Craig Frazier

Illustrating Designer

Featured photos courtesy of Craig Frazier.

In my good fortune, I had the honor of chatting with Craig Frazier—renowned illustrating designer.

Having extensive knowledge on design disciplines and processes, welding along his ability to honor those disciplines as a designer, Craig continues to set himself apart as an icon in the design space over the years. Read on as he profoundly shares his thoughts on the direction of design, maintaining a healthy discontent for your own ideas, and how leap-frogging processes is handicapping your work as a designer.

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You’ve had a long-standing career as a graphic designer since 1978. Can you share briefly about what your journey’s been like, and perhaps what your current focuses are? I graduated college thinking I wanted to be an illustrator—not knowing much about it at all. Fortunately, I got my first job as a graphic designer. The fact that I could draw helped me get hired. Not so that I could illustrate but so I could sketch ideas and produce comps—the way design was done prior to the computer.

My interest in drawing informed my path as a designer from the beginning. I paid attention to the work of illustrating designers like Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Don Weller, Ivan Chermayeff, Shigeo Fukuda, David Lance Goines, Paul Rand, Per Arnoldi, Saul Bass and Jean-Michel Folon. I so appreciated their hand in their work and how personal it felt. I could see it not only in their illustrations but also in their trademark designs and even the treatment of type. I suppose they all represent a particular breed of designer that I aspire to be.

I think my interest in drawing has shaped how I see things from the beginning. Not just how I see form but how I look for essential elements. Drawing something changes your understanding of it and educates you on what is actually necessary for its representation. The more I have drawn—for commercial illustrations or personal—the better I have gotten at breaking down a form. This has fed my hunger for simplicity in design as a whole.

If I had to do it again, I would do it exactly the same. I would be a designer first, then an illustrator. My first 20 years as a designer taught me the purpose of design and the role that a designer plays in the business of his clients. I learned that the number one goal is to communicate—which relies on the harmony of all the moving parts—strategy, visuals, copy, typography, layout, scale, contrast and color. As an illustrator, I know that I am only one of the parts in the story to be told, even though I may command more visual space, my work has got to be respectful of the greater picture.

Though I tend to produce more illustrations that design, my design has become measurably cleaner and more concise. I’m more interested in simplicity and believable statements. That’s a result of a constant practice of boiling things down as an illustrator. I have gotten far better at understanding complex messages and expressing them up in interesting ways.

My current focus is blurring the lines more between illustration and design. I really understand how to help companies speak simply and with authenticity.  My job is to help them create their own visual voice—with particular goal of expressing their purpose to their audience. It is very loud out there right now with all the forms of media talking to us at once. With all the shouting, I’m attracted to intelligent whispering.

“With all the shouting, I’m attracted to intelligent whispering.

 

“Simple sells. Book cover design and illustration for renowned creative director and author/speaker Ken Segall. Books actually are judged by their covers and their ability to stop a customer in an airport or online. Simple is the secret.”

In 1996, you scaled down your design practice and shifted focus towards illustration work. Why was this the direction you wanted to head towards? The change was a result of several factors. I had grown a successful design firm. What comes with that is a lot of selling, meetings and project management. Actual board time had gotten reduced—and I missed that. The second reason was that my kids were little and I felt I was missing that stage for them with what the design firm demanded of me. The third was that—maybe with my maturing as a designer—I was feeling that I had more of a point-of-view to express than design assignments were asking of me. The last, and most important, was an itch to learn to illustrate and to develop a style that was all about ideas that were my own. Having hired a number of illustrators, I knew how much fun they were having and how much ownership they had over their work. The idea of drawing for several hours a day was a dream idea compared to running the design firm. In summary, it felt like a natural transition even though it was a move down the food chain.

With all these years as a well-established illustrator under your belt, what do you most attribute to your ability to consistently stand apart from other designers? Have you always been a natural at coming up with fresh ideas? People frequently think that creativity is a genetic predisposition of some sort—a talent that can be turned on and off with the throw of a switch. It is true that some are born with a creative inclination, but the reality for most ideators is that creativity requires constant and long-term attendance—and I don’t mean software updating. Like any profession, the road to mastery is paved with schooling, practice, discipline—and then more practice. If that’s the drill for anyone serious about functioning in the design business, what makes one designer different—and maybe better—from another?

The answer is mistrust. The fact is that some of the best idea-makers are malcontents. They tend to maintain a healthy discontent for their own ideas. Let’s not confuse this obsessive restlessness with grousing about bad projects or difficult clients. That’s normal. What I’m talking about is a pre-programmed suspicion about the merit of one’s own thinking and ideas—bona fide doubt. This doubt is different from ‘early career’ doubt that stems from inexperience and naiveté. In fact, it’s the opposite. This form of doubt is born only from experience and the time-proven knowledge that good ideas are just plain hard to come by. For a lot of designers (and photographers, illustrators and writers), this becomes a modus operandi—an unwritten code of travel. An itch that doesn’t go away until the right idea surfaces. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that is rooted in a belief that sameness is the enemy—that the search is actually for something that doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before. It’s a particular thirst for ideas that aren’t safe, that aren’t calculable, and that often feel uncomfortable—ideas that may, in fact, be hard to get used to in the moment of their creation. Once found, it starts all over again until another idea is unearthed—better than the last. A sort of Mobius rock-turning. And then again, before we get too content with things, we do it once more.

