We have another Ask the Expert interview for all of you. I will be interviewing one of my favorite graphic designers, Chuck Anderson.
Chuck Anderson is a graphic designer who has achieved much success at an early age due to determination and hard work. Freelancing straight out of high school, he has managed to work with brands such as Nike, Reebok, Pepsi, Sony and even Google and Microsoft. He is also the author of a book called Wandering Off Into Space. Go ahead and view his portfolio here and check out his amazing work.
Chuck Anderson and the Design Process
Hi Chuck, first of all, I just wanted to thank you for doing this interview. I absolutely love your designs. Let’s get started. Can you give us a little background of your training in design? How did you get started with it all?
Thank you, I appreciate it. It’s fun to discuss my work and I always really appreciate the invitation to be interviewed. Anyways, to answer your question, I really don’t have any training in design, at least not formally. All my training and learning has come through self-teaching, trial and error, and time. I’ve been drawing my whole life and just carried that love of creating into my profession.
Now, on to the design process. Can you give us a little bit of a walk-through of your design process, from start to finish?
I can’t say I have a strict design process. My favorite way to work is spontaneously and experimentally.
If I’m doing a client project, generally, we establish the direction and needs of the project over phone calls, emails, and through reviewing their materials. Once that is understood, if they are a new client, I’ll create a new folder for them in my Work folder, set up the file (for example, if it’s a magazine, I’ll create a template that’s maybe 8.5×11 plus the correct bleeds, set up guides, etc.) – once I’ve got the technical stuff out of the way and set up, I just begin to piece together the design, whether it’s using the client’s provided photography or creating something totally from scratch. The actual creation of it is something that unfolds as I go. I don’t usually sketch much. The sketching just happens as I work in Photoshop and, in a sense, in my mind as I go along. That’s sort of the same way it works for personal projects too. I’m not too good at describing the design process really. It’s something I experience, not something I map out ahead of time and stick to.
You have some really unique and amazing concepts in your work. Tell us, how do you come up with your concepts?
I love to create mystery and ethereal feelings in my personal work. I try to have that bleed over into client work as well, but when it comes to personal work, my goal conceptually is to create a feeling or a place that could only exist in a dream and in the mind. I like working with photography to create places and environments that have a certain mysterious mood about them. As far as client work goes, a lot of that is directed by the client. The Chicago Marathon work I did for example. They had the concept of having runners made up of shoes and I executed their concept. It’s a great way to collaborate, taking a well developed concept from the client and, as the artist, seeing that through to execution.
Colors and Lighting Effects
Most of your designs usually incorporate some really powerful lighting effects. When did you start using these effects and what inspired you to do so?
I’m actually not sure when exactly I started using lights like this or why, to be honest. I wish I did so I could put my finger on when this kind of thing all started…but I’ve also been fascinated with how light and color play together, how they kind of dance around each other in different environments and atmospheres. Being able to create and manipulate those things is a lot of fun for me.
I love to integrate light and color into photography in very realistic ways, to the point where you almost have to ask yourself,
"Was that really happening in the photo
or was this added later?"
To integrate graphical elements like that digitally is an art itself. Those who do it best know never to slap things on top of your photograph’s elements, but to integrate it into them. All the best movies that combine real life with animation do this well. Obviously, Avatar is the best example, but even going back to movies like Roger Rabbit, putting objects in front of him in that movie pull him into the scenes more, having lighting that matches the original scene, things like that are so key to make a convincing image with proper lighting.
Along with these lighting effects, you have also included the use of bright and vibrant colors. By the way, how do you decide what colors to use in a project?
Sometimes the colors are dictated by the client. For example, the Microsoft Windows 7 project was this way. They wanted their logo right in the middle of the design, so automatically, there was blue, green, orange, and yellow. Then I had to choose complimentary colors that work well with these. The background became an elegant white and deep sky blue with accents of white and green in the strands and leaves that surrounded the logo. Other times, when I have more freedom to do anything I want, I just pick colors that work well with the subject matter and do my best to pick colors that are surprising and a bit unexpected. Using a bright yellow in one small subtle area when the photo is dominated with purple and red, for example, is a fun way to do this.
Just by looking at your work, it really seems like you are a Photoshop expert. How did you learn to achieve these techniques? Do you experiment a lot to try to come up with new effects?
Experiment, experiment, experiment.
I’ve been using Photoshop since I was about 14 years old, so pushing 10+ years now. I just love working in it, coming up with new ways to make layers affect each other… even taking a single layer and moving it up 1 or 2 layers can sometimes change the entire makeup of a design. I love seeing when that happens. It’s really fascinating to me. Even if it doesn’t work for the final design, it’s interesting to experiment and play around with things in Photoshop. I really use it more like a laboratory than anything else. As long as you save often, you can experiment, add new things, try new techniques, move layers around, go crazy and scale back later, etc. It’s really important to realize that there is always something new to learn in Photoshop. Even the people who created Photoshop would probably say there’s always some new technique or method to do something quicker or in a new way that they’ve not seen before. Don’t quote me on that, but I’m assuming they’d say that as it vouches for the scalability and depth of the program.
