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Flash Goddess
October, 2003
Willo O'Brien

Flash Design
Spunky Productions

Interactive Animation
Get Real Girl

Web & Flash Design
Fine Brand Media, Inc.

Character Design, Storyboarding, Animation
Ridiculous Julia cartoon

WilloToons *baby*

Willo O'Brien
Interviewed by Jane Wells

Willo O’Brien is a designer and illustrator based in San Francisco. She has worked as a Web, Flash and Graphic Designer for several Silicon Valley- and San Francisco-based studios, including Fine Brand Media, Spunky Productions, Asia Web Networks, and Care2.com. In her most recent position as the lead Web and Flash Designer at Fine Brand Media she designed for corporate clients such as SGI, Fujitsu, First Republic Bank and BrassRing. Willo is a fervent Flash evangelist who values clean design and intuitive interfaces.

How did you begin your career as a Flash Goddess?
I started using Flash in 1999. I had been working as an e-card Production Artist at Care2.com, and seemingly overnight I started noticing Flash and Shockwave games everywhere on the Internet. I was immediately drawn to the idea of motion on the Web. I had been doing Web production with animated Gifs, so as soon as I saw what Flash could do I immediately took a class and got the software. Back when I was studying design in art school, computer animation hadn’t really come into its own yet, so I had to learn everything from scratch.

What was it about Flash that appealed to you?
Long before Flash came around, I was an aspiring artist and illustrator. I used to say I was a “professional doodler” as I had stacks of sketchbooks chock full of doodles I didn’t know what to do with. I had always wanted a way to animate my cartoons, but had only known the kind on TV. Becoming a television animator seemed like a very huge and unattainable goal at the time, so when I discovered Flash I was thrilled to find a program that gave me the ability to animate my cartoons without needing a major studio to provide funding, equipment, etc. Flash really makes it possible for anyone to create animations.

So you took a course, bought the software...then what?
With my newfound (amateur) skills I made a funny little drag & drop game called "Dressing Darby" and a more risqué one called "The New Pen". I left Care2.com and was hired in April 2000 as a Flash Designer for Spunky Productions producing Spunkytown.com Flash cartoons for kids.

My time with Spunky Productions was amazing. I was in charge of animating the title sequences (opening and closing titles and credits) for the cartoons. I maintained font and color usage, and implemented any interactive elements. I worked closely with the producers and creative directors on the animators’ schedules and administering post-production. Post-production involved importing the sound, matching it up on the time line and extensive optimization of the flash files before they got published to the Web. I also did layout design for the cartoon’s environment screens. It was a dream job, really. I love cartoons and the team there was amazingly talented. I also had an incredible Creative Director, Tommy Ajello, who taught me so many design techniques, and imparted a wealth of information about being a great creative director.

From Spunkytown I went to Fine Brand Media, where I was the lead Web and Flash designer for several years. I had the opportunity to work with a wide array of corporate clients, and beef up my skills in corporate design and branding, client relations, and working within a client’s specific corporate needs. I have come to value usability and clean design as a top priority. It’s key to be really Web-smart these days, so on every project I try to keep in mind usability, load time, accessibility and search engine rank. I also insist on using CSS for fonts. The past three and half years have left me with a very versatile set of Web tools, which is great, because having recently decided to take a stab at working for myself, I will need to use everything I’ve learned along the way.

So you’re joining the self-employed? What are you currently working on?
So much! My biggest challenge now is going to be managing my time to fit in all the great projects I’ve taken on. What’s so fun about working independently is that I have the opportunity to work on projects in all my areas of interest: Illustration, Flash animation, Web and Flash Design. I’m especially excited that I’ve gotten a number of illustration projects, since illustrating and cartooning will always be my first loves.

For my Web and Flash Design business I currently have a handful of terrific clients. Some are complete redesign projects, while others are maintaining existing sites. For a while I was so busy I had to turn away projects, but now that I’m getting into a groove, I’m better able to take on new projects that I find interesting or that I think will give me an opportunity to learn something new.

On the illustration/animation side, I recently wrapped up a big project working on a cartoon intended for the "tween" market (ages 9-13) on broadcast television that the producer is hoping to air and then sell as a ½-hour series. I did the character design, storyboards, backgrounds and fully animated the intro & three 1-minute shorts. It took me about a year to finish it up, balancing that work with my then-full-time job. It was really fun to do and by the end I definitely noticed my skills improving...and that's what it's all about. You can only get better if you practice!

Working in Flash for broadcast was a terrific opportunity. I learned a lot about the colors, size ratio and exporting requirements. I have been considering starting a Web site dedicated to this information, as I had to do quite a bit of digging myself, but I really can’t give myself yet another project right now, because...

