Steve is a world class hand lettering and packaging designer living in Dublin.
Usually my first question is how do you feel about London. You’ve moved around a lot. Can you tell me a bit about where you’ve worked and where you love to work?
Oh Stew I don’t know where to start. My whole career started in the UK and although I’m not from London I did work there for a time.
Before I arrived in Ireland (in 1990) I did court London a little bit. I had been working in Manchester’s Cosgrove Hall. Dangermouse and Thames Television had lost their TV franchise and we were all being let go.
I actually went down to London looking for new work, but back then it was as an animator and as a story board artist. So I did think about London for a short while I guess. My plan was to find work in London and bring it back to Manchester. There was a time that London was the focal point for so many things. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case these days.
Dublin has been great to me. Even if you are starting out in the industry you can be very easily drowned out in a place like London. It can be really hard to get anywhere near the top. I think being in a smaller place has its advantages. Dublin is really good because, even these days it’s what, a little over a million people?
But it’s a capital city and people love it. What’s so amazing about that is you get to be a small fish and grow in a medium size pond.
What’s the population of London, closing in on 10 million?
For me being in a smaller populated capital city is amazing. So if you fight to get to the top then you can do it, which I think is so much harder to do in a place like London.
Turning illustration in to a full time career is no mean feat. What was your biggest challenge along the way?
The biggest struggle for me was not really knowing what an illustrator was. I did train as technical illustrator. But I didn’t finish the course and never really got to experience illustration. The start of my career was pre digital. In 1983 technical illustration was probably the main area of commercial illustration.
Back then the technical illustrator would be the person who got paid most and received the most work. Everything that was advertised — everything that was created — was by a technical illustrator. They were the crossover between design and illustration. Whether you were designing a car, a lightbulb or a tin of beans, it had to go through a technical illustrator. Printing and photography just wasn’t up to it at that time.
As digital came along all that hand drawn technical stuff was thrown out of the window. CAD came in which led to Photoshop and everything that designers take for granted today.
After working in comics and animation I came back to illustration much later. I didn’t know any illustrators, everyone I knew were animators or comic artists! Established illustrators were using watercolours, markers, paint, etching or… whatever it was. They weren’t using digital. This turned out to be very lucky for me.
Digital was a scary new thing and nobody wanted to take a chance on that.
Nobody really knew what the future was. Graduates coming out of college weren’t experienced in professional drawing for clients. At that stage I’d been doing that for ten years. I entered illustration with digital knowledge that I’d built up myself and ten years of understanding how to compose a drawing to a brief.
What I was creating was like little screenshots of my animation career. These brightly coloured photoshopped cartoons. It was the perfect time as my stuff stood out from traditional illustration.
Remember, I still didn’t know what traditional illustration was. In comparison I think digital work looked so vivid.
Within six months I was working for loads of agencies and design studios full time! I’ll tell you now Stew, it was really bizarre… I still hadn’t met another illustrator.
Was your main benefit having a unique style?
You could say that but it’s not totally true. I just drew what my clients wanted. I had so many different styles it was ridiculous. But it wasn’t until I met other illustrators that I realised that I was the exception.
I was making a good living but to gain recognition as a ‘real’ illustrator I had to focus on one style. That was where my problems really began!
It was a two part challenge:
One, picking which style to ‘own’. And two, removing all the other stuff from my website. No matter which style I picked I was in trouble. The problem was that I would have very few portfolio pieces in one style. It felt like I was right back to square one.
In exchange for an own-able style I sacrificed the breadth and volume of work I’d done. What was left would make me look less like I was an agency and more like an individual. Even saying that now it sounds mad.
Around the turn of the millennium I started researching illustration. I started understanding illustrations, started looking at the history of illustration. I guess that was the real beginning of my illustration career.
Who inspires you now? Can you name an artist, illustration movement, or company which you admire?
I like Big Fish, they’re a really cool crowd of designers.
This is a bit of a tangent but let me tell you about an epiphany I had. This was maybe 5 years after I figured out what illustration was. My epiphany was the difference between illustration and design.
