Designer and Illustrator Dan Stiles talks about his prolific career in design, the poster design scene, music in the Pacific North West, his influences and how one thing leads to another.
Interview by Cesar Contreras
Cesar: Pencil or pixel?
Dan: Oh man, I thought that was coming because I was looking at the name of the podcast and was like, “This is going to either be the last question or the first question.” Right now, I’m 90% pixel. But there was a period of my life where I was 100% pencil and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. Because I think knowing how to draw is the fundamental skill of any visual artist. I don’t care what medium you work in, you need to know how to draw. You don’t need to know how to draw like Michelangelo, but you need to know how to concept and sketch and express yourself visually. And the easiest way to do that by far is with a pencil.
If you’re sitting at a table talking to somebody and you’re trying to talk about an idea, you don’t pull out your phone and try to draw it on the screen. You’re like, “Hey, you got a pencil?” and you just draw it on a napkin. I still do that.
Dan: But I’ve found that sort of the direction my career has gone and really the direction that commercial art has gone, it really behooves me not only personally to express myself, but also to be able to sell my work digitally. If I do something for an ad campaign and they’re going to use it, they might use it as a little tiny 300 X 300 pixel banner ad, but they might blow it up and put it on the side of a bus too. If that’s a hand drawn, hand inked piece of art, they’re not going to be able to do that very easily. Or take it into After Effects and animate it.
I’ve found that it’s really helpful to work mostly – I work mostly vector-based, it’s become a selling point. It’s just easier for me to think and work that way. You’ve seen my book and I talk about how you can start work, you can work on concept and color and layout and everything, all at the same time when you work digitally. When you’re working traditionally, you have to start and finish each step of the process, then you have to commit to that and move to the next part. I think that’s a good skill to have so you aren’t just a big mess when you’re trying to work. But it’s really nice to be able to be two-thirds of the way through a project and be like, “Ah you know, I hate that color. I’m going to change that” or “I’m going to change out the type” or “Ah you know, I don’t even need this. She only needs one eye. Let’s take the other eye off of here.”
Cesar: Or change the whole concept altogether, right?
Dan: Yeah or sometimes I’ll be working on something and I’ll realize I could go tighter. I can dial this all in and start because a lot of what I do is really reductive. I take away. I’ll build something and it’ll be kind of messy and cluttered. I’ll be like, “What don’t I need?” So you can take stuff off the page. And that’s so much easier digitally. I mean you can do it with pencil and paper, but it’s going to require a whole roll of tracing paper and an evening spent kind of redrawing the same thing over and over again.
People did it for a hundred years so it can be done. For me, I think I’m pixel now. But if somebody’s a young artist, I’m not going to tell him to skip over the pencil stage.
Cesar: I want to read a little excerpt from your book. You just mentioned your book and we’re going to get into that in a bit. This is sort of alluding to what you just said. It’s talking about digital art. “Digital art gets a bum rap. Some people think that computer makes the art for you at the push of a button. Others say that art produced on a computer lacks soul. What I’ve come to realize is that the tool is just the tool. Both the pencil and a computer can be used poorly. A person might make terrible digital art, but give them the pencil and they’ll suck just as hard.” I love that, man. It doesn’t really matter.
Dan: But it’s true though, right?
Dan: I mean you look at somebody like Tim Biskup who’s known mostly for his paintings, but a lot of his prints are vector. It’s really easy to make color separations out of Illustrator. Try to color separate a painting. You’ve got to take a photo of it first, take it in the photoshop, do a bunch of channels. I mean it’s a nightmare.
Dan: But he just switches over to Illustrator and works there. And it looks a little different. It’s a little crisper around the edges in his paintings, but it still looks like Tim Biskup and it’s still fantastic, right?
Cesar: Definitely. I just read an excerpt from your book and we’re going to get into it. But before that, can you give us a brief background? What is it you do and how did you get here?
Dan: Well how did I get here is probably a good place to start. I was always kind of the kid who could draw. I was into comic books and the Sunday cartoons. From a very early age, I was just really enamored with not only drawing but also pop culture. Godzilla movies or whatever it was, I really thought that stuff was really cool.
