Kyle Steed is a simple dude. He loves to draw, design, and make things by hand. When not doing one of those things, he also enjoys cooking, eating, drinking scotch and documenting it all on Instagram. The desire to make work that’s both fun and meaningful is what he’s passionate about. He enjoys the simple things in life. And he spent three years in Japan, but you’ll have to read the interview to find out what that’s all about.
Kyle currently resides in a suburb just north of Dallas, TX with his wonderful wife Amanda and their two labs, Benjamin and Samson.
Kyle first came across our radar when we saw his 52 Profiles project. We loved his quirky style and the care he put into each image. So, when we needed a sketch last-minute for our TGD Steve Jobs tribute, we contacted him. It was a shot in the dark, but Kyle said yes. He also agreed to interview with us for TGD. We had the joy of chatting with the Steed about his journey thus far including how he got into illustration, his time in Japan (where he met his wife from 8,000 miles away), and his upcoming venture into full-time freelance work. Thanks, Mr. Steed. You are seriously one awesome dude!
Interview date: October 19, 2011
How did you get started as an illustrator and designer?
Growing up, I wanted to be an architect. I loved doodling and drawing these intricate house plans (indoor football fields, bowling alleys and olympic size swimming pools). I guess you could say I was a big dreamer. As a kid, your imagination runs wild. I also liked drawing funny little characters out of catsup bottles or whatever condiments were laying around the house.
My dreams of being an architect changed my senior year of high school when I took a communication arts class. That was my first time using a Mac and exploring Photoshop. I remember this kid in our class at school, Casey Price - it’s odd that I remember his name. I remember sitting and watching him work in Photoshop and he did all this digital collage stuff. It opened my eyes to the possibilities outside of traditional painting and drawing and the things I grew up knowing. That was the point where I switched to pursuing more of a design career than an architecture career.
I was living in Nashville for the last 3 years of high school. After graduating in 2000, I moved to Fort Worth, TX because my dad had moved there for work. I purchased my first Mac, obtained some (not so legit) copies of Illustrator and Photoshop, and got to work. I would spend a lot of time messing around, doing whatever small designs my friends needed. At that point, I really hadn’t connected the dots in my mind about drawing on paper and moving that into the digital realm. They were always separate for me for some reason. I had taken a couple classes at a community college including Photoshop for the web. It’s funny because now I don’t even use Photoshop to design for the web.
I didn’t get started on the web until 2007 when I got out of the military and my wife and I moved to Dallas. My wife’s good friend, who had already been a web designer for some time, really encouraged me to look into web design as a career. So I started out by helping her code up a few sites. I also started reading books on CSS and it completely blew my mind. I didn’t know what the hell the book was talking about. So I ended up taking a class at the local community college where my teacher was a big web standards advocate, thank God. This is where I first learned about Designing with Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman and the CSS Zen Garden. It was a real eye opener. Around that same time I had just landed my first job as a web designer.
Before you were a designer/illustrator, you were in the military?
In 2003, after only ever working dead-end retail jobs, I was at a crossroads. There was pressure from my dad to get a full-time job and start paying my own way or join the military. My brother had been in the Air-force for a few years and my best friend was interested in it. I talked to a recruiter in May 2003 and signed on the dotted line in June. I wasn’t scheduled to leave until Spring 2004, but I ended up leaving for basic training that July. Shit just got real. I spent a year in what they call “Tech School” where I learned Morse code as well as other miscellaneous crap I can’t talk about. Seriously. That was a beat down. Looking back now, the life lesson I’ve learned is that if I can do that, I can do anything. Morse code is one of those dead languages. People are surprised they still teach it. While I hated it at the time, I’m thankful for the process of walking through it.
The best experience of the military was that I got to spend 3 years in Japan, 18 months of which were with my wife. It was an amazing opportunity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Since I had some prior college credit, I decided to earn my Associate Degree while in the Air-force - although I’m convinced that, in our field, a degree means (next to) nothing anymore. I came back from the military in 2007 and there was this pressure I felt internally from my parents to get a degree, especially from my dad, because he’s been a contractor his whole life. I thought I should go get my degree because that’s what you do when you grow up. I was taking night classes, working full-time during the day, plus I was married. I thought, “Man, this just feels like a waste of time.” I was already starting to pick up a small amount of freelance work. It was either sit in class or be at home working, making extra money. So I just stopped going to school.
