Describe your path to becoming a designer, photographer, and artist.
I was the classic kid who grew up liking art. That was my thing. I liked to draw and it was all I ever cared about. I didn’t pay much attention in school; I just doodled in my notebooks. I never took it seriously until I got to high school—that was when I finally had teachers that cared about what I was doing and fostered the talents of the kids who took it seriously. That was beneficial for me because I decided not to go to college. I didn’t plan to take the leap straight from high school into the world of freelance—it just happened that way—and it was nice to have the support of my teachers and family.
After high school, I decided to take a year off, save money, and then go to college. That was the time when NoPattern got started. I was doing personal work at first and then I started getting my work online by sending it around to different design sites. It snowballed from there. I was also working at a local screen-printing shop where I started learning Illustrator on top of Photoshop and I was doing photography in my spare time.
Then I started doing work for magazines. The way that happened—this is the best story to tell students—was that I would go sit with a big stack of magazines and collect names out of the masthead, like the names of art directors or editors. Then I’d go home and email all of them. Often their emails weren’t listed, so I guessed their email addresses. I had a text file of every possible combination of the person’s first and last name and I’d send 20 emails out and hope that I got 19 errors back, which meant that one got through. (laughing) It was a weaselly way to reach people, but it worked. That’s what kickstarted my whole career—ESPN and other big magazines got back with me and hired me. Those were the first substantial pieces in my portfolio. I started having some legitimate work and that was the beginning.
How old were you when you got your first job?
Well, my first ever job—and I don’t know where this fits in the story—was for a friend. My dad is a pastor and we had a friend at our church who needed a website for a local pizza place in the Chicago area. I knew very basic web stuff. I told him I would do it and he asked me for a quote. I was in high school and was like, “I don’t know. I’m in high school—$500 bucks would be awesome.” He said yes and I literally finished the entire thing, launched the site, and he thanked me because the last guy charged him $5,000. I thought, you are an ass. I learned the hard way that when it comes to money, there is always this game that’s played.
The first legitimate NoPattern work I did was when I was 18. I did work for a couple magazines and they actually paid me and put my name in their publication. Magazines were my first foray into working for people in a way that felt validating. It was weird being 18 and getting my work out there. Things happened so fast. At age 19, I got invited to speak at a pretty big design conference in New York and I was working on some bigger client jobs. It was kind of scary to break into freelance at such a young age, but I figured I’d learn from my mistakes. And that’s how it happened.
Ryan: Yeah, it always seemed like you had this really accelerated career.
Yeah, and now I’m going to be 27 in May and I feel like this old fart because you see these kids now who are so talented. I’m not the cool 19 year old kid anymore. (chuckling)
You said that you were always drawing, but did you ever have an “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to do art for a living?
I don’t know if there was a specific moment. I think part of it was having parents and teachers who started supporting me even though I decided that I wasn’t going to go to college. I realized that these people were supporting me because they thought I had something to offer and that I might have a talent that I could harness without college, which isn’t taught in high school. I felt good about that.
I think those first few magazine jobs were when I realized that people could make a living doing this. Also, what’s interesting is that this was in 2003 when there wasn’t yet Facebook or Twitter—blogs weren’t even a thing. There was DeviantArt, which was relatively brand new at the time. I sought out people who were like-minded online and that’s when I realized that there were other people out there who do this. I began to wonder if it could be a legitimate thing.
For me, I was in the right place at the right time. That really helped. I think that now it’s so hard to break in and make a name for yourself because the internet is so saturated and there’s not the same reaction anymore, unless you’re exceptionally talented or have something new to offer.
Aside from what you already shared about your childhood, was there anything else about it that was creative?
My dad was a really, really good artist. He probably hasn’t drawn in years, but when I was younger, he would draw superheroes and characters for me. I don’t know what it was, but from a really young age, I just loved to draw and make stuff. I had a couple drawing books—the Ed Emberley books. I liked to go to the library and look in the art section forever; I still do that at the bookstore. I love to be surrounded by art. I think it was growing up being saturated by art and having people who saw that in me and supported it—that can’t be overstated.
In junior high, it took a more public form. In 7th and 8th grades, I won best artist in the yearbook. You’re not thinking career at that age, but it did get me thinking, “Oh, people like what I do and I like doing it and sharing with people.” Little things like that get your ego going. I was fortunate to be in an environment where no one ever told me I couldn’t do it.
“If there’s anything that I’m interested in being a part of that’s bigger than myself and my own work, it’s being some sort of influence. I want to be helpful and influential to young people who are creative and trying to make a way for themselves.”
Do you think you still would have pursued art if you hadn’t had the same supports?
It’s hard to say.
