We The Robots Design

October 31, 2011 - posted in work in progress

This should have gone on the We The Robots site while the strip was still running but I didn’t have the time then. I always meant to post some of the work that went into the design. I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out and used to get a lot of questions about it. The look of the strip also ended up completely changing the design of the Work In Progress. So here’s some stuff about all that…

It needed to be quick and easy to draw in the spare moments between babies waking up in the middle of the night. Originally I planned to just post doodles in a notebook with no digital clean-up. But later it seemed to want to be a little more finished.


The look for the characters and backgrounds evolved from the short I was working on, and from Robot Family— a show I was trying to develop with my friends Chad Strawderman and Jeff Barfoot back in 2000. (God help them, I’d hate to have to work with me on a show)

Since we were trying to make a tv thing, our intention was to design characters simple enough that any human on the planet could animate them.

I also started to like the idea of having characters that were pared down so much that they became little more than a gesture or an expression. Characters that lack a complicated anatomy can be easier for an audience to project themselves into–  like you’re inside the character, as opposed to watching him from a distance. (Scott McCloud has written some good stuff about these ideas).

This kind of style suited the strip since it wasn’t driven by some unique character, but was really just me talking to myself and projecting it  onto a robot landscape. It seemed the simpler I could make the designs, the stronger they would be.

In retrospect, there must also have been a subconscious influence from Ed Emberley. When I was a kid, I loved the way he could just stamp a dab of color onto a page and bring it to life with some simple black lines. Brilliant.


If you figure out a color palette ahead of time it can save a lot of work. I was stuck until one night, reading to my daughter, I noticed the super-limited color in some of  her books. They seemed to be printed using black, blue, red, and yellow. Orange, green, purple, and lighter primary shades seemed to be achieved by overlapping shaded coquille or halftone screens. (something simpler and less predictable than process colors) Sometimes the colors were slightly off-register, especially in older printings. I scanned a few pages from “Go, Dog, Go” and took a sampling.

We The Robots would need a bit more range, so I mixed some of the inks to get a wider palette. (I also added some browns). In all the strips, I think I only strayed from this palette one or two times.


Once I had derived a palette from a mid-century printing process I wrestled with the idea of making the whole thing look like a low-fi print, even though it was entirely digital.

At first it seemed like an inauthentic approach. I’m not much into digital simulations of age, or of other media. (I can’t quite get into the Instamatic app, for example)…

In the end I decided that everything about this comic was a wholesale illusion anyway. Maybe for nostalgic reasons, it seemed like it would feel warmer with some texture and color imperfections. And I could at least figure out my own organic, hand-made way of doing things. (to the right are the earliest experiments I did using ink stamped onto paper with a rubber eraser) But I still feel uneasy about the whole impulse.

The final process was to draw and color the strip entirely in Photoshop, then slightly off-set the CMYK color channels for everything but the lettering. Then I would overlay a scanned paper texture onto the entire thing.

So in the end, the entire design was nothing but a cruel digital lie. But because the characters were so simple and potentially robotic, I think they benefited from the treatment.

I used to get a lot of questions about how the strip was drawn– whether it was digital, cut paper, or whatever. A few people commented on how much emotion the strip could contain, even though they thought the artwork was terrible.

Whatever people thought of it, the look was always very deliberate. I think it was fairly distinct but also reasonably quick to draw, which was handy since the writing part was really, really hard. You can read the finished comics here.


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