Like all creative fields, design is subject to fads and fashions, so how do the leading designers, illustrators and agencies evolve in order to stay ahead of the game? Sean Ashcroft speaks to the experts about the best way to keep your style fresh.
Change is the status quo in design, and if you stand still too long there's a danger that the industry will slide past, leaving you stranded both commercially and creatively. Sustaining success through the years demands that designers' work always remains relevant, accessible and fresh.
The Photoshop-montage style once so popular is starting to look dated, and its practitioners have either evolved or perished. Illustrator Jason Cook, however, has turned evolution into a science, by using numerous, distinct styles and marketing himself as a different illustrator for each of them.
"My Jacey identity has been around since I started illustrating nine years ago," says Cook. "A lot of that stuff was Photoshop montages, which were hugely popular between 1995 and 1999. But the dot.com crash and the new millennium meant people wanted something different, so I came up with my Flatliner identity, which was a cleaner, graphic approach - silhouetted figures and clean lines, in line with magazines like Wallpaper."
Similarly, print-based agencies that have stuck with what they know have watched budgets shrink, as clients have instead targeted multi-channel solutions able to reach specific audiences. Design consultant Stylorouge was in the vanguard of agencies that moved with the times. "The area we know the best, the music industry, started to reduce its print marketing and CD packaging design budgets, and was pouring more into videos and websites. We saw the writing on the wall a long time ago," says managing director Rob O'Connor. "Many design companies who are competitors haven't been so interested in making the move, but it's a shame for them, because not only does it make sense as a business move but it also opens doors creatively."
The psychology of change
So what does 'change' mean in creative terms, and how can it be achieved? Ultimately, designers must want to change if anything meaningful is to happen.
"Design is like fashion - although the core principles and craft remain the same, it has to evolve or it will die," believes Jay Armitage, co-founder of digital agency Ralph. "But for a designer to change their style they have to be influenced by stuff."
"In my experience there are two types of designer," Armitage continues. "There are those that pass themselves off as designers, but are really just artworkers who can copy stuff. They're pack followers, and although their work may evolve it is shallow and doesn't break any new ground. Then there are real designers, the ones with talent and ideas, who get inspired by things - art, architecture, photography, film, innovative products, nature, anything really. They adapt and change through experimentation."
Change, then, can be a reflection of the designer's relationship with the world. Take digital illustrator and Computer Arts contributor Derek Lea. "My best ideas come when I'm mentally off the job," he says. "I take my dog for a run around the green spaces of Toronto every day, and images have come out of that. I'll pick up oak leaves to scan in, and return to photograph interesting tree-bark patterns I've noticed. I then use these in my work."
There's also a commercial motivation to being tuned-in to the wider world, say Mike Doney and Katie Tang, otherwise known as Tado - the Sheffield-based partnership whose specialities include illustration, animation and graphic design.
"It's important to keep up with changes in fashion, design and culture in general, because one minute your work may be the 'in' thing, but things quickly move on and change, and evolution must play a big part in work if you are to remain on the ball," they say. "It's about being able to expand your skills or evolve your style to work alongside new ideas."
Style, whether intentional or sub-conscious, is determined to some degree by the medium in which you choose to work. One way to remain creatively fresh and commercially relevant is to diversify, by making a move from, say, paint to pixels or from online to video. This is also a very effective way of combating another common occupational hazard - pigeonholing
Tado's character-driven style lends itself to animation, and it's a skill they've developed so that they can now offer multi-channel solutions, A recent example is their work for British Airways, which saw them re-brand the BA kids' club Sky-Flyers using two mascot characters, and then cement the new identity through two short animations.
But being masters of more than one medium is no easy task. "Basically, we have no life," say Doney and Tang, only half joking. "We are constantly juggling many different commercial projects and we work pretty much all day every day. But we love it. Our commercial work is often very creatively open and we have some very open-minded clients." But, they warn, for a multi-discipline approach to work "you must be confident in your skills and abilities".
This is a sentiment which is echoed by the increasingly successful Australia-based Jeremyville, whose design disciplines include clothes design, cartoons, toys, fine art, books and commercial work. Jeremyville says mastering different disciplines is about wanting to get an idea out, not about wanting to be a part of a trend. "You have to be a very hard worker, a lateral thinker, and someone with a genuine love of the new medium, not just because it's cool and everyone else is doing it," he says.
