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Keith Bowman is a Philadelphia based graphic designer and illustrator with over 15 years of professional experience in the industry. He is the owner and principal designer of The Design Bureau of Amerika. His work has recently been featured in HOW, Super 7 and Design Graphics magazines. He is also being featured in an upcoming Super 7 artshow, and a book "Batteries Not Included" due in early 2006. Lastly, he also has some work appearing in an upcoming Fontmaster book. Keith lives in Philadelphia, PA with his wife Jennifer and their two cats.
When did you first decide to become a graphic designer/ illustrator? Was there a pivotal moment?
I was in college taking 3d animation classes in the early 90’s. Unfortunately I’m dyslexic so the X,Y and Z planes really screwed with my brain. I decided to take a page layout class and from there never looked back.
Who or what inspires you?
That is pretty hard for me to anwser. When I was in 6th grade, my english class had a debate on the pros and cons of hunting. I chose con because at that time I couldn’t see a purpose in killing animals. What I failed to factor in was I was living in a rural part of PA. Most of my classmate came from farming families. The day of the debate, I stood up and offered some pretty weak points on the evils of killing “Bambi”. My arguments were based almost solely on my emotional reaction to the topic. After I was done, a kid on the side of pro hunting stood up and destroyed me. He had all sorts of facts to support the need for hunting including population control, destruction of crops etc…I was humilated.
I made a decision at that time that I never wanted to be that mis-informed again. I realized that to be able to defend a point of view, I had to fully understand the other side of the issue.
I began to absorb everything I possible could. One week Iwas reading Lord of the Rings and the next it was Leon Uris’s Trinity or Kafka’s The Trial. My music collection went from Pink Flyod, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle and AC/DC to Echo and the Bunnymen, Violent Femmes, New Order and the Cure to Hank Willams Sr., Johnny Cash, Blue Rodeo and Patsy Cline. My favorite movies were Casablanca, It Happened One Night, Better Off Dead and Godzilla vs Megalon.
I really believe that that choice to try to be as well rounded a person as I could be, really helps me when I approach a design project. I try to be as open minded towards things as possible. I do have very strong opinions on things but I never claim that my opinions are right or better than anyone elses. When someone presents a idea, whether it be on a social or political theme or in a design execution, if it’s something that surprises me or makes me re-evaluate my position, then that inspires me. It challenges me. It reminds me that I need to continue to push myself to learn new things.
Where does your training come from? Self-taught? College/Art School?
I’m mostly self taught. I bounced in and out of colleges and community colleges whenever I could afford to take a class here and there. When I was taking a few design classes at a local college, one of the teacher’s was fired and I was asked to take over his classes. That was pretty surreal for me to be taking a class one day and then teaching it the next. I spent the next four years teaching and loved every minute of it.
I think people who take classes to learn a software application are wasting their time. Anyone can go to a bookstore and get a decent book or dvd on how to use just about any graphic application. I think college / art school is important for developing skills of conceptual thinking and learning and applying the principles of design. That can’t be learned from reading a book. Every designer should experience a crit of their work where they get ripped apart. Understanding why a design fails on a conceptual level and how to fix it is much harder than fixing a design that fails because of it’s technical execution.
How do you keep "fresh" within your industry?
Well I try to shower once a day. Other than that I’m not sure. I still absorb as much as my brain can store but that comes from everywhere. I’ve tried to limit the amount of design annuals that I look at or design magazines I buy. The industry is flooded with outstanding talent and I find that when I look at others work I’m intimidated on how great it is. It sometimes makes me feel like I’m starting all over again. So I’ve found that my best designs come when I design in a vaccuum. I’ve been doing this long enough that I am comfortable in my techniques. I just design to my instinct. Some days (sometimes weeks at a time) I just get designer’s block. There was a time when it used to scare and worry me but now I just let it go and wait for the right inspiration to come. Sometimes it’s a song or a package design.
I also have a system where on Jan. 1st of each year, I go through all the work that I did the previous year and delete and destroy 95% of it. The 5% I save I delete the entire source material and just save the finished project. I found that for a time, I was just going back and regurgitating past work to help get me through my “dry spells”. I think that was making my work stagnant. I find it more challenging and exciting to start with a clean slate every year and see where the journey takes me.