How long have you been doing freelance work?
Actually, there’s some exciting news in this area. I’ve always held a full-time job doing web work. I’ve only worked for 2 companies. I’ve been with my current employer for about 15 months and it’s broadened my range a lot. That said, in the last year or two, the rate of freelance work has dramatically increased for me. I feel really blessed by it and it’s encouraged me to pursue what I want to do. The Monday after I got back from Brooklyn Beta,1 I sat down with my boss and told him that at the end of the year, I’m going to head out and try this freelance thing full-time. While he was sad to hear I would be leaving, he said he’d be a bad person if he didn’t truly believe that my art and illustration is what I’m supposed to be doing.
That’s awesome, Kyle!
[Tina] How did you and your wife meet? I’m curious.
You haven’t heard the story yet, I guess (laughing). When I went to Japan, I felt like I was going to meet my wife there. I was looking, wondering, who is it gonna be? I got into a relationship with this girl and it went from bad to worse in a really short amount of time. To make a long story short, we broke up. In January/February 2005, I was at a base near Tokyo to get surgery on my ear. I had just learned what MySpace was so I wanted to look for people who I might’ve gone to school with back in Texas. I came across Amanda’s profile picture and, I don’t know why, but it made me stop. I read her profile and she had this quote I really liked. Something about spending too much time focusing on things that don’t matter and not enough time on God. It struck a chord in me. So I sent her a short (non-creepy) message and that was the start of it. She messaged me back. And this was the beginning. From that one message, we started to send longer emails, which led to instant message chats, which led to writing letters, and then eventually calling her on the phone.
Over the course of that year, we got to know each other from 8,000 miles away and fall in love. It was crazy. I never expected to fall in love that way. It gave us a chance to learn a lot about each other, without the physical distractions. I flew home December 9, 2005 and we got married December 14th (all laughing). We met for 5 days in person before marrying and a lot of people thought we were crazy. This December we’ll be celebrating 6 years together.
That’s very cool. Alright, we’re going to jump back a bit. Was creativity a part of your childhood?
Yeah. I never really liked school. I spent more time drawing on my notebooks than paying attention in class. My fondest memories of childhood are playing with friends in the summer. My favorite game was hide and seek. We also had this creek behind our house where we would have all kinds of adventures. I always wanted to write books about those adventures, but for some reason never did. I am really thankful that my mom would force me out of the house, so I didn’t just sit inside and play video games all day.
I have a brother who is 4 years older than me. My mom said I was the one who was more quiet, more calm. My brother was always getting into trouble. I don’t know if that’s the creative part of me that’s just more chill. Creativity was definitely part of my childhood. I’m trying to learn to embrace that and hold onto it as I grow up - I don’t want to lose that.
Where were you born?
I was born in Savannah, GA, but I don’t really remember it. When I was a year old, we moved to Huntsville, AL and that’s where I grew up. My mom and best friend still live there. I lived there for 14 years, through my freshman year of high school. During the summers, I would go and visit my dad and the summer after my freshman year I decided to stay with him in Nashville, TN. It was a really impulsive decision, but it got me out of Alabama. Sometimes I still wonder what life would be like if I had stayed in Alabama.
Then you moved to Texas after high school graduation?
Yeah. Actually, my dad moved from Nashville to Texas for work before I graduated high school. I stayed with a friend’s family. They are amazing people and I consider them a second family. They were really cool to take me in. Basically, I didn’t do anything that summer after graduation. I just hung out with my friends and skated everyday. Ah… those were the days.
I used to think the world owed me something. Here’s your platter, take what you want. As I’m growing up, I’m realizing that there’s a lot of hard work involved in doing what you love.
Even up until the military, I never had to really pay for anything. I lived at home, rent-free. It’s been a big challenge in my life, getting over that self-entitlement. But it’s really cool now because my dad and I have a much better relationship. He often tells me how proud he is of me for the success I’ve had so far and because I’m pursuing my dreams. That means more than I think he’ll ever know.
“That would have to be the light bulb moment - when I finally figured out that pixels don’t have to be perfect and I don’t have to try to look like everybody else online.”
You’ve talked about some of the important people in your life. Did you or do you have a mentor?