Dan: So did all my friends. I never thought much of it. I went through elementary school and most of my friends were interested in comic books and whatnot. Junior high was where that kind of started to fall away. By the time I got to high school, there were a lot less people who were interested in that kind of stuff, because people found different things. But one thing I did, a big part of my life that changed between 8th and 9th grade was I went to a magnet school downtown, and it was basically punk rock high. All the kids were weirdo outsider, artistic types, we had skaters and punks and metal heads. Pretty much nobody was a normal kid like you might see in a movie about a high school — those kids just didn’t exist. There was no football team.
Cesar: No jocks.
Dan: There were no jocks, yeah. I was surrounded by a bunch of people who maybe didn’t draw, but they did something creative. I fell into that world of punk rock and the world of album covers and cool t-shirt designs and skateboard designs and that really had a huge influence on me. But it really wasn’t until I went to college, I got to college I moved out west. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but I moved out west to go to school because I wanted to be closer to the northwest music thing that was going on. I realized that not everybody knew how to do this. It turned out to be a unique skill. A guy I lived with in this big house worked at the campus promoting group. And he was like, “Hey do you want to do posters?” And at first I was like, “Eh I’m not that interested.” But he was like, “Yeah $20 and all the beer you can drink at the show.” And I’m like, “All right fuck yeah, sign me up.”
I’d always been into posters. I collected them, fliers off the telephone poles in high school for punk rock bands. So it enabled me to be part of the music scene without being a musician. I loved that scene. I kind of moved out here for that scene, so it allowed me to be part of what was happening even though I can’t play a note. That’s where I started – it started with posters. That was what dragged me. It started with all these comic books and whatnot anyway. But my first real commercial art was posters.
After I graduated college I didn’t get an art degree, I got a sociology degree. And after I graduated I really wanted to get into graphic arts, but with absolutely no training I was like, “Well how am I going to do this?” So I worked in print shops, t-shirt shops, I swept floors in places that printed envelopes; anything I could do to get close to the graphic arts. But it didn’t really work that well. I spent 2 to 3 years doing these sort of odd jobs. I started very low-level graphics jobs, and I decided if I really want to do this, I’ve got to go back to school.
So I went to school down in California, CCA for graphic design where I met Michael Cronan who hired me out of the classroom to work in his studio. From there I expanded because we did identity at that point. We were doing branding and identity and websites and all this kind of stuff. So I moved beyond the poster at school and beyond the poster professionally for a lot of years. Stayed out in the Bay Area for 6 or 7 years, we started my studio down there, eventually moved it back up to Portland where I wanted to be anyway.
The minute we moved up here, my wife and I – I got married in the meantime too – the minute we moved up here we were able to buy a house for less than our studio apartment cost us every month in San Francisco.
Cesar: Wow, yeah.
Dan: I had a basement and I was able to set up a proper studio again. It wasn’t just a computer sitting on the kitchen table, I could set up a printing press and I could set up a whole screen printing studio. I jumped back into posters because that’s my passion.
It was good timing because I jumped back into posters and then the corporate design market crashed in about 2008 with the economy, the great recession hit. A lot of my corporate clients just died. The companies went out of business or they cut back on their advertising budgets. But I had been getting so much traction with the posters that I’d been doing, that I started picking up illustration work. That really led to the kind of work that I really wanted to be doing anyway which is much more illustration based. Illustrative design is what I call it. Because it’s not truly illustration, like an illustrator would do. But it’s not really design like a traditional designer does either. People like Paul Rand and Saul Bass and people who were doing it in the 50s and 60s. The Eames’, who really had a combination of typography and layout and illustration and graphics and a real kind of punch to their work, a graphical punch that I try to have I my work as well. And it’s the same kind of work. It’s magazine illustration, book covers, motion graphics, that kind of stuff that allows that style to kind of be at its best. There’s certain venues where that style works better than in other venues.
