I found my way to Illustration after a long process of elimination, working in Architecture, Package Design, Graphic Design and Art Direction. Each position brought me closer to what I love to do the most: make drawings of ideas that make people happy. Initially, Neither Fish Nor Fowl was a way for me to buy independence from working full-time for corporate art departments. After 5 years working out of my studio in Brooklyn, I’m now repositioning NFNF as a retail/wholesale brand, for which I will produce a range of illustrated seasonal goods. It’s a critical shift from a purely client-based business to one that also incorporates customers, and I’m very excited about it.
Brooklyn has its ups and downs, but the ups are much more “up” than most places I’ve lived. Some days everything comes together and it occurs to you how special it is here. There’s an energy that fuels the making of things. There’s also an unusual concentration of immensely talented and motivated people, which is a really good cure for laziness (lazy people tend to get left in the dust). And the epic social, cultural and economic diversity tends to produce some fantastic hybrids. When given the option, I prefer to avoid monoculture. More options keep things more interesting. And because everyone consents to live with the little daily frustrations of the place, there’s an unspoken sense of “we’re all in this together and so I’ll help you out." That’s another thing I love: everyone helping everyone.
I'm also lucky to share a workspace in Brooklyn with Mike Perry and Josh Cochran--and our little circle of design/illustration/photography friends gets bigger every day. Also some other friends who are painters, writers, poets, biochemists, robotics engineers help keep everything well-rounded. That's the great thing about Brooklyn: there's no end to the healthy competition and motivation and enthusiastic support you can get from such a close group of friends/makers/thinkers.
I went to school for Architecture and worked in the profession for about 3 years before bailing out and sliding sideways into Graphic Design. I got a lucky break at Urban Outfitters and worked in-house there--first for their retail art department, then later Art Directing their web/catalog division.
For the most part it was fantastic, but eventually I found myself spending more time managing other people than making things. This is a normal part of professional growth, and can be rewarding and interesting, but after a while, I started to get a bit concerned about my capacity to generate new ideas. So much of what I do comes from messing about, experimenting and engaging in a hands-on process, and the more I sat in strategy meetings, the less time I had to explore-by-making. Ideas don't just spontaneously manifest in my head. They arise when I half-consciously fiddle around in the margins of my daily routine. And they need to be fleshed out over long periods of unrestricted time, which was not gonna happen within the structure of a corporate office.
So that was really the impetus for establishing Neither Fish Nor Fowl. After 10 years in the profession, I had accumulated enough experience (creatively and business-wise) to confidently pursue an independent path for a while. I really needed to do it. So far it's gone really well, but who knows? Maybe i'll get bored with the limitations of a one-man show and go running back into an office someday. Maybe the change is the best part. Change, and having the freedom to do so.
One of the other reasons for starting NFNF was to increase the amount of illustrated work in my portfolio. I had always used hand-drawn elements in my work, but had never marketed myself as an illustrator per se. It took about a year of doing self-initiated projects before I felt I had good enough stuff to shop around. Sometimes you have to finance your own initiatives, rather than waiting and hoping your job takes you there.
Everything I learned about graphic design happened through a few lucky job opportunities:
When I was finishing graduate school, a toy company posted an ad for a summer job on one of the job boards in our studio building. The assignment was to sit in a roomful of knockoff Lego parts, concocting new ideas for play sets. I jumped on it. A year later the same company opted to build an in-house art department to manage the design and marketing of their new hit product: Super Soaker water pistols. So I managed to learn the rudiments of graphic, product and packaging design on the job (heavy on the drop shadows - haha).
My second break came during an interview at a company that designs interiors, custom furniture and fixtures for progressive retail boutiques. They approached me to be their first official in-house architect, but I basically blew the meeting by saying I was considering leaving the architecture profession so the job was probably not for me... at which point the owner said "Wait, let me call my wife at Urban Outfitters. I think they're looking for a graphic designer over there." So I pressed on: an optimistic ignoramus with a portfolio of abysmal work (that I would have NEVER hired me with), and for some reason the outgoing Art Director liked me and I squeezed my way in there. I essentially owe my design career to them, at least as far as having a well-padded portfolio and a ton of experience gained from working with many gifted folks.
