Mike Kus: Dreaming about design

Freelance designer Mike Kus tells Garrick Webster how he's capitalised on his love of the print aesthetic and taken it into the world of web design, apps and even software development

For a decade or more, web design agencies have been telling us, and their clients, that what you have to do is think beyond print. With notions like navigation, interactivity and user experience, the web is a whole different beast. We wouldn’t disagree with them, but when you look at the work of freelance designer Mike Kus, it does make you think again. He makes beautiful websites, which often look just like posters and seem to thrive on a print design aesthetic.

That’s not to say he’s some sort of throwback yearning for the long lost days of the pre-internet era. It’s more a case that Kus has taken his creative strengths and moved them to the web. In fact, he’s gone beyond that and has more recently been trying his hand at app development. “What I did was I took what I’d learned from print design and all my general aesthetics and applied it to web design, which worked out really well,” he explains. “With the web being in itself a platform to discover and share, it gave me the opportunity at last to share my work and sort of get in touch with people who could help further my career.”

Kus’ most recent project is a series of illustrations for The Mobile Book published by Smashing Magazine. This is the cover design

It was through his online portfolio that Kus’ work was noticed by Ryan Carson, founder of the online developer and events company Carsonified. While there, he helped redesign the Carsonified website. With a bold colour scheme, poster-like layouts, type that looks hand-drawn and illustrated elements, the site connects nicely with the real world, so to speak, but is very much an online entity.

During his time at Carsonified, Kus also designed a range of posters that the company used in a pitch to run Twitter’s San Francisco-based Chirp event, the first official Twitter developer conference. Each poster depicted an image inspired by a famous tweet – there’s one from Barack Obama, the Twitpic of the plane that crashed into the Hudson River and the very first tweet by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, for instance. And the poster aesthetic worked well again when Carsonified won the job and set up the site for the Chirp conference in 2010.

Kus has since left Carsonified, and relocated from Bath to Chichester. Not surprisingly, his work has flipped a little between actual poster design and creating websites that look like posters but do a whole lot more. His illustration work for the drinks company Berocca was printed and displayed at Australian bus stops, while his site designs for email marketing service Mail Chimp and Swiss-based web agency Amazee reached online audiences.

The poster work in Kus’ portfolio has led to major advertising jobs, such as these posters for energy drink Berocca, which appeared at various bus stops in Australia

“Not being very tech savvy when I went into web design was probably a slight benefit for me – to not have any knowledge of the restrictions of web design,” he explains. “Over time I’ve learned how the web is different to print, but that little bit of naivety enabled me to bring over the best qualities of my print design – the creative, colourful, illustrative stuff – and combine it with solid web design.”

He continues: “Now, as a freelance designer, I feel that my selling point is being someone who has a good understanding of user interfaces and how to make a website work easily for a user, but who can also combine that with the more creative side of design; the more artistic side,” he adds.

These days, his ambitions reach well beyond the web. Recent commissions have wrapped in app design as well, and Kus has created front-ends for websites and their tie-in apps for Zero (task management), Kicksend (large file sending), Gift Rocket and Create Digital Media. With this work as a stepping stone, he teamed up with developers Neil Kinnish and Pete Nelson, and they developed the Work Food web app. It was based on the idea of analysing people’s Twitter accounts and using that data to help them find a job, and was built into a much more sophisticated app.

Kus gave web tech company Carsonified its own striking look and feel through a print-like design for its web pages, with bold type and illustrative elements

Now the trio is releasing Mixture, a software application that enables designers and front-end developers to create websites without, for instance, learning PHP. One of the things Kus has most enjoyed has been the collaborative process: “Those guys are developers and I’m a designer, but we sort of marry up in the middle when it comes to the ideas part,” he says. “The amazing thing about working in a team when you’ve got these complementary skills is that you become more than the sum of the parts. You become better than just three people. I love the crossover. I love the fact that I can contribute to the development of an application not literally in the coding but through the ideas, and the same happens the other way around.”

That’s not to say that he’s abandoning print by any means. In the summer, he released a self-initiated series of posters celebrating the Olympics. Although the posters themselves don’t reflect the bright colours used throughout the materials designed for London 2012, the Olympics aesthetic really influenced him, going right back to the controversy surrounding the logo.

“The colour scheme, the areas with the bright colours, the magenta and cyan, and all the crazy colour schemes they had for it – that definitely inspired me at the time. The thing I liked about it was the boldness of it. While everybody was talking about how horrible it was, there was something about it that I actually liked. I sort of took that bright colour thing on when I designed the site for Carsonified, where I did every page a ridiculously bright colour with just one other colour,” he explains.

Mixture is software Kus is working on with two partners, which enables designers to create interactive front ends for digital projects

As we go to press, his most recent piece of work is another beautiful piece of print work – a cover and a series of internal illustrations for The Mobile Book, a publication by Smashing Magazine. Though he had an open brief, the pull to do something obviously relating to mobile phones was strong. He resisted, however, and came up with a series of different abstract pieces, representing the various sections. “It was extremely difficult but very rewarding,” he says. “I constantly had one side of my brain nagging me to take a more traditional, safer approach. I fought this off and stuck with the abstract – and I’m glad I did.”

We interviewed Mike Kus in the Influxis Lounge at the Reasons to be Creative conference in Brighton.

Discover 20 inspiring examples of design portfolios at Creative Bloq.