Designing characters is fun. When we started our book, that’s what we really got into—coming up with a character’s look, personality, and role in the story. But when we set out to design a world—a home for our characters—then we had to start considering things we hadn’t thought of before. We had to figure out the lay of the land, the relationship of one place to another, and how life in Chinatown generally carries on. But we also needed to design the finer details in all the scenes, from the paint on the walls to the lights and door knobs.

If you’ve been checking out the image gallery, you know Chinatown has a bbq joint. Pigsy’s BBQ was one of the first locations we designed for our Chinatown—a little storefront restaurant that feels like home to the locals and is popular with the tourists. It was written as a simple, family-owned hole-in-the-wall that you’d probably miss if the town weren’t so empty.

In early manuscripts, it was easy for us to simply write “the Chinese BBQ place” whenever we needed it for a scene. But once we started illustrating, we realized we had to design a whole restaurant from the ground up. How big was it really? What’s the decor like? Is the cash register up front or in the back? What are the floors made of? And where are the bathrooms?

To start designing a place like Pigy’s, we begin with our own experiences—specifically, our favorite Chinese BBQ place from our hometown of Orlando, FL. Like Pigsy’s, it’s a nondescript, cramped little space that serves surprisingly tasty cuisine. Succulent meats hang in clear view of the customers and, if you know what to order, you can get the best noodle dishes in town.

Taking reference photos provides us with details we could never come up with on our own—like the claustrophobic table layout or the charmingly cluttered shelves of restaurant supplies. But rather than simply xeroxing the design, we also have to adapt these elements to fit our story. Unlike its real life counterpart, Pigsy’s is a business in decline with its best days far behind it. So for our restaurant, we created it as starker, grimier, and more neglected. And it is in these sad, bleak surroundings that our story begins.

Even after assembling all these pieces, we still had one big element left to design: the mural. There’s a prominent painting hanging in the background of Pigsy’s, the only real piece of art in the restaurant. In the book, you never get to see the whole thing, but you get glimpses of it every now and again as the story unfolds.

Designing this piece brought its own share of challenges. How do we create a striking image that is interesting but not distracting? What sort of mural would seem natural in this restaurant without becoming boring or commonplace? And what should an illustration look like in a book made up entirely of illustrations anyway? We’ll get deeper into these questions later, but for now, here’s a look at the finished product:

We’re still working on a few particulars in Pigsy’s (what kind of placemats should it have?), but we’re almost done. We’ll be posting more special sneak peaks and behind-the-scenes stuff as our book comes together. Keep checking the image gallery and slideshow for more work-in-progress. And as always, feel free to let us know what you think!