by Kerby Rosanes . March 10th, 2014
Make as much work as you can. This has been the principle behind the success of visual artist, James White, the one man creative force behind Signalnoise, a design studio based in Nova Scotia, Canada. James, who has been drawing since 4 years old, has an inspiring story of how his passion for something what he loves brought him into a successful artist, an inspiration for others and a world renowned creative influencer.
Fascination, imagination and wonder made visual. James’ work is oftentimes described as “retro-futuristic” infused with colors that reflect the rich influence of his childhood. Doing projects and collaborating with various clients for more than a decade, his massive portfolio showcases works for Toyota, Wired, Google, Nike, MTV and more.
YTD got the chance to talk with James White regarding his career, creative process, tips and inspirations. Check out the interview below.
Don’t make one thing every month… make one thing every week. Post it and talk about it with enthusiasm. Then start something else. Building a personal body of work and getting better at what you do doesn’t happen by accident… it’s a decision. It’s a lifestyle. We NEED to love what we do.
YTD: Hi James, welcome to You The Designer! How are you and how’s Dartmouth right now?
JAMES: Hello, and thanks so much for the opportunity! Keeping busy up here in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Having a cold, windy, rainy day so it’s a great time to be locked up in the office doing some fun graphic arts stuff.
YTD: When did you realize that art and design is the career path you want to pursue?
JAMES: It wasn’t until I was nearing the end of grade 12. See, I’ve been drawing my whole life but it never occurred to me that I could do it as a job. I was always just drawing for myself because it was fun. So heading into grade 12, I wanted to be a police officer for whatever reason.
The guidance counselor told me my marks just weren’t good enough and asked me what else I was interested in. I shrugged and said, “I draw all the time.” He pulled out a brochure for a local community college in my hometown where they taught Graphic Design. I didn’t even know what that was. I applied, was accepted, and after the first day I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was being encouraged to draw… rather than being yelled at for doing it in math class.
YTD: How would you describe your creative style?
JAMES: I’m not entirely sure. People have described it as “retro-futurist.” It’s no secret that I’m up to my neck in nostalgia and take heavy influence from the 1980s, my childhood. I’m always trying to amp up colours and infuse my work with childlike enthusiasm. I want to create work that looks like it was fun to make. So I’ll take pop culture references from the 80s and try to add my own colourful spin on it and use techniques I learned during my time as a designer. What I do now is basically an extension on what I was doing as a kid… except my crayons were replaced with Photoshop.
YTD: You are popularly known as Signalnoise. What is the story behind this alias?
JAMES: When I first got into the web industry in 1998, the company I was with said they could easily set up a domain name and website for me. I immediately started throwing around names I might like… I remember one being “Euphoria.” Good god. I was in the office one day and brought a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean called “Signal to Noise.” I tossed my pencil case on the book and it covered up “to,” so it read “Signal Noise.” I thought it sounded cool. The next day I STILL thought it sounded cool, so I got it registered.
Since then, the name has grown more meaning. I pride myself on having an organic work process where the original idea (the signal) is inevitably changed as I experiment along the way (the noise). So my work very much embraces both elements. I enjoy that duality.
YTD: How do you usually start your day?
JAMES: I normally ease into work. After I have breakfast I’ll wander up to the office and check out some social media and emails, then map out what I have on my plate for the day. Sometimes its client stuff, art show stuff, personal art projects, and other times it’s shipping. I’ll make a little list of what I want to have done by the end of the day, and I’ll get to it. I’m getting better at seeing projects in the long term, so I’m pretty good at scheduling things out even if it’s all in my head… and on iCal.
YTD: When you start a project, do you sketch it out first or do you just go at it? What’s your creative process?
JAMES: Yeah, I sketch everything out first. I’ve been drawing for so long that roughing up some thumbnails is a really quick process for me. Nine times out of 10, if I sit with my sketchbook for an hour, I can come up with a pretty solid direction for the given project before I even touch the computer. Lately I’ve been getting into doing more illustration work, so I’ll actually take my sketch one step further and do a more finished drawing, complete with inks and shading.