"I designed and produced my first 3D toy in 1994, long before the designer toy craze happened," Jeremyville continues. "The concept dictates the medium. For example, I wanted to create a functional product that artists could customise and be involved in, so we came up with the sketchel custom bag idea. Over 500 artists have now become involved. First, this was a notion in my head, and then it became a product design exercise, with manufacturing skills and production issues. The concept dictated the methodology. I didn't think 'Oh, I'm not a product designer, so I can't do that.' I became a product designer by virtue of the idea. But you must ask yourself if it's worth the time and effort to branch out into this new area. You need to say something unique with the project."
While less encumbered by a need to evolve stylistically, agencies face great commercial pressure to remain relevant in terms of the services they offer. Stylorouge's Rob O'Connor believes doing so demands adaptability and a deal of pragmatism. "It would be sad if we decided to put reimbursement above creative fulfilment, but if the design areas that once commanded good fees don't any more, you have to look at where people are spending their money."
Exploiting boom areas is a challenge that O'Connor believes is doubly difficult if an agency's approach is overly prescriptive, which is why Stylorouge has made quality art direction the beating heart of its operation. "There's much more to art direction than some people understand," he says. "At the end of a photo shoot you must have not only all the material you need, but also the material you want. If we're doing a record sleeve shoot we make sure we have pictures that are appropriate both for print and online, and we'll also ensure there's a video camera at the shoot, which might be useful for a documentary at some stage. We'll also shoot with animation in mind. Clients will look at all the pictures and say 'This would work well online', or 'This would make a nice animation'. The fact is, we know that, and are one step ahead because of forward planning."
Jay Armitage and his colleagues took a more drastic approach to bolstering their creative offerings, by splitting their business into two operations - DS.Emotion for branding and marketing projects, and Ralph, its digital arm. "It was a way of concentrating on different disciplines. The agency as one didn't make sense," explains Armitage. "It was like two companies anyway, with completely different clients and ways of working. Also, the directors had different wishes and goals as to what they wanted to achieve as individuals and a business. It's very important to think about personal goals because that's what makes you get out of bed in the morning."
Armitage admits that even though all the conditions for change were right, the process has nonetheless been exacting. "There are huge pitfalls for a traditional design agency wanting to reinvent itself as a digital agency, as some of the big players are finding out at the moment," he says. "It's a very hard transition and a very different way of working. Finding good people in your own discipline is a nightmare, and finding good people to help you branch out into the unknown is a massive headache. It's easy to lose sight of your identity and what you're all about, and you end up managing a lot of people. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone."
Reinventing your style
For designers and illustrators, style is what makes their work unique. Some, such as Jon Burgerman, Tado and Jeremyville, have a powerful signature style, but for most, style is something more esoteric. Although hard pressed to define what makes their work unique, successful creatives are clear about the influences that inform their creativity.
One of today's most popular illustrators is Serge Seidlitz, who believes the key to evolving a style is to maintain an interest in non-commercial work. "You get commissions based on what's in your portfolio, and if you've only got commercial work in your portfolio you're limited to the stuff you've been commissioned to do, so that one piece of work can become a watered down version of another piece," he says. "Your personal work should be at the top of chain, and this should filter down into the commissions that you get. You need to plan to take time off to work on your own stuff."
Working with good creative directors can be another key influence, says Seidlitz. "Good art directors will see things in your work that you don't, and will suggest ideas that simply hadn't occurred to you. One commission can definitely feed into the next in terms of the development of new ideas."
Derek Lea believes that editorial is the area most likely to refresh one's style. "I had a newspaper client where I ran a cover illustration on two sections in the same day and had to look like two different guys," he says. Lea also credits his tutorial work for Computer Arts - and his work on the soon-to-be published book Creative Photoshop - with arming him with new ideas and techniques. "Anything that's writing related allows me a great deal of time to focus on the processes involved. I often come across things that are new that I really like, and these then feed back into my commercial illustrative work."
FL@33 is a multi-disciplinary design studio. Its partners, Agathe Jacquillat and Tomi Vollauschek, believe that at any one time, a style is based on years of experimentation, training, experience and lots of work. "Since methods and techniques are usually fine-tuned and varied over years, most styles will evolve with experience and in this way can theoretically stay fresh for a long time," they say.