I matured as a designer there, so it was a thoroughly rewarding experience both creatively and professionally. It allowed me to slide safely away from Architecture, provided a very rapid portfolio-inflating environment and gave me a substantial education in how fashion retail (and business in general) functions. When I switched over to working as Art Director of the Web and Catalog division, there were only 12 people on staff in the department. When I left 5 years later, there were 60 or so. Anyone who’s worked in a startup environment has endured a similar rapid expansion of responsibility, initially from doing everything themselves, to managing a bunch of people while at the same time trying to insulate their own creative skills from atrophy. Working at UO taught me how to function in a much larger context than sole practitioner image-maker. And I learned how to finesse my way through the politics of a large organization. Now that I’m swinging back (deliberately) to a smaller, simpler operation, I’m using what I learned to help make my own business more efficient.
Well I spent a lot of years at Urban Outfitters, and a few inbetween Design Directing a small branding agency in Philly, and recently at J.Crew/Madewell, so i've AD'd pretty much every size and type of project, from tiny business-card-only identities to huge comprehensive corporate branding initiatives. I've designed big scary e-commerce websites from the ground up, and hand-cut and assembled print mechanicals for water pistol boxes. Pretty much everything except motion work and film, although I did do a few little commercials back in 2000. These days, I find non-moving work to be complicated enough.
My sweet spot for the Applied Arts lies between 1954 and 1968. I’m not sure exactly why I’m so drawn to it, but it was definitely a period that—while full of experimentation—managed to mass-produce cultural artifacts with impeccable aesthetics. In later decades, that sense of proportion, line, color, attention to detail and economy of materials was rarely topped.
I suppose that I now work “in the tradition of" the below-mentioned illustrators and designers, all of whom embody a certain open-ended optimism. Because most of the projects I do in that style are self-initiated, i'm generally at my most happy when making them—and hopefully the joy i'm feeling manifests in the work (along with a specific wit that elevates it from simple lighthearted decoration). I’m simply trying to share my happiness with others, because I'm super lucky to get to do what I do.
Method-wise, I tend to devour older things, then stop looking at them for a while, then sit down and work. What comes out of my hand at that point is usually influenced by (but not directly derivative of) my favorites, some of whom are listed here:
There's a lifetime of illustration (and design) education to be had just by studying the product of those people’s hands and minds.
There's no specific science to this -- it's usually a combination of need and timing and convenience. I have a group of collaborators that I frequently turn to, but it really depends on the nature of the project at hand, and who seems to be the best fit for the brief. This might mean a seasoned pro, or a new talent straight out of school. I'm constantly online, so people's work and names bubble up regularly and i'll bookmark for later. Occasionally I receive postcards or promotional material from designers, but increasingly it's all happening online. I also judge competitions and do portfolio reviews whenever possible, so I get to see student work. If someone seems especially talented i'll keep in touch with them, too. Word-of-mouth is also a huge factor. Many times if I need to assemble a team quickly, i'll put the word out to my immediate circle of friends and collaborators, to see if they have any names.
I wish I could say there was a foolproof way to get ahead/secure a job/etc. But in all honesty, you probably have much more to teach me about the current state of things than vice-versa. The criteria that will ensure your success are changing as fast as the market, and with every graduating class. The challenge will be to maintain your awareness of those changes while at the same time steadily picking up more and more work. While growing, it gets pretty difficult to think micro and macro at the same time. Here are a few (hopefully not too clichéd) thoughts:
- Never not working. Never not learning.
- Learn to write. This is SUPER important. And learn to think and speak critically about your own work and the work of your peers. Develop opinions and be able to back them up with a well-reasoned rationale. You will be wrong a lot in the beginning. Then you'll start to be right. Then you'll start to question whether wrong or right matters at all. Just try really hard to keep growing your brain and don't close yourself off behind a wall of assumptions about the world. Keep asking questions and LISTENING to other people and changing your opinion about things when your assumptions are proven inaccurate. All of that good thinking will trickle into your work, even when you're not aware of it.
