Tell us about your path.
I feel like I’ve told this a lot so I’d like to make it more jazzy than it is. The only real passion I had growing up—other than being a manic video game player and Star Wars freak—was that I loved the old Disney animated movies. I had a Disney collection; I went to Disneyland; I paused Disney movies when I was watching the VHS tapes so that I could draw the characters.
I loved drawing, but I think I got hijacked around age 11 because I started to think, “Oh, I gotta get a real job.” I felt like there was this message: “It’s time to grow up, Rogie.” So I started to get into “big boy” things like football. When I went to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do—well, I did know inside, but I was following this “real job” thing. Without knowing what my passions were, my parents thought that because I was good at math, I should do accounting. So, I went off to school to be an accountant. I dropped out a semester later because I hated it. I hated accounting so much that I failed my accounting class—the only class I’ve ever failed.
But, I had also taken a QBasic programming course, which intrigued me. I decided to be a programmer. Later on in college, this math thing came up again when my professors told me I was good at math so I double majored in math and computer science. I graduated from Carroll College in Helena, MT and went on to be a programmer. I started with Flash because I innately loved graphics and programming so I could mix my skills together. From that point on, it started becoming obvious—I love this creative thing.
I went to a Thunder Lizard conference where Doug Bowman spoke about CSS. I was inspired and decided to learn CSS. That was right around the time when CSS was on the brink and was starting to be supported by browsers. I lived on the web—on CSS Zen Garden and all these sites that showcased what you could do with CSS. I really liked what I was seeing. CSS seemed so native, simple, and flexible.
I became a programmer—I actually was an ASP programmer; then a PHP programmer for Carroll College; I became a database administrator; I was still doing Flash; but in the evenings, I was racking my brain learning CSS. I started my first site, Komodo Media, which was named because I was obsessed with reptiles as a kid. Yeah, I wanted to be a herpetologist too—I owned snakes, iguanas, you name it. I was home-schooled and was probably an awkward child. My first design lived for a month and I didn’t like it, so I did another one. My second design got featured in Web Designing magazine in Japan. The biggest thing I learned from that was that I wasn’t being influenced by as many trends as I am now. I was just doing my own thing creatively.
A side note to all of that. Two years ago, I started doing Komodo Media full-time because I had always looked at people like Tim Van Damme or Jonathan Snook who were doing things solo and that’s what I wanted. I’m a family man and wanted to be able to be with my family. My wife was incredibly supportive and the rest is history. I’ve now worked full-time for myself for two years. And that’s my story.
You were working as a programmer prior to going out on your own?
Yes. It was a very hybrid move. I was a programmer and then got hired in remotely as a UI designer/developer for front-end work. I got laid off from that job due to finance issues and got another remote job as a UI designer, but I was also still a developer. That’s how I made my slow eking into the design world.
Did you have an “aha” moment in all of that when you knew you wanted to focus more on illustration?
My illustration “aha” moment was last year at Disneyland. I had all this built-up confidence because I had recently started my own business and it was doing amazing. I thought, “Every time I take a risk, it’s paying off.” I was so inspired by everything that was going on.
I thought to myself, “When I was a kid, I loved illustrating. Where did that go? Why am I waiting on this?” I made a commitment to pursue illustration—to start sketching again, to buy Adobe Illustrator and learn it. It lit a fire under me. I went out, bought a sketchpad, and starting sketching on our 30 hour road trip home from Disneyland to Montana. I drew that little, drunk cupid dude from Tangled and then illustrated it on my computer. The passion has continued. It’s a year later and I have no regrets.
Was creativity a part of your childhood?
I definitely think that creativity was innately a part of who I was and what I desired. My step-mom was a creative person when she was younger and I’m sure that affected me. However, she was more of a homemaker because she had five kids running around and there was so much going on. My biological mom is creative—she’s a musician and I think her influence can be seen as well. As far as art goes and having it around me all the time, that wasn’t so much the case. Creating was just a natural calling for me—so I did it.
Did you grow up in Montana?
