Creative Director at Radical Co Op – Mathew Foster tells us when starting out in the beginning he was living off credit cards when the struggling freelance work didn’t pay enough before eventually landing a gig at Wieden+Kennedy. Matthew goes on to tell us about how small your neighborhood can feel in big city living L.A., the importance of building a solid network, how crucial it is to be a good communicator – as this will affect you getting hired or not with a studio. And how keeping up with design trends is exhausting!
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design? Playing guitar and wanting to be in a band is what led me to design, needing posters and album sleeves for my imaginary records in high school, and eventually my actual bands in college. But ultimately, the deeper thing was the years spent drawing and painting with my best friend growing up. From 2nd grade through high school, we were the two kids who were good at illustrations and coming up with weird ideas. I grew up in rural Oregon in the early ‘90s, and my town was small. Nobody knew anything about design or commercial art out there. I didn’t even know the words “graphic design”—or that this was even a thing people could do for work—until I was well into my first year at the University of Oregon. This was super early internet days, the year 2000, so the resources that would have made these decisions easier (like TDK!) just didn’t exist. After finding the book Perverse Optimist about Tibor Kalman and M & Co, I started the “multimedia design” program.
My earliest memories are using my high school computer lab, getting on the one of the few Macintosh computers they had and firing up Clarisworks. I would type up the words I needed, at different sizes and fonts, then print and cut them out and use the photocopier to collage out a poster right on the glass, trying my best to replicate the stuff I’d seen on VH1 about bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened? I really wish someone would have told me when I was young that some people just aren’t made for college, or institutional learning in general. I found out the hard way, struggling through classes, even though I was interested in the subjects. I’d go for two terms, freak out and take a term off, go back, take another term off, and repeat the cycle. My folks couldn’t help me with college, so I was paying for most of it, along with federal grants. Working full time, floundering in classes, and mostly wishing my band would just suddenly make it. This is where a real internship with a working design studio could’ve helped immensely. Seeing how some people make it work, seeing how a junior designer could start somewhere, anywhere.
Later, once I had quit college and moved to Portland, I realized the thing I needed to do was just start working. I quit my day job and went for it, living off credit cards when the struggling freelance work didn’t pay enough. I eventually landed a gig at Wieden+Kennedy, which made the subsequent transitions to other jobs easier. It also finally killed the last band I was in. I had to admit it was way more enjoyable doing the artwork for bands rather than playing in them.
Give us the elevator pitch on what you do. The tagline for our studio, Radical Co-operative, is creative direction in every direction. The core is small: just me as creative director and Neil Hubert as lead designer. We focus on ground-up brand identity work for businesses we get along well with. We do lots of other things that aren’t that, like graphics for apparel collections and printed goods. But that’s our focus: getting to work with an emerging business as early as possible, and help them guide all the things that go along with having a point of view while exerting force in commerce. This is much more than just handing over a logo and calling it a day.
What is the design landscape like on your city and where do you fit in? Los Angeles is really big. This is obvious, but what’s deceptive about that is in how small your neighborhood feels. And the vibe is so different between them. I live on the eastside of downtown, and my experience there in 5 years is wildly different from someone who lived those same years in Santa Monica – but it’s all under the umbrella of “Los Angeles.” That makes it hard to define the landscape in a general way, so take this with a grain of salt. There seems to be lots of rather large agencies – plenty of opportunities to work in advertising or the entertainment industry. A fair amount of mid-range ones, too – 15 to 30 people. That size of studio tends to have less choice in what they get to work on, in my experience, because they require more “keep the lights on” clients. We’re intentionally small to avoid that. Many people I talk to don’t want a full-time job, but they also have a hard time maintaining a freelance lifestyle. So we’re trying to structure our studio to fit that reality. If we get a project that needs more hands, or hands that do things that aren’t our strength, we expand for that particular project — and this is where building up a solid network of collaborators comes in.
What do you look for in a great portfolio? This answer could be both the most and least helpful, but it’s the only true one I can give to this question: some designers have just got it. Some do not. When you see it, you know it. There is an effortlessness to the insane amount of work that gets put in. There is an originality and intelligence that shines through. At some point, one must admit that no amount of hustle will make up for lack of game. I’m way more interested in what designers are saying to me, rather than the design of their website. What tone is coming across in your bio, or about the work? What kind of attitude does this person have? Also, don’t whip out some bullshit saying you’re a creative director when you’re fresh out of school.
In hiring situations, your portfolio is important, but the crucial thing is how you communicate. Know that most studios hire based on how you’ll likely fit into the family or culture over anything else.
Where do you think design is heading in the next five years and how will you adapt? I would say to all people in the vast field of design and graphic arts to stop trying to answer this question, in the cosmic sense. Sure: use the new tools and platforms where your peers and clients are, so you can effectively communicate to the world. But who the fuck are you? What have you got to say in all this? Knowing this for yourself, you can answer it for your clients. That is far more important and interesting to define. Keeping up with design trends is exhausting, and the work that comes from it is boring. Try to listen to Bukowski on this: “Wherever the crowd goes, turn and run. They are always wrong.”