Dan Stiles: Design as Art

“Bleed for your work, but make it look easy.” This phrase opened Adobe’s Working Late Series event last Wednesday evening, where graphic designer and illustrator Dan Stiles took the stage to talk creative process, early punk rock influences and design as culture. Known for his iconic concert posters for bands such as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Alt–J, The Decembrists and Arctic Monkeys, Stiles’ designs are eye–popping and eclectic, utilizing bright color schemes and bold, geometric shapes.

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Now based out of Portland, Oregon, Stiles attended California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco before starting design work in the city where he learned how to make a good logo. Stiles attributes cartoons, comic books like Wolverine and X-Men, punk rock posters from the 80s, Nirvana and other sub pop bands out of Seattle as early influences – back when, he says, a lot of these things were underground, geeky and “un-cool.”

Stiles’ design aesthetic favors minimalism over maximalism. He cites his Sonic Youth poster as an example of being reductive; he designed 12 different iterations before he had one that he thought was worthy, each time paring it down more and more. Minimalism, he says, is about “making things smart by stripping them down.”

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When asked if he thinks he’s made that one iconic image yet, he said he thinks it takes 10–20 years to know for sure, as you don’t know the life of a piece until it has already lived. What’s next for Stiles? He’s continually expanding his line of work to include new projects including book covers, skateboards and snowboards, packaging, and is delving into the children’s market.

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DZINE continued the conversation with Stiles after Adobe’s event – read on:

DO YOU HAVE A DESIGN PHILOSOPHY?

“I have lots of design philosophies. The first is that design is a process. Ideas and concepts don’t arrive fully formed in your mind. What you need to do is find a way to grab a thread and follow it to its logical conclusion. Like Chuck Close says, ‘Inspiration is for amateurs.’ Which leads to my second philosophy, which is that you don’t have to start with a good idea, you just have to finish with one. The most important thing is to get working; don’t sit there looking at a blank page hoping to be brilliant. Get working, analyze what you’ve made, and then trust that the loop between your hand and your mind will steer you in the right direction. The creative process is a journey.”

PERFECTION – IS IT A MYTH? DO YOU STRIVE FOR PERFECTION?

“I strive for satisfaction. What is perfection? It’s an abstract concept. Satisfaction, on the other hand, is a real sensation. If I feel satisfied by what I’ve made then I can be finished. If I am unsatisfied then I need to continue working. It’s a gut feeling that everyone understands, as opposed to a lofty abstraction that may not even exist. Satisfaction is subjective, but that’s okay. If I can satisfy myself, I can satisfy the client in turn.”

HOW EXPERIMENTAL DO YOU GET WITH DIFFERENT PRINTING TECHNIQUES? WHEN DO YOU BEGIN TO THINK ABOUT THE PRINT PROCESS? IS IT SIMULTANEOUS WITH THE CONCEPT, OR DO YOU CHOOSE A PRINT TECHNIQUE ONCE YOUR IDEA IS FORMED?

“Most of my work is screen-printed, which is a fairly technically limited printing process. Those limitations – limited color palette, limited detail, the expense of each print – have all become part of my aesthetic. Everything I make, even if it’s a litho or a block print or online animation, retains that screen-printed aesthetic. Limits are good in art. I know if I’m adding a fourth, fifth or sixth color to a design that I’m covering up for the lack of a good concept with smoke and mirrors. Limits keep you from being sloppy. If something works in black and white you know you have something good; you can add color from there. If it relies on 26 colors and metallic paper to be cool, you don’t have a good idea.”

DO YOU FIND YOUR TASTE IN MUSIC BEING TRANSFORMED AS YOU WORK WITH DIFFERENT ARTISTS? ARE YOU ALWAYS FAMILIAR WITH THE ARTIST AND THEIR MUSIC BEFORE YOU TAKE ON A NEW PROJECT?

“I’m always being introduced to new music in this line of work. That’s one of the great things about being a designer, you’re always learning about new things. If I’m unfamiliar with a band I always do my homework and listen to their catalog, look at their existing art, and get a feeling for who they are. If I only did posters for bands I’m already into I would only do four posters a year. There is just too much going on in the world to keep up with it all. I need people to approach me and say, ‘Hey, have you experienced this? Would you like to be a part of it?'”

Next: The Dutch Are Coming!