No. I actually grew up in Alpine, CA. It’s this woodsy, little mountain town about 30 miles East of San Diego. It’s a really cool place. It was a magical childhood; I was always exploring.
What brought you to Montana?
My dad is a hunter. If hunting was your number one passion and you lived in California, wouldn’t you want to move? It’s not very good hunting in CA, so my dad was like, “Let’s move.” I think we moved to make jerky. (laughing) Much to my dismay, we moved when I was 16. I hated Montana; it sucked. When I finished college, I swore I was getting the heck out of this state. Now I’m 31, married, and have two kids—and here I am and loving it!
“There are two sides of me that are fighting each other: there’s this creative side that wants to drink microbrews and sketch and there’s this other side—who is very much my dad’s son—that wants to run around naked in the wilderness and shoot things.”
Are you big outdoorsy guy?
I am in a sense. There are two sides of me that are fighting each other: there’s this creative side that wants to drink microbrews and sketch and there’s this other side—who is very much my dad’s son—that wants to run around naked in the wilderness and shoot things. I said naked.
My dad loves two things: working and hunting. So if you don’t work with him or hunt with him, then you don’t have time with him. I do hunt with my dad and I really do love it. Hiking in the mountains and the serenity of literally chilling out in the twenty degree weather is something different. You can’t get that kind of peace very many places.
A couple of weeks ago, we went out and snowshoed up to some mountain peak—about 15 dudes. Then we chopped down some wood, built a fire, cooked pieces of meat over the fire, and drank whiskey and beer. It was liberating, manly, and refreshing.
Did you or do you have a mentor? Who was it and how did they inspire you?
I would say “the web” was my mentor—all the people that were always so positive whether it was a “like” on Dribbble or a DM that said, “Dude, you’re rocking it.” I think of Kyle Steed for one; he’s a mentor in the sense that he’s cutting his own trail and doing his own thing. That’s cool and I learn from that. Matthew Smith is another guy whose words are so encouraging. And in general, people that send me positive emails about my work help fuel me.
As far as a single mentor… there are a lot of great speakers I’ve heard. Bill Johnson from Bethel Church has always been a huge mentor for me—I listen to his messages a lot. Creatively speaking, I admire and draw inspiration from people like Shaun Inman who does multi-disciplinary stuff and still chases his dreams and David Lanham who has a crazy illustration style and is also a fantastic UI designer. Who else? Tim Van Damme, especially when I was first starting out, and Dan Cederholm.
My biggest mentors are people that don’t sellout—I don’t know how to explain this, but when I see a talented designer or developer get acquired by some massive entity, I know that’s a huge thing to a lot of people. A lot of people think that’s great. When I see somebody, as an individual, kind of stick it to the man and say, “I’m not going to go work at a massive company for an amazing amount of money. I’m going to do what I want to do because I’m going to make my own sound. I’m going to do my own thing.” Those are my mentors.
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
Definitely. It was about two years ago when I started full-time for myself because there were a lot of unknowns. At the same time that I decided to go freelance, a bunch of freelancers I admired took full-time jobs because of the stresses of freelancing. I thought, “Oh no! Am I stupid?” I had two kids and we’re a single income home because we really value family and the ability of my wife to be a mom and be with our boys. It was like, if I screw up, we’re screwed. That was the big jump moment for me.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?
Yeah. They’re all really supportive. I think the biggest thing though that I try to do with them is—this will probably come out sounding egotistical, but a lot of the time when I have interactions with people on the web, they’re like, “Dude, you do such awesome work.” I really just try to shut up about my work when I’m around family and friends. In fact, they’ll find out that I got featured or that I got on this great interview website called The Great Discontent and they’ll be like, “Wow, my son’s a celebrity!”
I try to downplay it though because, to be honest, it doesn’t matter here in Montana. People don’t care. You get mocked for it: “Look at my son. He can’t even carry the leg of an elk.” It’s very grounding over here. It’s like, “Do you still even know how to butcher, Rogie?” Or, “he sits in his little chair in his sweatpants.” Even if I made great money, it’d be, “Oh, your brother is a hard laborer; he’s a roofer—you’re not.”
