Immersive design and creative technologist roles require you to know quite a lot about multiple skills. This can feel overwhelming and frustrating for veteran pros and new talent. In this post, we’ll cover the 6 core competencies we’ve identified that every immersive design and creative technologist needs to be confident in their work.
The Depth of Skills
Before I dive into the skills, one thing that’s always useful to remember is that as an immersive designer or creative technologist you’re never expected (or should be expected) to be an expert or guru of all of these skills. I always talk about a T-shaped skill base being healthy and obtainable for people. This means you have lots of skills at a beginner/intermediate level (the horizontal bar of the T), and then you have 1-2 skills that you have a deep knowledge of (the vertical bar of the T).
So keep that in mind as we dive into these topics that you’ll have the choice of which of these areas you’ll want to have as general skills and which of these you’ll want to become more specialized in. Which you choose to go deep into often dictates what kind of jobs are available to you, and this post assumes you’re heading to a generalist/creative technologist/immersive designer type of role at a company.
1. Art History & Design Practices
I can hear the collective cry of our computer science colleagues as I mention knowing about art and design. What’s important about art and design is not specifically being good at it or intuitive but it’s understanding the history, contexts, practices, and trends of the art and design worlds. Our industry has a rich history which most developers in our industry couldn’t ever speak of or draw inspiration from. From the design side of things, understanding how a professional graphic designer might choose font pairings, or how they’ll approach colours and their meanings, or how they’ll use grid systems and layouts to ensure that all of the content for an experience feels consistent and balance. These aren’t things you need an art degree for and picking up these standard workflows will help you make much more informed designs and decisions around your works.
You could say the same for the workflows that artists have been using for a thousand years to hone their crafts and build on sparks of inspiration. This includes being able to make reflective journaling an active part of your work process. This includes having some levels and systems of personal knowledge management (PKMs). This even includes newer practices such as understanding artists statements and how to craft them for your work without having them be pure mumbo-jumbo.
As I mentioned, you don’t have to become a pro at these things by any stretch. But understanding the basic fundamentals of these things will empower your workflows and make you create better art faster, while also keeping your art more authentic and informed.
2. Creative & Experience Design
Experience design is a budding new field that is really helping transform the quality and accessibility of immersive experiences. While you won’t need to become an expert UX designer to be a creative technologist or immersive designer, there are a number of key tools and processes that can greatly level up your work. The first is really understanding users. Who are the people that are using this experience? What is their understanding of the world? How do they perceive the challenges you’re trying to solve or talk about in your art? These questions only touch the tip of the iceberg of the world of UX, but even taking a simple UX course will give you the tools you need to never have users get confused in front of your immersive experience and not know how it works (a feeling many of us have experienced in our careers!).
The same goes for prototyping and concept design. I can’t imagine the number of great ideas that never get realized because the artist couldn’t find a way to make a lo-fi or medium-fi prototype of their idea to help convince their team or company that this is worth building. The same could be said about pitching concepts. It’s so rare for me to speak to artists about what they’re working on and get anything other than some information about what they think is cool and some ideas about the aesthetics they like at that particular moment. I never hear about their creative intentions, the theme and story of their experience, or a proposed user journey of the work. These are the things that pros do when they’re getting their works funded and built and they’re all relatively basic concept design techniques.
3. TouchDesigner fundamentals
TouchDesigner is one of the best tools for the job when it comes to immersive design and creative technology. It’s so incredibly flexible that it can handle just about anything thrown at it and allows you to visually navigate complex challenges. Whether you want to do data viz, projection mapping, touch screen interfaces, layers and layers of movie playback/compositing, controlling DMX lighting, or working with microcontrollers, you’ll often find that a lot of pros will say “well we can probably do that in TouchDesigner pretty quickly!” And that’s what it’s all about with TouchDesigner. It might not be the absolute best tool at certain things, but the fact that it can do so many things so well and in a visually intuitive workflow, it’s always got a place in your toolbox. It’s why we have so much content about TouchDesigner on our blog, YouTube, and in The HQ PRO. We believe it’s the best tool for the job when it comes to being an immersive designer or creative technologist.
One of the unsung heroic features of TouchDesigner is that it’s an amazing learning environment where you can take advantage of skills you do have while you start to dip your toes into skills you don’t have yet. I think coding is a great example of this. I can’t count the number of artists I’ve spoken with who were deathly afraid of coding or thought they could never do it. They picked up TouchDesigner, kept most of their work visual at the beginning, and then slowly started adding a line of Python here and a Text DAT with two lines of Python there. After a few months they’re knee-deep in writing class extensions and have moved onto dipping their toes into GLSL!
You may be wondering why not Unity or Unreal or Notch aren’t a singular focus in our opinion. Those do make a great appearance in the next section but the truth of the matter is that we see those still as primarily game engines and content creation tools that happen to be able to do some forms of immersive experiences. I’ve never heard of anyone enjoying running a Notch standalone app for a complex installation. I’ve never heard anyone talk about how easy it is to plug in an Ouster, a Kinect, code Python logic, and projection map complex objects out of Unreal. Those tools have their place in our industry (which is definitely growing!) but TouchDesigner is really built for what it means to be an immersive designer or creative technologist.
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These templates shed light into the most useful and sometimes obtuse features of TouchDesigner.
They’re designed to be immediately applicable for the complete TouchDesigner beginner, while also providing inspiration for the advanced user.
4. Technology Integrations
Integrations, integrations, integrations. One of the most exciting trends I’ve seen over the last few years is how many immersive experiences went from being monolithic (meaning they only used one app) to being driven by several different tools all at once! This might sound like a small thing, but the world of creative potential really feels like it’s been blown wide open. Especially as protocols such as Spout, NDI, OSC, and similar become integrated into almost every app, the ability to take the best features of every app and chain them together means that we can often work faster on projects and get a better quality result.
