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Abduzeedo Inspiration Guide for Designers: An Interview with James White

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Fábio Sasso interviews James White, a graphic designer and digital artist from Halifax, Nova Scotia, about how he got started, how he developed his style, and his favorite part of the creative process, in this excerpt from Abduzeedo Inspiration Guide for Designers.
From the book

James White is a graphic designer and digital artist from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He is the founder of SignalNoise Studio (http://www.signalnoise.com). Over the last 11 years, James has worked on an array of personal art projects and has worked with such clients as Toyota, Nike, Google, VH1, Armada Skis, and Wired Magazine, and has been featured in Computer Arts, Computer Arts Projects, and Advanced Photoshop magazines. He has become quite popular because of his super-cool retro style mixed with some beautiful light effects. James has some very insightful thoughts about creativity and the creative process.

How did you start your career as a digital artist and designer? Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist?

I have been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil at the age of 4, constantly getting in trouble for doodling in class while in school. When I was in grade 12, my guidance counselor gave me a brochure outlining all the courses at the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) in my hometown of Truro. While going through it, I noticed they offered a course in graphic design. Up until that point, it had never occurred to me that I could do something creative as a career. I applied immediately, and was accepted a few weeks later in 1995.

After a year of graphic design, I was accepted into another course at the NSCC called Interactive Technology, which taught me the technology side of things, such as CD-ROM, video editing, sound recording, and animation. Most importantly, it taught me how to construct websites. Upon graduation in 1998, I was scooped up in the web boom and proceeded to work professionally in the industry for 10 years.

I didn’t really know what graphic design was until I read the description in that NSCC brochure when I was 18. I had been drawing just because I enjoyed doing it with no greater motive in mind. This kind of blind enjoyment still resonates in my personal art to this day: I do it because I love it.

How did you come up with your style, and what made you explore it further?

My artistic journey into style and expression is still evolving to this day. I spent the majority of my 20s doing all kinds of personal artwork such as comic book illustration, children’s book illustration, sculpting, painting, flyer design, 3D, Flash animation—pretty much anything I had an interest in. Even though I had no real direction in mind, inadvertently I got a lot of experience in different areas just by spending years trying different things. I spent my evenings and weekends constantly working on stuff.

Eventually, I got tired of the random nature of my work going in all directions, and decided to start a blog to give myself a more linear direction to follow. It was a perfect medium because I could work on something, upload it, and then talk about its creation and the inspiration behind it.

After a little while of doing digital paintings of skulls and things, I made a conscious decision to look to my childhood for inspiration. As a typical kid growing up in the ’80s, I was into Star Wars, Transformers, and The A-Team. A staple in all of these was studio and network logo animations from that time. I remember seeing the brightly colored NBC peacock, the CBS eye, and that amazing CBS Special Presentation promo (YouTube it!), and I wanted to incorporate that aesthetic into my work. I never lost touch with all of these visuals from my childhood, and with the rise of YouTube, I had them instantly at my fingertips once again. It’s almost time-traveling.

How would you describe your workflow for your projects? How important is the computer in your creative process?

Every project I do, and every piece I create starts with the sketchbook. I normally gather whatever references or inspiration I need, then get away from the computer with my sketchbook to start doodling rough ideas of the direction I would like to move in. Under most circumstances, I have a vague idea in my head of what I want to achieve, but it’s not until I rough out the thumbnails on paper that the concept really starts to take shape. Sometimes, I do up to 20 or 30 thumbnails before I get something I’m happy with. Only then will I move to the computer.

Before I start building the design, I create a digital sketch in Adobe Illustrator. This is an important part of my process, as it enables me to create a quick color-and-composition study before building the final design. In Illustrator I can easily slide around the elements to see what works and what doesn’t, which sometimes yields new ideas and results. I will even take these vectors into Photoshop to throw some effects on top to get a sense of what the final design might look like.

After I’m comfortable with the vector study, I start building the real elements in Illustrator (if needed), then put everything together in Photoshop for the final high-res design. When all of my vector elements are in place, I’ll lay in any effects, textures, and color treatments I need. When I build the design in Photoshop, I always leave myself open to try new things along the way, in hopes of stumbling across that happy mistake. The computer is a wonderful tool, but it’s easy to make a design look sterile and uninteresting if you use a computer exclusively. If you treat your design like paint and do things off the beaten path, you might be surprised by the outcome.

Can you list some artists and designers you admire?

Josef Muller-Brockmann, Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Dave McKean, Mike Mignola, Shepard Fairey, Scott Hansen, Drew Struzan, Bob Peak, Joshua Davis, Ralph McQuarrie, and Chuck Anderson.

What advice do you have for those who are just starting their careers?

If you’re in school, don’t do only what your instructor tells you to do. Use what you learn during class to enhance and build your own projects. The more things you make, the better you will know your tools, and the faster you’ll grow a unique portfolio. Once you’re out of school, don’t ever think that you need an employer or a client in order to make things. If you have free time, create personal projects and start seeing them through until completion. Your personal projects are 100 percent personal expression where you make your own rules. Start early, start now.

Which part of the creative process do you like the most: before, when you have only the idea and a vision of what it’s going to be like; during, the part where you’re transforming your idea into your creation; or after, when the work is done and you’re looking at the final piece?

Definitely during. When I have an initial idea in my head, it’s still difficult for me to envision exactly how the concept will translate to real life. I might have one idea, but along with that come 50 questions that need answering. It’s exciting, yet intimidating. Once a piece is finished, it’s an amazing rush to see the work printed and hanging on a wall. I love seeing my work come off the screen and onto a poster. However, the best part of my process is actually doing the work. I love the ups and downs a design goes through as I work on it, when I get annoyed that it’s not looking good and uplifted when it’s going better than expected. It’s problem-solving every step of the way, and I also learn a lot about my process as I rip through it.

Apart from the money you make, what type of satisfaction do you get from your work?

I love creating. As I said earlier, I’ve been drawing my entire life so I’m just used to making cool stuff for fun. Clients, employment, profits, and all that stuff are a necessary by-product of what I enjoy doing on my own time. It’s that simple. Getting paid is nice, but nothing can beat the feeling of accomplishing something on your own, whether it’s launching a line of T-shirts or staying up all night to finish that poster design. Art is who I am, and who I will always be.

What kinds of reference points are important for those who want to work with a retro style?

I always urge people wanting to design things from the past to look at their own childhood for inspiration. Since I grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, this is the era that is forged into my history and something I love building upon. Always do what makes you happy, not just what other people are doing.

But that being said, there are elements of the past that are very potent in the design cues I use in my work. Researching television network animations from the ’70s is a huge inspiration as they are packed full of bright colors and vintage animation, while having a certain roughness due to age and film quality. Also look into album covers from the ’80s, namely from the hard rock and metal genre. They were big into metal type and lightning, which are elements I love using in my work.

What, in your opinion, is the defining characteristic of your style?

Fun! I never take what I do too seriously, or speak about it as if it were some high form of design. It’s a snapshot of me having a great time. I create things that I thought were cool when I was 7 years old, and that really hasn’t changed. I could talk about process, effects, and colors, but the most important thing is to have fun and create something from your heart.

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