Describe your path to becoming a designer and illustrator.
It’s really the only thing I ever thought I’d do. As a kid, I drew all the time and my grandma embraced that early on because she was an oil painter. We were the only artists in our very sports-oriented family. My dad was a college baseball player and has been a coach all of his life; my brother played college football; and my sister was all-state in a bunch of sports. I think my grandma was like, “Yes!” She went and bought me a drawing desk and all the art supplies I wanted. I also played sports, but art was the only thing I ever loved.
Fast forward to college—it was pretty clear that I was going to do something art related. There was one slight hiccup where I thought I might be a preacher like my dad and grandpa, but that only lasted one semester because I just missed art too much.
As far as illustration, that was an interesting addition. When I got to college and discovered Photoshop and Illustrator, I did not want to draw anymore. I loathed the projects where the first week was sketching 60 thumbnails. I never filled one sketchbook the whole time I was in college. I fell in love with drawing on the computer—that did it for me.
I graduated from college and didn’t sketch at my first two jobs. It wasn’t until I started Foundry with my buddy, Paul, that I began to sketch again. It was the first time I worked directly with clients and had to deal with a lot of my stuff getting turned down. Because it was only a two person team, I wasn’t as disconnected from getting shot down as when I was part of a larger group. I realized that in order to meet clients halfway and help them visualize their ideas, I needed to sketch.
After that, I began to create more illustrative logos, which developed into other work. Then the editorial world started embracing illustration and I wanted to jump on that bandwagon. I contacted Scotty Reifsnyder—he’s such a unique illustrator that you can’t mistake his work for anyone else’s. I asked him questions and he threw me my first editorial piece as a favor. Once I got a taste of that, I was trying to pitch illustration to all of our clients. All that to say that the illustration thing has been super secondary to design and has only come about in the last two years.
Tina: Where do you live now? I thought you were in Denver, but your Skype profile says Oklahoma. Am I making things up? (laughing)
I do live in Denver. My wife and I moved here in October 2011, but I was born and raised in Oklahoma. This is the first time I’ve lived outside of OK.
Ryan: Did you work at an agency after college?
Right after I graduated, I went to this agency that said they’d give me two weeks, but then they got slammed with work and asked me to come on full-time. I was there for three and a half months and then I had the opportunity to work with the in-house design team at Oklahoma Christian, which is where I did an internship during college.
OC is a super small school, but it has one of the most impressive design departments among universities. Many Division I universities hire advertising firms to help them out, but OC does everything in-house and is award-winning every year. It was the first university to be asked to brand the ADDYs. All that to say that I was naturally excited about the opportunity.
My best friend’s older brother ran the design department at OC and he asked me if I wanted to work there. It was a lateral move financially. Of course, it was going to be less clout because it wasn’t an agency, but I knew I was going to learn more and have creative freedom to flex my muscles. That stood out to me. I took the offer and was there for two or three years before I started Foundry.
You said that you always knew you wanted to do something art related. Did you have any “aha” moments along the way as far as choosing a career in design?
There were two moments. One was when I was a senior in high school. I was doing super different work than my friends. They were making large-scale, mixed media paintings and I kept doing these really small pieces with one centered graphic and big, flat planes of color. I remember my art teacher scratching his head and saying, “This is really different. Most kids just want to spray-paint everything. All your stuff comes out looking like you could’ve done it on the computer. Let me show you something.”
Now, I hate to give this guy credit for anything because he was the devil, but he did do this for me. He showed me Asterik Studio when they were doing all the Tooth & Nail stuff—this was before they split. I think he knew how to bait me. He said, “This is graphic design.” I said, “Oh, okay.” He didn’t bother trying to make me a fine artist anymore after that. That was a big “aha” moment for me because Asterik’s work made me realize what was possible with graphic design.
The second moment was in my sophomore year of college. Design wasn’t everything I thought it would be at that point. I had grown up in the church and my dad and grandpa are both preachers. My older brother had already decided that’s not what he wanted to do, so I thought maybe I would be the one to do it. I was at a Christian school and had friends who were ministry majors and I was definitely interested in it. On a whim, I changed my major, but I got halfway through the semester and wasn’t feeling like I was in the right spot any more than I had before.
