Kia Valdez Bettcher

Designer/Drawing Addict
barrel with torch on top

Embracing the Bottom of the Learning Curve

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with learning as a designer. It’s satisfying to gain new skills, but staying in my comfort zone feels so much easier. I want to push myself and get awesome results, but there’s an intimidating hurdle of not knowing how to start. The bottom of the learning curve is a scary hurdle to confront. 3D design had that hurdle stalling me from progressing. Dipping my toes into 3D modelling and quitting after a week was a common occurrence for years. There’s dozens of abandoned attempts sitting on my old hard drives. Something always prevented me from wanting to continue. Normals, modifiers, rendering — 3D felt too overwhelming and vast. I felt stumped. How do you get started learning something when you don’t even know what you don’t know?

Luckily, there is a cure for my 3D phobia. I recently joined a digital interactive agency, gskinner, who emphasizes professional development. They give dedicated time every week to learn new skills so it’s harder to make excuses. Over the past two months I have used this PD time to finally commit to learning 3D and Blender. The results so far have been modest and clumsy, and there’s a lot more to improve on. Despite the struggles, I want to share my progress and show that 3D might not be as scary and impossible after all.

Accepting I Don’t Know Everything

There’s nothing quite as humbling as loading up new, freshly-installed 3D software. I remember looking in horror at Blender’s interface and having no idea where to start. Gray buttons, panels and nonsensical windows welcomed me with intimidating ambiguity. What made the fear worse was knowing that my coworkers were expecting me to learn this software. I couldn’t close the window and go back to my safe, predictable Photoshop and Illustrator. I couldn’t shrug and say “3D isn’t for me.” There was no place left to hide. Looking back, this external pressure was a blessing in disguise. It became the initial push into the unknown to start something new. After years of skirting around and avoiding Blender, I had to swallow my pride and get to work.

New Blender 3D window with cube

What have I gotten myself into?

Breaking Down the Pieces

Unlike my prior attempts at learning 3D, there would have to be a deliberate approach. I would try to break down the software into chunks to reduce the sense of intimidation. Next, I would share my progress with my team members experienced in 3D. I hoped that small steps combined with feedback would make Blender seem manageable.

I kept my goals small and gradual. Learning the main hotkeys and how to navigate the software became my first objective. My second goal was to make basic shapes. I opened up my first introduction to Blender tutorial and started the journey. After hours of tutorials and fumbling with hotkeys, I learned how to move and deform cubes. My screen had become filled with dozens of scattered, warped meshes. It looked like a mess, but it also felt like progress.

variety of deformed 3D meshes

The magic of extrusions and subdivisions

After overcoming the initial shock of Blender, the next goal was to try to make something. I gave myself a time limit of 3 hours to make anything I wanted from what I had learned from the tutorials. Not wanting to set my expectations too high, I chose to model a robot since organic forms were beyond me. This allowed me to practice basic extruding, materials, lighting, and rendering. Learned concepts started to come together as I built my robot piece-by-piece. At the end of the sprint, there was a modest little mesh I could call my own. It was encouraging to see I had made visible progress after a week of basics.

image of rendered model of a robot

Robot: My first Blender render

After this small success, I laid out the general method to continue learning Blender:

  1. Identify what to learn
  2. Watch tutorials of what I want to learn
  3. Copy the tutorial
  4. Practice the contents of tutorial until comfortable
  5. Apply the new knowledge to a small experiment
  6. Share the results & solicit feedback
  7. Repeat

If I don’t stick to this structure when learning, I tend to veer off in too many directions. Having a step-by-step process, I felt more committed to actually progress with what I set out to do. On top of that, having to share my progress with the team made me want to try to the best of my ability. There was some stake.

little gray low-poly trees

Practicing low-poly organic shapes

With each week I would try to add a new concept to what I had learned the week prior, and the method started to pay off. After mesh models came textures and node editing. Then came basic lighting setups and rendering. Gray cubes became trees, rocks, swords, and more. Those objects then started to have texture and colour. Lighting added a sense of realism that hadn’t been there before. Every week brought new mistakes and frustrations, but that frustration was always temporary. The satisfaction of getting something to work and come to life was well worth the struggle.

