Monday, February 27, 2017

How I Make My Posts: The Technology Process

A while ago I asked what kind of text posts you wanted to see soon, and the leading answer was a tutorial on how I make my posts. Not surprising based on the number of comments over the years asking what programs I use. So this is going to be the definitive answer to how I make what I make.

We're going to start with the technology.

I draw in SketchUp, and I make the posts with Adobe Illustrator. SketchUp is free, Illustrator is not. But there are viable substitutes for both of these programs, and I'll mention them as we go.

To draw the maps and plans, you have a lot of options. I use SketchUp, I know other online designers use AutoCad, you could use Photoshop or Illustrator if you have access, you could use any kind of free graphics software, and technically you could even use Microsoft Paint. In fact, Paint is where I started so long ago. It works to start, but lacks precision. Of these, AutoCad would definitely be the best alternate to SketchUp, but it is not free unless you are a student.

I specifically use SketchUp for a couple of reasons. First, its just what I was most comfortable with when I started, so it was an obvious choice. Second, the ability to draw with measurement is really helpful, actually almost vital, to be able to understand the scale and relationships of space. You could also do this in AutoCad, but not any of the others. And last, SketchUp ties into Google Earth and allows you to import snapshots of a selected area as a base to draw on. This makes it even easier to start a park by tracing the existing map and then comparing to existing space. This is something you would have to do manually with any other program by exporting from Google Earth and then placing and scaling in the graphics program.

So if you are already familiar with another graphics program, definitely stick with what you know and see if you can make it work, but my suggestion is Sketchup. Can't beat a free program really.

Get it here:

So once you have the program, now what do you do with it.

It depends on what you are doing, but with the hypothetical case of a park plan, I start by adding the location and getting the Google Earth into the file. By the way, I'm not going to go into extreme detail about the specifics of using SketchUp, but there are a lot of really great resources online. It's also a very easy program to learn, so don't worry about having trouble getting started. I add the Google Earth imagery of the specific park or area of a park I want to look at and then begin tracing. Quick tip: if you add the imagery with just a single overall image, it is too low resolution, so zoom in and add a bunch of individual images that cover the same area.

Google Earth Images Placed

If I am making a new park from scratch, I start by tracing the entirety of the existing conditions. This is annoyingly time consuming, but I need it as the base to later make changes. I use the full variety of line, curve, and freehand drawing tools to make the base map, depending on the building or path or feature that I am tracing. As I am going, I'm also adding on the color scheme that I set up. When I started posting, I picked the color scheme that you are now familiar with, and have not seen any need to change it. The idea with the colors is to be diagrammatic while still being obvious what it is, such as light green for grass and blue for water.

Start Tracing Buildings and Paths

Color Scheme on Finished Map

Then when the base is done, I save off to another file (in order to keep stages of process as different files) and begin work on the actual design. This part can take as little as a weekend to 6 months depending on my inspiration and if there are any challenges that come up. I often reference other parks that I have drawn or open up new Google Earth shots to compare the sizes of public spaces, showbuildings, and paths to make what I do as accurate feeling as possible. This is where a program with real scale measurement is incredibly useful. A 20' path and a 40' path look really different and have really different functions, so seeing real scale is nice.

How I actually do the designing is a topic bigger than a single post because there is not a single process. The Environmental posts I have been writing are the closet thing to a guide for that step of the process. Those posts discuss a few of the rules that I keep in mind as I design. I am constantly thinking about and checking sightlines and views as I draw for instance. Of course there are countless other things I am thinking about, many of which I'll talk about in future Environmental posts. Or maybe there will be a part 2 to this post with some thoughts on how I specifically design.

So once the design is finished, the next step is adding the trees. I do this on a separate layer that floats above the ground level that the drawing is on, just like trees covering the paths. I make the tree cover by copying a variety of tree sized circles in a random pattern to fill the areas that are planted. It's the best way to accurately recreate the pattern of the edges and gaps in the tree cover. I like the look.

