Mark is a designer who also knows a lot about how to use technology to create design.
2 Queen Street looks like the perfect setting for a movie. The top half is the kind of slick, soaring skyscraper that evokes images of long boardrooms and besuited men talking in corporate buzzwords. The bottom half is a concrete bank façade from 1910, complete with arches and fancy moulding. Any moment, we’re expecting the next James Bond is going to saunter in wearing expensive sunglasses.
Instead, a “short Asian kid” enters the scene. He approaches one of two large digital panels on the walls — interactive panels, displaying the ever-shifting colours of water and sky — opens the back, plugs in a USB stick, and begins to type frenetically on a keyboard.
People stop and stare. The whispering starts.
He doesn’t have a uniform. He’s too young to be a technician, surely? Grey tuque, fashionable coat, backpack… The entire tableau smacks of something fishy.
The guards exchange a look. They swagger over.
“Are you cleared for this?”
“Yeah, I’m part of Forge Media and Design,” explains Mark Collantes with resigned, almost wry amusement. He gets this a lot.
Troubleshooting software and causing scenes in public places is not what Mark expected to be doing when he enrolled in the Graphic Design program at Algonquin College in 2012.
To be fair, he didn’t really know what he was getting into.
Mark was on a fast track towards university and life as a mechanical engineer — until his final year of high school, when he began to have second thoughts.
“I didn’t want to do any more of the academic side of things,” he admits. He was feeling lost — to say the least — and a timely ‘career questionnaire’ offered an unexpected solution: graphic design.
“I never knew there was such a thing,” Mark recalls. Turned out to be a classic case of love at first site.
I ask if Mark remembers his first day of classes.
“It was… terrifying.” A note of laugher creeps into his voice: “I think I was late for the orientation.”
Graphic design is an intersection between art and technology. Skills such as digital illustration, photography, and typography team up to communicate ideas through the power of the visual medium. From bombastic movie posters to the packaging of your favourite peanut butter, graphic design is everywhere.
Forge Media + Design describe themselves as a ‘UX (user experience) agency’. In additional to traditional graphic design — website design, brochures, logos, signage — Forge creates interactive media such as wayfinding kiosks, digital exhibits, and cultural art pieces. Their website boldly declares: ”Everyone talks about innovation. We live it.”
Many of their projects involve integrating art and technology into everyday life. For example, a 20-ft Digital Donor Wall they constructed for Wilfrid Laurier University. In addition to letting people browse information about the university’s donors, it lights up the hall in a myriad of shifting colours. “Like TRON,” Mark notes, referring to the tech in the sci-fi flick.
Another project — ‘Spirits of Markham’ — involved covering traffic control boxes with stylized graphic wraps. Instead of your everyday utilitarian eyesore, citizens are treated to vivid images of flowing streams and lively animals.
“No project is ever the same,” says Mark. It’s what he loves best about his work.
Initially, Mark was worried about finding a job after graduation. “As big of an industry as it [graphic design] is, no one really knows about it until you actually dive into the world,” he explains; not to mention that the prospect of making a never-ending stream of explanatory brochures is no one’s idea of a glittery life. “I told myself don’t think about it; just go for it.”
Currently, Mark is creating skins for a mobile video game. A collaboration with the RCG (Responsible Gambling Council), the game leads its players through an interactive fable that demonstrates the pitfalls of gambling — and only reveals its loaded subject matter in a twist ending.
“As a graphic designer, I would never have seen myself creating a video game, even participating in the creation of one,” says Mark; and it’s been one of his dreams for as long as he can remember.
Mark speaks in an earnest, deliberate way, with a trace of a Filipino accent. He often gets absorbed in an idea, at which point his speech flip-flops between the slow, solemn plod of a hearse and the breakneck abandon of a Formula One.
“My typical day begins by me waking around 7, turning off my alarm, and then waking up at 8,” Mark tells me; the delivery is deadpan, but the irony is unmistakable. “I take the streetcar on King’s Street… There’s an article that King’s Street is the busiest street in Toronto.” Mark then grabs coffee and a banana bread, and heads up to the Forge-Media + Design office: a “New York-style loft”, open concept, with sections separated by bookshelves.
