Matt Stevens is a designer, illustrator, speaker, and creative tinkerer living in Charlotte, North Carolina. He currently serves as the Creative Director for HAWSE (a Brand Agency) and has over 15 years in multi-disciplinary design environments and agencies. He is grateful to have an awesome wife, 3 amazing kids and a German Shepherd named Maggie.
This is a man who’s making it happen. We were big fans of Matt’s AirMax1-A-Day Series before the interview and, needless to say, we’re now big fans of Matt. We were totally inspired listening to him talk about the self-inititated projects he’s done and what he’s learned about building his own momentum. He is super humble, genuine, and really good at his craft. Thank you, Matt, for reminding us that there is no excuse not to do what we love.
Interview date: October 9, 2011
Describe your path to becoming a designer/illustrator.
I think my story’s probably pretty typical. I was one of those kids that drew on everything. It was what I did when I had downtime. I always wanted to draw. I remember points that were epiphanies like, “Oh, I can draw that!”
When it came time to decide what I was going to do for a living, I heard this thing about commercial art. It was what they were calling it at the time and it seemed to make a lot of sense for me. I went to school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and earned a B.F.A. with a concentration in illustration and design. There wasn’t anybody really pushing me to explore options. I came from a family that values education, but there wasn’t this heritage of higher education, so my family was just glad I was going to college. I didn’t search around for the best art school. I went to UNC Charlotte because it seemed close enough to home (Asheville, NC) without being too far away.
I’ve felt more grateful over time because I never really doubted. I always felt like I was supposed to do this.
At college, I chose design and illustration as a concentration. I liked the idea of a steady paycheck so I went into design. Even then, you could start to see that the illustration market was going to be precarious. The illustration field has really changed and flattened. After school, I left illustration behind and really focused more on design. I look back at the stuff I did in those first couple of years and it’s pretty terrible. I had a good education from a conceptual standpoint, but my skills were not great. So that’s what took me into design as a career.
Are you on your own right now as far as business?
No, I have a full-time gig. I’m the creative director for a small brand shop. We do a lot of corporate work, a lot of brand work. We’re small, so you have to wear a lot of hats. I’ve been here for over 10 years. About 2 or 3 years ago, I was just completely burned out. I was asking, “Why am I still doing this?” It was when the economy went south and we had to lay off over half of our company. I was seeing friends walk out the door. I was disillusioned. I realized that the kind of work I was doing didn’t really reflect who I was and I needed some work that was just for me.
I was in Dunkin’ Donuts one day getting iced coffee and they were doing their 60th anniversary rebrand. I looked around and thought, “This is crap, this is really badly done.” For some reason, I decided to do my own rebrand1 on my own time. I look back on it and I don’t know if that was a personal test. I really don’t know why I did it. I wish I could say I had a plan. I worked on it for 2 months and asked myself, “How would I do Dunkin’ Donuts’ 60th anniversary rebrand?” I started sending it around to design blogs and Armin Vit, who co-founded Brand New, sent me an email asking if many people had seen it. I told him no and he said that he would love to use it for his April Fools’ Day rebrand.
I’m a big believer in making your own momentum. I had no momentum and I did something that, to all the people around me, seemed kind of insane. Like, why are you doing this for free? But it was a great lesson and it led to some really cool things. Right after April 1st when the Dunkin’ rebrand posted, I had some calls from Dunkin’ Donuts. I didn’t know if they were trying to sue me or what. But, a year later, I found myself doing some blue sky work for one of their agencies.
I tell you that story to say that that really kicked off a new phase in my career where I began doing a lot of self-initiated projects. I’m almost 40 years old and I’m waving the flag for late bloomers. It’s never too late to try something different. As artists and designers, we all grew up being affirmed somehow because of our skills, so it felt good to put my work out there and have people respond to it.
Entering into this phase of doing self-initiated projects, I didn’t know where it was going to lead, but I knew it felt good to be doing something that I connected to and was just for fun. I had left illustration behind and was trying to find a way to reconnect with it. I created the shoe project. I’m a sneaker-head, I don’t know why. I thought I’d illustrate every pair of Nikes I’d ever owned. As I was doing it, I recalled specific memories related to each pair. I remembered buying one pair for my brother. There was another pair that I was made to take back when my parents found out how much they cost. Remembering all these personal things led to the AirMax1-A-Day series, which led to my MAX100 Kickstarter project.2 It’s been a journey of waking up. You pour yourself into things that you connect with personally and people are attracted to that.
