Molecule Profile: Miguel Sanz
You've probably noticed that Dreams has a bunch of cute little pictogram logos and graphics. But what kind of genius creative could possibly be responsible for the design of these bits and bobs? Well, wonder no more, as we sit down with our dutiful designer, Miguel Sanz. Miguel’s graphic design career has taken him from Spain to the UK, and here we chat to him about Pokémon cards, putting pictures of his desk on Twitter, and seducing people with your portfolios.
Hi Miguel! What do you do here at Media Molecule?
I’m Miguel Sanz, and I’m a graphic designer from Madrid. I joined Media Molecule, ooh, it's gonna be five years ago in August. Technically my title is Senior Brand Experience Designer, but practically it's a mix of a graphic designer and brand designer. I started originally as a UI designer helping to finish up the Dreams UI and main menu, and lots of the UI screens that everyone can see in the game today.
After that job was done and Dreams was shipped, I moved to the coMmunity team to help brand our live events to keep the coMmunity engaged. I'm also in charge of the brand team, which currently is a team of two people, and sometimes we collaborate with the web team and other teams around the studio. We basically function very much like a tiny graphic design studio within Media Molecule that helps out different teams around the studio.
You started in a UX role - how was the transition from the UX role into brand design?
The reason why I pivoted to brand design is because I had a brand design background before I worked in games. I used to work at a branding agency in Madrid, and after graduating from university, I worked there for three years. I learned a lot about branding, not just design of course, but concepts like marketing strategy. I led quite a few different projects there and then I had the opportunity to work at Mm. I was looking for a job in games and I was so incredibly lucky to land what was basically my dream job.
But my entry point into the games industry was through UI, because that’s where you can find the most job offers as a graphic designer. So I changed my portfolio a bit, did a crash course in UI design, started designing websites, and that's how I got into Mm. Then after spending about a year and a half at Mm doing that, they needed more brand work than UI so they offered me the opportunity to take on that role. I think I'm more valuable for the company as a brand designer and I bring more to the table, plus I get to experiment so I can be a bit more myself.
When I designed brands and logos and visual identities at Mm, it allowed me to grow so much within the company and as a designer as well. I think over in these last two years, both Dreams and I have grown a lot. The content that we make for the players and the live events is all so different, and it's been nurturing for me as a designer and also very fulfilling, because I get to have an instant - or almost instant - response from the coMmunity for the work that I put out. The time between when I start a project and when I see people experience it is about three or four months, which for someone working in games is a really short time, and it's so helpful as a creative person to have feedback that often and that directly from the players. So it's been the best decision for me to pivot into this brand role. It's made me grow so much and also helped the game in terms of communication and style.
So you've designed a lot of the icons and UI in-game. What other bits do you tend to work on?
So day-to-day, it's mostly brand and events. Funnily enough, I don't get to work on the game that often apart from designing banners and icons for the Dreamiverse occasionally. But I did enjoy getting to do some UI design and I've been involved in a few other projects that have been released in Dreams.
For example, I was behind the graphic art direction for Ancient Dangers: A Bat’s Tale. That was a very interesting project because I got to design the brand and the identity, and then extend that work into the game and style the UI to that brand and established visual identity. So that was a very cool all-round project in terms of graphic design, and it was super cool to work on something a little bit different from what we usually do at Mm.
It was also great for me personally, because I tend to use very strong colour palettes and striking graphics, but here I had to get myself immersed into a fantasy sort of world and try something a little bit different than what I normally do. I've been lucky to have a lot of different projects to work on during my time at Mm, stretching across pure UI to brand design as well.
Given that Dreams is a huge game with so many permutations, how do you design and keep a consistent brand style?
I think this is the million-dollar question and it’s essentially what I came here to figure out. When I started at Mm, we had a pretty distinct style, but it was quite challenging to communicate Dreams, because Dreams is capable of so much that it can be difficult to sell that kind of game to people. So of course graphically, and in terms of visual codes and language that you have to follow in order for people to understand what sort of game it is, was challenging because there’s nothing like it out there.
Once the game was out and we started having a better feeling of what the players were doing within the game and with the tools, I had a much better grasp of what Dreams was, but more importantly what the coMmunity had made it become.
I think the event that changed my perspective on how I was approaching Dreams was the first DreamsCom. I decided to do something much more stylised and less realistic, if that makes sense. At first, there was nothing that you could really just look at and say, 'This is Dreams'. So I had to do an exercise of simplifying the style and the first time I did that with was with DreamsCom.
From that point on, I started to figure out how to communicate Dreams, which was through making it feel more focused on the players and the creation tools. Every time I included a detail about a contraption or a gadget or any tools from the game, they would recognise it and love that sort of thing. I started using the UI elements for the branding and including them here and there, but also keeping the palettes very limited. Like, usually I would use 4, 5, 6 colours tops and then that's the palette for a certain event. I think putting limits to my work with colours or even shapes was an interesting challenge, but helped me refine my style over time.
