“If you’ve seen it before, so has everyone else, so take risk in your work”. The very talented illustrator – Brett Stenson of Jolby & Friends tells us. Brett also informs us about the incredible design scene in Portland, how the community there fosters creativity and support of one another, along with a bunch of other great resources and advice.
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design? I definitely recall being addicted to drawing and painting at a very young age; always doodling profiles of crazy vehicles that I would build in my imagination. My family took me to tractor pulls, demolition derbies, drag races and such when I was little, so my aesthetic of typography and illustration stems from that car culture exposure I had in my early years. Once I figured out that design was an actual, feasible career, those experiences as a kid snuck into my work slowly as I got more comfortable with making work. Now, it’s hard to deny that’s in my DNA. Still enjoy drawing goofy cars from time to time…
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened? My plan was really haphazard, to be honest. I graduated with a job at a marketing agency, but wanted to try moving towards a career in specific fields I was interested in. At the time, that meant BMX, so I almost moved to Florida for a job at a little bike company down there. My wife, who I had just met at the time, convinced me to reconsider – which was a good call considering the people I met and worked with in Milwaukee the following years. I ended up freelancing on the side of my day job essentially nonstop for 4 years before I went out on my own, and later met Jolby & Friends. Life is really weird… but so stoked where I ended up!
How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others? My style mostly stems from experiences and exploration, whether it be physically or mentally. My interests tend to change and evolve frequently, so my style usually follows suit. My early work had an obvious Ed Roth influence – thick to thin line drawing and psychedelic type. As Ive gotten older, I think my influences have changed and I like to try new things more often. My goal honestly is to not really have a style, but I’m sure thats not as easy as it sounds. My tip for others would be to just experiment, and make new things all the time – its refreshing to try something new so don’t let people pin you down with a style they think is “you”. Play with your interests, smash them together and invent something brand new!
What is the design landscape like on your city and where do you fit in? I started as a designer in Milwaukee, which has a wealth of inspiration in the city. Old architecture, rich history of manufacturing and industry, and a blossoming maker community. The heartland of America has a lot to inspire a designer visually, but the appreciation for that kind of work is a little more difficult to find. Two years ago, I moved to Oregon to work with Jolby & Friends. Portland has an incredible design scene, which is the main reason I moved here. To meet folks like Always with Honor, Adam Garcia, Kate Bingaman-Burt, Aaron Draplin, etc. and be able to talk to them about art/design and not feel like a dummy is pretty invigorating for a designer from the midwest. The community here fosters creativity and support of one another instead of competition (well, maybe friendly competition, but thats mostly just motivation to make cool work). It makes you feel connected to people you thought were untouchable, which makes you feel better about design as a whole. There are some really amazing folks here, and I feel honored to be apart of it.
What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way? 1. Doing work for free can lead to amazing projects, and a great paying project can be a “one and done” nightmare. Weigh out the benefits of every project you have the opportunity to work on and see what can come of it.
2. Take risks in your work, because they can lead to interesting results. If you’ve seen it before, so has everyone else. Try a new subject matter, technique, approach, etc. and see where you end up.
3. Accept criticism and try it! If it sucks, at least you gave it a try. Being a stick in the mud is a bummer – it makes collaboration really hard so try to take bits and pieces of suggestions and ride the weird!
4. Step away from the computer… We all know that digital is king, but attempt to make things outside of the computer and bring it back in later. Some things are just better analog!
5. Collaborate. Learn from other people who do work you don’t necessarily excel at and see the benefits of their skills to reach a greater good. Collaboration tends to foster better ideas, more perspectives on the problem at hand, and diversity of skill, so work together and make something amazing.
What advice would you give students starting out? Just don’t assume you will get it figured out right away. It takes reps, thousands of them. Try to make work, instead of observing others and wishing you had it figured out, because that person didn’t have it figured out until they made work for years beforehand. Being a designer is also a very, very, very special career to have, so appreciate it and try not take it for granted. Clients can be a pain, but handle it like a pro and educate them about the process instead of putting them down. Solve problems for people while making your perspective shine, that’s what makes being a designer feel rewarding and fun! If you don’t love what you do, figure out ways to improve the situation slowly, because we all know “do what you love” isn’t always possible overnight. Been there, done that. It’s tough, but the number one advice I can give anyone is to work harder than the rest of them. A strong work ethic makes your work improve, and allows others to trust you to get the job done, which is the name of the game.