I have a couple people now who mentor me. They encourage me and we have open, honest conversations about doubts, fear, life, love, and all that stuff. But there’s never been that one person in my life that does what I do and is further along than me. There is this guy, Andy Rutledge, who lives here in Dallas and runs his company, Unit Interactive. I admire him to no end because he’s doing what he loves and it didn’t just fall in his lap. There are other people who I feel like I’m walking along the same path with in our journey, like Rogie King. There have always been people at the right time in my life that I get connected with to help strengthen and sharpen me.
With illustration or design, has there ever been an “aha” moment when you knew that was what you wanted to do?
I think it was a couple years ago when I was in the midst of doing a lot of Wordpress design. I would sketch out wireframes. Then, I was redesigning my website and decided to do my own hand-drawn font. I made a simple Illustrator version of it and that was when I realized I really love drawing and illustrating more than I love working on the web. I said before that it didn’t connect early on how I could scan stuff from my sketchbook and keep the same look and feel. That would have to be the light bulb moment - when I finally figured out that pixels don’t have to be perfect and I don’t have to try to look like everybody else online. I can do my own thing and make stuff I want to make. If people like it, that’s cool, and if not, that’s fine too. Luckily, people like it. That never hurts.
Was there a point in your life where you had to take a big risk to move forward?
Yeah, I think every time I’ve moved, it’s been a risk. I picked up and didn’t know anybody moving from Huntsville to Nashville or from Nashville to Texas. The military was one of those things… I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how challenging, how difficult that first year would be. It was a culture shock moving to Japan. If those are risks, then I’m glad I took them and didn’t overanalyze them.
This new risk that I’m about to endure of leaving a full-time position to try my own thing… my wife and I talk about it. Even if I go out and fail, it’s hard for me to believe that I couldn’t end up back at another job doing either what I’m doing now or doing something better where I’m illustrating.
I think it says it on the board [Kyle turns the camera to the chalkboard behind him]. My wife told me this the other day. It says, “When something scares you, it means it’s worth it.” It really resonated with me. In those moments of doubt about what I’m doing and if I’m really going to succeed or not, I can’t dwell on it. I have to stay positive.
In contrast to that, is there anything you’d go back and do differently?
There are so many things I’d take back… things I’ve said to people, relationships. But, I don’t know. Even though I cringe at the thought of some of those things, I try to look at the bright side. Maybe it sucked, but what was the lesson? How did it make me a better person? Like the relationship with the girl in Japan. I thought I’d never get over it, but when I met my wife there was this bright light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe it would be different if I could take things back, but that’s life. Life happened.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do and who do you think has encouraged you the most along your creative path?
If I didn’t say my wife, she might be mad at me (chuckling). No, she’s definitely been a huge support for me these past 6 years. She loves what I do and believes in me. She trusts me and this new decision I’ve made to venture out on my own.
I also think, looking back on my life, my mom and my dad never tried to discourage me. They told me I could do whatever I wanted. I’ve learned a lot from my dad’s work ethic and I grew up with my mom who would hang up art that I brought home from school. My wife, friends, and family are all encouraging. I couldn’t imagine it any other way. It’d be so difficult to do something you love and have negative people around you.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself? What do you hope to contribute through your illustration and design?
I don’t know if I’ve figured it out yet. There’s so much stuff in this world - people hurt, people are hungry. There’s so much wrong in the world. I don’t know what to do about it or how to do it, but I feel a calling to make my work mean more than just something that looks good. I don’t want to just make work to make a name for myself. I want the words I say and the designs that I create to have a deeper meaning. Ultimately, as a Christian, I want to serve God in the work I do. That’s probably the highest calling my work could have.
It’s difficult thinking about going freelance and wondering if I will have to take on work just to make money. Will I be able to do pro bono work and give back? There’s more to life than just making money.
Are you satisfied creatively?
No. I think I always want to be doing something better. Are satisfaction and contentment the same thing? I think you can be content with where you are and not be satisfied.
I want to grow. I never want to be stagnant. I want to go on to the next thing and do something greater. That comes out in different ways. Right now, I’m painting a huge mural in our entryway. Also, I’ve been on a huge Instagram2 kick. I don’t want to put myself in a box. I want to be able to express my creativity in different ways.
If you could give advice to another designer and illustrator starting out, what would you say?
Don’t limit yourself by what you can learn in school. Education doesn’t begin or end in school. You have to have that drive in yourself to want to learn and grow.
