Frank Chimero is an illustrator, graphic designer and writer whose creative output focuses on process, curiosity, visual experience, mental dexterity and play. Each piece is the part of an exploration in finding wit, surprise, honesty and delight in the world around us. His clients include The New York Times, Nike, Starbucks, Business Week, Wired Magazine, Time Magazine, Glamour Italia, Good Magazine and Edizioni Corraini Press.
We’re so thrilled to have him as an Illustrated artist. Check out Muttnik, Frank’s limited-edition Scout Book Illustrated over in the shop. And check in below for Frank’s thoughts on illustration, style, inspiration and process.
You consider yourself a graphic designer and a writer. How does illustration fit in there?
I’ve been making pictures longer than I have been writing. Think about that for a moment… We make pictures before we learn to write. So, I think it’s more about how design and writing fit into illustration. I think I share an equal passion for all three, they’re just different ways of communicating. Languages, if you will.
Sometimes a language will have a word that’s best for describing an idea, sort of like how the French have a term meaning the feeling you get after leaving a conversation and thinking of all the things you should have said. God. I know that feeling. (And how great is it that that phrase exists?! It’s l’espirit de escalier, by the way.) I can’t describe that feeling in an image. I can’t even describe it concisely in English. I need French to do that. Ideas are like that too. The right tool for the right job, the right language for the right idea.
Can you describe your signature “style?” What do you think about the idea of style, anyways?
I hope my style is to have a simplicity in form, a clarity in concept and a conciseness in message. I want to have fun making it, and I want it to be fun to consume. I want it to be nourishing. I hope that can be a style. Basically, everything you see is my attempt at hitting these targets.
Style is such a complicated thing thing now. Some people tell young practitioners to avoid style so they can grow. The market says illustrators should have a style so clients can minimize risk and predict what they will get. Other people say no style is a style. How do we reconcile those differences? We don’t worry about it. I think it’s okay to have a style, as long as it represents what you believe. Unless the style is parallel to your beliefs and priorities, you’re essentially just playing dress up. I think it’s damaging to have a “style” that imitates some one else: it’d be like wearing a halloween costume every day. If you’re comfortable in your own shoes and making work that reflects what you believe in the best possible way, it’s not a style any more. It’s just you, making the work that only you can make.
What was your inspiration for the illustration for this Scout Book?
The sketchbook is a personal accessory. I think about the objects I carry around with me everywhere: phone, leather wallet, key chain, Jack Spade bag with a book in it and a sketchbook. The selection of each is a reflection of what I consider to be my “style.” Out of all of those, a sketchbook is the most like the wallet. It’s an idea wallet. It sits in my back pocket, and sometimes ideas go in it, and other times I have to pull an idea out.
Deciding that the book was a personal accessory, I thought that the best approach would be to not make an illustration, but to follow the example of fashion and make a pattern. The pattern is an attempt at me making something a modern, classic, yet still a bit fun and opinionated. When I realized that a lot of different kinds of content is held in these little books, the more a structureless pattern seemed to be the right direction. It’s a modge-podge of a bunch of different stuff. The pattern is ambiguous enough to receive wireframe sketches for websites, grocery lists, notes from reading or sketches.
You’ve written: “Talk and think about process. It’s important.” Tell us about why creative process is important. Does sketching play into your creative process?
If I put a hamburger in front of you, and you had never seen a hamburger before, would you be able to deduce that it came from a cow? That’s why process is important. It’s the same for creative work. If I show you a final product, and you’re trying to be a student of the craft, meaning to always learn and improve, you only get so far from analyzing the end product. People think that there’s some harm in letting others into the details of the process. “They’ll steal!” they say. But I don’t think so. For them to be able to steal your juju means that the process would be a recipe anyone could follow. And anyone that has ever made anything knows that the creative process is way different than cake mix.
I sketch a lot, but I’m finding that the more I focus on ideas, the more word-based the stuff in my sketchbook becomes. Ideas are written down, small diagrams are drawn out. If you were to tell someone “This is the sketchbook of an illustrator,” and then hand it to them, I think they would be disappointed. They’d see awful drawings. A blob on top of another person-ish blob, the top blog labeled “hotel” and the bottom blob labeled “guy holding hotel like Atlas.” If you were to approach my sketchbook as an artifact documenting my drawing skills, I’d be ashamed of it. If you were to consider it an artifact of my thinking and reasoning skills, I’d be proud of it. It’s reasoning out loud. So, caution: Wet Paint.