I’ve also just launched a Custom Wall Painting business directed towards nurseries and children’s rooms. My illustration style lends itself so naturally to kids and babies, it seemed like a perfect way to get my creations out there. My first job will be painting a large space at a preschool/daycare in Marin, and I have a couple of private clients lined up next for murals in their kid’s rooms. I’m very excited about where I can take my illustrations in the baby market, and at some point would like to look into a clothing line, greeting cards, etc.

Since I get to set my own schedule, I’m also allowing myself time to pick up new skills and indulge my other artistic interests. I’m starting to spend more time painting and doing photography. One, to improve my abilities with those media, and two, because it’s fun!

It sounds like you are first and foremost an artist who chose Flash because it served your needs, as opposed to a lot of designers and programmers who picked it up because their clients wanted it.
Absolutely! In fact, most of the time I draw directly in Flash. When I do still draw on paper, I scan in my illustrations with Adobe Streamline, export them to an Illustrator file and then import them into Flash – voila! Flash is wonderful for character illustration. I love that the art is vector for the scalability. And I’ve always been drawn to how beautifully Flash creates smooth lines and offers such ease of editing. My Wacom tablet works beautifully with Flash. I have a lot of control and I love the ability to add color to my illustrations so quickly.

How did you get into illustration and design in the first place?
I’ve always been interested in visual arts. In school, I wasn’t interested in much besides art class, and as a child I was always drawing, doodling and creating various characters. In junior high and high school I began to notice logos and motion graphics on TV and everywhere I went. I am a very visual, creative person, so I realized early on that I needed to do something artistic for a career. When I graduated from high school I had no interest in attending a 4-year college where I would have to take more of the classes that didn’t interest me. Instead, I set my sights on an art school where I could learn specifically about design. At the time I thought the best path was to go into Graphic design, but looking back I wish I'd chosen to study illustration or animation.

Why the interest in cartooning/illustration?
I have a few theories on why I picked up drawing cartoons over other formats: I am very near-sighted, so maybe when everything is so blurry I want a nice crisp line. Also, I was an only child for most of my life, so my little cartoon world of friends was a fun place for me to go. I have always been in awe of how a simple line or two can create so much. And with Flash, you can create even more!

Being self-taught, do you have any advice or tips you could give to those interested in using Flash for character design and/or Illustration?
Get a Wacom tablet. Work and draw in Flash as much as possible. Play, play, play! Get books and build the games they have given you the code for, make them your own, get to know what does what. For illustrating in Flash, get to know the use of lines vs. fills. Converting lines to fills, changing the colors, creating symbols, reusing your character library.

What uses of Flash are inspiring to you?
Videos and Web-training interfaces, cartoons and games, interactivity for the user, efficient forms, the way ESPN is using it to instantly update information without a page reload, integration with backend databases.

What do you see as the most common mistakes in Flash and Web Design today?
I hate it when I can’t read the text. Dark text on a dark background is sooo annoying. I also don’t have much patience for unintuitive navigation.

Who is your favorite artist?
So many amazing artists inspire me. Museum level, I’m very inspired by Robert Rauchenburg. His years of experiments in multi-media are so impressive. I have lists of amazing illustrators that I’m impressed and inspired by as well. There’s definitely no single favorite in my book, I am in awe of so many!

What has your experience been with the Flash community?
Being self-taught initially, I actually had to do quite a bit of reaching out on my own. At first, I just made friends with my Flash instructor, since he was the only other person I knew who did Flash! We attended some of the first Flash Forward events here in San Francisco. At my first Flash Forward, I met the Creative Director for Spunky Productions.

After working at Spunky and moving into Web and Flash Design at Fine Brand Media, I didn’t have any Designers around me. I was the solo designer at the firm, so I found myself really needing to reach out more. I attended a few local Flash user group meetings and kept in touch with people online. I was delighted when I found Ann-Marie had started a Flash Goddess group!

I’m surrounded by friends who are creative artists of all kinds (painting, glass blowing, pottery, photography, print design), but for some reason out of the friends I actually hang out with, only 1 or 2 of them use Flash!

So what’s next for you?
I definitely want do more full-scale Flash Web sites, and improve my
skills with actionscripting. I'd also like the opportunity to work for a
more design-focused firm where I can improve my design skills in print
and interactive media. I'm going to keep working with my clients on Web
and Flash sites, put some energy in to my new wall-painting business,
and try to explore some artistic media I haven't had enough time for in
the past. At some point in the near future I would like to explore
options for getting my illustrations onto various product lines. But
really, I have so many fun business ideas that who knows what will be

You can see Willo’s illustrations and keep up with her projects at http://www.willotoons.com