Project Breakdown: Dropbox AAPI Heritage Month Posters

Project Breakdown: Dropbox AAPI Heritage Month Posters

Let's talk about this poster series I created for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. This was a three-week design and illustration project for a campaign at Dropbox.

Some of y'all know I left a product design job at Dropbox in 2013 and ended up pursuing a different career in 3D illustration and animation. Working with them in this capacity felt really nice, like bringing the journey full circle.

This time around, my team was part of Asians at Dropbox, a resource group for Dropbox employees.

There are a handful of these groups for underrepresented people at Dropbox, like Latin@s, Black Dropboxers, Pridebox (LGBTQ), and Women at Dropbox. 

When relevant observances come around, these groups work with artists to produce posters, apparel, and other goodies. For Asians folks, the month of May is our time to shine. 

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a national celebration of AAPI culture and history, takes place in May. 

It's common in the United States to assume “Asian” only refers to East Asian people, but our country is also home to millions of South Asian people. This actually came up in my first discussion with Dropbox, and we all agreed to keep inclusivity in mind.

During concept development, we arrived at this theme of entrances to different Asian countries. It tied in well with Dropbox's broader "anywhere" theme without feeling too basic, but it was still simple enough to execute quickly. (Three weeks, y'know?!)


The initial brief called for only one poster design, but I suggested we do a poster series with this theme to capture a more inclusive view of Asia. I kind of creeped my own scope, but totally worth it.

Next to my photo references (like those above), I roughed out a little black-and-white painting with my Wacom tablet and applied a gradient map to it.

I wondered if I could create a depth pass in 3D, then use Photoshop to really dial in the colors for an atmospheric finish.

I tested out my theory in Cinema 4D using primitives (basic 3D geometric shapes) mirrored with a symmetry object.

Typically, a depth pass is used for post-processing. When imported into After Effects, for example, it can be used as a mask to control how strongly effects are applied to objects near or far. This can be incredibly useful for video projects, where depth may vary on a frame-by-frame basis.

Here's what I did to turn it into more of a stylistic feature:

  1. I mapped the depth's end point in the middle of the last visible object for a fog-like effect.
  2. I mapped the depth's start point to right in the front of the camera.
  3. I exported the depth pass alone and applied a gradient in Photoshop.

The render test was a success, so I started modeling out scenes for Japan, China, and India. Here's a quick process video showing how the depth map for Japan evolved during development.

The capacity for visual problem-solving is one of my favorite things about 3D. There's a lot of repetition in this scene, but each step on the stairs and each arch in the gate is unique.

In web development, we leverage CSS selectors and their properties for stylistic efficiency. In Cinema 4D, we do it with objects or effectors and their parameters.

All the scenes were modeled, stylized with the depth pass, then colored with a gradient map in Photoshop.

Gradient maps are my favorite and most-used feature in Photoshop, by the way. Extremely senior artists and designers tell me ALL THE TIME they've never used them. So if you don't know, now you know!

Finally, we adjusted these illustrations for posters, t-shirts and sticker packs and let 'em loose at Dropbox HQ in San Francisco, CA. 

Big thanks to my collaborators Tian and Mandeep for making this project a freakin' blast.

I'm waiting for my talk from Valio Con 2016 to go live so I can share my step-by-step tutorial of this technique. In the meantime...

If you're a designer or illustrator interested in 3D, I want to show you the basics of Cinema 4D for visual work. Sign up to be notified when 3D for Designers launches here:


And before I go, one more thing: a freebie for you! 

Designer-animator Franck Aubry asked me to pass along this instructive .c4d file where he reproduces my "depth pass" style using only a global gradient in Cinema 4D.

You can download it here!

There's tons of notes in the file so you know what's going on. How cool is that?! If you want to say thanks, check out his groovy 3D work at @franck.fiction.


Allison House is a designer and art director specializing in 3D visuals and motion graphics. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TIME, SPIN, Pitchfork, and many more.