Invasion of the Desktop Gremlins: The Paper Sculptures of David Landis

Contributed by David Landis

My name is David Landis, president and manager of Landis Productions in Richmond, Virginia. I started Landis Productions 15 years ago to provide expert creative solutions to clients in a graphic design "studio" format for local, national and international clients. I do a little bit of everything ranging from magazine layout, corporate branding and packaging solutions to web page, multimedia and product design.

Recently, I've been doing more and more illustration work in the form of character concepts, children's book illustrations and advertising cartoons. But where are these new projects coming from? And why, after 15 years of working in this field are these new opportunities suddenly popping up on my job list?

Because of the mischievous Desktop Gremlins, of course.

What are Desktop Gremlins? Well, back in 2008, I dreamed up a web site to enable me to interact with my clients and friends in a fun way. I loved the idea of using the internet to form community around art and creativity. It also allowed me the chance to further explore design and illustration for the pure joy of the process. With these hopes in mind, I launched desktopgremlins.com and a companion Facebook page so visitors could download and build paper craft toys of my original character illustrations - zany and fantastic creatures of fantasy called Desktop Gremlins.

I've been making paper craft ever since I was a young boy. I loved making paper craft vehicles for my action figures (sure was cheaper than buying the plastic versions!) In fact, I created my largest project when I was about 12 years old - a 6 foot long cardboard snow speeder that a friend and I could sit inside back-to-back! It was magical to create paper toys back then and I carried this love to adulthood.

Face it, we live in a digital world, but I really like the idea of shifting gears and doing something organic once and a while. Desktop Gremlins are my outlet to empower people to do this by printing and building ultra-cool paper toys.

What I love about illustrating for paper craft is that it combines so many of my creative interests. Of course, illustration is vital. But along the way, I get to explore many additional creative processes. I love thinking in terms of 3-d space - watching how an illustration changes when you look at it from different angles or the unique shadows that are created when the shape is under lights. Creative writing and story telling is also a huge part of the process - breathing life into the characters.

I created three distinct rules for myself to help me focus on what makes my paper craft and illustration unique.

  1. Super-easy to build. Personally, I don't have an hour or two of free time to build paper craft. So I decided that a Desktop Gremlin character should only have enough pieces to require one sheet of paper for its construction sheet. I also forced myself to ELIMINATE the need for any sort of gluing, taping or cutting with X-ACTO blades. Scissors-only and about 10-15 minutes of time are my target here.
  2. Make a strong splash with a powerful "brand." This rule came more from my advertising background - the desire to create a strong "brand" that would allow me the freedom to invent a wide variety of paper toys but also generate a feeling of "family" among the characters.
  3. Tell a story. My final rule was that each character needed a great "story." This gives it a reason to be proudly displayed on the desk of the person who built it. I wanted people to react strongly to the illustration, but I also wanted people to fall in love with the CHARACTER. The story is the best way to achieve that.


My process when creating a new Desktop Gremlin is not that different than doing any other illustration project. I research ideas, draw sketches, dream, test and explore the world around me for inspiration...whatever it takes.

One of my favorite Desktop Gremlins is SPARKY. Sometimes I draft sketches of the full paper craft as one unit, but SPARKY was a little looser in the way it COULD come together, so I drew it in separate pieces from the get-go.

I just use plain old pencil and paper (with separate Black Pearl eraser -- because I HATE the erasers on the back end of a pencil). After I sketch the character, I scan and import it into Adobe Illustrator for digital manipulation.

This is the point where I usually begin the PUZZLE of making it into a paper craft. This requires making my best guess at what might work, printing it out and testing a build. Then I mark it with new lines that might make for a better 3-d shape, disassemble, scan, rearrange, print and build again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It can take a while!

After I feel like the construction is about 90% correct, I reward myself with re-drawing my sketch using the vector drawing tools of Illustrator. I've always enjoyed the ability to push and pull my lines around to get things just right. I like a really clean character style, so all the Desktop Gremlins have a relatively small color palette. I usually try to keep a character down to 4 or 5 colors maximum.

The creation process is similar from character to character, but the order in which the steps happen is always unique.

Sometimes my STORY for the character is finished early in the process. Other times, I write the story after I see the character in its finished 3-d glory. The building process is fascinating to me. I might envision some sort of 3-d curve of the paper or a new construction technique which will DRIVE me to invent a specific character. A good example of this was the process I went through with my "cloud" shaped paper craft. The idea was to create a 3-d shape perched on top of a cylinder. It was a personal challenge I could not back down from and a "rain cloud shape" made the most sense as the way to get me there. In fact, the illustration of the character came very late in the design process as I tested multiple ways to solve this 3-d puzzle before doing my first sketch.

A second "puzzle" to my process is forcing all the pieces, building instructions and photos to fit on one sheet of paper. Again, this can be time consuming, but this stage of the process becomes an enjoyable change of pace as well and helps strengthen my brand attachment.

The last thing that I have to do is create a FLAT illustration of the character for promotional e-mails, t-shirts - whatever I might need for display in the more traditional world of illustration. It's amazing that this flattening of the design also requires quite a bit of work as the 2-d version will overlap or mask out features of the 3-d shape.


When you read the STORY of SPARKY, you realize that he is a "spark-giver." Sparks of inspiration, sparks of creativity, sparks of wisdom - even sparks of love! All of the "sparks" that make life extraordinary, he will provide as he sits on your desk. Just write down what you need on a small piece of paper and toss it into this happy inferno. Get ready for the sparks to fly!

And that is the real root of what the Desktop Gremlins are all about. I hope they inspire people to appreciate illustration in all its forms and realize the power a "little character" can bring to your state of mind.

DesktopGremlins.com is the destination for people to download and build the paper craft. But the heart of social interactivity around Desktop Gremlins is found at my Facebook page. I sometimes ask for beta testers to test my new construction sheets and I also post teasers about my new characters so my followers can "SCOOP" the launch date to their friends. It's been a wonderful way to share stories with other illustrators or fans of my paper craft. It has made me feel more "at home" from a GLOBAL perspective and I'm thankful for it.

Below are links of interest mentioned throughout the article:
Desktop Gremlins on Facebook
Desktop Gremlins on Twitter

A special thanks to David Landis of Landis Productions for contributing his fascinating article to the Illustration Pages site. If you have an article, tutorial, technique or process that you would like to contribute to the Illustration Pages site please contact us at info@illustrationpages.com

You might also enjoy reading Illustration Pages' in-depth interviews.


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