“What makes one designer different—and maybe better—from another? The answer is mistrust. The fact is that some of the best idea-makers are malcontents.

Does the ability to maintain a discontent for your own ideas ever put a strain on your creativity? I often find myself feeling creatively paralyzed when feeling an obligation to unearth an idea better than my last. I’d love to learn how you personally deal with this. No, because it is the strain that discontent creates makes for better ideas—that’s the point of the struggle. There is nothing particularly easy about idea-making and in recognizing that, it gets a little easier! With practice comes the understanding that ideas emerge from odd places and it’s their unpredictability that we can rely on—that sometimes we are just looking in the wrong place. Also, with experience comes the understanding that not all problems lend themselves to earth-shaking solutions. I’m not advocating complacency—just that appropriateness saves us from trying to get blood out of a turnip.

Accepting that we will come up with a whole lot of bad ideas in route to uncovering a few good ones is comforting. I find that it’s far more productive to suspend judgment of what I’m making in the moment and concentrate on putting down a lot of random ideas. That way I don’t interfere with a stream of thinking with the discouragement that recognizing a bad idea provokes. I try to compartmentalize the experience so that random associations can happen—whether or not they make a good solution. The goal is to trigger connections like dominoes. You can’t do that if you hold up every sketch to the problem the moment you do it. The real job becomes judging the ideas and that can be more objective after the ink has dried. 

“Accepting that we will come up with a whole lot of bad ideas in route to uncovering a few good ones is comforting.

Peddling. Materials: black paper, Xacto knife, Nikon D70

Blue news. Materials: blue Canson paper, Xacto knife, Nikon D70

Since 2004, you’ve been making several children’s and adult books. How did the idea to publish your own books come about? The first books I designed were the Stanley series, which were published by Chronicle Books. The first two books, Stanley Goes for a Drive and Stanley Mows the Lawn were adapted from animations that I had created as I was trying to learn animation. Each animation featured this guy that made unusual discoveries that altered the way he saw the world. Having the basic story lines, I built a couple of books, named the character Stanley, and presented the idea to Chronicle books. They took on both books and eventually a third, Stanley Goes Fishing. It was a wonderful introduction to publishing and how to make a kid’s book—which is far harder than it looks! I have since published another seven or eight books and have three in the cooker right now. Believe it or not, the making of a kid’s book calls on just about everything I know as a designer!

Having looked into the Stanley series and their reviews, it seems you have a really purpose-driven approach to publishing children’s books. Ultimately, what are some principles you’re hoping to instill into future generations? Why are these important to you? Though they have most of the components of any design problem, children’s books are an exercisemaking an idea last for thirty-six pages. For me, they start as a simple idea or even a drawing that can be framed in a larger story. Therein lies the challenge—is the idea worthy of a beginning, middle and an end? The principles I think about are the same ones that interest me about any design. Is it visually appealing? Is it well written? Is it a subject that is relevant to a particular audience—like a 5-year old? Is the story told well enough to keep you interested? Is there anything new and different about this book? Will it be fun to make?

I think if I can make a book that lives up to those qualifications, then it might be a decent book and have some value to a parent and child. The Stanley books were thematically about one thing—that Stanley solved a simple problem with an unusual approach. In each book I leave a couple of clues as to how he gets his ideas that would be fun for a kid to discover. In all cases, they are visual observations that he makes that trigger his ideation. For instance, in Stanley Goes for a Drive, as he milks the cow, her spots vanish like a draining glass. This gives Stanley the idea to pour the milk up into the sky to make rain clouds that rain down on the brown landscape turning it green. This is a surreal leap for an adult, but completely feasible to a child. I consider the job to speak to their imagination. I want to appeal to the parents equally and think they have to get something from the books as well. If the parents can get lost in a kid’s world and perhaps think more imaginatively—even if for a moment, then it was successful. 

Stanley Goes for a Drive, Craig’s first real picture book that led to two more in this series about Stanley.

Earlier, you mentioned a designer’s role is to communicate and improve her or his clients’ standing in the world. What does this role look like; what does it encompass? It’s my overarching responsibility as an illustrator and a designer. It is the lens that I have prescribed for myself that governs everything that I do—whether an illustration, a poster, a trademark, an ad, or an annual report. Designers tend to make the physicality of their design what is important rather than the effect of that design. I’m an aesthetic snob and care deeply about how my work looks—but that can never get in the way of helping a client tell their story or present themselves to their customers. That credo governs my aesthetic choices. A company’s story is not any different than an eight-page essay in The Harvard Business Review or Wall Street Journal. Both are very complex, proprietary, and hard to digest in one sitting. This is the fundamental design problem—sorting out complexity and reimagining it in digestible terms. This is a fundamental motive for me. Every client has something unique to them that they need to explain in order to gain their customer’s trust and belief. My job is to discover what is essential and different about their story and tell it in a visually compelling and informing way. If I can lead a customer to say, “oh, I get what you make and why I might need it” or, “I now understand the big idea you are trying to explain in your article,” I’ve done my job. I’m always trying to visually represent an essence. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an essay on the challenges of being a CEO or a company making a better organic ice cream—my job is to elevate and ultimately improve their particular audience’s opinion. If I can engage your mind’s wheels and cause you to see differently for—even a second—I will have contributed to expanding my client’s influence. Of course, this has a lot to do with my choice of content to draw and how I treat the page—but ultimately if those choices do not reach someone’s heart and brain, they are for not.