Adding Tree Layer

Once this is all done, I can export the image. If you have the paid SketchUp, you can export as a vector drawing, so that you can edit the lines in another program. The free SketchUp only lets you export as a jpeg. Either work, and I've done combinations of both before. Just make sure if you export as a jpeg that you bump the resolution up much higher than default.

Now, the next program. For me to make the kind of formal presentation drawings that I show here, I need to be able to format it on a sheet. If you are just creating for yourself or don't care about the format, you can probably be done after you export from SketchUp.

I use Illustrator, because I had it already from school, but you can use anything that allows you to edit, resize, and add text to an image. A lot of programs can do this, so just search around. Photoshop, Indesign, free image editing software, Microsoft Publisher, and I guess even Microsoft Word could work (though really, find something better than Word). It really all depends on what kind of text and diagrams you want to put on your image, what kind of quality you want, and what kind of experience you have with formatting images.

In Illustrator, I use a template document that I created and add the exported image to the sheet. That's new for the update this year. The consistent template means all project images are the same dimensions, have the same text elements, and carry all stylistic elements from project to project. Highly recommend templates. I change the text on the footer, add any kind of diagramming lines or shapes, and add the text labels on the actual drawing. Export one more time, then upload, and then that is it.

Illustrator Template File

The drawing is done, I write the text, which in of itself can take a couple hours to write, and then I publish the post right to you.

That is a really basic summary of what I do, but I hope that I was specific enough with the software and the general work flow. If you have questions, leave a comment. And let me know if any of you try to make your own projects. I'd love to see what you make with this method!

Be back next month with a Version 2 of Disneyland Paris Park. I'm retaining a few things from the Version 1 from a few years ago, but also making a bunch of interesting changes to complement what I did for the Studios Park. Check back second week of March!


  1. Thank you very much for this article! It is very useful and interesting to see the making of your posts. It shows how much time you spend working on these amazing projects :D

    I just have one small question: how do you create that layer above the ground for trees? I didn't find anything helping on Google.

    1. Ah yes, specific sketchup question. Ok. Did you figure out how to make new layers? If not:

      Window > Default Tray > then check Layers. Layers panel will open, press the plus to make a new layer. I rename mine trees.

      Then I make a group (or component, same thing really) that I put all the tree geometry in. Make sure all the geometry and the overall group are on the trees layer. You can change the layer of anything with the layers toolbar (View > Toolbars > check Layers). Just select and pick the layer from the dropdown.

      Then I just move the group straight up a foot so its above the base layer. And then if you properly put it all on the trees layer, you can check on and off the layer on the layers panel and the trees will turn on and off.

  2. Thanks so much, this post was extremely helpful!!

    1. Your welcome. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  3. I've been delaying learning sketchup for a long time and this is just another reason for me to finally do it. Thanks for the awesome post!

    1. Yeah I definitely think Sketchup is valuable enough to learn. Go for it!

  4. Would you be willing to accept personalized design questions/commments through Twitter personal messages? I'd like to have your opinion on a park that I'm attempting to design myself...

    1. For quick questions and advice, sure. You can do that or send an email. Contact button at the top.

  5. Awesome post, definitely helped me out a lot! A few questions.

    When starting an original park, what do you draw first? Buildings and structures or pathways?

    And also, do you do anything with the default SketchUp background?

    I guess my problem on SketchUp is never really knowing where to start when it comes to making a complete original park.

    1. So I guess those questions are really more about the design process instead of the technology. I planned to write another post about that at some point to be a companion to this post. I'll plan to do that sometime soon to elaborate on that part.

      The truth is that there is not really an easy answer. There's no automatic way to start. It always takes me a lot of time to figure out what I want and then it just comes together.

      But I'll say that the concept is more important than anything you draw, so start there. You've got to know the park your going to make before trying to start drawing it. Instead of focusing on the buildings or paths as a way to start, I try to think about the experience of the whole space and try to compare to real places that I've either been to or can look at pictures of. Then you can start to assemble the park with reference to what you already know.

      About the sketchup background, not sure what you mean. I just change it to white and then let it be there.