It’s kind of funny, but your work and the work of James White have many similarities but at the same time, they are very different. What would you call your style? (James White calls his style Retro-Futurism)
I can totally see that title fitting for James’ work. I really don’t know what to call my work. I do a lot of hand drawn stuff, a lot of really light, happy feeling light/color work, but also a lot of dark and kind of moody stuff. I have no idea what to call it. I kind of prefer not to come up with a name for what I do, hence the name ‘NoPattern’. I like to leave the door wide open to do whatever I want. I mean, look at the Windows 7 and Chicago Marathon stuff I referenced earlier. Two entirely different styles that really could have been done by 2 different artists. I like that. I’d call what I do Schizophrenic. Ha.
On a few of your projects, such as the Reebok designs, it seems like you deviated from your normal style and added a bit of a pop-art/comic book effect. Was it easy for you to design something that isn’t usually your style? By the way, do clients ever give you a certain style that they want you to achieve or is it usually left to your discretion?
I loved working on that project. Like I said before, I don’t like to constrain myself to a certain description or easily described style. That comic book stuff was a blast to work on. It just seemed like a good fit for that project, based loosely on some direction from Reebok, so I went to a comic book store and got inspired by all different types of comic books for that work. It’s actually quite difficult for me to do that kind of thing. The light & color stuff comes much easier for me now – I can create really fun looking stuff rather quickly, which I prefer not to do and end up rushing through things. I like to take my time, create a good challenge for myself, and even when I work with light & color I try to do something different than I did on the last project. A new form, a new way to have light affect whatever was in the photo, things like that.
Freelancing and Clients
You’ve worked with a huge list of clients, from Microsoft to McDonald’s. When you were first starting out, how did you manage to get work?
Some of the first work I got was with XLR8R magazine. I believe I got in touch with Brianna, their art director at the time, by finding her name in the magazine’s masthead, shooting her an email, introducing myself and my work, and being lucky enough that she liked it and had a job that fit. Magazines are a medium that I love. I collect magazines, worked with a lot of magazines when I first started and hope to continue working with them throughout my career. Some might call it a dying medium, but I really love sitting down with a magazine in a different way than I read a blog.
Seeing art and design printed is just more experiential and tangible. Anyways – I did a lot of that, emailing magazines, studios, agencies, etc, and just introducing myself, linking to my site, and hoping they had something that might be a fit for us to work on together. Clients like Microsoft, Reebok, Google; they have just come to me as a result of getting my work exposed more and more over time. I could talk about this forever, actually, but my biggest piece of advice though is to just be confident in your work and don’t be afraid to email people.
Working with Microsoft, that’s a big deal. What was the experience like? Did you treat them just like you would any other client, or did you invest extra special care and attention to them?
I like to think I invest special care and attention to every client and project I work on, but certainly the magnitude of the Microsoft Windows 7 project required a new level of attention and patience. They are a huge company with a lot of people who have to approve every last detail. I really enjoyed working with them and continue to collaborate with them on projects, but they are definitely a company that seeks out the best and demands a high level of quality. That project had a lot more timelines, conference calls, meetings, and emails than most other projects just because of the sheer scale of it.The packaging and desktop for a new operating system is a big deal, and I understand this, so I went into that project with a great deal of built up energy balanced with a great deal of patience and calm.It was the only way to endure a non-stop, 3 month marathon of a project. The experience was really wonderful though. Even though lots of people had to approve and see everything I did, I was able to work pretty much directly with a small team of 4-5 people for the most part. The job was originally commissioned through the agency Landor in San Francisco and they were equally great to work with. My creative strategy & business manager, Erik Attkisson was very involved in that job as well and did an amazing job seeing the project through to completion.
What is your favorite color?
Dark blue or black.
Mac or PC?
Despite working with MS on Windows 7, I’m a Mac user.
Inspiration and Improving
Can you give us your main sources of inspiration?
- Web: yay!everyday, FFFFOUND!, Sleevage, KAWS
- Music: Beach House, Isis, Fugazi, Minus The Bear, Ire Press, Frodus, Gojira, John Coltrane, new Gorillaz album is really fun. I’m all over the place with music.
In closing, any last words of advice for those designers who are aspiring to be a the level where you are at?
Just be sure you’re having fun, work hard, be prepared to make sacrifices with your personal life in order to move ahead with your career if you’re going to freelance. Your time needs to be balanced but especially when you’re starting out, you’ve got to be OK with giving up a night out for staying in to work on a project, for example. It’s so important that you have a true passion for what you’re doing – once that’s established, just work work work, get inspired, experiment, build upon what you did last time, learn from your mistakes, and save often in Photoshop if that’s what you’re mainly working with.
Seriously, don’t lose a great piece of work to computer error. Such a simple thing to do that I’ve failed at many times and wish I could have back!
I’m very thankful that Chuck was able to not only answer the interview, but he also gave some great insight about design and freelancing. If you still haven’t visited his site, go ahead and do so and be prepared to see some awesome eye-candy in his portfolio.