Graphic design is more than just good design, it is about passion and dedication towards the work. This idea best describe Russell Shaw, an Atlanta-based graphic designer, illustrator and art director whose works are mainly concentrated on print design, identity and branding. The young designer, who can’t design without his sketchbook, has done work for organizations like Microsoft, AMC’s “Breaking Bad”, Manner & Lane, Thrive Farmers Coffee, David C Cook and more.
Seek to collaborate more than you compete; the creative industry is a much smaller world than you may realize, so be kind and you’ll go far.
YTD got the chance to talk to Russell about his career, inspirations, creative process and his love for music, coffee, Jay-Z and French toast. Check out the interview below.
YTD: Hi Russell! Tell us a little background about you and your creative work.
RUSSELL: Hello! I am a designer and illustrator currently in Atlanta; I’m an independent contractor and consultant, though I work with agencies and firms from time to time. I work most often in branding – strategy, some messaging, mostly visual identities – as well as a lot of publishing, and loads of packaging and print. I do some web work; I know I’m “supposed” to do a lot more web work, as a twenty-something designer, and as everyone tells me that print is going away. But honestly the overwhelming majority of my work is for print. My favorite food is French toast.
YTD: How do you usually start your day?
RUSSELL: Every day is a little different depending on from where I will be working (and, unfortunately, depending on how long it has been since I last slept! Every other week seems to carry an all-nighter or two right now). But the typical day starts with a pot of black coffee and a moment of quiet to read or just think – taking some time before diving into the onslaught of emails and to-do lists.
YTD: When did you finally realize that you want to pursue a career in design?
RUSSELL: When I was a child, there was hardly a moment when I wasn’t drawing. I’ve had a notepad and pencil in my back pocket for as long as I can remember. I started out drawing comic books, animals, knights, monsters and robots – typical things from a boyhood imagination. In middle school, it shifted to intricate maps and plans for cities, blueprints of houses, schematics for gadgets, detailed lists and grids; I think that’s when I started marrying the enjoyment of illustration with an analytical interest in ordering complex things.
Our high school was fortunate to have a great arts program – so I learned everything from fine art illustration and painting to developing film, and even two years of classes on the Adobe suite. I could completely lose track of time working on those projects. By the time college came, I knew I didn’t want to do anything else.
YTD: Any major influences?
RUSSELL: I like to draw inspiration from thought-leaders in industries different from my own – writers and musicians and filmmakers who challenge me to think creatively from a perspective that has little to do with day-to-day design work. I think Hemingway, Salinger, Faulkner and Fitzgerald have influenced me creatively just as much as some of my favorite designers.
Film inspires me a lot too; Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, Marc Forster and Woody Allen have all really shaped the way I solve design problems, just by analyzing how they handle storytelling in their movies. But as far as those working in my field go, Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh, Frank Chimero, Jessica Hische, Nathan Williams, Khoi Vinh, John Maeda, Matias Corea, Mark Weaver … really I could go on forever. I like taking bits of influence and inspiration from every designer I encounter. Everyone has such unique perspectives.
YTD: Describe to us your workplace.
RUSSELL: I work from a lot of different places. Sometimes I do contracts with a company and work from their offices; I manage a lot of printing, which has me running to a lot of presses around the city as well. But for the most part, I work either from my home office or from my studio space at an arts center in the neighborhood. I keep my spaces as inspiring as possible; I believe your work reflects the environment you created it in.
My home has furniture from my favorite 60s designers, and my studio is in a factory built a century ago – with a huge window that lets in plenty of light, nice old floors and brick walls with character, and lots of other photographers and painters in studios nearby to learn from while I work.
YTD: Do you like music? Share us your playlist.
RUSSELL: I love music! Probably too much – my paychecks disappear quickly when it comes to show tickets and new records. I can share it, but I will warn you: I tend to change favorite bands every other week! Right now, I’m into summer-y, upbeat stuff: Tame Impala, Alt-J, Slow Club, Lord Huron. To wind down, Siskiyou is a current favorite. I’m also a huge jazz fan, and a rap fanatic. In jazz, classics like Miles, Wynton Marsalis, Joseph Mullendore, Coltrane, and Ella; in rap, Jay-Z, Kanye, Chancellor Warhol, Common and Talib.
YTD: Can you share us your creative process in terms of identity design and branding? From where do you start?