My high school was awesome. I graduated with a class of almost 700 students. There was an art fundamentals class, but once you passed that, you could take anything: animation, drawing, photography, jewelry-making, sculpture, graphic design, advanced placement, and independent study. By senior year, they allowed me to drop everything that wasn’t required and I got to fill my schedule up with art classes. I was lucky to have been in that environment. Without that, I would’t have had the confidence or drive and I wouldn’t be the same person.
Tina: You’re very lucky. I had Art I, II, III, and IV at my high school.
Yeah, my wife did too. It’s sad to me because I think that nowadays, not only should high schools be emphasizing their art programs, but they should be teaching business and how to be entrepreneurial. Art is only one part of the conversation; I had to learn so much of the business aspect myself. People start their own businesses now and it’s easier than ever to do.
I was really lucky and I try not to forget that. It’s nine years later and I still keep in touch with two of my high school art teachers. They really had a big impact on me. In case they’re reading this, what’s up Mr. McDermott & Mr. Sandoval.
That’s actually one of our questions—if you had any mentors along the way. Do you want to share about any particular people in your life that inspired or encouraged you?
My parents—my mom’s not necessarily a creative type, but she was always super encouraging. My parents definitely inspired me. Those two teachers really stand out for me. Once I got out of high school and actually had a business, I started seeking out people who could help me—[insert text from Chuck’s wife: “Did you forget someone?”]
My wife and I did start dating in high school. This was before I even started NoPattern. So she’s been there from day one. She’s very academic and is in law school right now. We can’t remember what she was telling me when I decided not to go to college. I don’t remember how in the world she was behind that idea, but somehow she was.
Oh, I forgot about this. I worked at Threadless for a short time. They were really small at the time; they had three employees and like five shelves. One of my shirts won a contest and they had a lot of contact with the artists. I introduced myself and asked them if they needed any help because I just wanted to be around creative people. They agreed to hire me to pack shirts. I worked at Threadless during the day and I went home at night and worked on NoPattern stuff.
Jeffrey Kalmikoff worked for Threadless at the time and he was the one who showed me the ropes on the business side of things. The first time I needed to send an invoice I emailed him and said, “Dude, what’s an invoice?” He sent me a copy of the invoice he used and I still use the same PDF to this day. He was really helpful. I asked him a lot of questions and he was really kind to me and supported what I did.
Also, my friend Ben and I used to do the site, The Brilliance. He didn’t go to college either and he was one of the people who encouraged me because I didn’t go to school and I saw that he was successful and making it.
I know a lot of people who have had nobody along the way. I’ve been lucky to have people, even though I fend for myself at the end of the day. It’s one of those things that when you’re talking to students and they ask for advice, they’re always looking for art advice or Photoshop tips. That stuff can come later. I would rather tell people how important it is to surround yourself with people who are not only creative, smart, intelligent, good people, but who are supportive friends—no matter what they do for a living. It was key for me to have people to talk to when I was struggling with my work. I don’t know how that works now with the internet. I feel like the balance is so skewed because there’s so much more interaction online instead of personal connections.
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
First off, the not going to school thing—it freaked my teachers out. My parents didn’t care; my dad didn’t like school and my mom didn’t finish school, so they were alright with it.
The first five years of NoPattern was me doing everything for myself. I was getting jobs for myself and the work was coming in. It felt like a real career. Then I worked with Joshua Davis a few years ago and on client calls, he had someone else talking on his behalf when it came to business stuff. When we were done with the job, he and I got on a call and he introduced me to his project manager. Josh’s project manager wanted to work with me, but I was used to doing everything for myself and I like to have full control of everything I do. Normally I wouldn’t be interested, but because it came from Josh—I admire him and he’s really reputable—I agreed to meet with the project manager.
The project manager—his name is Erik Attikisson—offered to work on a project with me to see how it went. When we finally had the chance to work together, it went really well. That was about three and a half years ago, around the time my wife and I moved to Grand Rapids. I feel like that was the biggest leap forward and the biggest risk I’ve taken—putting trust in someone else to talk on my behalf. NoPattern was my baby and to relinquish any level of control made me feel very vulnerable. When I found trust with this guy, I think I was able to take NoPattern from here to there in a very short amount of time. I still work with him and another manager, Ben Arditti, and they’ve been responsible for growing projects from small to full-blown, developed campaigns or taking what was a tiny budget and getting a lot more out of it because they found better usage rights and ways of expanding projects. It was a big step ahead for me.
Has it allowed you to focus more on just creating stuff?
Totally and that was one of their pitches to me. I thought, “Alright, we’ll see.” But it’s been so helpful for someone else to tell me not to worry about the invoice or that they’ll handle some weird contract thing. It was a great thing for me.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
I definitely do for a number of reasons. First of all, I’m the oldest of four. I’m almost 27 and I still have a 15 year old brother. I’m very aware that I have little siblings who look up to me and it’s important to me to be a part of their lives and be a good influence on them.
