The Archetypal Designer

Written by Tim Edmundson

Awilliams_faceBook_header_1200x628Constructing great design is hard, so it’s natural that we are in awe of those who make it look so easy. A strong understanding of aesthetic and just a plain innate sense of what looks good is key, and our very own Senior Interactive Designer Aaron Williams has it to spare. If you have a deadline that requires a rush but need an end product that looks like it took weeks of careful attention, Aaron is your guy.

In order to better understand his creative process and what influences his work, we picked Aaron’s brain to better understand his work from the ground up.

SelfieLet’s start out with your background. From where did you draw your inspiration when you first started designing? Did you always know you wanted to become an artist?

I’ve always been interested in design, and my plan was to major in architecture when I went to college. But I never got the chance – I had accepted an athletic scholarship but the university didn’t actually have an architecture program. I wanted to take advantage of the scholarship and work with a specific coach (world record holder Mike Powell) at the school, but I still yearned to focus my education on something creative. So I decided to run with it but double major in Graphic Design and Illustration instead.

I wasn’t very familiar with digital up until then. I knew the basics of digital design but I had always used pen and paper for my work – sketching is a natural activity for me like walking or breathing – so my sketch origins gave me a great foundation for all the projects I work on, even those which involve heavy digital attention.

mistHow did your environment influence how you perceived art and design?

My time in school showed me that art was not only a passion, but something I should pursue as a career. I met great friends, worked with incredible professors, and was fortunate enough to pick up freelance work on the side for extra practice. I was at school for classes and practice from 6AM-10PM, 4 days a week. My work day now doesn’t even compare. Long days are a standard for me, so even when I get home from work I immediately start sketching, always trying to perfect my craft and work my side projects.

Inspiration is everywhere for me. Take the Michael Jordan Wings poster – it’s that iconic piece of him with his arms stretched out wide. I read an article about the photographer who captured the image and found it fascinating. I was listening to a lot of Tupac at the time and thought it would be cool to make a sketch of Tupac as Jordan. I mocked it up and turned it into a full piece, and people seemed to really love it. Music is really important to me when I’m illustrating – I don’t necessarily listen to the words, but the vibes allow me to concentrate on being innovative and expressive.

keysDo you feel specialization is key in graphic design, or do you adhere to the school of generalization? Is it better to be more well-rounded than specifically good at one skill in your industry?

In my opinion, the best skill to have in this industry is adaptability. If you’re only good at one specific thing, you’re just a one trick pony – there are kids out there doing everything nowadays so you need to do the same to keep up. If you have the mindset and the arsenal to adapt to anything, you can go really far in the creative world. Media is becoming a vast ecosystem, with symbiotic relationships between things like video, writing, and other forms of expression. There’s no doubt it’s always good to be a master in certain things, but I believe that to keep up in this industry you must have the quality to look past your strengths and focus on building on your weaknesses.

Illustrating is my strongest suit – no doubt. My background is in print, but here at SteelHouse I work pretty much exclusively on digital. It comes with its own set of challenges that are unique to the medium – spatial awareness, other limitations – and it challenges you to come up with creative solutions. If you’re designing an email, you can’t do this. If you’re building a web graphic you can’t do that – it can be tough. But it’s all about how you adapt to meet the challenge, and produce good work.

PREWhat has you fascinated right now?

Everything that fascinates me is art related, and it’s pretty wide ranging. I’ve recently turned my attention to furniture design – I was sitting in my living room looking at my couch thinking, “Man, I could design a better couch than this.” So I just started doing some sketches, and next thing you know I have a few designs drawn out.

Back in school I had a project where I had to build a piece of furniture. I ended up designing a pretty simple modern chair, and it was a different experience because it challenged my perceptions of linear and plane design. After seeing my work, my professor tried to convince me to change my major to 3D design and sculpting, but obviously I didn’t take her up on that. By revisiting the whole furniture thing, I guess I’m just trying to see what that road would have been like. It’s something different, a totally foreign aspect of design for me.

I’m pretty active on Instagram as well, and I’ve made a habit of sketching other users and sending it to them. It keeps me sharp, allows me to stretch my creative muscle, and the people who I sketch always love it.

And while I’ll never go back and pursue architecture full time, I still mess around with it. I always keep an eye out for cool designs or layouts for houses, and I use Google Sketchup to map it out and save it for later. I have a lot of bits and pieces of designs filed away so that when I buy a house, I can customize the hell out of it.

jordanBringing this back to a more work-oriented question: Infographics have become such a large part of the digital content world, and you recently designed our latest infographic – what advice would you give fellow designers when approaching something like this?

My first piece of advice when approaching a piece like this would be to try something new. When I look at the normal, industry-standard infographic I see a lot left to be desired. They’re usually flat and traditional with pastel colors and vector art. I would say first and foremost try and distance yourself from a 2-D plane – experiment in order to find a more realistic, organic approach. A natural visual flow that also conveys information in a clear way is tough to pull off, so getting it right is just a process of trial and error. Don’t be afraid to try something different and go beyond your usual limitations. It can get tough when ideas and angles change daily sometimes – the data can be changed, the tone may be rethought – so you just always have to be ready for edits and stay on your toes.

So how do you balance design vs. conveying information?

The content is the most important aspect of any infographic you’re designing. I always base my design and composition off of that – I usually start by pulling major keywords out, lock in what the infographic is trying to say, and then map my composition around it. I look back on the creative direction that our teams send me and stay as close to that as possible to ensure I get their vision on the page, but I still get imaginative in how I approach it.

It’s important to collaborate with people, especially the ones that are sending you the information. Sometimes when you’re going over a project, one of you will spark an idea that wasn’t even on anyone else’s radar. It’s just a matter of being open and receptive to opinions. At least here, everyone is pretty mellow. We’re all doing the same thing – striving to create great stuff.

wonderwonanLet’s end on a fun note – Los Angeles has a great museum and art gallery scene. Where do you go to find inspiration? Are there specific artists that inspire you?

LACMA is a staple – I recently got a membership, so I’m looking forward to getting out there as much as I can. Of course the Getty is always great and The Getty Villa has a vibe that is unbeatable.

I love to travel. Pretty much every time I leave LA, I make sure to hit at least one museum in every city I go. It’s a way of opening myself up to different people, styles, cultures and concepts. I recently did a thing where I took one trip a month, spending a weekend in different locations around the US. I trekked out to Washington, Oregon, Illinois, and Florida, and visited a museum in each location – it was awesome. I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration on my projects from my recent trips so it has been great for inspiration.

As for favorite artists, Ernie Barnes has been a big influence on my style. He uses elongated, exaggerated limbs and I like to emulate that with my own work. Growing up I would always see his work, and I liked it and began experimenting with it and it felt right – it’s just fun and it gives you more creative freedom then creating a photorealistic piece. Nothing against photorealism, but if I want that I’ll take a picture. Frank Morrison and Greg Craola have also done some amazing stuff, so check their stuff out as well.

A very special thank you to Aaron for taking the time to answer our questions and give us insight into how he works. If you enjoyed Aaron’s work, be sure to check out his Instagram,  and take a look at this video to get a peek at Aaron in his element.

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