It’s interesting that you touched on that because the AirMax1-A-Day project is how I found your work a few months back. That’s what drew us to you, that a lot of your work was self-initiated. It’s stuff you’re not getting paid for and yet, you’re getting a lot of attention for it. Do you have any other thoughts on the benefits of self-initiated work?
Yeah, it does a couple things. One, I find that if I have stuff going that allows me to experiment, it will eventually bleed into my paid work. It keeps me sharp. Inevitably, this shoe project has happened over the course of a year, so I’m testing out all these new styles and approaches and then a client project comes up and I’ve got something fresh to pull from. It’s that idea of momentum. I’m already rolling, already moving. Something comes along and it’s easier to fold it in versus feeling frozen.
I’m in that phase of my career where I want to connect to what I’m doing. When I’m not doing good work, it’s when I have no investment in it. Oftentimes for me, it’s about finding that hook that pulls me along. That’s when I’m at my best, when I’m hooked into something and feel carried along in the project instead of me having to push that rock uphill. Personal work just does that. It keeps you moving forward. Inevitably, that energy will find its way into client work.
Another benefit is that, as a brand designer, I was trained to be a chameleon and to remove all influence and be a blank slate as I’d enter a project. I’ve found that not to be true. I hope that people come to me because I have a perspective. I don’t necessarily think I have a real identifiable style, but I do have an approach and a way of thinking.
The other important thing, from a nuts and bolts standpoint, is that we live in such a connected world. It’s a double-edged sword because everyone has access to the work you’ve done. It also means your competition is so much greater. Having personal work that is above and beyond and reflects who you are as a purely promotional tool is important. I’m saying all this in hindsight. I didn’t know this when I was standing in Dunkin’ Donuts that morning.
Would you say that the Dunkin’ Donuts rebrand experience was your “aha” moment where the light came on?
Definitely. When I think back on it, what’s so cool is that there was no plan. I think that would’ve ruined it. It would have tensed me up. There’s something about the pure joy of just doing it in the process. It was about instinct and trying to connect with something I loved. I didn’t care if anybody saw it or if it seemed ridiculous to my peers.
Have you had any mentors over the years?
That’s a great question. I will mention one person, though I wouldn’t call him a mentor. I work with an illustrator named Joey Ellis. He began working at my office about a year before the Dunkin’ Donut thing and what he did for me was… He had this energy, he did a lot of work on the side and developed his skills beyond what he did for work. I fed off of that. I think he was a big part of waking me up.
I don’t know that I’ve had an older mentor who’s been down the path before me. I do, however, take a lot of influence from film. I had a professor in college who showed us Citizen Kane. He freeze-framed it often. It was a study in composition and that struck a chord with me. I’ve never been in film from that end of things, but I love movies. I get a lot of influence from the way directors approach movies. As a designer, I like the idea of hiding things in your work. If someone catches it, it’s such a pleasure. I’m a big Christopher Nolan guy. I like the idea of there being something more to it than there seems to be. Things that are subtle are so much more meaningful to discover because you have to dig a little bit to get to it.
How was creativity a part of your childhood?
My father actually passed away when I was 7, so I didn’t get to know him as well as I would’ve liked to, but there are remnants of him in my life. He loved old Volkswagens. I still drive a Volkswagen today. He always had something going. He was a pharmacist and worked on old cars. He bought these science kits, so we have all this cool, old stuff. I have an inkling of what he was like - that he had a creative bone. I dedicated the MAX100 book to him because of that creative influence.
I also had older brothers who were involved in art. They would come home with their art class assignments and were kind enough to teach me, so I was learning art before most kids. As a child, you’re trying to find your identity and I was that guy who drew cool stuff. It was part of my identity. I maybe even took it too seriously sometimes. It’s hard to take criticism when it’s so close to who you are. Creativity was very encouraged by my mom and brothers. The pathway was laid early on. None of my brothers stuck with it, so I became the torchbearer for art in our family.
Who do you think has been the most supportive along your creative path?
One of my older brothers, Chris, has always been very supportive and taken an interest in my art. When my father passed away, Chris, who is 12 years older than me, came alongside me in a lot of ways. I can remember when he was living on his own and would come by my house to visit our mom. I was about 9 and he would see stuff that I was working on and leave little notes that said things like, “This looks really great.”