- Immediately kill any hesitation to put work out into the world. I think this is improving with your generation of students, but for a lot of practitioners I grew up with, self-promotion was not really our first interest. It was more about making work that we felt good about. But these days you have to get your work into the world AND be heard by any means necessary. If you back that up with a clear articulate message, you'll definitely be at an advantage over those who cannot speak or write about their work. It's not solely about making whatever you feel like (although incorporating something of your true passion into your work can be an asset.) Try to develop an awareness of what you're best at, and exploit that while you work hard to improve the stuff you're not great at yet. When i'm reviewing portfolios, I'd MUCH rather see someone making things with a sincerity and joy that comes directly from who they are, than someone who's assembled a technically accomplished but soulless book. But I'm also not necessarily a normal AD either, so take that with a grain of salt. I do believe that a good CD or AD should be able to recognize potential even if the work is not yet polished.
- Find inspiration in as wide a variety of places as possible. The Web is great for quick bursts of ideas, but it can ghetto-ize pretty fast and you'll find you're looking at the same ever-decreasing list of designers/illustrators. I've stumbled on tons of great ideas while doing totally unrelated stuff like visiting science museums, digging through the dusty bottom shelves of dying stationery shops, hanging around the backs of buildings, mall food courts, driftwood shacks and campfires on northern California beaches. Max out your experiences and you will never be at a loss for ideas. You have to draw from a deep well of knowledge to make smart work.
- Be rigorous in your approach to work. Even silly little ideas can be made beautiful when articulated with care and lots of hard work. Always go big. Half-finished stuff is obvious and not worth doing.
- Try to put a lot of thought and meaning into what you do. Learn to package complexity in a simple wrapper. You can choose to be indulgent and less heavy later, but you have to learn the heavy stuff first. Believe me, it helps.
- If you can't find anyone to hire you initially, just start making your own stuff and putting it online. No matter how small. Sometimes it helps to work with a specific goal in mind, so you can always make up fake clients/assignments in the beginning. I used to do that with design stuff - make up fake clients and do mini corporate IDs for them.
- Get outside your comfort zone as much as possible. Leave the country for a while, if you can afford to. Go live somewhere where you're a minority. Use other cultures as a mirror for better understanding your own. And feed on the energy of cities.
- If possible, try to take on a wide range of projects in the early stages of your career. Don't worry too much about what they are. Each assignment will teach you a bit more about the process, client negotiations, billing, business cycles, marketing, economics, and the myriad other forces that will impact and influence your working method once you've left the nicely indulgent environment of the University.
I’ve always dwelled upon the shapes of words and letters, long before I even knew what typography was, or what design was. I’m not sure where that fixation came from—it’s just something I’ve always had in me. It makes writing difficult, because I get hung up on the shape of the letters on the page more than the content itself. I also seem to be particularly good at spotting typos, even upside down on a large field of type. They just pop out of the greyspace. It’s weird, but I like it. Anyway, there’s something very appealing about giving form to content.
I’m fortunate to share a studio space with a few designer-illustrators who tend to work first by hand, then digitally. So it’s a very balanced practice. Lots of handwork to get the ideas out of my head fast and fluidly, followed by long periods of time coloring, noodling and cleaning things up on the Mac. Because we’re set up for hand-making, there’s a ton of material, pens, pencils, paper, paint, ink, canvas, cardboard, resin, perspex, foam, etc. around the studio. So it’s easy and fun to get messy, to develop new techniques and refine old ones.
I don’t really have any special or secret techniques—at least I don’t think I do. As I mentioned above, most of my work starts with putting pencil (then pen) to paper (or tissue, or napkin), then importing everything into digital space for cleaning up, coloring and fine tuning. One thing I try to encourage everyone to do—before they start working—is to allow themselves a drift period where they’re absorbing tons of ideas, and allowing their minds to wander as freely as possible. It’s a way of getting the ego out of the way so the subconscious can do the real work.
Every project has a unique set of problems and challenges. I’m frequently dissatisfied with how slowly I work, and regularly take far more time to finish an assignment than I can reasonably charge a client for. So my pace is not very well suited for today’s Market. But I want very badly to do work that feels complete. When working on products for NFNF, I’m able to allow more time to get it right.
