Hi Dan. First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.
Hello! Thanks for chatting with me — I’m a freelance illustrator and commercial artist currently living and working in Kingston, London. I like to create colourful, playful character-based illustrations, laced with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour. I graduated from the University of Brighton in 2011 and over the last five years I’ve been building my portfolio, having been fortunate enough to work on a number of fun projects for clients such as Google, Pepsi & The New York Times.
How did you discover that illustration was what you wanted to pursue as a career?
It was slightly by accident! I come from a small army town in Hampshire and it’s fair to say there isn’t much of an art scene in Bordon & Whitehill. Despite an all consuming love of drawing, there never seemed to be a path into any line of work that allowed me use this particular skill as a way to earn a living! So for most of my teenage years I considered art a hobby and focused my energy and attention on sport (golf in particular). I had a part time job at the local golf club working in the pro shop while studying for my A-Levels. For a good few years, I set my sights on becoming a teaching pro. It was only during the last two weeks of (what I thought would be) the end of my higher education, that I realised my college offered an art foundation course. I figured one more year of free education concentrated solely on doing art didn’t sound half bad! So I signed up and then everything just clicked — I saw a pathway, and from that day on, there was nothing else I wanted to do.
Your work has evolved over the past couple of years and you now have a really identifiable style. How would you describe your work?
That’s a really good question, I need to find a much better way of describing it. I used to say it’s sort of ‘cartoony’ — perhaps similar to the style of The Simpsons — but over the last few years I’ve become more interested in symmetry, colour balance and have grown to have a better appreciation of space. So in that respect, at times I feel more like a designer. I think it’s somewhere in between the two. I love clean lines but also like my characters to still maintain a little ‘wobbliness’, which is why I still draw everything with a Wacom tablet in Photoshop… I just use more straight lines and shapes than I used to.
What would you say are your biggest influences/inspirations?
I’m not particularly knowledgable about artists and designers, but I think a childhood filled with Roald Dahl stories, Martin Handford’s Where’s Wally books & The Simpsons helped to shape my early interest in drawing and informed my sense of humour.
I’m also an avid consumer of media content — I listen to podcasts all day long and love TV (particularly period shows based in America in second half of the 20th century). I was full-blown obsessed with Mad Men and more recently Stranger Things & Narcos, there’s something about nostalgia and modern history that resonates with me. I think these cultural reference points work their way into my work in a subtle way.
I would also say my parents, who taught me the value of hard work, something I pride myself on. I always consider myself more hard-working than I am talented! I also owe them for being so supportive and not pressuring me to do what they wanted me to do, especially when I came home and told them I wanted to be an illustrator. Not exactly renowned for as a steady line of work!
Do you think it’s important, that as a commercial illustrator, it’s good to have a unique style of work?
Yes, absolutely. Personally, I think if you’re going to make something, and put your name to it, be original. It is possible to make a career riding off another similar style of illustration, and I’ve seen plenty of people making a living that way, but I think the pride and satisfaction I get comes from the knowledge that what I draw is truly mine.
Do you produce personal work outwith your own client projects?
Not enough, honestly. I would like the time to do more of my own work, but I take such pride in the work I do for my clients, I end up spending the majority of my time perfecting these projects. Not that that’s a bad thing — I have so much fun working commercially it’s not like I feel creatively dissatisfied. 5 years doing this full time and I still get excited by every new brief and project. Maybe one day that’ll change, but right now I feel very creatively satisfied.
What’s your process/approach when it comes to new projects or briefs?
I’m fortunate that I have a style that lends itself to different platforms and mediums, so I’d approach an editorial brief slightly differently than I would an advertising brief. However as roughly 7 out of 10 jobs I take on are editorial, I’ll concentrate on how I approach that type brief here.
First of all it’s excitement. Literally every time I hear that ping of the incoming email I get a buzz. Then I’ll make myself a coffee and read though the brief.
Next I’ll sketch out 2 or 3 ideas and send those over to the client for review. I truly love idea generation, but I’ve also learnt over the last few years that sometimes a funny idea might not quite work visually. There might be too many greys and browns in the composition, or the illustration is far too complex for the requirement. So I’ve learnt to carefully think through what the final, coloured artwork would look like it situ in the publication first before I propose the sketch.
What would you say is the high point or biggest challenge in terms of commercial projects that you have worked on?