That’s really what I’m doing today. That’s how this all kind of tied together starting from whenever I started this story – elementary school to now.
Cesar: Very cool. You packed your whole story in a quick summary which is great. You said that you gained traction. What do you mean by gaining traction?
Dan: A lot of people come to me and they say, “Hey I want to do posters too. How do I do a poster for Beck?” And you’re like, well you don’t. You don’t do a poster for Beck. You do a poster for your friend’s shitty band and then you do another poster for your friend’s shitty band, and then hopefully whoever your friend’s shitty band is opening for will have you do a poster for them. And you get traction. You slowly build a portfolio. You also build skills. Because your first poster or whatever it is, your first magazine, your first snowboard, whatever you’re trying to design, isn’t going to be any good. It might be okay, but it’s not going to be your best work.
So you create this portfolio, this body of work and you improve every time you make something. And eventually if you keep improving, bigger and bigger fish notice. And that’s what I mean by gaining traction. So MTV’s not going to call you if you’ve never designed anything that they need. Do you know what I mean?
Dan: But if you’ve designed a bunch of stuff and you get on their radar, they go, “Oh who’s this over here? This guy’s work is cool. Let’s buy a piece of that.” Because that’s really what I do now. I used to get jobs where people came and they’re like, “Oh can you format this PowerPoint for me?” or whatever it is. And you were just the guy who knew how to work the software. But now it’s more like I have a sort of a style and a voice, and clients come to me and they say, “Oh can we have some of that? Can you do something in that style to make us look like we’re a rock band?” or whatever it is. And so I do a lot.
I’m probably best known for my poster work, but the people who really pay the bills are companies that come to me who want things stylistically that look like the posters. So the posters become almost like a test bed. A graphical test bed for me to try things out in a pretty low-risk environment. Because the posters cost money to make and they get sold, but they also I mean, these bands, they’re on tour. These posters happen daily, weekly, monthly.
Cesar: Plus they give you almost complete creative freedom.
Dan: Yeah. And the interesting thing about these projects which makes them entirely different from most work, is that they give you not only carte blanche, but they really want you to go there. With most corporate clients you show them mild, medium, and hot. And they’re like “Oh yeah hot’s pretty cool. But yeah no, we could never sell that. Let’s go with mild.” Whereas if you go to a band with mild, medium, and hot, they are not interested in mild at all. They want hot. They might even ask you like, “Can you dial us up a little further? Can you take it way more out there?” They aren’t interested in tame graphics which is most, you’re never really going to get to explore graphically and do crazy shit for Old Navy. Do you know what I mean? They aren’t in a position where they can take a risk like that. And that’s fine. That makes perfect sense and that’s not where they should be. Do you know what I mean? If you’re doing logos for corporate clients, they aren’t interested in being in the design annuals. They’re interested in having a logo that works.
Their idea of what works and my idea of exciting, there’s a mile and a half between those two points. So it makes a lot more sense to do exciting work for clients that want exciting work. And let these other people see it and go “Oh yeah, okay. Give us something like that.” That’s always what they do. I call it self-plagiarization. They’ll always come to you on something you’ve already done and say, “Yeah we like this right here. Can you do this again with our name on it?”
Cesar: How often does that happen?
Dan: A lot. Any big corporate gig I do I have gotten because an art director or somebody has grabbed something I’ve already made and has kind of like taken it in Photoshop and wiped out whatever text was on there, and put in the new client’s text and said, “Hey Coca Cola, how about this guy?”
Cesar: Change the color a little bit.
Dan: Yeah it’s always based on something that’s already happened. And that’s because they aren’t, they’re risk averse. They aren’t going to spend, I mean because an ad buy, I’m not the guy who makes the most money on an advertising campaign. It’s the ad buy, it’s the media. Because an ad, a single-page ad in Rolling Stone magazine is $50,000 just to get that one page. So you’re not going to do something crazy and experimental, and that’s just one of those ads. I mean these ad buys these companies are doing are millions of dollars. They need something proven, they need something that’s not really very risky, that’s not going to piss anybody off. It’s way easier to sell them something that they can already see. Especially because most of those people that are buying it are not in the arts. They’re dudes who golf on the weekend. You know?