In general, I have a lot of really supportive friends who are in the industry. I also have kids who are old enough to see what I’m doing. With the shoe project, I came home one day and my daughter had drawn a shoe. My son also made a shoe out of M&M candies. I have a page in the book with a bunch of black and white photos of process stuff and I was able to include some of their pieces. When I had gotten through 60 of the shoes, there was one that my son wanted to redo as a Lite-Brite shoe. Also, my wife has obviously had to sacrifice a lot for me to pursue these projects and I can’t underestimate that. She’s been so supportive, even when it’s something she might not understand, like me wanting to drawing a hundred pairs of shoes (laughing).
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
I don’t know if it was a big risk, but doing the Kickstarter project felt like a big risk. Sometimes I can look at the project and think that it’s really cool. Other times, I step back and it’s like trying to explain to your mom what you do for a living… “I’m drawing this shoe a hundred times and then I’m going to make a book out of it.” From an outsider’s perspective, it’s bizarre, but I had to trust it. There were moments where I thought, “This is so dumb.” Then you launch it, get a huge wave of support, and everybody disappears. It wasn’t a risk in the sense that I was going to lose out financially, but there was a huge fear of failure because of the amount of time I put into it.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself? What do you hope to contribute through your design and illustration?
Definitely. I’ve had opportunities to give of my time as a designer. One thing I did was a project with The Salvation Army. I met a good friend, Fulton Hawk, through that. He is creating a t-shirt line that benefits specific causes and already has an impressive list of artists who are contributing. Anytime you can donate your time and talent, it’s a no-brainer.
The other thing I can do is help young designers along. I don’t think that’s a requirement, but it’s something I personally want to do. It’s taken me a long time to wake up and I would hope that I could help some people wake up sooner. I’m not a theoretical design genius, but I can share my story and my experiences. Our experiences are valuable. I’d love to speak more. I spoke in Dallas to the DSVC about a year ago and it was a very satisfying experience.
“All experience is valuable experience. We, a lot of times, come out of school and get horrible jobs or jobs we’re not that excited about. I would encourage folks to be patient. Some of the best lessons I’ve learned have been at the worst jobs I’ve had.”
In that vein, what bit of advice would you give to a young designer or illustrator starting out?
All experience is valuable experience. We, a lot of times, come out of school and get horrible jobs or jobs we’re not that excited about. I would encourage folks to be patient. Some of the best lessons I’ve learned have been at the worst jobs I’ve had. You learn the kind of boss you don’t want to be, or the kind of place you don’t want to work, or what you don’t want to do in a certain situation. I don’t encourage people to hop around or not be loyal, but don’t get too discouraged if your first couple of jobs are bad. Keep doing work for yourself. Do work you care about. There can be this big whiplash effect when you get out of school and have done all this work that is blue sky thinking. Then, you enter the world of budgets and clients and it can be a very discouraging experience.
Continue to invest time in things you want to do and that you care about. Again, it took me a long time to realize that, so I would beat that drum to kids coming out of school now. People in positions who hire and fire don’t have room for error. They can’t always take a risk on you. They want to see the work you’ve done. Figure out a way to do the kind of work that you want to be doing. Your portfolio needs to look like the kind of work that you want to do. Whatever it takes to make your portfolio look that way, go do it. Sacrifice what you have to.
That’s great advice. Are you satisfied creatively? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
I like a lot of the work I’m doing now, probably more than I ever have. The kind of work and the quality of work I’m doing has been encouraging to me. I think there’s this track in the world of corporate design that you get on - the more money you want to make and the more you want to climb, the less design you do. You assume that as an older designer, you stop designing and skills go away. For me to be almost 40 and be doing some of the best work I’ve ever done, I feel really happy about that.
I went to the Brand New Conference in San Francisco a while back and I got to talk to Armin a little. I was joking with him because he sent me an email one day asking if I was under 30. I guess he was trying to nominate me for some young designer’s award. I replied back that I was almost 40 and asked if they had a late bloomer’s award (laughing). He told me, “You design really young.” I thought that was cool. I feel satisfied that, at this age, I’m still able to do what I love to do.
But, satisfied creatively? No. That’s probably part of being an artist - you’re not ever satisfied. I can look back over the 100 final pieces in the book and there are things I would do differently. You’re never done, you just run out of time. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied. I look back on things I did 2 years ago and I don’t like it anymore. As a creative person, you’re constantly trying to reinvent, so I chalk it up to that. I’m not satisfied because if I ever did get satisfied, I would start to die as an artist.
Part of the struggle is trying not to be somebody else. We’re so flooded with all the great work out there and every time I enter a project, I go through that phase of, “I’m horrible, I suck.” I’m trying to become more comfortable with what my approach is and not try to look like anybody else. I can’t do the things that some of the people around me can do and that’s fine. Whatever other people are doing, it’s not me. Somebody’s hiring me because of my work, so how can I be the best me I can? That sounds like a self-help book (chuckling).
