We chat with Designer/Illustrator/Typographer Chris Ballasiotes about recycling old computers, smashed avocado (YUM!), his calming bike ride to the office, and keeping your nose buried in art and design literature.
When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started? At the ripe age of 20, I was wandering through life, going to junior college but not sure what I wanted to pursue for a career. I had the great opportunity to study in Florence, Italy during the spring. In between sipping dark, chocolatey espressos and seeking out the fluffiest gnocchis, I took a drawing class which forever changed the way I viewed art and design. One assignment was to use watercolor to paint scenes throughout the ancient renaissance city. The looseness and freedom watercolor provided was something new to me and I fell in love with its imperfections. I left Italy with a ragged sketchbook and a strong realization of wanting to pursue my newfound passion of ink and design. Shortly after my return, a magazine contacted me to do some watercolor typography for a feature and I’ve never looked back.
What does a typical working day include for you right now? Most mornings, I’m concocting a moka pot espresso by 7 a.m. and throwing together a little breakfast of smooth greek yogurt and granola or smashed avocado on toast with a hard boiled egg and some flaky sea salt. If the weather is nice I’ll get the legs loose and take a spin on the bicycle to the office. My bike ride to work runs along the waterfront past shipping ports and salty fishing piers. Monocle magazine happened to do a feature on this ever changing urban shore area. Whether I’m on my bike or using the metro to get to the studio, I like to begin my days reflecting, reading, and seeking a thankful heart for the day ahead. After checking emails in the morning, I’ll get started on current projects with looming deadlines and focus on commissioned work for the first half of the day. Having the radio or music pumping is a necessity. Currently, I’ve been listening to the Giro d’Italia and can’t get enough of the ATP tennis tournaments.
My office is in the historic district of Seattle in Pioneer Square which makes lunchtime walks inspiring and tons of interesting foods just blocks away. Most afternoons I bring a lunch, but if I don’t, I’m eating at Il Corvo, Intermezzo, or anywhere in the International District. If you need packed-lunch inspiration, the multi-talented designer Alaina Sullivan over at Bon Appetit Mag has her Lunch Al Desko on point. A post-lunch stroll is necessary and oftentimes a little espresso or something sweet is the ideal finishing touch before walking the brick streets back to work. The second portion of the day is usually filled with finishing up design tasks, experimenting with new techniques, and getting my hands dirty with paints and pastels. After some tidying up and checking last minute emails, I’ll lock the doors around 6 p.m. and head home.
What do you think the design community could do more of to give back? 1. Recycle Equipment. The price tag of most design software and equipment is super expensive, which makes it a hard industry to get started in. By recycling old computers and making design software available at lower rates, or even free, we can generate better youth and low income access to these creative necessities. 2. Volunteer Process. Create a better process for donating time and volunteering design resources within your community. Oftentimes, people want to give back and offer free design, but don’t know where to start. I’m suggesting a site or newsletter that features a curated list of key non-profits and individuals looking for specific design tasks and the hours needed for completion. Designers can commit to a certain number of pro-bono hours or tag-team a project with colleagues. 3. Workshops. Offer free workshops and design sessions in schools with limited resources.
How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others? Styles for most illustrators (myself included) evolve throughout their career as they become inspired by things happening in the world, where they live, or advancements in the industry. Focus on creating work that is exciting, meaningful, and beautiful to you and don’t have your head on a swivel, being driven by what other designers or illustrators are doing at the moment. Try new tools, unique mediums, fat and skinny brushes, specialty inks, and challenge yourself to break out of your comfort zone of creating. For someone skilled with graphite, drawing a portrait in pencil is second nature, but using a fat, frayed paint brush will achieve very different results. Also, keep your nose buried in art history, design methodology, and typography literature. I just picked up a beautiful children’s book called ‘Teaching Color and Form’ by Gottfried Tritten which gives little lessons on graphic techniques. Of course, the concepts are anything but ‘childish’.
What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way? 1. Define Success.Determine what success means to you – it’s often different for everyone. One of my favorite definitions of success comes from UCLA coach John Wooden, “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” 2. Don’t try to do it all by yourself. In the beginning of starting a business, it’s easy to try and save money by doing everything from studio photography to development to accounting on your own. Think about how your time is best spent and then find ways to delegate tasks and hire talent who can support in the process and help to create a better end product and overall brand. 3. Learning to say no. Stick to your morals and values and don’t be afraid to walk away from a project if it doesn’t feel right. 4. Find your niche. Focus on what you do well and what you enjoy doing. It’s easy to try and be a jack of all trades, but oftentimes you end up being a master of none. 5. Find time to get away from work and explore. Some of my best ideas have come from little excursions outside the city, long walks through rainy back streets, and trying tasty new foods. It’s funny how breaking out of your routine can bring about new perspectives.
What advice would you give students starting out? 1. Be a Resource for Others. Teaching others helps you grow as a designer and ushers in the next generation of creative individuals. As much as I love sports, the design industry shouldn’t be driven like a competition. When we help our neighbor succeed, we all win. 2. Use Your Talents. I love what Erma Bombeck said about our gifts and have reflected on this idea throughout my career, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’. 3. Always Learning. Learn as much as you can wherever you are. Be curious and leave your pride at the door. Everyone can learn something whether it’s from a creative director or a student intern.