“I’m an aesthetic snob and care deeply about how my work looks—but that can never get in the way of helping a client tell their story or present themselves to their customers.

I’d love to talk about discipline. I know you credit much of your success to staying disciplined in the first half of your career, which I find so admirable. What does staying disciplined look like to you as a designer? I am lucky because I started in design when there was a practice of ‘growing into’ the role of a designer. Print design, in particular, was so hard to produce that there were myriad skills to learn along the way. Skills like making prototypes, type specification, and pasting up a mechanical board for printing. All of these mechanical skills were required for every job and could not be bypassed, in addition to the necessary design thinking of the work itself. Contrary to the computer where you can essentially enter at various places in the process—you have to go through specific steps in order to reach the finished design. Studios in those days operated somewhat hierarchically where young designers started at the more mechanized stages of design production and learned the skills to eventually work up to the front or conceptual stage of design. The actual building of design shapes the way we think about design. It’s no different than a violinmaker’s apprenticeship or training for any revered craft.

I was also lucky to work for some very good designers and be mentored in the truest sense. Before I learned to design, I learned to appreciate good design and understand the meaning and consequences of myriad design decisions. You have to patiently build a set of skills that are based on principles and practices—that work in predictable and reliable ways—before you can insert your personal opinions and preferences. The computer has thrust today’s designers way forward in their own development—actually before they learn chops. Ultimately, it’s a handicap. When you leap frog the sweat that goes into making a solution, you produce work that is thin and doesn’t have staying power. It’s apparent these days. There is a lot of sameness in design. There is a level of contemplation that is a byproduct of working analog. It’s putting more time into what you make not how you make it. It takes a discipline of patience and restraint. It takes hand skills. Every great Springsteen song starts in his handwriting in a spiral notebook, composed alone without the encumbrances of technology, other people or popular opinion—and he has 50 pages for every song he records. It’s just sweat and there is no way around it.

“Ultimately, it’s a handicap. When you leap frog the sweat that goes into making a solution, you produce work that is thin and doesn’t have staying power.

It took about ten years in the business, to understand my own process and what methods worked for me in solving problems. Much of my discipline is to honor those processes and constantly work at improving them. The business of design—and even illustration—introduces a commercial component that requires serious discipline to keep clients from dictating the quality and nature of our solutions. Making good work is only half the equation—the other half is making it in concert with your clients and bringing them along to appreciate and approve the most novel of solutions. The core of that discipline for me has always been to come to agreement with my clients as to the exact objective and messages that we are trying to express and solve. Clients don’t bring us problems in tidy packages. In fact, they usually require help in framing the problem before tackling it. As anxious as a client might be to see an actual design, I feel it’s important to stage the development of that design. I always want my clients to love the ‘idea’ before the design. Once they agree conceptually, they tend to trust your execution. That translates into looking at solutions frequently in black and white sketch form—contrary to making a sexy prototype on the computer. It’s the equivalent to liking the ingredients in a cake before baking it. If they hate walnuts, a beautifully presented cake won’t make them eat it.

Sticky design. US Postal Service stamps designed to make an envelope lovely. Worth every cent. View more of Craig’s client work here.

With so many young designers entering with a different degree of training and mentoring, where do you think that leaves the future of design? Do you ever feel a responsibility to pass along those principles and mentorship you were brought up with as a designer? I don’t really have a good sense of where design is heading—but there exist some signals for concern. The good news is design has become more culturally visible and revered as a necessary ingredient in making a successful business. The bad news is the making of designed things has been democratized and marketed to the untrained so as to make it a drag-and-drop exercise. Crowdsourcing, templates, and free imagery have done virtually nothing to advance the actual purpose of design. In fact, they have become industry-wide band-aides for the same problems that actually require expertise to solve. The consequence is a certain sea of sameness—not just for startups but established corporations. So many websites and emails look virtually identical because they use the same stock photos, the same icons and even the same language. Speed and cost has become the enemy of authenticity. Messaging has become disingenuous for many because the presentation of it has become so easy. What gets sacrificed is a sense of intention, craftsmanship, and originality—all the ingredients that make design work. Those things can’t be bought off the shelf, they have to be learned and come with practice. It’s brains not software. That said—there are several firms and individuals that are doing incredibly inventive design these days and we have to celebrate their work as standard-setters.

I do feel some sense of responsibility to pass on those principles because they have an interesting place in the dialogue about where design is going. Even though technology has wreaked havoc on the practice, the fundamentals of design thinking and problem-solving have not changed. The real opportunity is the melding of traditional design thinking with the ability to produce and distribute design with today’s technology. The best design today is doing that.

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