Monday, December 28, 2009

Q & A

Excerpts from a soon-to-be published and rather in-depth interview with fellow designer, Nick Toga...his Q's in italics and my A's follow. Enjoy.

Explain the career path you have taken from school until the present:
I was pretty hell bent on pursuing fine art from an early age. When I enrolled in art school, I chose to study photography over painting; painting was too old and I felt that it would be nearly impossible to bring something completely new to the historical table. Photography had just celebrated it's 150th birthday; that medium was 'newer/younger' and appeared to me to have many more creative possibilities. Graphic Design, as a major, seemed so dry, corporate and commercial, that I had zero interest in that field.

I completed my BFA in 1994, with a major in photography and a minor in art history. After graduation, I was able to procure a full time, staff position within the Photography Department at SCAD; which allowed me to remain within the academic environment that I cherished. I became shoulder-to-shoulder colleagues with my former professors and had unlimited access to every material resource in the Department. I stayed at this position for nearly ten years, all the while making new personal work, exhibiting (but RARELY) selling art at various galleries and museums around the world.

When a friend of mine moved to LA and opened up his own design firm, I came out to visit him and investigate the commercial art world. They were getting a lot of interesting assignments and I admired a lot of the work they were doing. I took a sabbatical from SCAD, temporarily moved to LA and interned for six weeks at his office. I had the slightly naive notion that because I already had a very solid sense of aesthetics, often driven by conceptual thinking, it would be a natural and relatively simple transition into a role of a graphic designer/commercial artist. For the most part, that turned out to be true, but I needed to acquire more technical skills.

At the conclusion of the internship and returned to Savannah, where I enrolled in a few classes to learn additional computer and design skills. I also started taking a few freelance assignments, trying out some of my newly-acquired skills. Shortly thereafter, I made a permanent move to Los Angeles where I started as a full time creative at a brand new firm. I stayed there for four years, working for an impressive list of clients that included a healthy mix of assignments from both the faceless, mega-corporations and the tiny, independent companies.

For the past two years, I have been self-employed, working as a freelance designer/commercial artist. It has provided me with much more creative freedom, but also the often-terrifying lack of a steady paycheck. I have learned considerably more about the business end of design; sometimes it's more important to be an effective salesperson than an effective designer. It's unfortunate, but simply a reality of modern business and I am becoming more comfortable with that. I undoubtedly have to take the less-than-desirable assignments from time-to-time, just to get the bills paid, but I often get the pleasure of working on some very challenging and rewarding assignments, too. It's also a refreshing change to be able to work with clients directly, instead of being an anonymous and faceless creative entity behind a I suppose that's where I am today.

We happen to know that you have plenty of experience screen-printing and obviously designing for the process, explain how this has helped you throughout your career.

Silkscreening was just an extension, or a more sophisticated way, of making spray paint stencils. I learned how to make stencils at a young age, and kind of on my own. I was really drawn to the way that you could easily repeat a logo or a graphic over and over; very quickly and on about any surface. I learned the basics of screenprinting in high school, but only with hand-cut, paper stencils. We never learned how to sensitize or burn screens or anything like that....

It's always important to begin any design process by knowing where it will ultimately live. When it comes to knowing any printing process and how that benefits the designing process: that's very simple. From a design perspective, one must obviously be familiar with the technical limitations of the given printing process; but the twist is how to use those limitations as an asset in the design phase. Discover and exploit the syntax inherent in the technique of reproduction, and those technical limitations won't be so 'obvious'.

What is the best/worst part of owning your own studio?
The best part, and conversely, perhaps the worst part, is the independence and responsibility.

Ultimately, you are responsible for every facet of the operation, from understanding and fulfilling the creative needs of the clients, to the ugly job of collecting money on outstanding invoices. Of course, the banality of tasks like keeping toner in the inkjet or being sure the rent gets paid aren't too glamorous, but that's part of the territory and I don't mind it. I never tire of receiving new business inquiries, because it's impossible to know who is going to call next. I savor the variety of assignments; from t-shirt graphics to movie posters; corporate logos to children's books, they each present a new set of challenges. Sometimes the workload can become overwhelming but it's rarely dull.

We have shared some stories about nightmare clients and bad situations you have been involved in, explain the difference in clients' behavior when dealing with a freelancer vs. 'a studio.'
When you are in a freelance situation, often times you play many roles: lead designer, account manager, producer and/or art director. You have to be versatile and never lose sight of the clients' needs or the target of the creative brief. You also need to possess the ability to bite your tongue from time to time as well as choosing your proverbial battles wisely. It's often productive to be able to interact with the clients directly, and not fall victim to 'watered-down' feedback that might happen within typical design studio protocol or hierarchy.

Describe the process you take on personal projects as opposed to client-driven projects?

The two processes are very similar, for me. I always like breaking away from my own formulas and proven tools/tricks, but sometimes the need to tackle an assignment quickly reigns supreme. I don't always have the luxury of time to have multiple 'false starts' and making a project deadline can occasionally be the highest priority. I avoid projects with unrealistic deadlines because it usually results in an inferior piece of design.