Dan: So they’re the guys who weren’t at my high school. They’re the jocks and the guys who have the sort of slick back gelled hair and the khakis and shit, and they don’t get it.
Cesar: Oh man.
Dan: And that’s fine. A company needs those people to operate, right? They don’t want me in charge of that. But don’t ask those people to make artistic decisions without showing them, like literally holding something up and saying, “It’ll look just like this.”
Cesar: Identical. Now let me ask you, when you’re talking about ad buys, is this where they pay to get an ad displayed like in Rolling Stone?
Dan: Yeah, no they don’t pay me that much. But that’s what it costs. Yeah. When they talk about, I mean you hear about it all the time. Like, “Oh Nike just released an $80 million dollar advertising campaign.” They didn’t pay Wieden+Kennedy $80 million dollars to do that campaign. They paid Wieden+Kennedy whatever, $500,000 to do that campaign, and then they bought $80 million dollars worth of media. A Super Bowl ad, even not a Super Bowl ad. Just a prime time commercial, ads in major magazines, bus toppers, all that stuff.
You can easily spend just putting ads. I priced something the other day for a client of mine. I just wanted to put digital ads in the train stations, the Bart stations in San Francisco. They have 3 stations that have digital ads. So it would’ve been like 8 digital billboards for 1 month. Each piece would’ve run for 8 seconds at a time. It was something like $50,000 just for that.
Dan: That’s where the money goes when they talk about this $10 million dollar ad campaign. It’s all going to the media to buy slots.
Cesar: I’m going to jump into your book right now. I love the title, One Thing Leads to Another. And I can’t help it, but it reminds me of that song by The Fixx.
Dan: Yes everybody, and I don’t mind that song. It’s a pretty cool song.
Cesar: I have to admit, when I first saw the book, the song popped up. And just now it doesn’t go away. It’s not bad.
Dan: Yeah don’t say too much of that. I’m going to start paying royalties.
Cesar: Can you explain first off why the title of the book and tell us a bit about your process.
Dan: The title, One Thing Leads to Another is kind of a bi-fold, has two meanings for me. That’s the reason it won out over other ideas for the title of the book. First of all, there’s One Thing Leads to Another which is really how my career has gone, which is that you do a poster which then leads to going to this school, which then leads to meeting this professor… It’s sort of always new doors are opening. For instance, you and I are talking right now, and maybe somebody hearing this will be like, “Oh that guy sounds good. Let’s give him a project.” Do you know what I mean?
Dan: It’s just, you never know where things are going to lead which gets into the same meaning or the same kind of process when you talk about how I design, which is that when I design something I always sit down and I have something in mind. Well, that’s not true. Sometimes I sit down with nothing in mind. But usually, I’ve researched whatever it is I’m designing. If it’s a band, I’ve listened to their records, I’ve listened to their MP3s.
Cesar: I’ll listen to the records.
Dan: And I have looked at past artwork that they’ve had and I’ve learned about maybe where they’re from and I’ve done my research.
Dan: Then I start to pull things together – elements – and I see where it takes me. That’s really where the one thing leads to another happens. I might pull together, all right so it’s a boom box and I see that they’re from Ohio, and Ohio has car factories. And so maybe the boom box has wheels on it. And you just start to kind of like smoosh stuff together and see what you get. You have to keep an eye on it the whole time to make sure you don’t make garbage, but you also look for opportunities. You’re like, “Oh the speakers on the boom box could also be tires with the type on the side of the tire.” And you start looking for design opportunities.
I may not have sat down with that in mind. I may have just sat down with a bunch of desperate ideas – a boom box, a tire, a flower, a glass of wine, whatever – and started to kind of mush stuff up and see what I made. So it’s definitely a process. And this is why I don’t ever show pencil sketches to my clients because I truly don’t know what I’m going to give them until I sit down at the computer and start pulling my stuff together. And even halfway through a process, I might take a big, hard, orthogonal turn away from what I’ve been making. Because what I’ve been making is really just what has inspired something better.