I went home to Tulsa, walked into my grandpa’s office, and sat and talked with him. I told him, “This is how I felt last year, so I made this decision, but this is how I feel now.” He said the most important thing I think anyone has ever said to me. At the time, I thought it was a religious comment, but now I realize it applies to everything—even design. He said, “If there’s anything else in the world that you can do besides being a preacher—I don’t care what it is—then do that. If you honestly can’t, then it’s okay to be a preacher because that’s the kind of responsibility you’re biting off here.”
I replied, “I think I’m going to go change my major back to design.”
“I realize the importance of design, especially when there are so many good things in the world that are legitimate, but don’t have the means to make themselves look legitimate… I believe that design plays a huge role there.”
Has the rest of your family been supportive of the path you’ve chosen?
Yeah. My dad told me later that he was relieved I chose design because he had watched me draw my whole life and was afraid I was going to waste it. He’s been super supportive.
I think my whole family expected me to do this.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
I had three. It’s funny because they’re all friends and graduated together from OC a few years before me. One is Judson Copeland, who is my best friend’s older brother and another is Jonathon Curtis; they were my bosses at OC. I will always feel so lucky that I took that job. They taught me a lot of design fundamentals, but more than that, they taught me how to balance work, family, and play. They were my first big influences outside of my father.
Another mentor was Jesse Owen, who runs 10am Design. When I was in school, he was a legend around our art department. He had moved to Nashville and was doing work for a bunch of music artists. When you’re in college, that’s all you want to do. Now I realize those are tough projects to work on. Jesse had moved back to Oklahoma City and I went out of my way to get to know him. He ended up being one of the most humble guys. He was well-timed in my life because we were becoming good friends at about the same time I decided to start Foundry. He had already started and ran a business and was a huge help in that area.
Those three guys were great mentors across the board. Mentors in design? Yeah, but moreover, they taught me how to grow up and be a good man. It’s so corny, but I would be a different person if it wasn’t for them.
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
Yeah, my wife actually helped me make that decision. I was already kind of doing Foundry on top of my full-time job at Oklahoma Christian. I worked 9am–5pm at OC and then I’d come home, eat dinner, maybe watch a show, and talk with my wife about her day. Around 9pm I’d go back to work on freelance stuff until 4–5am, crash for a few hours, and then do it all over again—I was working about 80 hours a week.
I really liked working at the University and I especially liked the small team I was a part of, but some things outside of our department started to change on a philosophical level. I knew it was something I was no longer excited about. My wife and I were at dinner one night and I started talking about it and I broke down crying in public. (laughing) I think that freaked her out. That was the moment when my wife realized I wasn’t just complaining about work, but that I was having some real issues.
I had wanted to start Foundry for a while, but we were waiting for the right time. We had set a tentative schedule for when I would start doing Foundry full-time and it was still a few months out. My wife said to me, “I believe in you. Let’s just do it and we’ll make ends meet one way or another.” She let me take a huge risk, but I think it was more of a big risk for her.
My last day of work at the University was on a Friday. On the following Monday, my business partner, Paul, and I went to city hall to get an LLC and drove to a bank to open an account. By lunch we thought, “Wow, we just started a company.” We had one client that was going to pay us $500 for an entire website and a logo and another client who we were doing pro bono work for. I had no idea about owning a business. Luckily, Paul had some knowledge or we would have ran that ship into the ground a long time ago. That was a huge risk.
How long have you been doing Foundry?
Since Fall 2008. When I first started doing Foundry, my wife was working and paying the bills and I was supplementing where I could; it was very inconsistent. Paul was single; he was originally a photographer and was shooting projects here and there, so he was fine. We had an office—we called it the “cloffice”: half closet, half office. The walls were about a foot on either side of us. That was the first Foundry office for quite a few months. It was sketchy at times, but it was fun to tell people we had our own company.
Ryan: I always love hearing stuff like that because that’s similar to what we did. When we first got married, I had just started my business. Tina was working full-time and I was just taking on as much work as possible with the business until it grew.
Yeah. I recently agreed to be interviewed by a graphic design student and one of the questions she asked was, “Was it hard to start a graphic design company?” That’s an extremely vague question, so I decided to be sarcastic. I wrote, “Starting a graphic design company is about the easiest thing there is. Do you have a laptop? Do you have $16 for a URL? Do you have a pirated copy of Photoshop and Illustrator? Then you can start a graphic design business.” Starting it is not a problem, it’s paying rent six months down the line.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself through your work?
Absolutely. It’s such a weird balance because I have two conflicting ideas floating around in my head when it comes to things like this.