Working on a personal project, where budget or schedule may not be as restrictive, can allow for some vital research and exploration time. An excuse for a trip to the bookstore is always, for me, a welcomed excuse. I don't 'collect' anything, but I do have a real weak spot for buying reference books. And they need not always be the lavish, $200 hard cover, 500 page, full color book, either. Sometimes it's just some weird, anachronistic pamphlet on color theory or how-to on hand-lettering. Anything that brings inspiration into the equation, and gets my imagination going is always worth the ticket price.

At the end of the day, no matter the who the client is, I strive to possess the humble satisfaction that I delivered the best piece of design that I was capable of that moment...the on-going, ever-elusive goal is to simply keep growing as an artist/designer upon each one of those deliveries.

What made you get involved in art/design & who/what are your biggest influences?
I never made a conscious decision to get into the field of art and design per se; I was just raised in an environment where my natural creativity and curiosity was continuously encouraged and nourished. From the earliest moments of my childhood, I always had access to the basic creative tools; pens, pencils, markers, crayons, pads of paper. My grandmother took me to buy art supplies from about age 7 onwards and enrolled me drawing classes about the same time. My parents were also enormous and positive influences in my life; they gave me the freedom and empowerment to believe in myself and pursue my own goals.

As far as 'traditional' influences, John Cage has had the most significant impact upon my perspective and understanding of the creative world. Many of Cage's influences and contemporaries, including Marcel Duchamp and Bob Rauschenberg, fascinate and inspire me as well. Cage's activities weren't limited to only sound and silence, but extended deeply into printmaking, philosophy, poetry/prose, graphic design, cooking, performance art/theater, spoken word and mycology.

Within the world of design, I have been obsessed with studying the work of House Industries for years. They bring so much to the table with every project they do; reverence, craftsmanship,'s all there to some degree. They also have the ability to shift between the low brow and the high brow worlds so easily; from Bid Daddy Roth/Rat Fink licensed material to the Neutra, Girard or Eames-licensed products, there's lots of integrity in each of project. They also possess an masterful working knowledge of print processes and make no apologies for mixing up the metallic inks and spot varnishes within their printed materials.

I also admire The House 33 line they did for a few years. It was really great and probably a bit too sophisticated for it's targeted consumer. House 33 was an exciting mix of esoteric and pop influences, blended with typical House Industries craftsmanship and humor.
How does Los Angeles make you feel in terms of design appreciation or inspiration?
I have a completely ambivalent relationship with the city of LA. I hate the traffic, as most do, but I love the resources that are available; music, books, museums, etc.. The city is big enough that just about anyone can find their creative and/or consumer niche, but I am not sure if I have discovered mine quite yet.
Is there anywhere else you would be interested in living/working and why?
I suppose Paris holds a certain mythological status in my mind, even though I am not a Romanticist. It's a city with a rich history in the arts and holds dearly to the simple pleasures in life, including food. It's also a very pedestrian-friendly city that seems rather utopian in contrast to a pedestrian-unfriendly city like Los Angeles.
Do you do anything to offset the sometimes uncreative projects, with personal projects or hobbies outside of design?
I am originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, home of the 'Greatest Spectacle in Motorsports', the Indy 500. I attended the race several times with my father when I was very young. The sights and sounds of the those experiences were unforgettable and my fascination with motorsports continues to this day.
What did you complain about most while in school? In the design field?
To this day, my main complaint hasn't changed; "I'm broke all the time!"
What are your thoughts on a do-it-all designer versus a designer that is focused on one or two mediums of design?
I suppose I think of myself as a member of the 'Do-It-All' design school. I think that is because as I was 'discovering' design (doing my first skate 'zines), I had to do it all; shoot, process, and print the photos; conduct, write and edit the interviews; compose and execute the page layouts; handle the printing, binding and get the idea. It's a bit of a mixed blessing, though; sometimes being spread too thin or not excelling enough on the most important ingredients.

I believe a designer should be as well-rounded as possible. Learning traditional draftsmanship with pencil and paper is equally as important as knowing the latest software and stylus tablet. The more you know about each aspect of each medium (web/interactive, motion graphics, photography, typography, etc), the more informed you can design within those realms; or, at least, how to tailor the design for respective syntaxes.

How do you handle the increasing demand for interactive and web-related design projects? Do you feel the need to expand your skill set constantly, or would you rather focus on print projects?
I don't get too many interactive or web requests, surprisingly, but that doesn't mean I would turn down an assignment that necessitated it. I have access to a pool of talent in the form of fellow freelancers who specialize in areas different than my own. I never hesitate to either pass a job along to a more, well-suited creative person or, bring them onto the project as a subcontractor to work alongside me. However, I do believe it's important to always be learning new skills and improving upon old ones.

(Above: ln progress view of Lubalin-inspired typographical sketches, JRF©2009)

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