High point was definitely getting to go to Canada to work on the PepsiMoji campaign. The project itself was very different to what I usually do in terms of my style of work, but to have the opportunity to go to Toronto to work on an enormous campaign and be put up in the Ritz Hotel for 3 weeks has to go down as one of the best experience of my life, let alone in my illustration career!
The biggest challenge I’ve had is still the LINE emoji project I worked on in 2014 to design one thousand emojis in just ten weeks. That was a real lesson in what constitutes a healthy work/life balance! The project was a hit and I was incredibly happy with the outcome, but I would never push myself that hard again. I put on a stone in weight and went so pasty white I was almost translucent.
I also had a testing experience recently when I’d booked to go to Bestival on the Isle of Wight but then had four editorial jobs all come in the week before. I was still sketching on the ferry crossing! Miraculously, I got all four jobs signed off ten minutes before I got to the festival site. All part of the fun of working for yourself!
You collaborated with Guy Moorhouse / Futurefabric on your brilliant new site. Tell us how that came about.
Yes! He’s a really nice guy and insanely talented. I first came across his work a few years ago when another site he designed stopped me in my tracks — it was so fresh & beautifully designed I kept the site in the back of my mind with the hope that Guy might be willing to redesign mine when the time came. Fast forward to January this year and I finally had a window to think about rebuilding my own. Guy was the only person I really wanted to do it, I felt our styles would complement each other. Fortunately our schedules lined up and he agreed to take on the work. Interestingly, after a few emails back and forth we actually discovered that we live five minutes from each other! So after a trip to the local coffee shop, we laid out a plan for the site and took if from there.
Did you have any key considerations in mind for the new site or how best to showcase your work as you developed it?
When I sat down with Guy to first discuss the site, I said that I had two main objectives. I wanted the new site to really show off the detail in my work, and for the experience to be playful and fun. I also highlighted an issue I was having displaying my spot illustrations. I do quite a number of spots for various magazines but for some reason I couldn’t find a decent solution to displaying them on the web. They just felt a little flat and would get lost on the page.
Guy suggested the circle, square, rectangle thumbnail grid for the homepage with a key line around image blocks and my own primary colour pallet to run throughout the site. These three things made such an enormous difference to how my work was displayed! It’s such a simple and effective solution. The various shaped thumbnails solve the issue of displaying my busier illustrations alongside my spot illustrations, while the key line helps to frame the each if the images — the colour pallete is a masterstroke because I realised that displaying the spot illustrations on a coloured background instantly makes them pop on each page.
How did it feel to be the client in this situation?
It was fun! I got a taste of what it’s like to be an art director which was nice! However, I’m a fish out of water when it comes to web development and the technical side of things. So I felt the best approach would be to just trust Guy. I love how he works, so I just gave him a couple of suggestions for things that I’d like from my site and then let him do his thing. I wanted him to have fun with it and for it to be something we could both be proud of.
You’ve had the opportunity to work with some great clients so far. What advice would you give to graduates hoping to start their career in the creative industries?
I was talking with a friend about this the other day, starting out is tough! Graduating university, especially with an arts degree, felt to me like being pushed off the edge of a cliff. All that hard work and stress leading up to the final degree show was suddenly over and I was completely on my own. Having no money, no job, nowhere to go on Monday is a scary position to find yourself in. However, if you organise yourself and you’re prepared to put the hours in, it’s possible to get where you want to be.
I found it helpful to set up a studio space for myself and to treat it like an office. I started out in the spare bedroom at my mum and dad’s. I got myself a desk and started a regimented routine of working nine to five. Even if I had nothing to do, I’d still sit at the desk. I’d spend the morning applying for internships, creative roles, anything remotely related to illustration. Then in the afternoon I’d do some personal work, making sure to document everything I made online — sharing it on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
One other thing I found really helpful was creating a free print/cv. I designed a double sided piece with an A3 illustration on the front and a beefed up cv on the back. To keep costs down, I kept the illustration as line work so I could get away with printing it using a nice paper stock and running it through my home printer. I then advertised them online as totally free — all you had to do was email me your address and I’d send one out in the post.
While I realise this wasn’t a money-spinning venture, it was an absolutely invaluable way of keeping me focussed and encouraged me to keep working. Over time, I received more and more requests for the print and began to notice that some of these were from companies like Wieden + Kennedy and Nike. Eventually, this lead to an internship with YCN where I met my current agent for the first time. I think sending out something tactile and physical, which can be kept, is always a nice way to be approached. Especially when you’re starting out and trying to make that all-important first impression!
You can see Dan’s new site and more of his work here.