One huge influence is John Bielenberg, founder of Project M, which brings designers together once or twice a year to solve problems. The first project they ever did was a pop-up company called PieLab, which was started in Greensboro, Alabama—one of the most segregated communities in America. They created a pie shop and started inviting the community to come together in a neutral place, eat pie, and talk. It did amazing things in the community even though, on paper, it was just a pie shop. It was such a tangible way to use design for good.
John Bielenberg also talks a lot about what the end of your path looks like. He had won all kinds of awards and when he got to the last few rungs at the top of his ladder, he could see what was at the top and realized it wasn’t anything too meaningful. By no means do I think I’m on that guy’s ladder—he’s legit—but I’m on some sort of a ladder. If I just do client work for the rest of my life, I imagine that my ladder is just as lacking in meaning at the top. I feel a real pull to find a way to not just add noise.
The other, conflicting viewpoint is to not come off as thinking of myself, or designers for that matter, as too important in the middle of all of that. I don’t want to sound like my head is in the clouds. I know I can’t fix the world with a logo. I heard Draplin speak last week and he said, “If you guys fancy yourself as anything more than cake decorators, you need to be brought down a notch.” That’s the other end of that whole argument. At 27, I’m still trying to figure out what the balance between those two ideas is so that I don’t waste my time or anyone else’s.
I realize the importance of design, especially when there are so many good things in the world that are legitimate, but don’t have the means to make themselves look legitimate. There are things that are good for the world, but people write them off because they look crappy. I believe that design plays a huge role there. I want to find a way to infuse design into that. We are cake decorators, but the people who are doing way more helpful and important things need people to want to eat their cake and that’s where we come in.
Big question—are you satisfied creatively?
I feel like I’m cheating because I’ve read the other interviews. I just wanna be like, I’ll take Dan Cassaro’s answer on that one. (laughing)
I’m never satisfied; I’m scared of ever being satisfied. I think that comes from my dad being a preacher. I remember him once saying, “If you ever think you’re going to heaven, then you’re probably not trying hard enough. If you’re ever sure you’ve got it all figured out, that’s when you’re in trouble.” And I think that’s good advice. If I ever think, “I’m really killing it right now,” that’s when I’d be in trouble. I don’t have any desire to be the best, but I want to work and push myself like I’m trying to be the best.
Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years? Do you plan to be doing more illustration?
In five years, I probably won’t be doing much illustration. I’m getting kind of burned out on it. The only time I have fun doing illustrations anymore is when I get to do my idea and put it out there for no money. I didn’t think ahead with all of that. Once illustration becomes client work, it’s not that much fun. Branding never loses its fun with me. I get the shakes when I haven’t worked on a logo in a while, so that’s obviously where my heart is.
As far as where I’ll be in life, it’s hard to say. Every time I think I’m going to be somewhere, I’m not. I didn’t think I’d be in Denver; the decision that my wife and I made to move here was a two week process. I said, “Denver would be cool.”
She said, “You’re right. Let me talk to my boss.”
I talked to Paul and two weeks later, we were telling our families we were moving to Denver. If you would’ve asked me before that, I would have said I’d still be in Oklahoma City. We totally wing things.
Specifically with Foundry, I still want to be doing that. When we started, Paul and I were acquaintances at best, which I think is why it worked. We weren’t close enough to tell each other, “Go die if you don’t like my idea.” We were operating with mutual respect and had to feel it out to make sure we didn’t step on each other’s toes. Fast forward a bit and now I’m the best man in his wedding. More important than building a company that pays our bills, we’ve built a friendship and it would be hard to walk away from that.
My hopes for Foundry is to bring on a few more people if for no other reason than it would be fun—more jokes, more tomfoolery, more goofing off. And then when we procrastinate, there’s more of us to get the work done. (laughing) The last thing we’re pursuing is financial gain. We routinely check in with each other to ask if we’re still having fun. We’ve always said that we want it to be a family before it’s business—Paul and Kyle are my second and third brothers. If that all goes well, hopefully we’ll still be going in five years.
I’m also really enjoying Colorado. Having a snowboarding season pass for the first time in my life—it’s really hard to imagine not having that.
How do you think living in Denver impacts your creativity?