Once I’m satisfied with the concept, I’ll snap a photo of the drawing with my iPhone and bring it into Illustrator to construct all the vectors. I make sure to get everything looking good, the more time you spend tuning those vectors, the more lovely the payoff at the end. Once everything is in place, I’ll move the vectors into Photoshop to apply my paints, textures, effects and lighting to really bring it to life.
I use fundamental tools in both Illustrator and Photoshop… no fancy bells and whistles. I learned both programs in 1995 and still use them the same way today. I’m used to doing things the hard way.
YTD: In most of your personal projects, there is always a touch of the 80’s pop culture. How did your childhood influence the creative work you are doing today?
JAMES: I’m 36 now and I’m yet to lose touch with the wonderful stuff I was into as a kid. Everything was so bright, and silly, and awesome in the 80s and it really built who I am today. I have such wonderful memories or birthdays and Christmas’, opening a present my mom and dad got me and it’s that new action figure I wanted. Remember it like it was yesterday. As kids we don’t know WHY we’re into the stuff we are… its just fun and awesome. I want to capture that feeling in my work.
Personally, I take what I do very seriously, but I don’t want it to look that way. I like being a little foolish with my content and style. Just being a big nerd. I’ve always been like that.
YTD: Your AWF (Awesome Wrestling Federation) project is ultimately fun and amazing! Are we going to see more collaboration between the present James and past James?
JAMES: I’m thrilled that you asked me about my AWF guys! What a ride those characters have had. I was in grade 5 when my buddy Mike and I created our own little wrestling federations. We’d make up wrestlers, draw them, then roll dice to have them “battle” one another. We’d keep track of wins, losses, championships. We had so much fun doing that stuff, almost makes me cry.
So last year when I started drawing WWE wrestlers, I thought it might be fun to dig up my own guys and illustrate them… essentially collaborating with myself over a 25 years period. I created those guys, and grew up with them. Mike and I would bring back our federations while in junior high and high school while keeping the same characters.
It really does make me misty-eyed when people enthusiastically respond to the illustrations of my childhood wrestlers. 10-year-old James never could have predicted they’d still be around 25 years later.
YTD: Who is your creative hero?
JAMES: That’s a tough one. I definitely go through phases of who I might name. When I was a kid it was my favourite comic book illustrators. Dave McKean and Mike Mignola have had a big influence on my early stuff. Shepard Fairy’s work made me push Illustrator beyond what I thought I was capable of. Bill Watterson taught me composition, expression and storytelling through his work on Calvin and Hobbes. Drew Struzan’s movie posters drive me to be a better artist since he put the bar so damn high.
So it’s a number of people, not to mention all my friends and colleagues who are designers, artists, musicians, directors, illustrators, etc.
YTD: Describe to us your workplace/studio?
JAMES: My studio is the spare bedroom in my home. I have it set up to Signalnoise Workplace Environment Specifications. The walls are covered with wonderful art, posters and drawings from my favourite artists and designers. Art books populate a few shelves right beneath my turntable, where I play records all day. My computer is set up on one desk, and if I spin around I can use my drawing table behind me. Finally I have 2 floating shelves on the wall where all my toys and action figures stand, keeping me company while I work.
YTD: You recently did a documentary with Lynda, which is a very inspiring feature. How was it?
JAMES: Thanks! It was a wonderful experience. I never would have expected the mighty Lynda to send a film crew up to Dartmouth to shoot me, my work and my process. Scott and Mia from Lynda hung out for about three days and orchestrated the entire shoot. I was really nervous during the days leading up as I was trying to figure out what the heck I could say or do that would be of ANY interest to the viewer. But of course, Scott and Mia are TOTAL pros and guided the whole thing. It was very reflective too, as I had to discuss thoughts and feelings toward my work and process.
I might have teared up a bit when I watched the final documentary. Just so moving to see someone put that together and properly representing the love I have for what I do.