I’d always struggled with combining my illustration and my graphic design. I kind of fell into graphic design without any training at all. Another struggle was how you fit an illustration into a graphic design piece. They almost always look at odds, and my illustration and design didn’t match up. This was often down to typography.
I had this little moment where, rather than spending two hours trying to find the right font, I tried hand lettering to match my illustrations. Suddenly it was problem solved for me. It’s going to perfectly match every time!
I ask myself a small series of questions when I work on lettering. Questions like ‘is it serif or sans serif’, ‘is it bold’, ‘is it fun’, whatever. So when I draw it to match the rest of the piece it doesnt look forced, or at odds. That led on to my realisation that ‘pure’ graphic design is just another aesthetic style.
Good design doesn’t have to be that graphic. It can be more illustrative. So my design is very illustrative — which works for me. I stopped thinking about my work in terms of ‘graphic design’. The way I looked at it was, if I’m going to produce a label I’m going create an illustration that is printed and wrapped around a bottle. There’s no graphic design as far as I can see in it whatsoever.
I still practise this way of thinking and hand draw, letter and digitise everything I do myself.
Even the barcodes.
Pick up a piece of design right now. Whether you’re looking at an advert or a menu or a flyer or a label more than one designer has worked on that. You could argue that it might be one designer that’s put together a print file or collaborated with a developer on a website.
Look again though. Usually another designer has created the logo. Another designer might have illustrated icons. A whole team might have worked on each typeface. They might use more than one typeface. Even if a design only uses two different typefaces that’s a minimum of two type designers. Now we’re already up to 5–50 people. Then there is the barcode. The barcode has been designed by someone else too.
By the time you’re in the mix that’s at least seven designers putting together something as seemingly simple as a bottle label. To me that usually looks disjointed. It doesn’t feel like it is one single piece. So what I try to do is approach it from this point of view that I want the whole thing to feel cohesive.
Back to Big Fish. They do that very well joining all those dots together. But I don’t think it’s a new thing; I think it’s a very old thing . If you go back to the 1850s or 60s, the whole history of design began with printmaking. Those printmakers are the people who became designers who were themselves illustrators.
All the way through to the 1920s it was one person who was doing the whole job, we didn’t have these complex titles. The term ‘graphic designer’ was only invented in the 1920s. The term ‘illustrator’ was even later than that. There was no need to call somebody an illustrator because there was only one person involved!
So the whole thing has been segmented and broken up. If you go back to the 50s and 60s you’ve got people like David Klein and Jim Flora. These people were making work that was full of illustration, hand drawn lettering and beautiful palettes. That work was completely cohesive. So that’s what I’m going back to. I’m trying to go back to this period where everything worked together. Everything was done by a single person.
Is this where you tell me about ‘Adodeism’ Steve?
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about Adobeism. I will say that I believe the side effect of Adobe is that they’ve broken us all down into technicians. Which takes away all the fun.
I love Photoshop. I really love Photoshop. I couldn’t do my job without Photoshop but what Adobe are doing now — it’s not for me.
Design software encourages an odd working practise. One where you sit at your desk and from one corner of your screen you pick your fonts. Adobe want to supply all the fonts, all the stock imagery and your colour palettes. Now they can even supply lay-outs! It’s almost, ‘press F1 for a business card, F2 for a label, F3 for a website’… everything’s already laid out there for you.
When I was training you had to go to a Grant enlarger and blow things up and trace them yourself. You cut things out and stuck things down by hand. There was a lot of opportunity for change to occur within the design process. Now everything is so finite. There used to be an infinite number of things you can create with time and imagination. The Adobe model of design has reduced that.
Fast forward 10 years from now, and I think we would look at this period of time as one influenced by a software company. You’d be able to recognise what’s being created as being heavily influenced by Adobe. It’s very odd.
We will reach a point where more people break free of that process. I’d like to see a real movement towards hand drawn stuff, more crafted stuff. I don’t know if that’s answered the question but that’s my beef…
How big is your head?