But yes, to answer the question, my family and friends are incredibly supportive. My friends aren’t fanboys though. They’ll tell me if something sucks. That’s good because we all know that ‘likes’ on Dribbble or retweets don’t mean you actually solved the problem you intended to solve or that you’re a good designer.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
I always do. I don’t know if this is the same thing that everyone struggles with? I ask myself if I’m just doing this because it’s my own personal world—am I living in a bubble where I’m six years old again drawing in my sketchbook, just thinking about myself? At what point does it switch to trying to help others and lift others up?
The daily leads to the dream is what I’ve been hearing a lot lately. I should never be striving for something, someday, in the future, or hoping that one day I’ll get my big break—because I need to be helping others now. I try to be as helpful as I can on Twitter, but I still feel that something inside that reminds me that I’m making icons, websites, creating my own store with shirts. Is a t-shirt going to help somebody? We know there are people out there dying because they don’t have a glass of water. There’s always this nagging that says, “You’re not there yet.”
Are you satisfied creatively? Where do you see yourself in the next 5 to 10 years?
Right now I am satisfied creatively because I’ve taken the jump to do illustration. That outlet has been amazing. I’ve been doing the “old man schedule”. What that affords me is to finish my workday with enough time left to work on illustrations. I’m currently working on illustrating for this Epic Armory project. They take me an hour or two at the most and it’s a creative outlet for me to try different styles.
Ryan: Do you see yourself focusing just on illustration down the road?
I think it would be a really weird circumstance that would bring me solely into illustration. I’ve thought about this a lot. All of that problem-solving from my programming past is so much a part of me that I think I would want to keep it—unless Pixar came to me and said they loved my work so much that they wanted me to be their concept artist for all their feature films.
If you could go back and do one thing differently what would it be?
That’s a hard question. I actually despise this question. You hear other people ask this question and people respond and say they wouldn’t change anything, like, “No, I would have murdered those three people and been a crack addict because it made me the person I am today.” Really? If you could do something over again, wouldn’t you want to redo it? That’s the whole idea. You’ve learned and now you might look at it differently.
I would have done things differently. I probably would have went nuts on the drawing and illustration when I was a kid. I probably would have been straightforward with my parents and said, “I love this. This is cool.”
I would have told myself as a young man, “Dude, you can do this. Just because you don’t see that there’s a lot of money in it, because you don’t see it as a ‘real job’ or your parents don’t think it’s a ‘real job’, doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You love it for a reason. It’s okay to do a job and love it.”
I would have sketched and surrounded myself with whatever illustrators I knew of so that I could be a 13-year-old phenom. I would have went to animation school or tried to be a video game artist.
This is along that same vein. If you could give one piece of advice to another designer/illustrator starting out, what would you say?
I love UX, UI, and illustration and recently on Twitter, I asked if it’s hurting me to be good at all three. There are very strong opinions in our industry to say that you have to pick one thing. I think the right answer is to not let people tell you what’s right or tell you that you can only be good at one thing. I just think people are so different. You don’t know their tendencies, their stories, where they came from, or the gifts God has given them.
What I would tell people is make sure you love it—don’t love it because other people love it or because everyone else is doing it. Make sure it’s your passion. Once it’s your passion, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it.
Back to the question about being part of something bigger than yourself. I think it’s something I’ll always struggle with. It’s a good thing to struggle with because there’s a lot of pain in this world, but I think there’s enough room to do something that you love and still help people in their pain.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
Well, like I already told you guys, I get teased. It’s a slower lifestyle here. I’m a really intense person, so even if life is slow here, I make it fast for myself. It’s really chill and I think that’s a good environment for creativity.
What I learned when I first started to get some recognition is that you don’t want everything you do to be exactly the same as everyone else. We’re unique for a reason; let’s not all be the same in our work. I think being in Montana excludes me from that. I do totally different activities than people in other cities.
I do get chances to see other creative people when I go to conferences. I think it’s cool to get that spark and bring it back.