Do I have a “style”? I suppose I do for the vintage-inflected illustrations. But my design work (especially at Urban) was all over the map style-wise. We always tried to embody a certain sensibility, but the style was malleable. Seems to me that style is assigned by viewers of the work more than it is by the maker.
But I know what you mean—I've done enough self-initiated projects in "my own style" that clients ask me to produce work in that mode. Which is nice because I don’t have to invent a new visual language for every assignment. The challenge is to avoid self-pigeonholing, because eventually the market will move on to new things. That's why i still use my personal work as a proving ground for future projects. There’s more room to innovate when I do it for myself. More often than not, I am contacted because of one of those pieces.
Occasionally I’m approached by a potential client to make something that lies outside what I believe I can draw well. Given enough time, I could probably draw anything, but it wouldn’t be sustainable budget-wise. The more I work, the more I realize that initial conversations with clients are key to assessing the quality of the collaboration. Recently I talked someone out of working with me (even though it would have been a well-paying project!). Midway into the conversation I realized they called because they were responding emotionally to my work, but the assignment they had in mind would have precluded my style of drawing. It’s hard to separate your emotional reaction to a piece from its viability as a strategic solution to a problem. (even for creative directors).
I work a lot—but I work really slowly—so most of the time it’s “finished” 30 seconds before the deadline. When I’m not working under someone else’s timeline, there's a point where a drawing "clicks" and FEELS complete. Because I obsess so much over little details and the specific quality of line, that click moment doesn't usually happen until i'm well over my budgeted time for the piece. I struggle with this every day, because i always feel like i'm handing off unfinished, rushed work. My posters take like a month apiece and don’t earn much money if you add up the hours. I try not to add up the hours.
Now, some more thoughts about "influences". This is part of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with my studio-mates and peers: There's been an increasing amount of accusation flying around the web (mostly in comments sections) regarding the provenance and attribution of ideas, images and styles. Vigilante mobs of commenters sometimes "out" people whose work has visually crept too close for comfort to that of others.
But it seems to be a losing battle. The ease of access to visual fragments, the lack of any consistent infrastructure for dating/tagging/time stamping, and the tendency for others to lazily "quote" images without any source attribution is erasing this generations' understanding of history & context, and their desire to credit any image to the individual(s) who made it. After a few more years, i'm not sure that ownership of work will matter as much. I am sensing that the reward system for future makers will not come from those who laud "original" work at all, because it won't be possible to differentiate anymore.
Now on one hand I am a realist, and I embrace cultural evolution with glee, but on the other hand if there's any chance to slow the aforementioned process, part of the responsibility lies with bloggers, content curators, informed art/creative directors, art buyers, and anyone who participates in the global market for images. We should hold ourselves to as high a standard as possible, mainly to ensure that the quality of our collective cultural output is beautiful and amazing and advances the conversation. And people in a position to promote these things should do their best to critique and curate, not just serve up new blood indiscriminately.
There are genre-performers, and there are cover bands. The world is much better off with less of the latter, I think. It's one thing to be a fan boy, but entirely different to piggyback a career on someone else's visual language, and act like you didn’t mean it. Until we manifest a better social mechanism for self-policing and encouraging excellence & evolution over recursion & proliferation, we'll have to let the angry mobs in comment sections do the dirty work of sorting out our collective ethics.
All ranting aside, it would be lovely if someone were to develop some sort of visual footnoting system. I for one would be very excited to be able to follow the trail of an idea back to its earlier sources, to see how the current practitioner integrated the original inspiration into his/her work. This is the way to learn.
It’s true. A few months ago, I joked to one of my friends that “soon someone will call you out for ripping off the very people who’ve been plundering you.” And hilariously it happened to ME a few weeks later. It seems that for a lot of people, the first person they encounter is the first person who’s done the work. Simple as that. So you get these hilarious reverse criticisms going on.
Ultimately I think that more discourse is a good thing. But I also think it’s going to result in new ways of evaluating history and our understanding of source material.
As long as there are Comments pages, there will be Design Police. And like most things online, there are far more armchair critics than informed/meticulous ones. The result is more noise to get in the way of what could be important moments in the evolution of design discourse. But as I mentioned above, they are here to stay, and if the din persists, I think we’ll see my concerns about context slip beneath some other new notion of ownership.