What are some of your current projects?
I am currently working on a 32-page book of black and white illustrations. I am also beginning to put together a body of work for an art gallery show.
Which of your projects are you the most proud of? And why?
Right now it’s hard to say. I basically hate everything I do about 15 minutes after it’s completion. That might sound unhealthy but I find that it helps keep me motivated to keep trying to create that one piece that is just spot on. I guess I should clarify that I don’t hate everything, I just always feel that I can find ways to make it better…. although I do end up hating a lot of what I do, which makes it easy to destroy at the end of the year. One piece that I think will make the cut this year and I completed recently (and still like) is an illustration of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?
I was recently given an old letterpress that when I get a house (hopefully in the next year), I plan on building a bigger studio and take a course of how to use my letterpress. It’s a very long and difficult process but I really would love to have the chance to try it.
Any advice to the novice designer/ illustrator?
Dedicate your life to the craft and respect the designers who came before you. I used to tell my students that they have to be willing to design no matter what drama is going on in their life and no matter what they doing. I used to say that once they graduate, if they don’t get a job as a designer right away that doesn’t mean they stop designing.
I spent a few months working for an ad agency that was pure hell. They didn’t care about good design; they just cared about the profit. I was asked to do ridiculous things like put bevels on everything and drops shadows on 12 point type that was on a path! I was making great money but after about 2 months of this I couldn’t live with myself anymore. I didn’t see the point of spending all those years learning my craft just to compromise my designs for the comfort of a steady paycheck. So I quit and got a 3rd shift job in a grocery store stocking shelves. I took the 3rd shift so I could spend all day on my freelance work. One night as I was stocking dog food and baby diapers, I ran into a former student. I could see the confusion on his face when he saw me. He told me that after he graduated, he couldn’t find a design job so he gave it up and now was working construction. I explained to him that I was working freelance and had a few projects going. I will admit that I was briefly embarrassed that I was stocking diapers at 3 am but at the same time I had the satisfaction of knowing that in a few short hours I would be back at my studio working on design. That’s the only thing that is important to me.
Money can always be made. It doesn’t have to be from design jobs to validate someone as a designer. Working on design and your craft no matter what because you would be miserable if you couldn’t that is what makes a true designer in my eyes.
What makes a designed piece or illustration successful?
There comes a time, for me it is usually in the early hours of the morning before the sun comes up. I ‘m usually on my 2nd or 3rd pot of coffee and through half a pack of smokes…at that time I like to listen to the jazz heavyweights like Lady Day or Coltrane. I finish up a project I’ve been working on (sometimes for days straight) and as I look at the finished work, the corners of my mouth start to curl up every so slightly. It’s an unconscious and involuntary reaction. It just happens. I just sit there and stare at it. Looking at every little detail, I think back on all the effort that was put into it. It’s at that moment. Just for a brief few minutes…I enjoy what I just labored to create. Those few minutes, however fleeting, are what I live for and what I design for. I then go to bed and wake up an hour or two later and look at it again. More times than not, I don’t like it anymore or start to think about what could be done to make it better. Sometimes I decide to start all over from scratch. It doesn’t really matter to me though because I had those few moments of clarity and now I just work for the next moments.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?
For me I think it helps to realize that there is always going to be someone who is “better” than me, someone will be taking design and art into uncharted territories. For me I just worry about what project that I am working on and make sure that I am pushing it and myself to be the best solution that I can create.
I don’t avoid burn-out, it just happens. Sometimes it’s longer than other times. It just makes me appreciate the times when I’m “on” and the design is something I can be proud of.
And finally, what is the best thing on prime-time TV right now?
Right now? Or in general? I will admit I’m a big fan of “Lost”. I think it was one of the best written and acted dramas to come along in years…but I’m sure they will screw it up this season or jump the shark. Also I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit I really enjoy The Gilmore Girls. It has some great writing and reminds me of the screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s.
The Design Bureau of Amerika™
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