I think that’s carried over into my professional life. I feel seasoned at this point; I’ve done a lot in the last nine years. I feel an obligation to younger people who look up to me or email me in the same way I used to email designers when I was younger. Now, it’s cool for me to get an email from a kid in New Zealand who tells me that he did his high school project about my work. It’s such a trip. It’s cool to have a kid who likes your work enough that it’s shaping who he is as a person.
If there’s anything that I’m interested in being a part of that’s bigger than myself and my own work, it’s being some sort of influence. I want to be helpful and influential to young people who are creative and trying to make a way for themselves. It’s tough to make it and I’m happy to help people because others were there to do that for me when I needed it.
Along that same line, if you could give one piece of advice to another young creative starting out, what would you tell them?
I suppose I’d say to find what it is that you love to do and do it a lot. I took pictures and drew because that’s what I loved. Nobody had to bug me to do those things. If you’re doing something because someone bugged you about doing it, then stop doing it and try something else. Do what seems fun to you, not what you’ve been conditioned to do. Experimenting with different types of work and doing it often is big. Once it comes naturally to you and you enjoy it, that’s when the good stuff happens.
Are you satisfied creatively?
That’s a really good question. That’s an interesting question for me right now because I feel like I haven’t been satisfied creatively over the last several months, but I don’t think it’s because I’ve not been feeling creative. I think it’s because I’ve gotten into such a rhythm of working with clients. Over the last several years, I’ve become almost strictly a commercial artist only by the simple fact that that’s all I’ve done. I haven’t done nearly as much personal work as I’d like to be doing.
Currently though, client work has slowed a bit and I’ve had some time lately to work on this big 30 X 40 drawing. I’ve never done a drawing that big before. I’ve drawn my whole life, but then I got caught up in digital stuff and I’ve spent a lot of time working in Photoshop or answering emails. I’ve been trying to get back into drawing and I’m grateful to have some time to do it. I’m trying new techniques with markers I’ve never used before and I’m standing while drawing, which I’ve never done. I’m having fun with it and I’ve been waking up early to get to my office to put music on and work on it. It’s been very therapeutic.
Creatively, I feel more satisfied than I have in a very long time—for an ironic reason, I suppose. You would think it would come when you’re making a lot of money on client projects, but that’s not always the most satisfying creative experience.
Ryan: We were looking through your portfolio again before the interview and I hadn’t seen your drawings before. I also saw a photo of the recent drawing you’ve been working on and I really like it.
Thanks. It’s funny because when you think of my work, you think of these colorful photographs with bright lights. That’s fine. I think that’s what makes me more accessible at a commercial level. But at the same time, if all you do is client work, then what influences your next project?—the last client project you did. It keeps piggybacking on the client experience over and over again versus taking the time to do personal work that can work its way into that stuff naturally.
Drawing is my first love. I’m thankful for growing up in a time where the internet didn’t invade my world until I was 13 or 14. Now, I ask myself why I don’t draw more. I’m trying to step that up. It’s also rewarding because you can put work online and get feedback right away. To do something I haven’t done much and have people immediately tell me it looks great really adds value. There are a lot of artists who might not care what people think, but I’ll be the first to say that I care what people think and I like to share what I do.
“Drawing is my first love. I’m thankful for growing up in a time where the internet didn’t invade my world until I was 13 or 14.”
If you could go back and do one thing differently, would you? And what would it be?
Well, it’s hard to say this is something I would do differently rather than I wish circumstances would have been different. Pretty early on—I don’t even think I was 20—I was hired to do work for Microsoft. They hired me and my friend, Nigel Dennis, to do this whole ad campaign for Windows XP. They flew us out to San Francisco to work with this huge agency. That was a learning experience for me because we put so much time and work into that job. They paid us a little up front, but it didn’t take long before they decided that the job was bigger than what two guys could handle and they pulled the rug out from under our feet and gave the project to a bigger studio. This is a specific answer, I know, but I think that if I had had someone to watch out for me then like I do now, it would have been better for me. I do wish I would have had a project manager sooner.
Doing something over again—I don’t know. I can’t think of anything else other than some bad Twitter jokes I’ve made that fell flat. (laughing)
How does where you live impact your creativity?
That is a good question too because I grew up and lived in the suburbs of Chicago until three and a half years ago. I started my career in an area that wasn’t on the map of the design and art world and I had to make do with it. I always felt jealous of people who were in New York or LA because their environment is so relevant to the work they do. Grand Rapids is a beautiful area, but it’s not New York. I think that being here forces me to look a little harder for things that are interesting or beautiful in a way that others may not see. In a place where there are so many things to photograph, people are already using those resources. Being in a smaller city, you have to search more for inspiration and try to make the mundane facts more interesting. The ball is in your court to seek out good stuff.
