The Canadian Design Resource is an incredibly valuable repository of the best of our country's design industry. Todd Falkowsky, the site's founder, and I worked together for a time in Vancouver — he was my creative director. We butted heads a lot then, but somehow we've become friendly over the years, admiring each other's work. So it was a pleasure to give some long answers to his probing questions. Grab a coffee and find a cozy chair and read about what drives me as an illustrator (if you ever wondered).
You can see the full interview on The CDR.
THE CDR: Tell me more about you – what drives your work – and why is illustration your thing?
TF: In one way, my work is driven from the need to earn money doing something I’m good at. It turns out I’m good at illustrating in my own specific way, and some businesses not only appreciate it but find it useful. To say I have some higher motive in creating, at least one that I intended from the start and do consciously, would be to give myself too much credit. Like most people, I like having attention, not being anonymous, being unnoticed. I am a middle child. I’ve always had to shout louder to get people’s attention.
Of all the things to do as a career, I find illustration immensely satisfying. In the beginning, I wanted to be a graphic designer, creating elegant, useful visual systems for brands and communication, but ultimately I found this too overwhelming. It turns out I’m not very patient where it comes to collaborating with clients to satisfy their creative desires as well as mine. I have what I suppose is an artistic temperament. What I create is not meant to be a compromise for the group, but a realization of something very personal. That my art is relevant to others and actually solves real world problems (if you can even call it “solving”) is partly lucky. I suppose if illustration didn’t work out, I would have continued to struggle through being a designer.
THE CDR: Is there something in your process and work that is expressing your personal vision – where does your visual language come from?
TF:Of course, that’s what sets one illustrator apart from another — the ability to make something at once personal and universal. If I was just mimicking trends, I wouldn’t be doing anything worthwhile. If I was just a good layout artist, few would notice.
I’m not sure this answers the question. Let’s just say by “visual language” and “personal vision” you mean something like style. Style for me is something that develops and evolves over time. It builds from practice and discipline, and also from both embracing key things about myself and simply letting go of self-doubt. For instance, how I draw people came out of simply not being happy with how I drew people — unless I spent hours getting gestures and facial features just right. I knew I didn’t want to illustrate people realistically, and I needed a more graphic, stylized way that was quick and lended itself to repeated use — consistency. So over time I’ve trained myself to stop looking at reference images and draw from heart. Drawing from heart means I’m taking visual cues from invisible feelings and intuition. Doing this means I have to create a visual vocabulary to use in the absence of visual references. I’ve been very inspired by Saul Steinberg along these lines. He basically decided that he would only draw certain things in a certain way, and simply avoid doing things he was neither good at nor interested in becoming good at. I don’t see this as a cop-out but as a strategy for making more personal, more consistent art.
THE CDR: Illustration can be such a powerful force – giving people the images that help explain the world, and express themselves – I am thinking about the recent meme ‘45‘ – do you think illustration and design is a tool to stir discontent, or is it better to just add beauty to the world?
TF: Illustration can be used however people want and in varying degrees of effectiveness. So can words, music, gardening … personally, I am attracted to work that simply touches me somewhere inside. It could be the feeling of joy, almost love, when I see certain colours and patterns on an Alex Steinweiss album cover. Or it could be a deep feeling of pathos in a Ben Shan drawing. I don’t really care for artwork that takes me to dark places or feels like glorified complaining. That’s not to say I don’t partake in the latter, but I also don’t expect people to care as much when I do (and I often self censor these once the mood passes). I also don’t care much for work that feels self-important. Illustration that hits on something true in a way that makes the point clear is absolutely laudible. But the same could be said of any art.
THE CDR: Technology is really pushing design open to non-pros. Our tools/processes are now widely available…how do you stay out front of this and how have you seen technology push your practice?
TF: I don’t buy the idea that technology will replace creatives. It opens doors to people who may not otherwise have been in the creative world — myself included. I don’t know if I could have been successful as a creative without first being technologically proficient, i.e. kind of nerdy on the computer. I’m in that generation between X and millennials that remembers the pre-internet era but came of age along with it. So I have embraced technology all along, and it has been a huge player in pushing me forward. So on one hand, technology plays a huge role in fostering the creative spark, and then giving the tools to develop as an artist and a professional.
On the other, I am skeptical of every gadget and gizmo that promises to enhance creative throughput. I am especially wary of embracing an all-digital workflow, because as we all know, software and hardware updates happen, and along with them, changes not just in the interface or addition of features, but also changes in how those features work. If I rely too heavily on an app or some hardware to do what I do, I am too vulnerable to the whims of corporations and trends.