Designers, artists and illustrators are often known for having ‘big personalities’. How big is your head Steve?
Without a tape measure to hand Stew? Size 10 ½ hat.
How do you keep your work fresh whilst keeping that all important continuity in your folio?
There is always a risk that after a time your own work becomes self referential. The real trick is acknowledging that. Then constantly questioning yourself and your work.
The deeper we get into this automated design process the more punk everything else becomes.
Sticking to the DIY theme is where I find new creative ideas. That work can still be digital — it doesn’t have to be all hand crafted. Just because you’re starting a project by hand doesn’t mean it’s going to be well crafted. Conversely something can be beautifully crafted and put together on a computer. The key is taking time and thinking about all the available options. That can be difficult in front of a computer.
I think there is always a bit of my humour in my work. It’s very hard for me to be completely serious about what I’m doing. I guess I’m lucky that my clients often want the sort of work that brings people joy.
Draw or tell
What gives you most job satisfaction?
Oh easy Stew, I like teaching. I don’t want to be a full time educator, but I actually love it…
Maybe I’m just lucky. My whole career has been about being at the right place at the right time. I run workshops and so going into colleges I’ll do projects.
Teaching people analogue thinking and analogue production is so important to me. Encouraging people to think in a different way is really valuable. Using a pencil, sketchbook workings — getting them to start with thumbnail sketches! Playing out entire ideas on pen and paper is key.
The other thing I always say which is so important to new designers is:
I encourage failure in my workshops. It’s about experimenting, trying things you wouldn’t normally attempt, getting things wrong — all this is vital in the creation process. If you go through the process without experimenting then you are at exactly the same place you were at the start. I have taught you nothing.
If I can get you to a point where you feel like you are so miserable and shit that you almost start crying, then you are going through a process of learning something new!
…I’m going to use that as a quote…
Experiencing and overcoming that feeling of crapness is amazing though Stew. These are small steps that our entire careers are based on and I don’t think there’s such thing as ‘enough’ critical discussion. I mean that amongst all designers and their peers but particularly in education.
When it comes to self promotion (and apologies for the job titles) have we almost come full circle. From commercial artist back to artist?
It’s a very new world and it’s a very strange place. There are more and more people able to show their work to the general public and the general public are interested. That comes into the whole art thing. Eight years ago I remember being in Pasadena and thinking that it’s amazing being allowed to show our work in galleries. Which is really weird. It’s easy to get illustration into galleries now. Back then, only eight years ago, it was completely alien.
Illustration has come so far in this short period of time. I guess that has a lot to do with social media. People are talking about illustration and illustrators. They’re sharing it online and galleries are aware of that. The public is more open to what art is. I think we’re just more accepted than ever!
We’ve talked about your career challenges. What about the next generation of superstar illustrators?
Over the past eight years or so we’ve been moving past the super stars of illustration. Right now there are still super stars of design and illustration sure — but they are kind of yesteryear. If you were to go back ten years there might have been 20 ‘superstar’ illustrators in the world. I think they would be championed by the few magazines which had a large readership.
Now, we have so many outlets and so many people uploading and following creative work. Pre Instagram we were approaching a real hole as far as illustration went. It was a real recession within illustration. Print was dying, we weren’t finding new outlets for illustration . I know photographers had a similar struggle. Now with Instagram my mother is able to take photographs that look like a professional has taken them!
Were stock images and illustration a large part of the problem?
For a time stock was a massive problem. It was really killing illustration. Fees were dropping and commissions were drying up. We were being told by the likes of the New York Times and Wired that illustrators needed to adapt to the way the industry was changing . We were going to have to animate editorial illustration as still imagery wasn’t enough for digital content. A few of us, myself included, thought they were mad. This sounded like more work and more work doesn’t always mean more money!
It was a really hard time for illustration. It was an interesting theme at ICON in 2016. The suggestion was that we don’t know the extent of illustration now.
Animation is illustration, design is illustration, books are illustration, entertainment is illustration.
