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Interview | Creative Gaga Magazine | May 2019

Interview with Creative Gaga magazine, Issue 46, May 2019

Bio by CG:

Sonia Tiwari is a powerhouse of talent when it comes to Visual Design, particularly developing stylized characters. Having worked within multiple design domains in India and the US over the last decade (Graphic Design, Animation, UX Design, Game Design, Instructional Design) - she brings a global perspective to her projects.

CG. Sonia, your work has a lot a variety, especially in the way you design your characters. How would you describe yourself or your work in 1 sentence. (or briefly) 


I’m a creative storyteller with a sense of humor who likes to draw cute things.

CG. Please tell us how this journey began for you. Some interesting childhood stories or stories from the past. 


I’ve always been a Maker. As a kid I loved sending my grandfather handwritten letters with paper crafts or small drawings. I collected distinct looking rocks, twigs, “potentially craftable” broken stuff,  and painted over them to design characters. I put up puppet shows for the family along with my sister. A somewhat strict culture at home made me spend a lot of time indoors as a kid, so I developed several creative hobbies to fill up the time - everything from sketching, painting, reading stories, writing poetry, paper crafts, clay art, beading bracelets, sewing puppets or just watching Saturday morning cartoons with my sister.

I’ve been lucky to have a very supportive family that wasn’t bothered by my “oddness” of wanting to repurpose garbage as art, and rather encouraged it. It helped to have a sister, mother and grandmother who were also creative. I never had any shortage of art supplies at home. 

CG. Since you've traveled quite a lot, you've been exposed to different cultures, art styles and environments. How did it help you and how big a part did it play in shaping up your skills and talent? 


The people and places we come across have a deep influence on our lives. My family is originally from Rajasthan, so I definitely have a cultural connection with bold colors. I grew up in Indore, and although we are mostly known as people who are  “obsessed with Sev and have a funny accent” - I owe my sense of humor to Indore. Indoris love everyone because everyone is called “Bae!” :)

San Francisco was a free spirited place that I got to call my home for 5 years, and I learned to critique my own art from a professional lens. Bay Area helped me get stronger on the technology side of art, I’ve coded websites and designed UX wireframes within tight deadlines under the startup-vibe of Silicon Valley. 

Happy Valley (Central PA) where I’m currently located - has given my art the opportunity to become a part of Learning Sciences Research. My professors in the doctoral program have been very welcoming of an older student who’s also a parent, and my art has recently become more focused in terms of purpose (education). One of my recent Art titled ‘The LPS Bot’  installed at Keller Art Gallery at Penn State showcases a small Augmented Reality animation for passers-by when scanned with HP Reveal App. 

Having visited art galleries and museums from different cultures, I feel like three things that are influencing my design language for ongoing projects are : Japanese Kawaii culture (cute characters, pastel colors), Scandinavian art (clean silhouettes, solid colors), Mid-century modern architecture (minimal design, bold colors, clean spaces).

CG. How do you start developing a character or a design? Please tell us about your thought process. 


Before designing I try to interview the characters - where are they from? what is their personality like? how old are they? what do they like or dislike? is there a specific purpose they must serve? and so on. The more details I know (or make up) - the better an image shows up in my mind and the sketches begin to flow. For example, for the cover design of this month’s Creative Gaga, our theme was children’s education - I was thinking about how kids draw with their heart, without any pressure of succeeding at it. There is growth of knowledge that comes with age and effort - so I drew a pencil with a heart carved out, that serves as a library, and letters and numbers growing from the trees represent increasing knowledge. 

Another good way to design characters is to build off of people we know, because it not only allows us to draw details of their facial features or clothing, but their personality, memorable things they might have said in the past. For a recent alumni event, I drew one of our professors’ caricature with an inspiring quote that he’d often say. It acted as a nostalgic element to the invitation design.

My last tip would be to try and capture the emotions and actions of people involved in the project you are working for. For example, I had the honor of designing a few illustrations for Akshayapatra, and after having seen how dedicatedly their employees and volunteers work to provide nutritious meals to children across India, I designed cute characters representing this family-like dynamic.

