I should start off by saying that I do not, under any circumstances, consider myself a graphic designer. Seven weeks ago I didn’t know how to use half the tools in Adobe Illustrator’s toolbar. Now I do. Know half, that is.

I am however a patient person who pays close attention to details. Once I applied that to this project I only strived to be consistent. That is what I believe to be the key to success in any circumstance: Consistency. We each find a formula to success but the challenge comes to sticking to it.

Despite having little knowledge with Adobe Illustrator and with design in general, I believe I was able to create this vector art simply because I refused to overlook small details. When I noticed my effort to create a nuance didn’t match what was in my reference photo, I refused to settle and say, “Well.. it’s good enough to get the idea across.” That was easy to do because I didn’t know how to use the tools to get the desired outcome. I would research Adobe tutorials until I understood what I needed to do to get the subtle effect I wanted. I never wanted settle to skip something subtle.

Concept & Original Photograph

I chose to illustrate an alarm clock as opposed to a watch because I wanted to create something that used more than a majority of circular shapes. I am a fan of rectangles. I am also a fan of retro-looking things from the 80’s and early 90’s. This alarm clock reference photo fit all of these criteria for myself.

Another reason I chose this clock is because I was able to find pictures of it in other perspectives. This was incredibly useful because it gave me details which are not shown in the front-on reference photo, such as grooves on the dial, and what the words on the top of the button actually said.



I had to sit down and sketch out the critical parts of this clock. “Critical parts” are things I define as ‘what will make this realistic?’ It is tempting to consider a shadow a circular gradient under the clock, but is there more to it? Does it change color? What is it’s real shape? How much distance does it spend transforming to a lighter shade or different color? 


Basic Shapes

Naturally I started off like I would with anything: basic shapes. I used the round rectangular tool as a the basic shape to form the key components. Truth be told 95% of the shapes in this vector started out as round rectangular shapes. There are about 4 or 5 circles which were manipulated, and I think one polygon. I was using shapes to create other shapes like the digits.

Line It Up

Take a look at the horizontal line that goes across the clock face. It would be very easy to consider it nothing more than a black line at a thin stroke, and call it good. However, at the time, I was willing to wager that there are more details going into that line which make it look exactly the way it does. I zoomed in on the rasterized image and it showed the line consisting of different colors. I discovered there were actually 3 colors going into the making of it. So I did the same. I used rectangles and stacked them on top of each other, then changed their colors to mirror the line’s. When we zoom out enough you don’t notice this subtle detail but you don’t have to for the end result to look the way it does. It actually looks slightly different than if I were to just take a black line and drag it across. These little things are what I believe to be the key to making something look the way it is supposed to.


When my draft was done I was content with it. My only goal was to nail the basic shapes on everything and make sure all the spacing between the shapes was proportional. If they weren’t, I knew I would run out of room when creating the fine details, especially in the areas that creates the plastic glass cover. For my draft I did not concern myself with gradients, shadows, or highlights. Everything was created using my mid-tone swatches I had designed.

Realism With Highlights & Shadows

The last thing to be done was to add the shadows and highlights. This would give the clock texture, depth, and layers, which is what our brain equates to “realistic.” For the dial, I used a gradual decline in brightness as the ridges traveled down. Each ridge also became more spaced as it reached the middle of the dial then scrunched as it reached the top. This was achieved by using the Transform Effect. It gives the Illusion that the dial curves towards us as the top of the shape has some depth on Z axis, evident by the spacing of ridges and the way they catch the light. The original reference photograph does not have any of these details, but I know they exist, so I was motivated to add them.

The majority of shadows and highlights were created using gradient meshes. I loved this tool because it gave me control of my tones with precision across a proper 2 dimensional plane. I used “linear” gradients maybe twice, and no radial gradients, because the linear was limited to a single dimension unless assisted by a mask. This is what I attribute to the gradients looking more realistic.


Final Product

The final result as compared to the original reference photograph. Never settle to neglect something subtle.


Scott Silva

Scott Silva

Project Manager at Soapbox Agency
The most effective method of sending a message is through a story. I am a videographer, motion-graphic animator, and recently learning the craft of graphic design. I am a story-teller.

I also like gummy worms.

Scott Silva

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