Simple shapes in front of a dark textured background

A first attempt at material nodes and texturing

The Challenge

After practicing for a few weeks and grasping the bare basics of Blender, it was time for a larger challenge. The test: design, model and UV map a torch and a barrel in a low-poly style. “This should be easy”, naive me thought. I had already made prop sketches for what the models should look like, so there should be no trouble. My overconfidence got the best of me and I decided that I didn’t need to look at reference while I modelled. Big mistake. Always have your reference visible while modelling! It’s amazing how fast I could forget what my own drawings looked like when they weren’t right in front of me. Unsurprisingly, the results didn’t look like what I had expected.

low poly torch and barrel

A first attempt at modelling and UV mapping a barrel and torch

Another mistake was rushing into UV maps before adequately researching the subject. In my naive confidence, I thought I could figure it out as I went along modelling. The results: disorganized maps that didn’t have the proper shading or resolution. I didn’t know what baking was or how to export UV layouts, so making maps had become a guessing game. I could have avoided this mistake the first time if I had taken time to research first. Following tutorials is a faster way to learn compared to blindly making preventable mistakes.

brown UV map for a barrel

How not to make a UV map

I shared my results with the team and luckily they pointed out my errors and moved me in the right direction. That’s one of the perks of surrounding yourself with people who know more than you: it gets rid of the guessing game. I could make my mistakes faster. After more attempts and hours of practice, my models were finally completed. They’re not perfect, but they are much closer to what I was trying to achieve, when compared to the first attempt. As it turns out, a great way to learn something is to repeat the same project over and over until it finally looks good.

image of modelled torch on barrel

Climbing the Learning Curve

In this experience, the two main challenges to overcome were my pride and impatience. Before, I was too concerned about everything in 3D not looking perfect the first time around. Worse, I didn’t want others to see me making mistakes. Yet, nobody rational is going to fault you for trying and making mistakes. Learning a new skill takes time, but I was too focused on getting big results fast. I need to remember to reel myself back when I try to get too much done without the proper preparation. I could have avoided many hours of frustration and mistakes if I had slowed down and been patient.

Learning Blender has in many ways been exactly how I expected it to be: difficult, confusing, and time consuming. There are so many variables to consider and every attempt I make so far looks and feels subpar. Yet, there is one thing that makes me want to keep on chipping away at this skill: gradual, visible progress. Looking back, I can already start to see the my attempts improve over time and I’m excited to see where I go from here. Am I some kind of 3D wizard now? Definitely not. But I have made strides which have brought me closer to my goals. Marginal gains add up over time. That’s the real beauty of the being at the beginning of the learning curve; it’s only up from here.

Cultivating Candid Feedback in Creative Culture

A big cake with icing on topI’ve been exposed to a variety of corporate cultures. Some fill me with inspiration, fellowship, and support, where my co-workers are my best friends and I trust them to give honest feedback — knowing they want to solve problems, and help me produce my best work. Others, leave me exhausted: struggling with job satisfaction and feeling alone. At the root of this, is a feeling that surfacing issues or concerns to managers will fall on deaf ears. When managers listen and do not take action or follow up with action, I’m left feeling powerless to affect change.

If this sounds familiar — have hope. With a few insights about shaping feedback and some tips to cultivate an open, supportive, and candid culture, you’ll be on your way to creating an environment where you can thrive together. It all starts with good feedback.
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Things I Didn’t Learn In Design School

The best decision I’ve ever made was going to design school. Surrounded by talent, designer friends, and inspiring instructors, I was able to improve more than I could have ever imagined. After four years of amazing time in school, I received several job offers after our graduate portfolio show, and ended up working at a digital experience agency: gskinner.

Until the moment I started work, I thought I knew pretty much everything to succeed professionally, and there was no doubt in my naïve mind I would soon become “the SUPERSTAR” designer of the company. But I found the reality to be quite different from what I imagined. Transitioning from school to a professional work environment, I felt ill-equipped as there were many things I hadn’t been exposed to at school. It was like being thrown in the middle of the ocean and having to learn how to swim all over again.