"We work in different areas of visual communication, and focus on concepts and individual working methods rather than one recognisable style," they continue. "It's about the process itself - finding the most appropriate visual language, technique and, if we have the choice, the medium for each individual project."
Style is a far more tangible thing for multi-persona illustrator Jason Cook, who has four identities: Jacey, for his Photoshop montage work; Flatliner for work with a clean, graphic approach; Flatliner V2, for "the more organic freehand stuff "; and Jaroslav, for his "darker" offerings.
Cook says that his agency, Debut Art, doesn't market him as Jason Cook but as his individual brands. "They are very good at knowing which style a particular client will like. As far as clients are concerned, I'm four individual artists," he says.
Working under these separate brands means Cook can earn an income from each style, but how does he generate such diverse work? "My argument is that when you've got an understanding of colour, shape and form you can apply it to any medium and come up with any sort of style. I find it quite easy to switch between my styles," he says. "I create different identities by watching trends and seeing what people are commissioning. It's not necessarily just down to illustration, but also music and other art forms. Hopefully some new illustrators will come along soon, because I feel things have got a bit stagnant over the past two years, and I'm scratching my head thinking of what I can come up with next."
Illustrator Tim Spencer says that for him, style is not a question of evolution but reinvention. "I have a habit of burning bridges every time I get bored of what I'm doing and feel the need to move on," he admits. "An illustrator's bread-and-butter work comes from clients who have already made a decision about style and technique, and are approaching illustrators on the basis of what they've done before."
"In that sense a good illustration portfolio has a consistency, and the illustrator may only ever expect to be commissioned to draw a particular subject matter in a particular style," Spencer continues. "I'm associated strongly with a retro 1980s airbrush aesthetic and it's the one thing I get consistently asked to do, so it has come to dominate my portfolio and brings in more commissions of that nature. It's like natural selection for creativity, but the downside is that the creative element gets suppressed. I did a picture of an eye two years ago and have been commissioned to do ten more as a result. I've recently closed the door on that style, and will be pushing a completely new style of work in my portfolio."
Want to attempt a change of style or experiment with a new medium? Then take this advice on board
01 Keep up personal work as well as commercial work. If your portfolio is comprised solely of commissioned work, new work will always be based on old commissions instead of innovative personal work, and your style is less likely to evolve.
02 If you have a piece of work in your portfolio that brings in more business than anything else, perhaps you should consider dropping it (finances permitting). Chances are you are treading the same ground over and over.
03 Experiment with new techniques, tools and mediums - another reason to make time for personal work.
04 Keep an eye on trends across all art forms - music, art, architecture, film, etc - not just design. Trends evident in one area can quickly feed into others.
05 Make time to relax away from your computer or studio - often the best ideas come when you are out swimming walking, reading, etc.
06 Never stop being inspired. The geometry of a piece of tree bark or the pattern of mud on your shoe might be the spark for something much greater.
07 Aim to work for as diverse a client base as possible. This can be creatively challenging and will definitely help your work evolve.
08 Collaboration with other designers or illustrators can help give you a new perspective on your work, and take you in new directions.
09 Trend spotting is one thing, copying is another. True creativity comes from within, not without.
10 Your creative ideas should be the inspiration behind a change of medium or discipline. Don't look to the medium or discipline for inspiration.
11 Similarly, the digital tools you use shouldn't be your inspiration. The genesis of a new style is unlikely to lurk in the Photoshop Filters menu.
12 If moving into a new medium or discipline, be confident of your skills before offering yourself commercially.
13 Consider having multiple styles, and marketing yourself as multiple illustrators. See Jason Cook's website for an example of how to do this well.
14 Be prepared to fail. Some of your experimental work might be horrific, but don't let this put you off - experimentation is all about failure that builds toward success.
15 Never be precious about what you do. If you find yourself loving your own work, it's probably time to bin it.
16 Agencies that are prescriptive in their approach to design are by nature inflexible and not well placed to react to change.
17 View design as a problem-solving exercise - that way you respond to clients' needs with an open mind. This will also promote creative evolution.
18 Try to place quality art direction at the core of your agency's work. This will help you to plan well for multi-disciplinary work.
19 Do not underestimate the challenge of change in a company context. There are as many personnel challenges as creative ones.
20 An agency cannot change direction unless there is consensus among its directors. Personal goals and company goals must be one and the same.