I’ve definitely felt it. It’s generally made my life better. Colorado presented the best balance of work and life that I could think of. Once I got here, it was even more than I thought. Colorado is the first thing in a long time that’s allowed me to disconnect with work. Rarely can I turn the switch off. I’m always thinking, “What’s the deadline?… I can’t believe she turned down that logo…” It sounds silly, but this is the first place I’ve been able to forget about work for a while. It’s the mountains—you go up there and can’t help but forget. I know it sounds crazy and if anyone else ever said that, I’d call them a hippy.
In turn, when it’s design time, I’m super focused and more exited about it. I really get on my grind and I’ve been way more creative since I’ve been here. I think its because of that balance that I stay excited about projects longer and don’t burn out on them. That’s been the biggest difference.
Are you part of a creative community? Is that something that’s important to you?
Definitely. First and foremost, I had a great group of about 15 friends in Oklahoma and we’d hang out three or four nights a week. Almost all of the guys were designers of some kind, so we were constantly plotting, scheming, and feeding off of each other. We’re all planning to rent a cabin for the weekend this summer—that’ll be unreal.
As far as Denver, I’ve made a few friends and over the last few months, we’ve been actively pursuing being part of a community. I’m very proud of my city; it’s such a cool city, but there’s no design cred. We’ve been talking about how to fix that. There’s so much going on here and our community should be on the map. It’s definitely important to me to both be a part of a community and help it progress.
If you could give one piece of advice to another designer or illustrator starting out, what would you say?
Lose the ego if you have one. I feel like all the best and worst things in my career have been directly affected by ego. I know I’ve lost people’s respect because I’ve mouthed off at times when I should have kept my mouth shut. I don’t know how candid you want me to be, but that’s been a huge downfall for me and something I really don’t like about myself. It’s a struggle to keep my ego in check when I have a little success; I don’t check myself until something goes terribly wrong.
I spoke at Colorado State right after I moved here. One of the things I said was, “Never think that a client is lucky to have you.” We don’t do something rare. There are so many designers and so many options. If someone hires us, we should be so honored that they chose us.
One thing that’s really important to me is respect—on all levels. I want to have respect for the trade and for my clients. I want to have the respect of my colleagues as well. It’s not about popularity; I’m not worried about sitting at the cool kids’ table at SXSW, but I do want the people I respect to also respect me because that lets me know I’m doing the kind of work I’m shooting for.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Lately I’ve been waking up and driving my wife to work to start the day. It’s a little extra time we can carve out to hangout and that’s a rad way to start the day. When I don’t do that, my average day starts around 9am. The first thing I do is get on Gchat with Paul, who is in Dallas, and our developer, Kyle, who is in Oklahoma City. It’s just expected that we get on there to check in and make a plan for the day. The meat of the day is cranking stuff out and taking calls. The most important thing is that we all stay on Gchat as much as possible so that we can answer each other’s questions really quickly or get feedback—oh, and to send GIFs and YouTube clips back and forth.
I usually work until my wife gets home. She works at a language school and some days are later than others, so she doesn’t have a definite stopping time.
We try to explore Denver as much as possible. Right now, I’m trying to go snowboarding one day every week. I went last Wednesday with another freelance designer, Mackey Saturday. We’ve decided that Wednesdays are man-date days.
I should mention that the best part of Denver so far has been Mackey and his wife; they’ve instantly become our best friends. He’s a brilliant designer and has pushed me to be way more conceptual. He’s easily my closest friend here in Denver and a great influence on me.
Current album on repeat?
I’m a total late adopter. I remember when everyone got way into dubstep and I thought, “No way. That’s for bros.” Now, I’m just getting into Skrillex and Deadmau5, but that’s so different than what I normally listen to. My standbys are Ryan Adams, Brand New, and Avett Brothers.
Favorite movie or television show?
Friday Night Lights is the greatest TV show of all time. We just watched the series for the second time, except we skipped over all the episodes with J.D. McCoy. I really hated that guy. (laughing) I’ll turn on How I Met Your Mother all the time. And SVU, but I always feel creepy telling people that.
Do you have a favorite book?
Not really. I should read more. Have you guys heard of Logo Design Love by David Airey? I’m reading it right now and it’s really good.
Sushi. I’d eat it seven days a week if I could afford it.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I obviously want to be a good designer and be doing something good for the design community and the general community, but even more than that, I want to help designers who come after me to want to have that same mindset of doing something good and useful.
And the most important legacy—to be a good husband—doesn’t have anything to do with design, except maybe knowing when to get off the computer at night. (laughing)