Monday, January 11, 2010

Designed To Rock

Dirk Fowler is one of the most sought after designers in the world of gig poster design. He's designed the sweet watch tins your Fossil watches come in, he's designed posters for Lucero, Modest Mouse, Loretta Lynn and Wilco... all while shaping young minds as Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Texas Tech and running a design company, F2 Design, with his wife.

Bona Fide Darling: To start off with... who are your favorite bands, what do you listen to most?

Dirk Fowler: Always start with the hardest question, right? I’m pretty old school really. I listen to a lot of Ramones, The Clash, stuff like that. I really like very old country and bluegrass too, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Stanley Bros., etc. Don’t get me wrong though, I listen to tons of new stuff too. Today, I am listening to a band called Delta Spirit.

BFD: You started off as a musician, then went into advertising, then to teach at Texas Tech... kind of an odd route to where you are now. What do you think you learned along the way that you use in gig poster design?

DF: Well, though I played a little music in my time, I would never really consider myself a “musician”. I think my years in advertising have made me appreciate making design like concert posters a lot more. It was very stressful, I worked tons and I wasn’t always excited about the projects I had to work on. I’m also much more mellow about things now. Spending a few years in advertising will help you see what is really important in life. Teaching has been great. I enjoy being around the students great deal. It is very satisfying to see them graduate and become successful designers and know you played at least a little role in that.

BFD: Has anyone ever told you that you resemble Mike Mills from REM? I didn't just bring up something bad did I?

DF: I suppose there are worse people you could have compared me to, but no, you are the first to tell me that.

BFD: How did you get your start in gig poster design?

DF: Like most, I started doing flyers for local bands and venues. I made a trip to Nashville in the late 90s to visit Hatch Show Print. After that, I was hooked on letterpress and within a few months, I had a press and started making prints.

BFD: You use a letterpress for you work, how similar is it to working with screen printing?

DF: Really, the only similarity is that you are printing by hand and not through digital means. In screen printing, you push ink through a mesh and onto the paper. Letterpress is printing from a raised surface. The ink is applied to the raised plate and the paper is pressed against it, transferring the image.

BFD: What is your design process like? Do you sketch, then clean it up on a computer an press it out?

DF: Yes, that is basically what I do. I usually make sketches that are scanned and then redrawn/cleaned up on the computer. I print out paper templates that I use to hand cut the printing plates. I am not anti-computer, I use it all the time, I just don’t get much enjoyment form sitting in front of it. I use it mostly like it were a drawing table. I use it to assemble and rearrange.

BFD: Who was the first big name band you worked with?

DF: Well, I had done a few bigger names like Modest Mouse and The Decemberists (before they were known) through the venue, but the first really big band to hire me directly was probably Wilco. I’ve done quite a bit for them over the years.

BFD: How long did it take before they started coming to you?

DF: I was pretty lucky. Not long really, only a couple of years.

BFD: Are you surprised by the rise in gig poster popularity? What do you attribute it to?

DF: I’m really amazed at how big it has gotten. It seems like everyone is doing it now. I think it is just that music people really like having a visual to connect with their favorite band or to commemorate a great show they went to. It also seems that over the past few years, their is a section of people who really appreciate things that are made by hand. Look at the popularity of screen printing in general now and websites like Etsy, etc.

BFD: Fonts are really important in a design, maybe as much as the graphic. How do you decide on what font to use?

DF: I used to be really snobby about type, but being a letterpress printer has gotten me over that quite a bit. I really depend on just a few fonts and it happens to be what cases I own in metal and wood. I decide now based more on what size I need than what the type looks like or what it is named. That being said, I do quite a bit of hand lettering mostly based on wacky old display type. I have never really been able to explain how to pick the right type for anything, it just seems to work out for me most of the time. I will say that for me, it is usually a matter of choosing or creating something that compliments rather than competes with the image.

BFD: Do you have a favorite piece that you have done? What about one you wish you would have done differently?

DF: I suppose my Loretta Lynn print is still my favorite. In some ways, it sort of set a standard for what people expect my posters to look like, which is sometimes difficult. Not sure I can single out one I wish would have done differently. Probably some of my earlier posters, but I really try not to look back and regret, instead just move on to the next one. They are all building blocks. One day I will make a really good poster.

BFD: How do you deal with a client that wants a change to a piece that you think would be detrimental to the design?

DF: Like I said earlier, I think I have mellowed out quite a bit over the years. One thing I try to do now is actually listen to the client and not just brush off what they have to say. I think a lot of the time designers tend to think we are the only ones with good ideas. Most of the time the suggestions can be worked with. Sometimes a challenge from the client can actually make your work better. I’ve had situations where a suggestion was made that I just knew was wrong, and then I tried it and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a good idea after all. I would probably do it and try to explain to them why it doesn’t work. If it is a case where we just are not able to see eye to eye, I might suggest another designer they can work with. This hasn’t happened too many times in my career, but I think it is important for both parties to be happy. Life is too short to hate what you are doing. There will always be another project and another client.

BFD: Do you have any horror stories about horrible "nameless" clients?

DF: How much time do I have? No, actually I have had mostly good experiences. Most of the things I thought were horrible at the time, looking back were pretty much nothing. One of my favorite times was years ago I had worked all night on some comps for an ad campaign. I sent it to the client and later that afternoon she faxed it back to our office. Her only feedback was the word YUK! (yes, spelled that way), written in sharpie across the ads. Do I miss advertising? No.

I haven’t had the best luck designing CD covers either. On at least two different occasions, I have designed an entire jewel case package and had it ready to go to the printer, only to be told “We’ve changed our mind. Our drummer is a pretty good drawer and we are going to let him do the art.” What are you going to do?

BFD: Any words of wisdom you can give to aspiring graphic designers?

DF: You just have to work really hard. It could take years to get to a point where you are getting the kind of work you really want. You simply have to hang in there. Wading through the muck will build up huge muscles in your legs and eventually you can use those huge leg muscles to jump over everyone. Oh, and also wear comfortable shoes.

BFD: Finally, do you have an opinion on what happened with Mike Leach? What do you think the Red Raiders chances are of being good next year?

DF: I’m not a huge football fan, but it was definitely big news here in Lubbock. My opinion is that anytime someone thinks they are too big and powerful to have to play by any rules, bad things usually happen. This is what happened on both sides of the fence as far as I can tell. I suspect that with a high profile guy like Tuberville, they will be OK. The more people there are at the stadium, the easier it is for me to eat at a restaurant on game day.

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