Steely Works

It was a pleasure chatting with Steely Works Founder & Design Director, Brian Steely. He shares with us his trialled and tested work routine, how he brought in more clients with an illustration project that started out as a way to blow off steam, plus there's a whole bunch of top tips for students — get reading!

What was your plan after graduating and what actually happened?

I was a bit of a wild child in school and never took to my studies as seriously as I should have. When the time came to graduate and find a job, I still had no idea what I wanted to do. At this point graphic design wasn’t even on my radar. I was graduating with an English major from a small liberal arts school with half-ass plans to become a journalist. All through college I had drawn gig posters for bands (hand drawn - no computer involved until the final drum scan and clean up). I received my first internship at a PR firm. I was answering the phone, faxing, filing, running errands - anything that needed to be done really. Our graphic designer at the time decided to move on to a new job and they asked me if I would like the job. I knew I needed to go back to school to get the skills. I also needed the money from my current job to pay for this and my other expenses. I was getting nowhere with my current position and a graphic design job sounded like it was made for me, so back to school I went. The design school was a two year program and I was told not to have a job while I was there because of how intense the program was. In the first quarter we lost 2/3 of our class because it was too difficult for them. I continued to work my job, go to classes, do my work and sleep very little. It was the toughest two years of my life, but it beat me into shape and made me a strong, focused worker. So 20+ years later, I am still here at the same agency that used to be entirely PR (there were 9 of us when I started and now there are over 160). We have a team of over 20+ creatives and I’ve opened a boutique agency within the agency called Steely Works, specializing in branding and illustration.

What does a typical day include for you right now?

I get up around 5:30 and go to the gym from 6 to 7. Come home and get ready for work which includes making sure my kids are up and getting ready for school and my dog gets a walk. I try to be in the office by 7:30, because I feel an uninterrupted hour in the morning is important to my day. I focus on the things that take the most from the left side of a brain (which is very small) out of the way - contracts, estimates, etc. I also sketch out any ideas I had from the night before. For the next few hours I try to lock into one project and work on it until lunch. At lunch time I think it’s super important to get out of the office. I don’t ever eat at my desk unless I absolutely must. I’ve found that if I can get outside at lunch and clear my head, I’m much more productive and focused in the afternoon. Even if I just get out for a quick walk to get my lunch, it helps. My afternoons are filled with whatever comes up during the day. I usually have a client meeting thrown somewhere in there. I try to have everything wrapped up by 4:30, so I can get home and spend some time with my kids and wife. After dinner I typically will hop on my computer for an hour or two more. Take a nice walk with my wife and dog, get the kids to bed and read or watch a TV show. I usually settle in for my sleep around 11:30. This is why I look tired all the time.

Design work by Steely Works The Design Kids interviews Steely Works work-2

What do you look for in a great client?

A client that is passionate about the project, has good ideas and understands what makes great design. I really want a client that has a teamwork mentality so we can work together to find the best solution. I need to be interested in the client and vice versa.

How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others?

My style came from a growing resentment of the day to day work I was doing with my agency. I was working for big brands with big style guides and little room to roam. I felt I was losing touch with my artistic side. So instead of switching jobs, I started drawing a lot in my free time. I felt really free creating these new lines. It wasn’t like my illustration from when I was younger, it was now heavily influenced by what I had learned as a designer. I started to move my sketches to the computer and refine the lines. Reduce, curve and break them. I created different ways to apply texture and roughen the works I was creating. So basically sketch, refine, and then rough it up again. What I was achieving was a refined piece with a more organic and natural feel. Humans crave handmade things and I think the style reflects that to some degree. People started to reach out to buy these works and I was shocked because I was finally doing what I absolutely loved and folks were showing interest. I did work for Element, Monster Children, Nike and a ton of bands in the first couple years with this new style. The volume of work built to such a point that I was left with the option of going full-time freelance or bringing the work into the agency with a new agreement in place. I went with the latter because I love the folks I work with and I would have the backbone of the larger agency that I respect and trust as I built Steely Works.

Design work by Steely Works The Design Kids interviews Steely Works work-4
Design work by Steely Works The Design Kids interviews Steely Works work-4

Take control of your own life, and take responsibility for your own development and you will go far.

What career advice would you give your 16yr old self?

Follow your dreams kid. Stop messing around and get serious - find your focus. I started out as a talented artist and was driven to think about another profession. If you think you’re good at something and you love it, it will no longer be work. You’ll have to work hard, but it won’t be a job. Read, stay healthy, eat well and stay balanced - with working hard comes enjoying your off time, too. Along the way, don’t be a dick. Karma always circles back around, good and bad, so let it be good. Keep up, the world is changing so fast if you don’t read and pay attention to new technology, you’ll be left behind.

What advice would you give students starting out?

Work hard and be patient. Push yourself to be the best you can be, but have fun doing it. Pay attention to trends, attend conferences, ask questions. Double check, spell check, repeat. Become disciplined and focused and you will get ahead quickly. Don’t get frustrated by mistakes, they happen, learn from them and move on. Take control of your own life, and take responsibility for your own development and you will go far.

Design work by Steely Works The Design Kids interviews Steely Works work-6
Design work by Steely Works The Design Kids interviews Steely Works work-6

Where to find Steely Works online.


Instagram: @briansteely


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