Alex Cornell is a San Francisco based, musician, designer & blogger for the famous design blog ISO50. He has a very clean and simple, but powerful, style which often reminds me of posters from the 80's. In this interview he will tell us a lot about how he became a musician/designer and how this complements with his job as a blogger.
I had always been into fashion and photography, so it was a pretty quick jump to get into design.
First of all we would like to thank you for taking the time to provide abduzeedo.com with this interview. Please tell us more about your background and what made you become an artist?
I got into design through music and didn't start practicing formally until about 2.5 years ago. Up to that point I focused exclusively on music while I was in school. Technically I majored in psychology at Duke, but most of my time was spent playing in my band at the time (Running Lights) or as a solo act. I would frequently create promotional graphics for my bands and always enjoyed doing so, without realizing it was a potential career. I had never heard of graphic design until I bought Print magazine at Border's after band practice. I had always been into fashion and photography, so it was a pretty quick jump to get into design. When the band parted ways after graduation, I moved the California to get a Master's in design at the Academy of Art. Now I'm here in San Francisco and I don't plan on going anywhere anytime soon. Maybe New York City one day, or Tokyo, but San Francisco while I'm getting things started.
Tell me about your job at ISO50. How did you become a writer and what are the topics you talk about?
I've worked at ISO50 for two years now. I started out helping Scott around the studio with various design and music related things here and there, just helping out where I could. Over the years my responsibilities have changed; now I run the production side of the print business and am a full time contributor to the blog. A while back I posted a process report on the blog about one of my projects at school. I really enjoyed it and Scott and I figured it could be interesting to continue to do posts of this kind, to bring a student perspective to the blog voice. I try and split my time between short burst posts (like FFFFOUND with little bits of opinion) and longer feature type posts. When I got into design, Scott was one of the only artists whose work I was familiar with. Since that time, my two biggest idols have always been John Mayer and Scott Hansen. The fact that I work with one of them on a consistent basis is completely unbelievable. I am extremely fortunate to be a part of the ISO50 machine.
You are also doing music! What kind of music do you create? How does that complement with your job as a designer?
Having the ability to bounce between the two creative mediums is endlessly satisfying. When one side hits a dead end, I can switch gears and keep the creative gears turning. My mood is highly correlated with my artistic output. If I'm not working I'm not happy (though I have to like what I'm working on, sometimes logo projects can drive me absolutely out of my mind). The music I play is Pop Music, straight up. I learned the guitar first, and come from a jazz background, but I like pop songs. And I mean that in the most literal sense -- as in the music is popular. While I've been in SF, I've been splitting my time about 85% design and 15% music. Given this, I don't have a lot of time to write at all. Most of what I do is cover music on Youtube. This is nice because it's quick and easy on my side, and still allows for maximum exposure and the building of a fanbase for when I am ready to make a more original driven push.
I have become fairly good at keeping multiple projects afloat at once, but I try and keep it to three or four at max.
Describe what your typical day might look like!
Typical day always starts at 9am. Sometimes earlier if I have a meeting, but usually get going around 9. Breakfast consists of cereal, yogurt, and a granola bar and the New York Times. I am ALL about this routine and try to keep it intact everyday; it's very comforting. After breakfast I take care of what I call "The Nonsense". This is stuff like paying bills, making phone calls, and meetings. I do not like this part of the day, but it's good to get it out of the way otherwise I can't focus. After lunch (which is always some variant of a turkey sandwich) I start either A) working at ISO50 B) working on freelance work C) going to school or D) going on an adventure. My week is usually divided into three or four parts; it's always some combination of school, work, music, and ISO50. I have become fairly good at keeping multiple projects afloat at once, but I try and keep it to three or four at max. After dinner I usually waste a little bit of time and then go to the gym. Somewhere in there I'll play piano or guitar and sing for about 1-2 hours. Late night is always reserved for blogging and/or finding cool things to blog about. I go to bed at 2am at the earliest, usually closer to 3. Every once in a while I will take the day off and go on an adventure. My friends in San Francisco and I have become quite skilled at having adventures. I've become a master of balancing the work/play combination since graduating college.
Could you describe for us your typical 'start to finish' workflow when working on a design and what tools of trade, both hardware and software, do you use?
