Designer Rob Bailey is moving up in the world of illustration. He tells Kerrie Hughes why he’s most satisfied by the simple things in life
With a new website launched at the end of last year and a host of international clients under his belt, Manchester-based illustrator Rob Bailey is rocketing from strength to strength. But the discipline that he now revels in wasn’t always his chosen career path. “To be honest, illustration was never the plan,” he admits. “I just fell into it.”
Bailey was studying for a BA in illustration with animation at Manchester Metropolitan University when other media caught his attention: “I didn’t really make much animation or many illustrations during my course,” he recalls. “All my tutors had been painters and printmakers, and they influenced me greatly. My final year project was a huge wall sculpture.”
It was only during the last year of his degree that he discovered Illustrator and began to properly focus on the art of illustration. Having never used the software before, he was pleasantly surprised by its capabilities. “Before Illustrator, I used pencil and ink, but I had always been frustrated that I couldn’t get the line as sharp and clean as I wanted – I had no idea that vectors existed,” he reveals.
With the newly discovered program added to his armoury, Bailey began creating images with a particular idea in mind: “I’ve always been interested in how much you can take away from something and still make it recognisable,” he explains. “I think that everyone can appreciate that. There’s something incredibly rewarding in recognising an image despite its simplicity.”
This concept is evident across his portfolio, and his minimalist graphic style is now synonymous with his name. Drawing on the world around him, Bailey begins his design process by referring to various sources: “I have an ever-growing collection of encyclopaedias from the last 100 years that I’ve picked up from car boot sales and charity shops,” he says. When I’m feeling uninspired I trawl through those and other source materials for whatever I’m drawing, to try to find an interesting way to represent it. I see how much I can remove while still making it recognisable.”
Bailey is incredibly strict with the amount of materials he uses to create each piece. “When building my work, I use maybe three basic colours, just to differentiate between the shapes,” he says. “Then, when it starts to take shape, I’ll start choosing colours. Sometimes the colours dictate the shapes; sometimes it’s the other way round.”
Towards the end of his degree course, Bailey landed one of his first commercial jobs, which meant he could put his unique style and new technical skills to the test. Having organised a club night with a friend, it was his job to create the posters and flyers to advertise it. “This project was the first meaningful thing I did in Illustrator,” he says. “We had the posters risographed, which gave them a beautiful finish. The inks would dry patchy and the colours would never register properly, but it was cheap and a really satisfying way of printing. It gave the work something I couldn’t have got if we’d had them printed digitally.”
Bailey’s distinctive posters created a buzz in the creative community, and off the back of them he was shortlisted for the Best of Manchester awards and invited to do the first solo show at Common – a local bar that hosts regular exhibitions. Encouraged by such a positive response, Bailey continued to focus on his illustrations. In his limited spare time, he worked at galleries across Manchester. Through these work placements, Bailey met Sophia Crilly, the director and curator of local contemporary art gallery, Bureau. “Sophia always had an interest in my work, and when she applied to run the Project Space at Rogue Artists’ Studios for a year, she picked me to do the first residency.”
Project Space was set up to provide selected new artists with studio space, some money for materials and costs, plus the chance to work in a new environment. “The residency meant I had a few months to develop my work with the option to do a show at the end if I wanted,” he explains. “I’d always wanted to do more with my vector work, and being paid to take eight guilt-free weeks to do it was an amazing opportunity.”
However, it quickly dawned on Bailey what a different environment he was about to walk into. “I realised that moving my computer from my bedroom into a vast, empty studio might be a little dull for everyone involved,” he says. With this in mind, he decided to try to imbue his work with a little more flair: “A friend of mine had worked for years as a signmaker, and suggested I tried working with a vinyl plotter,” he says. “So I bought one, along with 60 rolls of beautifully coloured vinyl, and never looked back.”
This new method also provided Bailey with a bridge to his work that he’d missed after moving away from traditional methods. “Working with the plotter gave me a chance to give some life to my vector work,” he explains. “When you work on the computer, there’s a space between you and the work, literally and metaphorically. Using the cutter I have the best of both worlds – the sharpness of the colour and each line is still there, but so are the tiny traces of human interaction, the little mistakes and happy accidents that give the sharpness of the graphics an edge.”
The residency proved to be an extremely productive couple of months, generating proposals of work and the offer of a permanent studio space at Rogue. But Bailey was also proactive in his search for jobs by becoming part of the now defunct Manchester-based illustration agency Toy.
Through Toy, Bailey learnt that design firm Code Computerlove had just secured the job of refreshing the UK SeaWorld website. The site’s design had to recreate an online theme park plan that resembled that of well-known Japanese puzzle-action videogame, Katamari Damacy.
“As part of Toy, I’d done some murals in vinyl on the glass panels throughout Code’s new studio, so it was already familiar with my work,” he explains. Bailey pitched for and won the job, making him responsible for producing over 1,000 assets, including rollercoasters, log flumes, animals and tourists. “It was the biggest job I’d done by a long shot,” he says. “It was three months with three days off, really long days and two deadlines per week.”
Recently, Bailey landed more work via his website, which he launched in December 2011. One such job was for German weekly newspaper, Zeit Magazin. “I was asked to illustrate 10 sets of famous friends for Zeit Magazin,” he explains. “The deadline of 12 days was really optimistic and I was thrown in at the deep end since I’d never attempted any sort of caricature before. But I think they are the jobs you learn the most from.”
While all of his work retains his simplistic style, as Bailey looks to the future he’s contemplating moving away from completely stripping back an image: “I’m still simplifying, but now just the details as opposed to the entire shape,” he adds. “I’m not leaving everything out, just sharpening everything up. Now I’m interested in the small details, the bits that make the shapes sit together and the part that gives the work spark. I want to create some movement in my work.”
Bailey had 12 days to illustrate 10 sets of famous friends for Zeit Magazin, a German publication that found him through his site