So I think I insure myself against being technologically outmoded by both embracing some technology and marrying it with traditional media, where the two work in concert with one another. If somehow I become irrelevant due to not keeping up with technology, it will be less a direct result of my process, tools and techniques and more indirectly from how my work will be shown (my website/portfolio) and how I market myself (agents, social media, or whatever the new social media will be). I see a lot of aging creatives who were at the top of their game 10 or 15 years ago, who online portfolios now look so dated (Blogspot people, I’m looking at you), and I don’t think their work has become as irrelevant as their web game. I’ll hope to buck the trend, but it is a trend, so we’ll see.
THE CDR: What would you describe as the most significant development in design/illustration in the last 5-10 years?
TF: In my own world, I see a huge embrace of illustration by not just the creative industry but by businesses in the mainstream. I think people have become pretty cold to stock photography and view illustration as a more authentic and even prestigious way to include imagery in design. I do not think it’s an accident that I emerged as an illustrator in the last half decade — there’s just more of a demand for it, and I was ripe for the picking. I didn’t want to say social media because it seems so obvious, but there’s that too.
THE CDR: Your work is so timeless, handmade, and effortless – how important is having an identifiable look in your work?
TF: Thank you! In all honesty, this is probably one of the largest sources of anxiety for me. In every project, I wonder, how will I make this look like it was made by me? How will it have continuity with my other work without holding me back from further development? So, having a strong voice that others readily identify is of utmost importance to me. It’s the same thing as having a strong brand. But it’s not so important that I lock into one approach. There is a lot of diversity within my own work, and I think you could hold some of my work together and almost see two totally different styles. But there is a common element, or so I like to believe, that has more to do with the attitude of the work. For me, the attitude is something along the lines of waggish, which I just discovered in my thesaurus. Look it up and let me know if you agree.
THE CDR: Are you influenced by the past – or do you feel like you are part of a tradition.
TF: Absolutely, 100% positively, yes — I am influenced by the past. I am hopelessly nostalgic about the 1950s and 1960s, or more specifically, about the commercial art of the era. I don’t really see myself as part of a tradition, not even in a loosely defined “mid-century” tradition.
I draw inspiration from the past but I don’t necessarily imitate it. I look at it, capture a feeling, make it mine, and then draw from there. Perhaps, if I’m really stretching things, I could say I am part of the tradition of classic commercial artists, those for whom there was no distinction between art and design, and design and illustration. It’s all visual communication, it needs to look good, and it has an expressly commercial purpose.
THE CDR: Deep dive us into one of your favourite projects. How did this get started/pitched/developed? How long does it take to develop a illustration?
TF: All past projects are a blur to me, even the one I finished yesterday. But they all go more or less the same. Jobs start with a client or my agent contacting me with their need or idea. We work out the details of the brief, timelines, and fees. Then I go deep into some initial research, go into an iterative sketching process. It always starts with that scary white page and I just draw things over and over and over, until I see good ideas starting to emerge. I then whittle down to the strongest ideas, and pitch only the minimum necessary (never more than 3). Clients are usually happy to just pick one and let me go into final art. I spend so much time at the sketch stage, defining and refining the idea as much as possible, so as to avoid having to clarify and go into second revisions. The combination of giving a small but meaningful choice (the 3 sketches) and showing only clear, solid concepts is key to building a client’s trust and avoiding revisions. When I go into finals, it’s mostly technique and manual labour and not too much thinking, which is nice. Projects can take as little as a few days and as long as many months.
THE CDR: You are excellent at self promotion, and using your online life to share your ideas and thinking. Has that effort equaled more work, and is selling your own brand part of your clients decision to work with you?
TF: Thank you — that is very kind. I’m just excited about sharing my work. That’s why I became a creative, first a designer and then an illustrator — to make nice things with heart and share them. First, I did a lot of sharing on blogs, and later, on social media — both of them came at the right time for me, and it has been easy and natural to embrace these formats as a means to share my work. Back in the blog days, and even still a little today, when I made something I was proud of, I’d shop it around to see if I could get it featured. For me, self-promotion must come from an honest place. I don’t try to sell myself or my work to people I don’t think would care, and I don’t try to sell my business in general.
For me, it’s more about sharing something that I’m excited about, and trying to reach people in the greater creative community. To be honest, I don’t consider myself very well along at all in social media, but nor do I feel I deserve to be. As long as I feel like I’m growing my following organically, posting quality posts, and inspiring my followers, I’m mostly content. I still haven’t found a way of knowing just how much business my online activity drives, but I do know that by being a nano-personality online, I am constantly extending my reach and seeding opportunities down the road. What I have found is most important to my clients, above all, is two two edged sword of style and thought. I think clients are attracted to both my whimsy and conceptual thinking — odd bedfellows when you think of it. But a common remark from clients is that they like the conceptual side of my work. That has actually been named by some clients as the reason they went with me.
THE CDR: How does your faith/background inform your design?