YTD: You’ve done so many talks and speakership around the world. What’s the most fulfilling part of it?
JAMES: I love speaking about art and design. As with the Lynda doc, it gives me a window into my own process which at this point as become second-nature. Analyzing your own strengths and weaknesses then trying to weave that into an hour-long narrative is a fun challenge and I’m still learning how to actually do it. Haha.
The best part of speaking is flying to new places and meeting the creatives in that area. I’ve had countless conversations with students and veterans alike about their own creative paths, their projects, where they want to be, etc. It’s inspiring. People who’ve met me know I’ll talk your face off about Photoshop… but hearing about where people are on their creative path is really where it counts.
YTD: Your work is all over the Internet. Any advice to starters when it comes to putting their creative work online?
JAMES: Make as much as you can, and keep your stream fresh. There’s no real one way to get your stuff out there other than to be a machine gun… never stop making. It’s a misconception to think that one awesome piece of work is going to get you noticed by the world. Instant gratification never happens in the design world, it’s a slow burn that takes years and years of creating. That’s been my tactic, only because I never stopped since I was four years old.
In terms of sharing work, best advice I can give is to choose a FEW platforms to use. Nobody needs accounts on every portfolio sharing platform out there because keeping them all up to date would take longer than actually creating work. Personally, I use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Behance and my blog. They’re all easy to update and I can reach my audience quickly. I’m not on Dribbble, but I know a lot of people who enjoy that community as well.
Designers need to pick the platforms where they can reach the audience they want to connect with.
YTD: Which among your projects so far you consider most memorable?
JAMES: Hands down, my work for Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is my favourite. Dean Evans, Creative Director over at UbiSoft got a hold of me to work on the logo, posters and box art, and I have never had more fun on a project. Dean didn’t feel like a client at all… we were two kids making something silly and awesome. He really offered me no boundaries, just to have fun and make the stuff I wanted to make, and the results are fantastic. Definitely a dream project.
YTD: You’re a rock star! What’s your current music on repeat?
JAMES: Listening to a lot of The Sword, Carpenter Brut, Iron Maiden, Boris, Motley Crue and Queens of the Stone Age! ROCK.
YTD: If you’re not an artist today, what would have been your work and why?
JAMES: I used to say a “symbologist,” like what’s-his-face from The DaVinci Code, but I don’t even know if that’s a real job. Just sounds cool. But in all honesty I can’t imagine doing anything else. Being a creative nerd has been a part of me my entire life so when I think about not doing this it really just becomes a void. I’m here to make fun stuff, that’s it.
But if I couldn’t draw, I’d probably just be a wizard… or dabble in some alchemy.
YTD: Lets have a quick round up of recommendations from you:
BOOK: The Art of Bob Peak.
MOVIE/TV SHOW: First Blood. Predator. RoboCop. The Thing.
PENCIL/MARKER: Faber-Castell Brush PITT artist pen.
YTD: Aside from your creative work, what other things that keep you busy?
JAMES: I don’t really have other hobbies. I like taking my sketchbook to my favourite watering hole to do some sketching… but that falls into the whole art thing again. I like playing foosball with my pal Jerko.
YTD: A piece of advice to other aspiring graphic designers and artists out there.
JAMES: Make as much work as you can. Everyone needs to charge through the crappy work to sharpen skills. It takes years in a lot of cases, but it’s the only way to get better. Don’t make one thing every month… make one thing every week. Post it and talk about it with enthusiasm. Then start something else. Building a personal body of work and getting better at what you do doesn’t happen by accident… it’s a decision. It’s a lifestyle. We NEED to love what we do.
YTD: What’s in store for Signalnoise this year?
JAMES: 2014 is going to be a doozie. I’m currently working with a few art galleries on shows and submissions, there’s some crazy licensed posters in the works, and I’ll be continuing my work on the StarKade Series as the months continue. No rest for the wicked. Gotta keep creating.
Follow more about the work of James White in his blog, Facebook and Twitter.