In branding, you tend to set a lot of rules for a brand and keep really tight guidelines. But Dreams is a live game, and as a live game, it can change so much from one year to the next, so I couldn’t be too obsessed with always following those guidelines. I did have my set of rules that I initially started, but I wasn't afraid to just break those rules, especially when I was moving on to the next year and doing an event again.
Earlier you touched on your background in graphic design, but did you have any formal education?
My whole life I knew that I wanted to be a graphic designer, so I went to art school. I studied design in Madrid, and while I was in university, I started doing projects and collaborating with other people. I started designing video game magazines which led me to have a real job at a book company in Spain that produced video game books. And that helped me a lot in building up a design portfolio that, from the beginning, was very much games-focused. My love for games and graphic design made me almost exclusively participate in projects that were to do with video games or the video game world.
This helped me land a job at a design agency. Initially I didn't even know I could be a graphic designer in the games industry, so I didn't even consider that route at the beginning. I just wanted to work in a studio with other graphic designers where I could learn. I built a portfolio and spent three years working on brands in Madrid. I had all kinds of clients, but my favourite were start-ups that would need a full visual identity. But I also had to do work for supermarkets and design salad packaging, or less exciting things! Sometimes I would go to the supermarket and be like, 'Oh I made those cookies,' or 'I designed that crisps packaging'.
But at some point, I remember I was reading a book called Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, which is all about behind the scenes stories of making games. Some of them were gruesome stories, but something told me that this was more my environment than what I was doing at the moment. I decided to try to get a job in games and I started lowkey building my portfolio and contacting different games studios.
I got an interview at Mm and it was probably the best job interview I've ever had, it went super well. When I met everyone I was like, yes, I could see myself living here and working with these people. So even though I was pretty young at the time, only 25, I decided to make like a huge life move and just drop everything and move to the UK to start working on games, which is what I wanted. And particularly at Mm, which is a studio that I've been following since I was child.
I remember specifically the first time I designed the holiday celebration card for the studio, because everyone at every PlayStation Studio makes one, and then Sony shares some of them. So they used my holiday card to wish a happy holidays to everyone. I think it was four years ago - maybe 2018 or something. And then I was like, wait... The official PlayStation Facebook page posted this and they had like, 20 million followers or something. I was like, oh my god, there's 20 million people right now looking at something I've done!
How important is the portfolio for a graphic designer, and what kind of things should people be putting in it?
I would think the portfolio is probably the most important tool that a designer has when looking for a job. Probably more important even than education, because I do know a few designers that don't have formal education, but they do have a good eye.
But the portfolio is a double-edged sword - as in the end, we are graphic designers, so you can get hired just from someone looking at your work if there's good stuff in there. But at the same time, if they don't like your portfolio, you're probably doomed. So in that sense, you need to have a strong portfolio and also have good interview and organisational skills to back you up. Usually graphic designers are really bad at keeping a portfolio updated, and all the latest projects that you've worked on. Basically in the end, you need to be able to seduce someone through your work.
At the same time, it's a really fun tool and it can tell so much about your identity as an artist, but also as a person. Especially if you work in brands, you can use your own brand(opens in new tab), which is what I did. And brand yourself almost like you are a company, or a game, or a product.
Mm staff seem to have a lot of interesting items on their desks. What's on your desk at the moment?
Weirdly, I was hiring someone a few months ago, our graphic designer Harry, and he approached me because he had seen a picture of my desk on Twitter and he really liked that. But I’m not sure why - it’s a bit messy! I have a mechanical keyboard that I got during the lockdown when I was bored, so I started fidgeting with mechanical keyboards. I have a notepad which has, like, my own logo, a bunch of books... I also have my fountain pen that I love. And then I have some Pokémon cards as well because I'm really into Pokémon cards and I have a bit of a collection. Sometimes I display them on my desk for a while and I have them on rotation like, 'Oh I'm feeling this one today, I'm feeling that one today'.
To wrap up, what are your favourite Dreams, and are there any that you'd like to recommend?
In the community, I've found some really, really great designers - not just for Dreams, but good graphic designers for any software. Magma-Monsta is a Dreams creator that makes these incredible assets for people to include in their games. They make stickers as well, so it's really fun to see how a graphic designer can help dreamers and other people make their games visually interesting. There are also some other creators I’d like to shout out, like Keduko_, Elfiooh, and SeanVertigo. These people are really interested in the graphic design world in Dreams, which is something that I think is incredibly valuable.
In terms of games made in Dreams, there’s Lystre by fluximux - which made me feel like, wow, it’s incredible someone made a game that unique in Dreams. It doesn't have that much to do with graphic design, more like art direction, but they've managed to almost make the Dreams engine look completely different and the elements in the game look stunning. It has such a unique art style.
The Dreams User Guide is a work-in-progress. Keep an eye out for updates as we add more learning resources and articles over time.