So it’s almost like a prototype. Like, “Eh you know, that’s kind of working but what if we did this instead?” You throw that idea out and you move on. It’s one thing leading to another and you don’t really know what it’s going to be until, honestly until you’re about 85% of the way there. You get to a point where it gels. You’re like, “Yeah, this is working.” And then it’s just a matter of beautifying it. Up until that point it can be quite ugly honestly, and in the book I show some of this process where it’s like, yeah it’s all kludged together and shitty-looking. Once the idea gels, you can always make it look good. But if you don’t have a good idea, what have you got, really?
Cesar: Yeah I love that.
Dan: Smoke and mirrors.
Cesar: How long does it typically take you to complete a project?
Dan: About 10, 12 hours of work which might happen in over 2 or 3 sessions. Usually, I like to grind on something. I have an issue where I can’t really get anything done in less than 3 or 4 hours because I really like to get in there and start working it and get the process going. And once the process is going I don’t really like to stop and switch to something else or answer phone calls. Which is why I do a lot of my design work at night because it’s much quieter and the phone’s not ringing. I might stop and just put that away for a day or two, work on something else, and come back to it and see with fresh eyes, “Oh yeah I can do this, I can do that. Oh those colors stink” or maybe go like, “I don’t like where this goes. I’m going to go back 5 iterations and then branch off of that.” And the thing kind of winds up looking like this weird family tree of design where there’s branches going off all over the place. Eventually you’re like, “Yeah this design, those colors.” And you start, it’s a funnel that goes out and then back in I guess would be the best way to describe it.
Cesar: Almost like a diamond.
Dan: That is exactly a diamond. Or a funnel that goes out and comes in.
Cesar: In the height of the music poster scene, which was what in the late 90s and early 2000s around there? I’m thinking Frank Kozik with the whole poster scene. You mentioned that posters had been one of those things that you still are attracted to. If someone wants to get into poster design or some kind of a design that doesn’t necessarily pay at the very beginning, but it’s something they’re passionate about, what do you suggest that people do?
Dan: I think the best way to get into anything that you want to design is to start designing it and just be your own damn client for awhile, make your own website, your own blog, your own zine, your own posters, whatever the hell it is. I mean if you heard of that ISO50…
Cesar: Oh yeah, Tyco.
Dan: Tyco, the Tyco guy, yeah. All that shit, he designed it for himself.
Dan: You know what I mean? I’m sure he’s gotten clients out of it, but he’s his own client on a vast majority of that stuff. If you were really interested in something, what’s to stop you from just starting to make it? Because the first couple of them aren’t going to be any good anyway, which is what I mentioned earlier. You make a couple and work out the bugs on your own.
The way I got into posters, like I said, was a guy hired me to do posters for the campus promoter and luckily enough I happened to just be in the right place at the right time that Mud Honey and all these bands from Seattle were coming through. I got to design all these posters for these great bands. But I was making $20 bucks a pop. And it’s funny that you bring up Kozik because I was aware of the posters of the 60s because of Paul Grushkin’s book The Art of Rock.
Dan: Which I had gotten in high school. The late Paul Grushkin actually, he just died like last week.
Cesar: Oh my…
Dan: Yeah he wrote the intro to my book. It was a huge honor because the first real poster thing I ever saw that wasn’t just a flyer on a telephone pole was his book when I was probably 16, 17 years old. But I got to know him later and yeah he did the forward to my book. But so I knew good posters existed. But my world was shitty Xerox posters. Black and white, hung on telephone poles, hand drawn.
Cesar: All the punk bands.