I would also say don’t give up. We’re all on a journey, all on different points along this path of life. The greatest thing to realize is that there will always be people ahead of you and people behind you. I used to be so frustrated about where I was because I saw the people who were years ahead of me. That’s the tough thing about the web. In an instant, you can see somebody’s work that took them not just months to create, but years to come into their own style. When I understood that there will always be people ahead of me, I realized I didn’t have to be jealous, but that I could be happy about the work I’m making right now. If you keep creating, you’re just going to get better. Then you can look back at the work you made and be humbled because you know the steps it took to get there.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
This is the hardest challenge. I’ve been through really dry times here in Dallas and I’ve been through really good times where I come across people who are doing really cool, interesting things. When my wife and I get to hang out with other creatives, we think about staying in Dallas.
We live in the suburbs right now and I enjoy the quietness it gives us. I don’t know if it’s made me strive to make more work or what. I just got back from New York and there was so much going on that I actually missed the quietness of home. But at the same time, in NY you’re around so many other creative people and that energy is all around you. It’s so easy to connect with other creatives. Here, you have to be much more intentional about working together and collaborating. Dallas has a lot of creative people, but it’s a challenge to get us together in the same place because we live in different areas of the city. I don’t know where my wife and I will end up in this next year. We may move, we may stay.
In relation with where you live, is it important to you to be part of a creative group of people?
Yes. Absolutely! It’s good to share ideas, get feedback, collaborate a little. Even if you’re not talking about design, I think creative people have a way of looking at the world that’s different from other people. I like to have friends that don’t just do design. It’s interesting to hear different perspectives on things. It’s vital to my creative health.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Wake up, check my phone - email, Twitter, and Instagram. Why is this so important first thing in the morning? That’s my embarrassing admission. Depending on how many days it’s been since I took a shower, I’ll shower. Currently, I’m in the office Monday and Friday and at home the other 3 days. Every morning I like to cook 2 eggs because eating a little breakfast is so important for the rest of my day. When the weather is nice, I like to sit outside and enjoy the quietness of the morning. I try to find some time every morning to just sit, think, and meditate on the day at hand. Other mornings I will run a couple miles. I usually work until about 5pm and I have to eat lunch in there somewhere, of course. I get really grumpy if I don’t eat. My wife can tell you that. I’m really not likable when I’m hungry.
I find that if I can get out of the house when I work at home, even sitting at the coffee shop for a few hours, that human interaction is really healthy for me. Right now, there is nothing typical about our evenings because my wife and I are on two different schedules. She works full-time, goes to school, and does roller-derby. We try our best to hang out, eat dinner, and have some quality time together as much as we can. In the evening, I’ll read or work on freelance stuff. And throughout the day, I’m always looking for my next Instagram shot.
Current album on repeat?
I was waiting for this one. I’ve been thinking about it. Do ya’ll (laughing; did I really say ya’ll?) listen to Rdio?3
I had to take Rdio off of Facebook because my wife hijacked it and she listens to Taylor Swift. I couldn’t have that on my Facebook. I love my wife, but her taste isn’t the same as mine. The new album by Girls called Father, Son, Holy Ghost is just amazing. That album has been on repeat for me the last few weeks. I also like the new albums from M83, Tycho, and Bon Iver.
Favorite movie? Or T.V. show?
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.4 It has to be. I’m an official member of the Zissou Society. I have the little pin. Isn’t that hilarious?
That’s a great movie.
I love the quality of Wes Anderson’s movies. There’s always a dramatic undertone to them. He’s my favorite director. Anytime Owen Wilson is in a movie by Wes, it’s his best movie.
Favorite T.V. show would have to be The Office, Seasons 1–3.
A better way to ask this question is, “If you were on death row, what would be your last meal?”
For me, nothing beats my mom’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes. That is such a comfort food to me that it’s hard to top. That would be my dying meal.
[Ryan] My kind of guy. Alright, one last deep question. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I guess one that offers hope and encouragement to other people. Right now I think that’s where I’m headed.
I’m gonna get side-tracked here, but I love the idea of the master-apprentice relationship that doesn’t really exist anymore. I have this growing desire to apprentice somebody when I’m older, to take them under my wing and teach them what I know. I like that personal, intimate relationship, whether I’m teaching skills related to work or life. If I get a chance to do that, that would be great. If not, then hopefully by my life, my example, and the work I make, I could offer encouragement to others in some way.
“If you keep creating, you’re just going to get better. Then you can look back at the work you made and be humbled because you know the steps it took to get there.”