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Why I Practice Design After 25 Years

It’s been 25 years since I first double-clicked a desktop icon that changed my life. The year was 1992 and I had just opened up Photoshop 2.5. I had no idea what I was doing. Fascinated by computers and making digital art, I didn’t care if I could make something look great. I just clicked on a tool and tried making anything. With each attempt, I increased my abilities and the outcomes became more complex, meaningful, and intentional. Practicing became the foundation for my education, career, and part of my ethos as a Creative Director—here’s the impact it’s had, and how you might be feeling if you’re not practicing.

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Breaking Into the Web Industry

Taking Your First Steps

Finishing school and stepping into the industry is both daunting and exciting. Having gone through the process of graduation and job searching myself just a year ago, I want to shed some light on what to expect and offer some tips along the way.

After working at gskinner for one year, I was fortunate to attend the grad show where I had first met Grant when I was a student. Along with the CTO and Creative Director, we observed the new grads and discussed possible hires. It was an eye opening experience, learning how management assesses talent. It allowed me to empathize with the hopes and fears of the new grads as they try to find a way into the industry. Luckily, the web platform is broad and provides a large pool of jobs to fill.
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Check. Check. Is this thing on?

It’s been nearly a full year since I last blogged. (Do people still blog? Maybe I should snapchat this instead?) I used to blog a lot, but life became busier, posts became more infrequent, and eventually it stopped being a habit and became a chore.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to say. It’s just that the last few years have been a crazy and exciting ride, and I haven’t had a lot of time to dedicate to writing posts.

Five years ago, Flash as a platform died. For a lot of shops, the migration was gradual. Not for us. Our clients come to us for cutting-edge tech, and almost overnight, Flash didn’t meet their criteria. We went from almost 100% Flash work, to nearly 0% in less than a year.
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8 Years, a Retrospective.

I was looking at the blog today, thinking how neglected it is, when I realized that its 8 year anniversary had recently passed. That got me scanning nostalgically through old posts, and wistfully pondering how much has changed since my very first post on Sept 1, 2003.

At the time, I was a spiky-haired, fresh-faced, freelance developer who had just recently won my first few awards, and had spoken at my first few conferences (a thoroughly nerve-racking experience). I was completely unsure of my place in the industry, had no idea how to promote myself (though I was starting to learn), and wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I “grew up”. I just knew that I REALLY loved building cool things in Flash.

Eight years later, a lot has changed, but the important parts have stayed the same. I’m a grizzled veteran, with more than a few white hairs, and am no longer so fresh of face. I’ve spoken at hundreds of conferences and events around the world, but I still get completely stressed out before every single one. I lead a team of 14 absolutely amazing developers and designers, working on cutting-edge projects for some of the biggest brands in the world, but I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. I just know that I still REALLY love building cool things and sharing them with the world.

There are a few reasons why I still love my work so much. Foremost, I love the continuous challenge and the sense of creation. I don’t think I’ve had a day in the past 8yrs when I haven’t either learned something new, or built something (however small) that I can be proud of. I also appreciate the diversity – I’m sure I’d be a much wealthier man if my company focused on building “enterprise blah blah blahs for the yadda yadda market vertical”, but I much prefer constantly tackling new challenges. We’ve worked on everything from intros & micro sites to frameworks & enterprise apps to games & installations to technical demos & art pieces.

I also really appreciate the people. My own little team is made up of intelligent, creative, and fun people that I genuinely love working with. Our clients tend to be smart, savvy, and eager to do fantastic, progressive work. And, the communities I’ve been honoured to participate in have been hugely supportive and giving. Seriously, the Flash community is one of the coolest groups of like-minded folk I’ve ever had the pleasure to interact (and party) with. I’m still getting to know the HTML/JS community, but I’m hoping they will be equally cool.

I know it’s a bit sappy and cliché, but I have a deep passion and love for what I do, and a great deal of respect for the people I’ve been privileged to work with over the past decade. I’d like to think that’s helped make my work better, but if not, at least I’ve been having fun the whole time!

(and, yes, I will try to post more often – Twitter and G+ have made me lazy)