CG. There are some artists who have a particular style in their designs, but all your work has a different look and feel. Was this a conscious effort? How do you go about the overall design process for different characters? 


The different design styles have been rather circumstantial. 

When you are an “independent artist” - you get the opportunity and freedom to design your own collections of art following a specific style. You get to build a business around it - put up work in art galleries, sell products with your art on it, offer your “signature style art” to other companies, create a social media following and attend art fairs/conventions. It is a very rewarding experience - but not every design career works out this way.

For “employees” who serve the Design Industry - design style is decided by the need of the project, budget, client preference, audience of the project, production deadline and many such factors. Every project is different - Designing a router setup app is different than the cover for a school magazine.

Both sides have their benefits and challenges and both types of creatives have a place where they’re needed and admired!

CG. Which softwares and products do you use for your art? And do you have a designated team for each task? 


Adobe Creative Suite, I mostly vectorize my sketches using Adobe Illustrator and add subtle animations using After Effects. I collaborate with my husband for designing CAD models based on my designs (he’s an Industrial Designer) and have a partnership with a local 3d printing company to produce my designs in small batches.

CG. Please tell us more about how you're integrating early education in your work. What is the entire program about? 


I’m currently pursuing a PhD in Learning, Design, and Technology (LDT) from Penn State University. The LDT Doctoral program is intended for advanced professionals who wish to strengthen their abilities to do scholarly work and research in the area of Learning, Design, and Technology. Some of our recent work (including Students and Faculty) explores educational themes such as using mobile and digital technologies to support education in and out of school, patterns of interaction and everyday knowledge sharing in social network environments, audio visual environments of learning, analysis of structural knowledge, collaborative learning, Educational Games, Interaction Design, Educational Data Analysis and Visualization, Makerspaces in Education, designing student-centered learning environments, MOOCs(Massive Open Online Courses), sociocultural learning, and emerging technologies in education such as Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and AI powered Adaptive Learning.

For my own research projects, I integrate educational media in learning environments and design educational toys/games//books to facilitate learning with a “Maker” spirit. I enjoy conducting research with children (age 4-8) in classroom and summer camp settings, understanding how they learn STEM and how can we make their learning experiences better. I also design activities for Makerfaires, for instance, designing e-textile crafts for attendees with no background in electronics and helping them sew simple circuits using conductive thread and Lilypad Arduino microcontrollers through illustrated instructions. You can see more about our Makerfaire activities here 

CG. Being a mom, how important is it for you to create content that kids understand and enjoy? Does your child inspire you while developing characters? 


Like many mothers of our generation, I spend a lot of time reading reviews before buying anything for my kid. A lot of times I come across topics that don’t seem to have any unconventional resources to facilitate learning, and I realized that I have the creative skills to make useful/educational designs to address those gaps. I am pursuing a PhD to understand the reasoning behind designing for children and how it influences their learning. Eventually, I hope I can publish the research I’ve been doing, and also offer the books/toys/games I’ve designed in the research process - so it’s available to the masses. 

I often joke that my son is ‘Test Subject 1’ - because as a Visual Designer and Learning Scientist I work with children a lot, and having the ‘luxury’ of being with a child right at home has definitely been an advantage. I understand his perspectives, his friends’ perspectives, a parent’s perspective, his teachers’ strengths and struggles - something that was hard to fully comprehend when I was inexperienced.

CG. Please tell us about your favorite work of yourself and why. 


Defining “favorite” is challenging because people assume it’s based on the most “famous” art any artist has produced, one that most people would validate as good art. My favorite work is the one I create for my family out of pure love - with no commercial obligations and no fear of judgment.

I enjoyed making this pillow toy for my son in memory of my uncle who raised me (he passed away due to cancer). I designed the caricature in Adobe Illustrator, printed it on canvas fabric to sew together a pillow. Hopefully this will preserve the memory of grandpa dearest a bit longer. 