RUSSELL: I have a process, but always try to follow it loosely; a fellow designer once told me that he worries about studios who become too process-formulaic in design, instead of being studios who actually “listen” to the client. That meant a lot to me. So before I dive into strategy, I try to make it a point to sit down and have coffee with the client and understand their business model and where they want to move forward next. Then, I spend time crafting the core message of the brand, and exploring how to create a mark that will speak to that core message – this has become my focus as of late.
In the beginning it was simply “what will look awesome?”; as things have matured, it’s now “what is the unique brand promise of this company, that no one else has, and how do we create visuals that illustrate that competitive advantage?” Then it’s zillions of thumbnails until I land on the ideas that freshly communicate the message of the brand.
YTD: What is your most memorable project so far?
RUSSELL: Lately I have been really interested in blending traditional craft principles (hand-making things with real materials – pen and ink, papercraft, etc.) with technology, like digital painting, video production, or vector work. I love turning off the computer and working with my hands; but at the same time, I know that design technology is here to stay. So I want to find a meeting point for the two. A recent project I completed was a large, 40” promotional film poster for “Until The Dust Settles” that I illustrated by hand in black and white, but then completed in color with digital paints.
Another project that is not yet even published takes this same strategy – it’s a reverse view of Steinberg’s 1976 cover illustration for The New Yorker. In his cover, the artwork faced west across the States; in this homage, it faces east toward Brooklyn and Queens, then on to Europe. It was incredibly intricate pen work, later complemented by digital paints for the final artwork (it’s at print now, cannot wait for people to see it!)
YTD: How do you deal with creative block?
RUSSELL: When dealing with creative block, I take two steps: the first is to face the problem head-on, and commit to sit and think, sketch, or write out everything I can about problem at hand for as long as possible – even if I don’t actually reach the right solution. After I’ve thought about it intensely for a while, the next step is just to stop and do something else entirely: take a walk, go to a movie, shoot photos, draw for fun. After taking that little time away from the problem, I usually come back to it with something fresh.
YTD: If you are not a graphic designer today, what would have been your work and why?
RUSSELL: I like to think that I would be doing something with my hands – manual labor of some sort. There’s a redeeming and peaceful quality to turning things off and building, fixing, moving, making. So maybe some sort of craftsperson. But in reality I can’t imagine doing much else. Design is what makes sense to me.
YTD: What is your personal take on “spec” work?
RUSSELL: I am against it entirely. It devalues the time and energy that designers put into projects, and it does nothing to help clients understand that they need to view designers as vendors who should be paid fairly for the important services that they provide. If you want to do something for free, just do it for free – help out a local business or a cause; in that way, the business appreciates your time and energy, and you’re not competing to have your work seen. Other than that, don’t enter spec contests. They’re terrible.
YTD: Describe to us your dream project.
RUSSELL: My dream has always been to create album artwork for Jay-Z. It’s been a dream for a long time. I look at the Blueprint 3 and think, “This rapper is brilliant, and this artwork is the perfect complement.” I know it’s unrealistic, and I’m okay with that; really, album artwork of any kind is something that always floors me. But to be able to do it for someone creating at the level that he does would be a great challenge on which to take.
YTD: One thing/tool you can’t design without.
RUSSELL: My sketchbook! It pains me to see designers not use these as much anymore. They’re the best way to roughly get ideas out of your head and on to a page, to see what floats and what sinks. I’ve gone through about thirty of them in the past year. I never leave home without at least a small journal in my pocket.
YTD: Traditional or Digital?
RUSSELL: Going back to what I mentioned before, I’m really trying to bridge the gap between the two. If I am being honest, I enjoy traditional design the most – shutting the laptop, turning on the lightbox, putting on a record, and using rulers, ink, X-acto’s, tape and graphite for hours on end. But, I am probably better at digital applications actually; I am more of a whizz at Illustrator and InDesign than traditional drawing and painting. So that’s why, in my own work, I want to see the two fields meet. I want to work traditionally and keep alive the sentiment that “the craft is not dead,” but mix in digital media to push it to a rich level of quality and a fresh take on old methods.
YTD: Where can we find more of your works?
RUSSELL: My portfolio is online in the Behance Network here, and I also run a personal blog about design-thinking and some of my smaller works here.
YTD: A piece of advice to aspiring designers out there.
RUSSELL: Seek to collaborate more than you compete; the creative industry is a much smaller world than you may realize, so be kind and you will go far. Read good fiction. Read good non-fiction. Travel often; being in unfamiliar places sparks creativity. Pause to do things unrelated to design. Developing a style is good; developing a voice is better. Always be observing. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t take my advice too seriously; I’m just figuring it out as I go.
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