Dan: Yeah. Xerox posters. And that was what I was making. I was hand drawing, 100% hand drawing these posters and photocopying them and people were sticking them up. They were actual posters on the street. I opened a copy of The Stranger which was Seattle’s weekly magazine, their club rag that Art Chantry was actually the art director of for 20 years. And they had this big spread on Kozik and Coop and Jeff Kleinsmith and a guy named Pablo, who doesn’t do it anymore. They were color. I was like, “Holy shit. The poster’s back.” And I was like, “I need to learn how to screen print now.”
I went on campus, I had already graduated at this point, but they had a place on campus called the craft center. And they had all this screen printing shit for printing t-shirts.
Cesar: This is Ann Arbor, right?
Dan: No this is actually in Eugene, Oregon.
Cesar: Oh, Oregon.
Dan: I taught myself how to screen print on this hoopty ass equipment, right? The screens were all saggy and shit, but it was enough to start screen printing.
Cesar: They worked.
Dan: I took my black and white posters and on my own dime with nobody asking, I just started making color ones. And it was a pain in the ass because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I didn’t even know how to register colors. But I just started printing my own posters in color which led to getting jobs that were supposed to be in color. People were like, “Oh you can do color posters now.” And so it’s very much sort of a bootstrap DIY kind of thing to just start fucking making them. And they always say, “Design what it is you want to be designing.” You know what I mean? Like if your job is designing websites and all you’re making is websites, nobody’s ever going to hire you to do a logo.
Dan: So don’t complain about not doing logos. Start making logos in your spare time for whoever or yourself. And the great thing is now you have the internet to leverage, which I didn’t have. I was working purely within Eugene. I wasn’t even working in Portland at that point because Portland was 2 hours away. I just started making stuff and spreading it around. And I grew it from there. And it’s even easier.
A couple years ago I did a project for the X Games. And it was a really big project doing merchandise designs for the X Games. I was talking to the art director there who hired me, and he was like, “Yeah we’ve got you and we’ve got this other guy. You’re going to do a bunch of stuff, he’s going to do a bunch of stuff.” I’m like, “Great.” And he sent me a screen shot of his desktop because he had something he wanted to show me and I saw there were 2 folders, Dan Stiles and some other guy. And I’m like, “That’s the other guy. I’m going to look up who that is.” So I get on the internet and I look him up and it turns out this is this like 26-year-old kid from the Ukraine or something, and I’d seen his work. I’m on like ffffound.com, yeah. I had totally seen his work and he was like this young ass kid, a couple years out of art school, but because of the internet and because he was doing this crazy geometric shit that obviously this art director liked, I liked it, you’ve probably seen it and liked it, he called him up in the Ukraine. He was like, “Hey would you like to work for the X Games?”
So that’s the kind of thing you can do now because you can leverage the internet. If you make good work and you get it out there, who knows? One thing leads to another. Who knows who’s going to come knocking. And it’s so easy to do now. I mean I don’t market myself, I don’t even know how to market myself. I wish I could. I wish there was a way that I could go to these companies and say, “Hey you want to hire me.” But they call you when they need you. It’s how it works.
You just got to kind of stay on their radar by keeping fresh new stuff out there in circulation on the blogs, so just start making shit. Stop watching TV. Don’t watch TV at night. Fucking turn the TV off and make shit.
Cesar: What kind of things do you do to stay on people’s radar?
Dan: I just try to release good stuff. I mean I have, my Instagram feed is pure art. There’s no pictures of my dog or kids or sunsets or yoga or whatever on there. Don’t you hate that? You go into somebody’s thing and like, “Oh look at this great stuff.” And then there’s some like fucking yoga shot. What the fuck is this? If you want a personal one, do a personal one. But if you have a, if it’s your art blog or your art whatever, it should be about your art purely.
I don’t do a lot of social media. I do Instagram, I have a Facebook page, but and then a lot of it is like people like you, honestly. Other people see it, people who are in these media positions, blogs, people who have podcasts, people who have other interests in the graphical world that will then pick it up and kind of make it a little bigger, spread it around. For lack of a better word, it’s very organic. But I think my job in this is to produce good work regularly and then hope it lands in the right … it’s that whole thing, the Wicked Witch of the West, “Fly my pretties, fly!” That’s what I’m doing. I’m just sitting here with my window open like shoveling all this crap out and hoping it lands somewhere.