People stand up in public and draw and that’s illustration. We just don’t know where the world of illustration starts or finishes. The way it seems to me is that, in the same way that somebody might have a favourite football team, band, tv show they have their favourite designers and their favourite illustrators. It’s another thing to talk about in the pub.It’s entered the world of the general public.
So I think there aren’t these 10 superstars of illustration any more, there are more like 200, 300, a thousand. They are all over the world, they’re not just in New York or London, they are everywhere and everybody has access to them, everybody can know what they are up to. We get asked to put our signatures on products and packaging.
As someone who primarily works in packaging design this is the first time in our history where we’ve been known for what we do. The only illustrators anybody knew about 10 years ago were editorial illustrators. Typically they got to sign their work. Plus children’s book illustrators as they got their name on the front cover.
It does help if you can animate an illustration in some way. But it doesn’t have to be what we traditionally think of as animation. It doesn’t have to be hand gestures and winks or characters jumping up and down. Something simple like flashing lights or colour changes can be just as impactful. Subtle animation which gives a piece movement or grounds it in the digital world are great. We’re not exclusively dealing with flat pieces of paper any more. When illustrators take commissions it’s absolutely worth keeping that in mind.
Just like my pen and paper fetish. The school of ‘anything’s possible’ is the professional illustrator’s biggest selling point. These things we create are not just a single images. We can bring them to life and see illustrations interacting across different media. That is incredibly exciting. We can provide more value to our clients than ever before.
If you we’re starting out fresh tomorrow what do you think you missed out on that designers have access to today?
I think that social media is hugely important. Today’s rising talent have to find and develop a hook. You’ve got to find a way of people noticing you because there is so much competition now.
It’s a tough industry to break in to, always has been I guess. Recently I’ve seen a lot of people describing themselves as studios even though they’re yet to graduate. I can understand why they are doing it though. Why wouldn’t you want to appear more professional than you are at that stage?
That’s putting more pressure on students and new graduates than ever before. Finding something that entertains people works well. Mr Bingo is great example of pushing illustration into a whole new universe.
Mixing in a bit of entertainment with whatever it is you are doing it’s certainly going to get you a lot more attention. I know for a fact that clients who come to me will check out my social media weight. How I conduct myself online, how I talk about clients, how I promote the clients I have worked for — that is all so important today.
Client’s have gotten wise. The advantage for an illustrator with huge online following can’t be underestimated. Clients know the more followers a designer or illustrator has, the bigger their own social media impressions will be. I’m still not sure how comfortable I am about that but, at the moment it seems to make everyone happy.
Pot of Gold
What’s your unicorn or white whale? Any particular ambitions for your immediate future?
Tough one pal! I feel very commercial, so I kind of want to make time for more personal work. I think that’s really what I want to get back to, creating for passion’s sake.
Lately I feel I’ve turned into more of a graphic designer than I ever expected to be. I’m in danger of being less of an illustrator because of it. Although I would say those roles are the same I don’t think that the rest of the illustration world necessarily agrees. I do feel that illustration is a lot closer to art than where I am at the moment. So I think I’d like to try to find my own voice a bit more.
Does that mean going full circle Steve? Would you practise various styles again for example? Or work with entirely different mediums?
I think it’s art. I think it’s doing stuff for the hell of it, just because I want to do it. With illustration there are so many things to keep in mind no matter what the brief does or doesn’t prescribe.
A commercial brief tends to come with target markets. Your work has to feel a certain way and it has to appeal to ‘these’ people. It’s got to fit within a set format and use specific colours. There are so many rules.
On reflection I’m actually pretty good at that. I’ll be honest, I really enjoy that! Working within guidelines feels like for me it’s this jigsaw. The puzzle of making things fit, which I’ve always enjoyed doing, working things out is design.
But with my personal work I’d like to be a bit more random, I’d love to surprise myself a bit more often. Not knowing where something is going can be a real pleasure. Slapping paint on bits of wood and actually figuring out what it is later is great. But I don’t know how possible that is, or how well paying.