TF: I’m not sure it does, directly at least. Who I am, what I believe, etc. is all part of who I am, and that comes out in my character, in how I treat others, what I expect of myself, and so on. My art is so specifically commercial and often flippant that I see no real direct use of it in any higher spiritual or religious sense. I do think about this sometimes, although I don’t feel pressure to put my work to a higher purpose. Whatever is inside me ends up in my work, so there could be something spiritual in it that others see, but I would be surprised. Actually, I’m surprised by the question for this very reason.
THE CDR: What is your favorite thing that you didn’t design…why do you like it and what design lessons are demonstrated in it?
Oh, I don’t like picking favourites! I like such petty, unimportant things.
THE CDR: In the waves of conformity/sameness and the push for work to be commercial and marketable, how important is originality, and are clients pushing you to help them sell?
TF: I keep an eye on trends but with a very critical eye. I like to keep up on what’s cool, but most of the trendy work I see is derivative and just for the shares and likes. People think they’re doing such good work when neither the ideas nor the styles are their own. I say this with some envy, because there is much to be gained from being good at making cool looking stuff that others will pay for. But originality is very important to me. To me, you don’t need to be a total outlier or freak (no one will even know what to do with your work). You just need to know how to transform things you are influenced and inspired by into something new.
Personally, I work very hard to attract clients that see value in what I do, vs. emulating a popular style or conforming to their own style ideas. When fielding commission inquiries, I can tell right away if a client is coming to me for what I’m best at or if they just need an illustrator and I happened to be on their radar. In the latter case, I will clearly say if I feel their ask is not aligned with what I am best at doing. If a client pays me to illustrate the way I know best, I can only assume my work is commercially viable to them.
THE CDR: Tell us about working in the creative industry in Vancouver and Canada, are there advantages or disadvantages to being a designer here?
TF: I have an interesting vantage point being located in Canada but having a predominantly US client base. The main advantage of being a creative in Canada is, if you want to make a name for yourself, you have it relatively easy. That’s because Canada is a small country, and the pool of creative talent is similarly small. Compared to the US, because we have so few main centres spread across the continent, and that most of our population is urban and within this narrow band along the border, it’s likely that you know someone in each city. Your web is thin but it stretches far.
The main disadvantage is budgets. The sheer market size in the US means all sectors have higher marketing budgets, from ad agencies to universities, and everything in between. One other disadvantage, which is possibly tied up in both small market size and budgets, is risk aversion. Commercial clients in Canada tend to be fairly rigid and risk averse. I get walked on a shorter leash, creatively, especially for the bigger agencies. But there is a lot of great work being done for smaller clients, like craft breweries and indie magazines. But what you gain in creative interestingness you often lose in budget.
THE CDR: One of Froese’s Favourite Things.
TF: I like things with stories. For instance, I like my bike. It’s a black 1980 Nishiki Olympic ten speed with a yellow milk crate on the pannier rack. There’s nothing special about it except that I’ve grown a special bond with it. In the summer, I parked it outside our local restaurant and went in to eat. We live in a small town, that’s why there’s only one restaurant. It’s also why I didn’t feel the need to lock my bike nor secure the contents of the crate (my helmet, hat and glasses). When we came out an hour later it was gone — stolen. In response to a query on our local Facebook page, someone had spotted a yellow crate near a church dumpster. It was indeed mine, and it even had my hat and glasses in it. The bike thief was concerned about his safety and kept the helmet. As one does when their property is stolen, I spent the next week scouring Craigslist and Kijiji, calling pawn shops, and spinning my brain wondering who on earth had my bike and where was it?
The following Saturday, I took my youngest to the next town over to shop for a new bike. After a meandering circuit, we decided to call it a day and head home. On our way, as I rolled to a stop at an intersection, I saw a guy riding a bike that looked exactly like mine, only it had a few different parts on it. But it was the same frame. Conveniently, he stopped his bike to chat with his buddies right there. So I quickly pulled into the gas station there and walked up for a closer look. The rear wheelset was different, and the rack was removed, but it was mine. I explained to the guy I had just lost a bike just like it. He asked me where from, and when I told him, he said it was definitely my bike. He said he bought it off a guy for $20. I asked him what he wanted to do, knowing it was my bike (I think we were both a little surprised that this was happening).
He said I could have it back, but I’d have to meet him behind the Save-on several hundred meters down the road. For some reason, I trusted him. I pulled in behind the grocery store, and shortly after he arrived on the bike, parked it by my car, and then went into the forest. A few minutes later he emerged with my original wheelset and threw in a spare tube for the flat that it had incurred. I reimbursed his $20 (in case the story was true), and, in shock at how impossible the current situation seemed, laughed exuberantly all the way home. My daughter didn’t understand why I was laughing so strangely. I still ride the bike to my studio every day, and it’s still kind of crappy, but how can I replace it now, after a story like that?