Cesar: You just mentioned Paul Grushkin. Who are other people that you look up to? Even inspire you to just keep cranking out work.
Dan: Well you know it moves around. There’s, I always have fresh and new interests. I mean there are the classics. Everybody loves Saul Bass, everybody loves Paul Rand, everybody loves the Eames’, right? But I have a very sweet spot in my heart for the modernist period because of the big, simple, highly conceptual work that they did. But there was a certain point in my life where I was really into art deco. And so Mucha was a big player because I really loved the way he drew women and the way he did those crazy backgrounds with way too much detail. Or Raymond Pettibon.
I mean it just, every period of my life I’ve had, James Flora, Jim Phillips. You know, I mean I could sit here all night just naming off … and sometimes it’s like random shit. Just go to Tokyo and look around and look at all those crazy cartoon characters that they have smeared all over everything. I don’t know who did any of those, but they’re all awesome.
I think it’s like keep your eyes open and keep looking for good work, and if you find something you like, it’s really easy now. I mean because I have this, you can’t really see it, but I have this massive book collection. I see part of yours behind you. And that used to be how I got my stuff was like I would go to the bookstore and be like, “All right, this is a great book.” Take it home, digest it. Like I know every image in every book in my design library. I have a couple thousand books and I know all of them.
But now with the internet, I actually have a folder on my desktop where if I bump into an image I like, I’ll Google it, see who did it, look at the rest of their work, and it’s really easy to do now just like with music or anything else to really get out there and dig and look around. So I mean, yeah there’s people who are sort of near and dear to me. Like The Pixies or whatever. Like they’re going to be a band, or they’re going to be an artist who sticks with me forever. But then there’s also just constantly, I’ll look at my Instagram feed and I’m like, “Holy shit, look at that. That’s just amazing.” It’s always coming at you, right? And you just got to be open to it. I don’t know who said it, but they say good in, good out. You’ve always got to keep fresh shit coming in, so you keep fresh stuff coming out.
Cesar: You said that you work best at night. What’s your sweet spot?
Dan: I have kids and it kind of jacked up the program as far as my sweet spot. Because I’m a night guy. Like I love staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning and then not doing shit until like 10 am the next day. That’s my sweet spot. You know what I mean? I would ignore the morning hours of the next day, get up, get a cup of coffee and then start poking around at 10 or 11, or noon if I could. But now the kids have got to get to school by 8:30, so I get up at 7 in the morning, do the whole grownup thing, maybe go to the gym or whatever. But I still start work at like 9:30, 10:00.
Dan: I’m just doing other stuff, I’m not sleeping, but I’m doing other stuff. And then I, during the day it’s a lot more broken up. There’s a lot of emailing and phone calling. Oftentimes a project will be past the creative part where there’s a lot of production going on. If I work on a book cover, coming up with the idea and the initial drawing for the book cover is very different than doing the refinements. What’s the back cover look like? What do the flaps look like? Like that’s a lot more mechanical and a lot more production oriented than that initial kernel of a concept, and that you had to like grow into this piece of art.
Dan: That’s the kind of stuff that happens late at night. So then again at like 3 or 4, you go get the kids, you feed them dinner, you do the whole evening routine, and then by about 9 I go back to work. So from 9 am to like 1 am.
Cesar: 9 pm to 1 am?
Dan: Yeah 9 pm to 1 am is kind of the second shift.
Cesar: So you’re practically working all day long.
Dan: Yeah. Before I had kids, I just did design that whole time. And I got a lot more sleep. I’m sure I’ll get back to that. I mean the kids are getting older and they’re way more self-sufficient now. I don’t need to be on top of them all the time. I’m sure things, it’ll go back to the old program at some point here. There’s a certain point you meet somebody who’s my age and they have kids, and you’re kind of threading in the eye of the needle at this point. This is where the shit hits the fan. And then it dies back down a little bit a little later.