First the tools of the trade. I have a sketchbook which I loathe, but it usually starts the process in some shape or form. I work on a quad core Mac Pro and use Illustrator, Photoshop, Final Cut, and InDesign. Periodically I'll dip into Dreamweaver and Flash. I'm planning a trip to Blick to buy some painting supplies for an upcoming project. All of my music work is done with a shotty condenser mic and Logic Pro. When I start on a project, I usually just sit and think for about an hour. I try and think about what would be fun and what would get me really excited. I hate doing things that are boring or expected and this brainstorm process usually helps eliminate those options. I always start with the concept side of the equation and then decide where to take it visually afterwards. Concept is at the core of just about everything I do. Once I have a few ideas I'll pick three or four design books to go through and search for "cool bits". Maybe I'll find a cool color palette here, and a nice typeface there. Kind of like a guided inspiration session based on my predictions about how the project will go.
Then I will usually design something completely awful. Of course at the time I think it's amazing...but it's terrible. I'll look back at the beginnings of old projects and get really embarrassed. I'm not at a point yet where I can just sit down and crank something out quickly. I work fast overall, but I need to know which direction I am pursuing conceptually and visually before I can execute. Once I get something I am happy with I'll usually pass it by my roommate who can give me the ever illusive "virgin eyes" critique. After that I'll take a long break -- go to the gym, play music, acquire useless toys (most recently a Nerf arsenal) -- then come back and see if the design is still appealing to me. If it is after one day, I keep it and move on.
How does your job as an artist and designer influence your life? Do you feel that you see things around you differently for example?
I find that the most pervasive quality that carries over from my artistic live to my everyday is life is an obsession with detail. I'll find myself spending inordinate amounts of time deciding between different types of lampshades, for example, or oatmeal.. pretty much everything I do becomes a "process". I get so used to working carefully, methodically, and efficiently, that I feel the need to carry that way of behaving over to every part of my life. Finding an apartment took about 7 months. I haven't bought a pair of shoes in two years because I haven't found one that meets all my visual criteria (and I have a size 14 shoe...). Absolutely see things differently.
What are your coming projects?
Right now I am wrapping up a website for a non-profit, an identity for rehydration product, and a logo for two startups here in SF. The last one is proving to be extremely difficult, though I can tell when I finally get something I like it's going to be extremely gratifying. School will begin in February and I'll have to take on less freelance work. At some point I am planning to start a small clothing/art label but school keeps getting in the way. I suppose I am also "working" on a thesis, but things have been too busy recently to focus on anything school related while we are on break. Once things kick up next week I'll put the burners back on the thesis. I also do periodic work for Aeolas International, which is very time consuming.
In the end it all comes down to the quality of your work, but you have to work to maximize your potential. Be ready.
What are your favourite 5 websites, and why?
Kottke - It's like someone put an "awesome" filter on the entire internet and diverted it all into one place.
Kitsune Noir - Bobby is always right on top of everything . He also does a great job diversifying his posts and providing rich content like his Desktop Wallpapers or Mixcasts. You can tell he really loves what he does; somehow it comes through in his writing.
The Sartorialist - I love fashion and I love photography. Pretty much a perfect combination on this site.
The Selby - Maybe it's because I am moving into a new space right now, but photographs of artists living/working spaces are fascinating to me. And I really like the weird handdrawn interview format.
Magic Molly - An incredible writer. The blog itself is about nothing in particular, but the way she writes is terrific. Remarkably perceptive and insightful.
I like any blog that actually writes something worth reading. One sentence posts like "this is cool" or "this makes me smile" drive me insane. Maybe it's because, as a blogger myself, I know the effort it takes to generate a substantial post and I respect that. I like seeing real genuine content.
Once again , thank you very much for the interview. As a final word, do you have any tips for upcoming artists and designers?
The best advice I have ever heard is in this video. Changed everything for me. The other piece of advice that really hit home for me was from Chuck Klosterman. I saw him speak at Duke one semester and someone asked him afterwards "how do I get where you are?" (as in, how do I become a successful author too). He laughed at this question and explained that detailing every step he took to get where he was would be completely pointless. There is no way things would unfold the same way and trying to replicate his career would be futile. His advice instead was just to "be ready". Sounds basic but there was more to it than that. His point was to constantly be ready to take full advantage of any opportunity that comes your way. The most basic example of being "ready" would be to have a website where you can show people your work. What happens if you run into Michael Bierut and you don't have a website to send him to? You aren't ready! What happens if your website gets reblogged by Perez Hilton and you haven't updated your contact info! You aren't ready! It sounds basic but I am constantly AMAZED at how few students I see that are "ready". It's like they are willingly making it impossible for someone to hire them. Constantly shooting themselves in the foot. Of course in the end it all comes down to the quality of your work, but you have to work to maximize your potential. Be ready.