

Kevin Tong: For me, infographics are organized geekery. I can take a subject that I'm super into, like ants colonies, Nikola Tesla, spacesuits... and just plaster information about it all over.

A little over two years ago, I came up with the idea and pitched it to Garry and Tom Whalen. They were both into it, so we ran with it.

There were a few criteria I used for picking topics. The first was whether or not I was into it and could really just go to town on the illustration, design, and copywriting. Second, was whether or not I could present interesting information about the subject. Lastly, was whether or not the information could be condensed in a way that was true to the subject and could fit onto a page. There was never a lack of information, it was always too much. Way too much. So much... information. so, so, so much... data.

When designing an infographics poster, how does your approach to layout and use of color differ from when designing a movie poster, or something that's one big piece of art?

Kevin Tong: Typically, I do movie posters, so there needs to be a level of restraint, even for movies I'm wayyyy into. Otherwise, the movie poster is a mess and lacks focus. With these infographics though, it's like setting a wild designer free onto the page.

That's not to say that infographics can lack a focal point. Design is about color, layout, typography, among other things. With movie posters, my goal for those design elements is to grab attention and/or create a mood/idea. When it comes to these infographic posters however, those goals are still there, but there's a considerable shift toward effectively communicating that information to the viewer as clearly as possible.

Tom Whalen: I think the process for both is quite similar. The challenge of both assignments is to distill the subject (infographic or movie poster) down to its core and present it in a fresh way.

Can you walk through your individual processes for designing one of these? How much of it is hand-drawn work compared to work purely done on the computer?

Kevin Tong: Everything was drawn on the computer. Infographics have so many elements and moving one of those elements usually means moving five other elements. I would have gone insane drawing and redrawing all those!

My process usually began with doing the research, gathering as much data as I could. Then, tossing out extraneous data and trying to find the most important bits. Once I was convinced I had the most substantial INFO, I would organize it. Then came the GRAPHIC part, usually midway in the process. Lots of shape moving and what not.

Tom Whalen: For me the process is completely digital. I'll occasionally hack out a few small thumbnails to solidify the idea in my head, but I normally jump right into Adobe Illustrator. For posters like these, space is at a premium and I like to know very early on in the process what will fit and what will have to be trimmed. With all of the posters in Info•Rama, i'm pretty pleased with the amount of information that made the cut. None of the prints should be considered an all-encompassing authority on their respective subjects, but they all provide a solid overview and a few interesting facts on each topic.

These posters are screenprinted, which have their advantages. How do you approach your artwork knowing it'll be a screenprint vs a digital print? How does that factor into your use of colors and shading?

Kevin Tong: Screen printing is such a great process for me because it limits colors. It is possible to have too many choices and I personally enjoy the challenge of working with as few colors as possible. For INFO•RAMA, the most colors I used was four, the least was two.

Kevin's breakdown of the screenprinted layers of his EMU print. Click to animate it!

Fewer colors to me is a call to make every line and shape I draw to count and to do as much as I can with what I have.

Tom Whalen: Actually, when presented with projects that are non-screenprints, I tend to limit my colors anyway. Limited palettes provide a unity and rhythm to my pieces.

Since each one is unique, screenprints have a very tactile quality. It's pretty amazing to see one up close and study how each color plate locks down into the colors around it.

How do you approach a piece that's a standard 2:3 aspect ratio to one that's 1:3? (eg. 24"x36" vs. 12"x36")

Kevin Tong: I've been working like that for so long, I don't really think in different sizes. I choose those sizes because they're standard frame sizes. No sense in making people have to spend more money after buying my work.

Tom Whalen: I've recently begun to use the 12" x 36" format more frequently. It really makes you organize information efficiently. Because there's one straight shot through the layout, you pretty much know from the get-go how peoples' eyes are going to travel through those pieces.

What do you want viewers to get when looking at these? Is the goal for their eyes to track along an intuitive path?

Kevin Tong: That's the dream. Effective design shouldn't so much as control the viewer, but just streamline the viewing experience as much as possible. I'd love it if my posters just read as one whole experience versus a bunch of choppy bits.

Tom Whalen: My ultimate goal for this series of posters is that they are equally at home in a classroom as they are in a living room.

For people who can't make the show, where and how may these be available in the future?

Garry Booth: The work from the show will be available first to those who attend the show in person. The work will then go online and will be available globally during the run of the exhibition. We'll also be taking some of the work to Austin, TX in late September to MondoCon after the official exhibition comes down. These are limited edition runs, so once they are gone, they are gone!

Learn more about the Info•Rama exhibit here, plus check out two more exclusive print reveals on Nerdist here. And if you're in the Long Beach area, you can visit the gallery to check out the prints in person starting this Saturday. RSVP for the opening night here!