I actually had an awesome idea for the best webcamp ever. I was trying to make it happen, but had too many crazy things going on in life. It was going to be a webcamp unlike any other. All these webcamps are based on the idea that you get together, show each other these Powerpoint presentations and drink beer and go to coffee shops in the city. I thought, screw that, let’s go out in the wilderness and hike and make fires. My idea was to create this hyper-nerdy gathering where we don’t have an agenda—it’s about creating friendships and networking. It’s still something I really want to do.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I hit the ground running. I literally roll out of bed and gain consciousness and think, “Ugh… work!” Some people think you need to get dressed before you work so that you’re in the mindset and everyone has their own opinion about it, but I roll out of bed already in the mindset and cannot waste a minute. I run downstairs, make some coffee and boom!—I’m on Dribbble and Twitter, but only for a few minutes to see if there’s anything crazy-awesome. Otherwise, I get right into work. I’m on the “old man” schedule so I wake up at 4:45am and start work by 5am. I put on dubstep or loud music. It’s really jarring, but that’s what I like.
Being self-employed, I kinda follow the desires of my heart. So if it’s 9am and I have a crazy illustration idea, I’ll turn off the clock and sketch; it’s a dance between following my inspirations and getting my work done. I’m not organized at all. At lunch, I spend time with my family and then get back to work until about 3–5pm. It’s just a lather, rinse, repeat of that.
After work, I’ll try to go for a run and then maybe I’ll have a beer. Then I’ll chill out with the family and sketch with the boys because my oldest is really into that. Around 7:30pm, the boys go to bed and then my wife and I get to spend some time together.
Current album on repeat?
Bangarang by Skrillex. He’s the number one dubstep musician that people like. Since I was 12, I’ve loved trance and electronica and now I’m into dubstep. I also share Noah’s sentiment in that I’ve been very vocal about my love for Britney—hey, it’s catchy for a reason.
What about the prequels?
I hate them. I won’t even show them to my boys. We own them because we bought the box set. My son asked me if we could watch them and I told him, “No, they’re too dark for you.”
Good. We were just checking to make sure you didn’t go over to the dark side. Favorite book?
There were two books that really changed the way I viewed God. One was Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost. The other one was When Heaven Invades Earth by Bill Johnson, which is about the kingdom of God and real world physical healing still happening and the idea that God has this crazy love that physically touches people. I came from a very fundamental past and it was horrible—this book helped change all of that understanding. Who would want to know a God like that? This book made me think about a different, loving, personal God that encounters people today.
Whatever it is, it’s going to be spicy. I love tons and tons of hot sauce. It’s gotta be some kind of Thai food.
Oh, I have a good story. I once ate at this Thai restaurant in Washington. The dish I ordered had levels of spicyness and the hottest level of spice was named after the owner’s daughter, who also worked at the restaurant. I asked the owner’s daughter why there were levels of heat—mild, medium, spicy, and then her name—and she said, “Because it is sooooo spicy, only I can eat it.”
I told her I wanted the dish named after her and she said, “Oh, no you don’t! You won’t come back.”
I said, “Does it matter? I don’t live here anyway, so I won’t be back.”
She said, “Okay, you get it.”
She brought the dish to me and I was literally on fire. I don’t know what that dish was, but I loved it!
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I think it’s important that I know this. I’ve thought about this a lot recently. Obviously I want to be a great dad and want my kids to love me. I want to have a relationship with my wife that lasts and isn’t subject to divorce and bitterness and hatred—I’m from a divorced family and I really want to break that cycle.
Those are all great things, but I don’t know. If I died today, people would say I was a happy person that liked illustrating. Is that enough? I don’t think so. At the very least, I want many people to be influenced to love others and to dig deep and change other people’s lives.
At my funeral, I would like to have trance or dubstep music playing and I’d like for a lot of people to come out of the woodwork and say things like, “He helped me through this… he sacrificed his time for me.” It’s gotta be greater than design or illustration or being a happy person on the web—or even being helpful on the web. I want it to be more than that. I want to make a serious change in people’s lives.