Five to ten years: all I can say is I hope I’m still hands-on, still doing the work, even if that means continuing to find ways to do it on my own. That’s about as planned as I get.
If you could go back and do one thing differently what would it be?
I would have explored more earlier on in my career, travelled more, experienced more. Part of being the late bloomer that I profess to be is that the world is so much more connected now and the things that have happened to me over the last few years couldn’t have happened 10 years ago. That complicates my answer. There was a long period of time where I was completely banking on my day-job as a creative outlet. I thought, if this will become this, then I will be creatively satisfied. I spent a lot of time waiting for it to become that. Somehow, I was naively expecting something to come knocking on my door. I regret waiting so long to start to make my own momentum. I’m happy that it started when it did, but part of me wishes I would have done it sooner.
“There was a long period of time where I was completely banking on my day-job as a creative outlet. I thought, if this will become this, then I will be creatively satisfied… I was naively expecting something to come knocking on my door. I regret waiting so long to start to make my own momentum.”
How does where you live impact your creativity?
I don’t think that Charlotte is necessarily a hotbed of creativity. There are some good designers and firms here and there is some good work being done, but it’s certainly not a place with a lot of concentrated creative, like Minneapolis or San Francisco. There aren’t those external forces pushing me, so I’ve had to push myself harder.
I don’t know if my work has the sensibility that would make you say, “Oh, that guy’s from the South.” I grew up around mountains and old stuff that’s beat up. That’s what most of our experiences are in life; things aren’t that clean and polished. I’m more attracted to things that feel like they’ve lived a little and been drug down the road a little bit. That’s the kind of music I like. I told my wife I was going to interview with you and she said, “Oh, The Great Discontent, that sounds perfect for you.” I like things that express that sort of discontent.
This goes along with the previous question. Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
It is really important. I tend to be more of an introverted person, so it’s not my first instinct to do it, but I always end up loving it when I do it. Here at my company, we created this pumpkin carving competition to benefit a hospital that provides treatment to kids with cancer. It started internally and has grown over the last 3 years to become a regional event. It’s been satisfying to get the creative community here together and behind a cause.
One pitfall that we as a creative community have is remembering that we’re humans first and designers second. We can get this blinder vision like we’re on some other plateau and use designer insider language. We forget that we’re human beings and that the guy who is a janitor down the street serves just as important of a function as we do. There’s some entitlement and elevation that happens that turns me off sometimes. We’re part of a big puzzle. We’re an important part, but we’re not the whole thing.
Now for a couple fun questions. What does a typical day look like for you?
Oh, man. Well, I’ve got 3 kids, so the morning looks like the D-day invasion. Doing a lot of extra projects, the easiest way to get things done is to sacrifice sleep. During the Max100 project, I’d get up at 5am, go to the office, and work for about 3 hours on my own stuff before working my day-job. It’s important for me to get away from the computer for a little while during the day so, when I can, I grab lunch outside the office and clear my head.
After work, I go home and it’s craziness with the kids. I try to get as much time with them as I can. It’s Legos, playing cars, breaking up fights, giving baths, and getting them to bed. My T.V. viewing has definitely gone down. Then, I take some time with my wife. She’s so exhausted from the day that she’ll go to bed early and then I’ll work some more. I’m in a spot in my life where I’m trying to find balance. It’s been tough. It’s hard because I want to get everything done.
Current album on repeat?
I’m a humongous Ryan Adams fan. Love his voice and songwriting. Someone just sent me a link to download one of his live concerts from a September show in Denver, CO.
How about a favorite movie or movies?
Of all time? I’d have to say Raiders of the Lost Ark. I just saw Drive, which was really good and unlike anything I’d seen before. In general, I just love Christopher Nolan movies.
[Ryan] That’s funny. Almost all of the guy designers we’ve interviewed have said Christopher Nolan. [Tina] I think we need to interview Christopher Nolan.
I have Greek on one side of my family. I have to say, I love Greek food. I like anything that has a lot of garlic.
Last question… What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
As a father, that’s easy. I hope that my kids remember me as being very involved in their lives and caring about them. Not just in the sense that every dad loves their kids, but that I was interested in them and cared about what they cared about. I want to be remembered as a caring father. That’s a huge part of what forms us as people.
As a creative, I want to be remembered as doing smart work. Not that it was good or that I had the best technique, but that it was smart and thoughtful.