Mark is part of the Interactive Team. “Being part of that team means being involved,” says Mark. “Being knowledgeable about the most current tech you’re using.” Since their pieces involve interactive digital technology, they must be both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
Lately, Mark does a lot of ‘skinning’ (sounds ominous out of context, doesn’t it?) Starting with a silhouette created by another designer, Mark uses digital programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator to bring the shape to life.
“If someone creates a silhouette of a bush, it looks… it just looks like a pointy cloud, for lack of words,” says Mark. Skinning gives the pointy cloud colour, shading, shadows —and hopefully, the appearance of a bush.
Of course, not all his tasks are glamorous. Mark sometimes lends a hand with software testing. “Basically, pressing every button on the interface and recording each outcome,” he explains with the gloomy countenance typically reserved to people in dentists’ chairs. To keep track of the testing, Forge uses a giant Excel spreadsheet — roughly 18,000 cells. “It’s quite a nightmare, but, ugh,” Mark groans and shakes his head. “It has to be done.”
After work, Mark rushes home, inhales dinner, and rushes straight to dance practice.
“To make it simple, I’m the guy that spins on his head,” Mark declares. But B-boying — commonly referred to as breakdancing — is far from simple. Besides requiring intense physical fitness and control, it challenges the dancer to be creative and unique.
Picture the practice room: sometimes its a dance studio with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and other times its a free, open space at a local university, with dirty concrete floors and a trickle of confused passerby. A dozen b-boys and b-girls are jamming out to old-school hip-hop tunes blasted from a portable speaker.
“With breaking I’m hoping to reach at least some sort of worldwide recognition,” Mark admits. In 2016, Mark made it to the Top 16 bracket of the Redbull BC One Canada cypher; one of the most prestigious b-boy events in Canada.
He tries to practice for a few hours every night; an intense lifestyle, to say the least. But he wouldn’t have it any other way: “I’m a restless person. If I’m not doing anything I go crazy. If I don’t practice breaking, I actually start getting sick.”
Even when Mark was little, the loftiness of his aspirations extended far beyond the stratosphere. “First, I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to create things…” he reminisces. And not just ordinary inventions, but the stuff of fantasy: robots, space elevators, teleportation systems.
Next, he wanted to be an astronaut. “Growing up in the Philippines you can see the stars, there’s not as much light pollution as here in North America. Sometimes I would just sit on the hood of our car, and look at the sky, and I’d see all those stars… I always wondered what it would be like, to be on a different planet.”
Today, Mark’s goals are more earthly, but no less ambitious. “I gained this thirst for knowledge when I went to college,” Mark explains. He wants to go back and study fashion, with the end goal of designing his own clothing line. Ideally, he wants his brand to double as a community centre for all types of street art and street dance — like skateboarding, parkour, and breakdancing. “I want to give back to the sub-culture,” Mark explains. “If you really delve into what true hip-hop is, it’s a very caring community.”
He adds: “Everything nowadays is very specialized. I want to break that barrier. I want to become a designer through and through.”
I ask Mark what he thinks makes a successful graphic designer.
“Always have an eye for detail. Never overlook anything,” is Mark’s immediate response. “Basically, dot your I’s and cross your T’s.”
Stubbornness is another essential virtue.
“You have to keep pumping out idea after idea,” Mark explains. “After you reach 50, maybe there’s one that might fit the bill.”
Mark’s rational is as follows: with seven billions souls on earth, all thinking and tinkering and trying new things, it’s hard to create something truly original or groundbreaking. Besides, first ideas tend to be the most biased or the most obvious solutions.
“Never settle for anything that’s been done,” Mark declares. “Art is really simple now, cause anyone can get the software, go on Youtube, and watch tutorials. What separates a good graphic designer apart from a bad designer is just work ethic.”
Art — like technology — is in a constant state of flux. It’s hard to predict where either field will be in the next decade, let alone the next century; only that it will be unexpected.
Forge Media + Design
2 Queens Street Installation
Spirits of Markham Project
Wilfrid Laurier Digital Donor Wall
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