Also, there’s a lot of nature in Western Michigan and I love the four seasons. I work best on gray, rainy days.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people and have you been able to find that in Grand Rapids?
Well, for better or worse, I’d say that I’ve found that more online. It’s a fact of life now. I’ve met a lot of cool people online who I’ve collaborated with even though I’ve never met them in person. I’m not really part of the Grand Rapids design community although there is a lot of good stuff going on. I’m trying to find out how I can get involved in a way that would make sense. I don’t really fall into the traditional AIGA graphic designer thing. I never know what to call myself when people ask what I do. I have a hard time finding where I fit. I’ve always been super independent and worked well by myself. Even though I don’t have roots in the creative community here, I do think I’m around creative people naturally because those are the friends I surround myself with.
What does a typical day look like for you?
This question always gets asked in interviews and I don’t know, man. It’s different. I don’t have a good catch-all answer for this. I generally try to get up early, have a lot of coffee, go to the office and check emails. Around late morning, I start working on a client project I have going on or a personal project.
The whole NoPattern name is reflective of my personality—there is a lot of inconsistency in my life. One week I can be to bed early and up early every day and then the next week I’ll stay up late every night working on stuff. It’s never the same for me.
Tina: So, are you a morning person or a night person?
I do feel more inclined to get to bed earlier and wake up earlier. I’ve started to enjoy the precious time in the morning when it’s not quite light out yet, especially in the winter. I like getting going, having coffee, and enjoying the quiet. That 7–9am period is really nice because no one is calling you yet. I’m trying to utilize that time more, but I’ve easily had my share of staying up until 4 or 5am, going to sleep for a few hours, and then waking up and getting back at it.
Current album on repeat?
Honest to god, David Bazan is probably the most consistently listened to artist in my life. I started listening to Pedro the Lion back when I first heard the song “Promise”. I grew up in church and here was this guy singing Christian music, so it felt safe, but at the same time, there was this challenge-what-you-believe thing in his songs. I really gravitated to that. Whenever I don’t know what I want to listen to, I put on David Bazan.
But otherwise, I listen to a lot of stuff—it usually comes back to heavier stuff. I grew up on a lot of early 2000s hardcore/metal/punk stuff that I still love: Converge, Don Caballero, Isis, Gojira. It depends on the mood I’m in that day. I’ve been enjoying Sandro Perri, Bibio, and Destroyer a lot lately for more chill stuff; Jay-Z, Death Grips, Shabazz Palaces, MF Doom for hip-hop stuff; and I’ve been loving Mariachi El Bronx too—they’re great.
Do you have any favorite movies or TV shows?
I have my old standbys when it comes to movies: Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Rookie of the year, Sandlot. Ha! Really though, I love those. Serious favorite movies? I don’t know… Pi, The Departed, Midnight Express, There Will Be Blood are a few off the top of my head.
There’s been some really good TV in the last few years… Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Dexter. Oddly enough, you would think that, doing what I do, I’d be all about Mad Men, but I never got into it. I think Breaking Bad put me over the edge. The writing and acting is amazing. We’ve also been watching tons of cooking shows and they’re really inspirational because these people get so into it. It’s fun watching people make food because I can’t cook anything except cereal. (laughing)
Any favorite books?
I don’t know. To be honest, all my answers are art books. I don’t read books cover to cover too often because I just have a terrible attention span. I did this one interview on a site called Emprnt where I listed a bunch of my favorite design books though; that’s a pretty good spot to look.
Oh my goodness. That changes often. A month ago it was sushi and now we’ve worn ourselves out on sushi. I like anything spicy—Thai food. I also like Chicago pizza. No offense to Michigan, but pizza here is not the same. When I go back to Chicago, there are a lot of places there that I love. We’re pretty lucky because there are some really good places to eat in Grand Rapids too, just not when it comes to pizza.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
That definitely ties back into the question you asked earlier about what I want to contribute beyond myself. I guess there’s a part of me that would like to say I don’t think about that, but I do.
As far as legacy goes, it’s not about how much money you made or how big your clients were. It’s the little things that add up: what you do to get the work, following what it is that you enjoy, being attentive to your business, being a hard worker. Those thing add up to make a bigger story.
It’s cool to get away from your screen to meet people and that’s important too—you never know the impression you might make. I’ve been lucky enough to travel and speak. Even in answering questions from students, you might unlock something in someone’s mind. Seeing the effects of sharing your experience and work with people can be really rewarding. I want to know I affected people’s lives in a cool way.
I want to be someone who did what they always wanted to do, who had fun doing it, and who shared it with other people.
And one day, I also want to beat Noah Stokes at fantasy football.
“It’s cool to get away from your screen to meet people and that’s important too—you never know the impression you might make…Seeing the effects of sharing your experience and work with people can be really rewarding.”