I also enjoy designing birthday party banners for my son. A particularly special 4th birthday was celebrated when I was briefly teaching Toy Design at NID, and we had a ‘Kathputli’ themed party. I think it’s a great way to preserve cultures by supporting local artists and engaging kids in ‘regional’ child-friendly activities. 

CG. Whose work do you look up to or why? Please tell us about your inspirations. 


I love the sense of humor in the work of NYC based artist Loryn Brantz! Two of the characters she designed are my all time favorite - The Feminist Baby and The Good Advice Cupcake. Great art is the one that instantly makes you feel things. I always have a great day looking at Loryn’s cartoons and their intelligent humor. 

I admire Polish artist Pawel Jonca - I love how he places his characters in visually puzzling settings, twisted perspectives, and yet very pleasant to look at, with a moving visual narrative. 

The visuals that leave me speechless are Christy Mitchell’s Photography - Her work is breathtaking! I admire that she hand-crafts all the insanely detailed props and costumes. I love crafting and sewing, but I can only imagine the amount of hours she must have taken to painstakingly put together these photographs. Here’s a making-of video from her works.

From the past, three artists I really admire are Al Hirschfeld, Dr Seuss and Mary Blair

Hirschfeld’s caricatures were a bigger celebrity than the celebrities he drew - that’s how amazing his flow of simple lines was. 

I admire Dr Seuss for illustrating over 60 books in his career in limerick rhymes, that have been translated and adapted in different mediums globally. It’s the kind of career every children’s book illustrator dreams of! 

Mary Blair has clearly inspired so many artists of today - her color palettes and stylized children’s-book-like illustrations will forever remain one of the most beloved artistic styles.  

CG. Any words of advice for youngsters who are aiming to do good in the field of graphic design? 


Use the right tool for the right task

One time I was creating a layout for a brochure in Photoshop, and my former Boss from my first job said “You can use a Lamborghini as a Taxi Cab, but that’s not what the car was designed for” - meaning certain softwares are designed to do certain things. Photoshop is great for image manipulation or digital painting, but InDesign and other Layouting softwares are designed just for that - designing layouts. It’s like trying to adjust the brightness of a Raster image in Illustrator - it can be done, but why? By keeping the files organized in the right software tool, you will do a huge favor to anyone else on your team who might need to tweak/update your work after you move on to other things.

Naming Layers for the sake of your team’s sanity!

When you are working in a team, it’s also important to name your files in an organized and easily understandable way - even the layers within the source file must be labeled clearly, so that when they get passed on - everyone knows where lies what. If you are designing art for say Augmented Reality or Motion Graphics, and the person animating opens up your files only to discover random layer names like “Layer 22” or “wheel” it can get really confusing and affects the overall project timeline (try thinking more specific eg. Bicycle_FrontWheel)

Invest in Software Licenses

As a young person trying to break into the design industry, it’s easy to give in to the urge of using pirated softwares. You’ll get so much more out of licensed software, and there are ways to get student discounts or exploring them through internships before investing in buying them yourself. I find it funny when I see young designers deciding not to buy licences “to save money” but always get a Grande cup from Starbucks 2 times a day. For less than that daily coffee expenditure, one can get an annual Adobe Creative Suite student licence. 

Expand your exposure

I think as designers it’s important to look at work by other designers who have a completely different style/medium/way of working. This resists the urge to just copy art from similar designers, and gives us a fresh perspective. It also keeps us grounded, because no matter the amount of success or fame any designer gets - there is always someone better, there is always room for self improvement. I never miss the chance to visit an Art Gallery or Museum, the art and artefacts always spark new ideas. I also take a look at Communication Arts Magazine form time to time for some of the world’s top designs. Gaga has also become one of my favorites!

Define what you like

If you come across a website or an ad or anything that you feel is “well designed” - try defining what exactly did you like? The font? What about the font? The colors? Does that color stand out on it’s own or is mostly interesting because of the background colors? The spacing? The rhythm? And so on. By defining what exactly we like about what we like in others’ graphic design - we give ourselves pointers for our own work. That’s the only way to develop a good eye for design - to find, define, and practice what you like.