Where do you gather your inspiration? How do you work through creative road-blocks?
I get it from the stuff I come in contact with. Same as everyone else. If I’m stuck, I need to walk away.
Walking away usually means relaxing and being self-indulgent. Getting stuck usually starts a panic that feeds itself and snowballs. Anything I can do to break that cycle is smart. Otherwise, the lizard brain wins.
You write. And you write well. One of my favorite articles of yours is called “10 Principles That May Make Your Work Better Or May Make It Worse.” You say “An idea on the page is worth 100x more than an idea in the mind.” Why is execution important? When does an idea become legitimized?
Execution is important because you don’t learn otherwise. We learn best through experience and by doing, and doing creates artifacts. If you make something (even just a rough something), now you have something to talk about, something to critique, something to analyze and something to change. More importantly, you get a sense of accomplishment. You were productive and you get to see what you did that day. I think there’s a special satisfaction to that, but unfortunately the fear we have of judgement is stronger than our memory of the pride of doing something.
I think an idea is legitimized when it can push back against criticism and if it can prove itself worthy of existence. Does it make some thing better? Does it make someone feel better? Are you better for making it? Then it’s legitimate. Every kind of idea has it’s own set of concerns, so it’s variable. The set of concerns for a painting you’re doing for your mother is much different than a charter for a non-profit organization. But, the primary concerns are suitability and betterment. I think…
You read. And you must read a lot. Your blog contains your thoughts on relevant cultural and creative trends, as well as bits and quotes of the thoughts of others. Where do you gather these tidbits of powerful thoughts? Do you have newspapers or blogs that you check daily?
I’ve actually made a big shift in my reading material the past several months. It’s not CommArts, it’s Monocle. It’s not QBN, it’s kottke.org. It’s not Ffffound, it’s Snarkmarket.com. There’s value to understanding the principles of design and knowing what your peers are working on, but it’s not a day-to-day concern. You’d probably get further checking a food blog every day, because it triangulates your interests and you’ll naturally come towards it wanting to make connections to what you’re doing and what you already know.
Sure, you want your knowledge of the field to be deep, but it’s optimal to have your interests wide and varied. It’s makes your consumption more nourishing too, because all of a sudden you get context! Showing design for design’s sake only tells you that a thing exists and describes how it looks, not why it exists. To consume that way is to live on a very cursory level, and I think that leaves us wanting.
I’ve been thinking about the meaning of design for a while. And if you’re only looking at design work, it’s tough to answer that question. But, by getting interested in other things, the answer becomes very obvious. “Oh, design is about everything but design, so all this other stuff. Design exists for food and culture and linguistics and dog walkers and the city and agile programming methods and the federal deficit and the Hubble telescope.” Life is much happier once you see design as a cultural vessel, and realize it’s more productive and more nourishing to focus on the culture than the vessel. It’s a great lesson in humility. Forget that designer’s ego stuff: we’re servants.
To see where I consistently go, you can just follow along with my blog or Twitter. I cite as many sources as possible. Just be curious out there. Things will pop up that interest you, and you’ll want to make sense of them.
You have a section called “Ethos” on your website. Where do these thoughts come from? Do they appear after writing a long essay, or are they “Eureka!” moments that appear without warning?
These thoughts typically come from conversations with friends. I have to reason through things. Whether that’s out loud on the blog or drawing ugly boxes in my sketchbook or talking to friends, that’s how these things pop up. I’m just poking at things, trying to understand them. I might be wrong, but that page is the best set of inferences I’m able to come up with at this time. Call it a “document of understanding.”
We’re very excited that you’re relocating to Portland soon! What was the impetus for your move?
Trees, rivers, oceans, coffee, wine, teaching at a school that excites me and a creative community that is wonderful. Really, the thing I’m most excited about is the creative kinship out there. Lots of talented, egoless people working together to do exciting things. Oh, the beer too.
Are you excited to teach?
Teaching is always great. Students make me see stuff in a new way. And there’s something amazing about showing up regularly to a room full of hard-working, enthusiastic people who are working on stuff they believe in. It’s like a dream factory. Each classroom is like the best design studio ever.