This is where apps like Unreal, Notch, and Ableton come into play for most pros. Each of these tools has a specialization to it that allows it to achieve much better results in a shorter amount of time when compared to trying to make the same results in TouchDesigner. For Unreal and Notch, this would be high-end 3D graphics. For Ableton this would be complex music environments and rock-solid playback setups. On the flip side, you likely wouldn’t have a good time trying to do raw data processing from a web API in Unreal and you wouldn’t want to play layers and layers of video out of Ableton. This is where the power of these integrations between these apps and TouchDesigner really open up doors for creative professionals. You can easily choose which parts of TouchDesigner are best for the project, combine them with the rock-solid audio capabilities of Ableton, and then render/control content in Unreal or Notch, and all of that can work harmoniously towards a single final result. If you’re widening your ability to integrate apps together, you’re truly missing out right now!
Our recommendations currently are to have basic Ableton skills so you can do things like layout audio scenes and be able to control them from TouchDesigner. From a content creation side of things, we recommend having a basic understanding of both Unreal Engine and Notch, and then you can decide based on your workflows whether it’s better to go towards the more C4D-centric workflows of Notch or the more developer-friendly game engine world of Unreal. Both at the end of the day create content that gets controlled in real-time from TouchDesigner and they often send their renders back to TouchDesigner for windowing and further processing.
5. Immersive Music and Audio
Music and audio are critical to immersive experiences. One of the biggest challenges even for existing composers/musicians is how to think about sound over a large space, area, or multi-room experience. These are challenges that you won’t feel until you’re in a space that you wrote beautiful music for and it just feels flat. Or it feels like it never really evolves. Or the sound effects don’t seem to really match the environment. Pros working in the immersive side of audio for years have created workflows and philosophies for how to approach composing and mixing for experiences in compelling ways even if there aren’t huge channel counts and massive arrays of speakers. Doing more with less is at the heart of this.
If a lot of this talk about mixing and composing feels unfamiliar, don’t worry! That’s normal for folks in our industry who don’t have experience with music production and composing for picture. Taking foundational courses on audio production and scoring for picture will give you a great set of tools you can translate into this industry. Even more important though, is that you’ll learn the language that audio pros speak so you can better collaborate with them and achieve better results on your projects.
6. Business and Career skills
Anyone who knows me knows that I love talking about making money, paying your bills, and making yourself financially stable as an artist and developer. Without financial stability, it can be hard to really dedicate yourself to a craft. It becomes something you work on in the evenings when you’re tired from your day job or something you work on during the weekend when social pressures also start to distract you. Not everyone needs to become a suit-wearing entrepreneur, definitely not, but there are fundamental business practices that you can pick up that will make your life a lot easier and your work more enjoyable. Nothing feels better than wanting to create a wonderful piece of art and not having to worry about how much things cost.
For some folks, this takes the shape of following a passion for building their own studio or company. They require the knowledge of studio structures, best practices, different kinds of business and revenue models. This requires understanding how to differentiate yourself in a growing market of competitors and how to define your unique selling proposition (USP). The companies that I’ve seen fail over time aren’t because the founders were lazy, it’s because there is so much that goes into running a successful company that it can feel overwhelming to deal with if you don’t have a bit of foundational knowledge about how business works.
For a large majority of folks though, this takes the shape of wanting to get a job at a great company that does large scale works in our industry. This could be a Meow Wolf, a Moment Factory, a Gensler, or any other company that is deeply involved with immersive experiences. For these folks, it’s less about knowing revenue models and more about understanding how to curate your portfolio. These days, Instagram is kind of the place to be for sharing works in progress. But how artists manage their instagram portfolios and their website portfolios is often doing them a disservice. They’re either not getting the reach they should be getting or they’re confusing the job application processes with all the different things they’re posting. Understanding how to curate your portfolio, apply for jobs, and ultimately build a network for yourself become critical skills that can accelerate you getting your dream job.
The HQ’s Immersive Design & Creative Technology Mini-Degree
The core areas of competencies I mentioned so far can be learned anywhere online. You could find YouTube videos, check out Coursera, or any number of online learning platforms. If that’s your cup of tea, then I encourage you to be curious and dive into the topics I mentioned and look for courses that can help you piece together the puzzle.
A challenge we’ve been working on with The HQ for the last 6 months is how to bring all of that disparate learning into a single place with the singular focus of creating confident and expressive pros in our industry. This week we’re launching our Immersive Design & Creative Technology Mini-Degree. It is a 60 hour program that guides you step by step through all of these core competencies. You start out learning the fundamentals of art history and graphic design, more to learning about UX fundamentals and prototyping, dive into becoming a proficient TouchDesigner developer, learn how to integrate Unreal/Notch/Ableton/Arduinos with TouchDesigner, understand how immersive audio should be designed and how you can dive into audio production, and finally how you can either start your own studio or have a great chance of getting your dream job. It sounds like a lot because frankly it is!
We’ve had the pleasure of working with 16 different teachers to build all of the materials in this Mini-degree program. All of the teachers are industry veterans, artists, developers, company directors, and at the top of their respective industries and come together to share their knowledge and experience to help you become the most proficient and confident artist you can be. If you’d like to check it out, it’s available to all HQ PRO members now by clicking here.
Whatever direction you end up deciding to go in for your career, the 6 core skills we’ve covered are so widely used that it’s recommended you have a basic understanding of all of them, regardless of what you end up going deeper into. Again, remember this means that you’re not expected to be an expert at every single thing here, but having a general knowledge of each of them will open a ton of technical, creative, and business opportunities for you.