Cesar: What’s your favorite book?
Dan: Literature? Like Moby Dick?
Dan: I read Moby Dick.
Cesar: Anything, literature or visual book. A book that you would recommend.
Dan: Literature-wise I’m a big fan of the classics. So my answer to that is usually Moby Dick. Big Melville fan, Bartleby, the Scrivener, that kind of stuff. As far as visual books, I have two set of shelves which you can’t see. But over there is the big part of the design library, but over here is the short list. Like these are the ones that I keep close to my desk. And some of my favorites are actually books about …
Cesar: I see a little bit of them, I see some of them there.
Dan: Yeah I’ve got a couple over here that are, I think Cuban poster design has the exuberant weirdness of Polish poster design because they were definitely drafting after what the Polish designers were doing. But it’s got this, it’s got its own Latin communist flavor that I just like, there’s nothing like it. I have thumbed through these books millions of times, but I’ll still just sit there and just flip the pages. And if I bump into a new book of Cuban poster design that I don’t have, but I’ve already seen half of what’s in it, I’ll still buy it for the other half of stuff that I haven’t seen. Because there’s so much stuff down there and it’s not particularly well-documented. Because they were behind, not actually the iron curtain, but they were behind their own sort of version of the iron curtain for so many years that there’s still stuff coming out of there, even as an aficionado of that design that I haven’t seen.
It’s always really exciting to bump into a new blog or a new book or anything where I can see more of it. Because it’s always, even just looking at the stuff I’ve already seen before is always exciting. Those are probably some of my favorite design books.
Cesar: Right on, man. To wrap it up here, if there is one piece of guidance that you would give to someone who is, at any point of their career, whether they’re beginning, whether they’re in the middle of their career or even veterans, what would you say?
Dan: It’s really important to do work where you are 100% in creative control. You should always have personal projects going even if you don’t know where they’re going, or it’s something that you don’t even know how to do. You want to learn how to do watercolors. Great. Go start doing watercolors. Because this one thing leads to another. I mean truly you don’t know what’s going to happen with that.
I really got interested for a little while back in motion graphics. So I just started learning motion graphics. Then I get a phone call because I do a lot of character design and storyboards for motion, and somebody said, “Hey do you do motion yourself?” I’m like, “Well, as a matter of fact, I do.” You never know where you can start to take these interests that you build and push them in there. Even if it’s not design-related. You really like old cars. So go work on an old car on the weekend. You never know how you might be able to get … you know, you’re at a car show and the guys from Car and Driver magazine are like, “Hey we need a designer.”
It’s really important to do work that’s unfettered by a client, that’s really just yours and yours alone to take where you want to take it. And it’s up to you to decide when it’s done and when it’s good and if you don’t like it, it never has to see the light of day. But I think it’s important to always be doing that. And it’s something I have to remind myself. Because it’s really easy to get busy and only concentrate on paid client work. And you can spend your whole life doing that.
There are guys and women working at agencies who are designers, who if you sat them down and just said, “Design something of your own.” They wouldn’t even know what to do because they’re so used to being told what to design, that they have the skills, but their brain is atrophied. Your brain is your biggest asset in this because you need some skills in order to make stuff look right because that’s what we do for a living. But the real core of what we do is we come up with ideas.
Dan: You need to come up with ideas and express those ideas in fresh ways and in interesting ways. That’s our biggest value. It’s not that we know how to use Illustrator and Photoshop, it’s that we know how to come up with creative stuff and express it through Illustrator and Photoshop.
Cesar: That’s our biggest value. I love that. Well Dan, you rock, man. Thank you so much for being on the show and I hope many people get a lot out of everything you said.
Dan: I can talk about design all night. That’s actually why I like doing stuff like Adobe Max because you just get up there and ramble about design. It’s my passion, always has been. I didn’t realize that when I was a little kid, but as much as I like drawing Superman and stuff, I like drawing typefaces. It took me 25 years to figure out that graphic design was a thing you could do for a living. But it was always there.
Cesar: So badass, man. Thank you!