Interview with Steven Wilson

Known for his colourful and vibrant style, UK-based illustrator Steven Wilson has set his mark in the industry not only in illustration, but also in typography, graphic design and art direction.

With a client base consisting of brands like Nike, adidas, and Virgin to Time Magazine and The New Yorker, the results produced by Wilson are always trusted to be on the frontier of design with a special touch of pop and psychedelia.

Wilson will be one of the uniquely selected speakers at OFFF Barcelona 2015, which this year celebrates its 15th anniversary. To give readers a taste of what to expect from Wilson at OFFF, we spoke to him about his attraction to colour, distinguished style and the brands he innovates for.

fluoro. Your work stands out from the choice of colours and the use of organic shapes. Some may say it’s your signature style as an illustrator. Did this style develop coincidentally or intentionally?

Steven Wilson. The colours are just what I am naturally drawn to.

I’ve always used bright bold colours right back to when I was studying. I think the shapes I choose are intentional in so much as I am influenced by certain things like everyone is. I used to look at psychedelic posters, particularly those created for the Bill Graham events, and although I have never really produced work that is directly similar to those posters, I think the fluidity that those posters have, was something I tried to bring into my work especially early on.

I started out as an illustrator around 15 years ago and the digital revolution was in full swing at that point, so there was a lot of very hard-edged digital image making around at that point and the computer was obvious in the aesthetic, so while I used the computer I intentionally tried to employ fluid and organic shapes as an antidote to that.

f. Your distinguished style has never stopped you from renewing yourself. How do you personally ensure that you evolve as an illustrator while keeping a certain identity?

SW. I just naturally want to evolve and keep moving. It’s important to me that I feel like my work is moving but it’s not something I force. It goes right back to my studies, we were encouraged to experiment and that played a big role in forming the approach to my career. Alongside that, I have a very low boredom threshold so I get tired of working in a particular way very quickly.

The identity aspect doesn’t worry me. I have always believed that so long as you are honest in your research and execution of a piece, it is inevitable that an individual’s hand will come through and you can still retain a distinct look to everything you do even if you adapt and change. I try to respond to a brief and adapt to whatever I think is best for it as opposed to forcing a very specific style and technique into every brief that is put in front of me.

f. You work with brands like Nike, Virgin, adidas and Converse to name a few. How did you start working with them, and do you see them aligning with your own ‘brand? If so, how?

SW. They approached me to work with them. Nike in particular, I have worked with on various occasions and it’s always enjoyable as they allow you a lot of creative freedom and they keep the briefs very simple so the outcome is usually good.

I have never set out to produce work that suits or aligns itself to any brand, but if they feel that my work marries well with theirs then I am happy with that, as all of those brands use creative design. I am happy if they feel my work is able to communicate to the public on their behalf and has the kind of mass appeal required to do so. It is one thing producing work that other designers admire, but ultimately the ‘job’ aspect of being a commercial artist is doing work that appeals to its intended audience and that is the public when you are working for those kinds of brands.

f. Each artist has their way of selecting work. Some focus on diversity, some on the challenges of the work and others search for similarities with the client. How do you select your projects and clients?

SW. In general the projects that interest me are those that I have most freedom with.

Earlier on in my career I tended to just do whatever was asked of me for each project, some Art Directors could be very prescriptive about what they wanted and there was little creative freedom. I was happy to do that, as I was young and grateful for any work at that point, but I dislike being used as a tool to realise someone else’s vision, as I don’t think it produces my best work.

It’s taken me a long time to get myself in a position where I can be stronger about the kind of work I want to do. I would like more creative control over all aspects of the jobs I get in. I’ve purposefully tried to produce work in recent times where I communicate strong ideas rather than just a style and technique. I am trying to show in my portfolio that I am capable of directing projects as well as executing them, and it seems to have led to commissioned work in the same vein, which was my hope. If I am approached by a client with something very specific in mind, I try not to limit my expectations to that of the client. I do suggest a different approach I feel could be more successful. I think the confidence to do that has come with experience.

f. Apart from album covers what types of projects do you favour working on and why?

SW. Self initiated ones as I can do what is of interest at that time. One of the problems that arise in having a diverse portfolio is that a client might reference a very old piece of work that is very different to the kinds of things I am doing at that moment, and it’s much harder to feel passionate about it if it’s the kind of thing I was doing 5 years earlier.

The ideal commercial projects are those that coincide with what I am passionate about doing at that time and very occasionally that happens. In terms of the kind of projects aside from album covers I also love designing posters. I am currently doing a lot of typographic work where the type is used to convey visual conundrums and ideas and the poster format is perfect for those.

f. What is your dream project?

SW. I’ve wanted to create a book for some time and have some ideas so that would be it, I think. I like the idea of creating something that is very personal like that, and because it would be something lasting [it would have] less throwaway than a lot of ways my work is used.

f. What’s the future looking like?

SW. Difficult to say. I have 3 young kids, which along with my work mean that things are pretty chaotic at times so I tend to just take things one day at a time. My plan with my work is to continue bringing more ideas into it. In the past I have perhaps been guilty of allowing the tools and techniques I employ to dominate at the expense of communicating ideas so that is something I am trying to develop more going forward.

Steven Wilson will be speaking at OFFF Barcelona on Saturday 30 May 2015 at 12.30pm CEST. As proud media partners of OFFF Barcelona 2015 we will be bring you the latest updates from the event. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for real times updates from Barcelona.

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