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Dan Stiles… Always Finishing with A Good Idea

Together with AIGA San Francisco Design Week, we asked designer Dan Stiles to present his projects and his process at Working Late on Wednesday June 10.

Dan, an Adobe Illustrator CC guru has designed some of rock-and-roll’s great gig posters and has just released One Thing Leads to Another: The Posters and Art of Dan Stiles, a collection of more than 200 of the full-color concert posters he’s crafted for bands like Arctic Monkeys, Wilco, Feist, Sonic Youth, M83, Sigur Ros.

Not signed up yet? There’s still time to grab a ticket. Then, read on; Dan was kind enough to take some time out from preparing for next Wednesday’s talk to answer some of our questions:

What’s the design scene like in Portland? Like everything else in Portland it’s growing by leaps and bounds. The Portland of today is radically different than the one of even ten years ago. You can’t kick over a garbage can without ten designers falling out, but somehow everyone seems to be able to find work… which is new. It used to be one of those places that was a great place to live but a terrible place to work. The scene is becoming more robust with more medium and large firms growing out of the tiny boutique operations. I think it’s finally starting to get more national and international attention. That said it’s still a little scrappier than New York and San Francisco, which suits me just fine.

You’ve worked with so many bands on rock posters. Do you have a particular favorite, and why? They’re all my children, but admittedly I do love some of them more than others. The nice thing about rock posters is that the client really wants you to stretch your legs. Rarely do ideas get rejected for being too out there. Quite the opposite, they get rejected if they aren’t wild enough. With every poster I’m trying to unlock new territory for me with new concepts, new approaches, new techniques. Some come together better than others (Sonic Youth, the Arctic Monkeys, Feist, Girl Talk, Elvis Costello) but I don’t have a single favorite. I’m always looking forward to the next project.

How did you get started doing rock gig posters? Do you remember your first one? Absolutely, it was for a rather ill-named local grunge band called Jollymon. It featured two bald guys with their tongues sticking out, I don’t know why. I was paid $20 and a free beer at the show.

How do you approach the design process when you get a new gig? Feel like sharing your tips and tricks? I’m always looking for what I call the point of entry. For me the design process is one of discovery and exploration. I don’t sketch up an idea and then sit down at the computer to execute that sketch in a tighter form. If you think of the design as an onion I’m looking for an idea that will get me past the outer skin. Then I follow that thread wherever it takes me as I plunge through the layers of the onion to the center, where hopefully a good design lives. The point of entry is not some “ah-ha” moment where I see the complete solution, instead it is recognizing the first glimpse of a path that might lead to the final design. Finding that spark comes from a variety of places. Sketching dozens of ugly thumbnails, cut paper collage, listening to a band’s music, getting their vibe, checking out their lyrics, writing lists, experimenting with shapes. I wish I had some five-simple-steps process to killer design, but I don’t. It’s always difficult and scary. I find the best thing to do is to just get started, I work until I shake something loose. I don’t like to think about seeing things. For me it’s much easier to create things, look at them, revise them, combine them, and in the end, through a collage-like process, create the solution.

You just had a new book come out; tell us about it. It’s called One Thing Leads to Another. Just like my design process, my entire career has a chain of events where one opportunity has lead to the next. With the book I wanted to do more than just show a couple hundred of my posters in small format (people can already see many of those same images free on the Internet). What I wanted to do was to share a little bit about how these posters are made, my philosophies about things like typography and color, how I got started making posters, etc. All the questions that people usually ask me when they see my work. The images of the posters and album covers and book jackets are still there, but interspersed among them are short chunks of writing that tackle all sorts of subjects. I like to hear about how people make things, but nobody ever seems to want to share that information. I think they feel it might strip away the magic and the mystery of their creations.

We’re looking forward to your Working Late talk on June 10. Can you give us hint about the content? You don’t have to start with a good idea, you just have to finish with one. I’ve been talking a lot about my process recently, which has required me to analyze something that heretofore has been instinctive. I’ve come to realize that thanks to the computer my process has become very non-linear. Traditionally my process started with research and sketching, then once the idea was all worked out it was executed. Each step along the path required a higher level of commitment to one single idea. The computer has blurred the line between thinking and executing; I can be halfway through drawing something, and if a better line of thought reveals itself I can follow it and see where it goes. double back to earlier iterations, or collapse multiple designs into a single piece. The processes of ideation, sketching and executing are now happening simultaneously.

Planning to be in San Francisco on Wednesday June 10? Get a ticket and join us in Adobe’s San Francisco office at 601 Townsend Street from 7:00–9:00pm. We’ll have food and drinks and Dan Stiles will talk about classic skateboard graphics, children’s books, comics, psychedelia, vintage advertising and their influence on his captivating poster graphics.

Get the details. And hopefully we’ll see you there.