"Black-and-white is timeless, sexy and cold" believes Matt Moore. With a lifelong love of the medium, this designer is pushing the boundaries of monochrome work, as Ed Ricketts finds out.
"Range is conducive to growth," runs Matt W. Moore's motto. In corporate circles this would be nothing more than an empty, glib 'mission statement', but if you have any doubt as to his sincerity, you need only to look at the astonishing output of this modern American success story.
At the age of 27, he's a full-time web designer for Burton Snowboards by day, while pursuing his other artistic outlets in his spare time through MWM Graphics. That means work for Nike, Smart Car, Ecko, Threadless, Mavis Media, Samsung and others, as well as his self-published B&W Bangers book series, the Vectorfunk series of posters, and the Wallspankers web project.
Moore's whole life has been consumed with drawing from the earliest age, and, indeed, he sees his adolescent sketchbooks as "a personal autobiographical journey, although there are few words in them. I went from sketchbook doodles, to graffiti, to more refined illustrations, to canvas work, and now design that combines and explores each discipline. Seeing my own growth is a huge motivator to keep pushing myself in new directions."
Such passion meant that there was never any doubt in his mind that he would have a lifetime career as an artist. "Everyone that I look up to has always encouraged me, and I never let myself even consider another path in life. It has been a long uphill hustle, but there is nothing that I could be doing that would satisfy me more," he says.
The long hustle has consisted of a huge number of art-related jobs, such as screen printer, pre-press designer and ad designer. He took courses in design and illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design as well as the Rhode Island School of Design - close to his native Boston, where he studied marketing and even copy-writing. The latter led to his position at the ad agency, which he took in order to learn about the business side of design. Meanwhile, he had the opportunity to show his work in fine art galleries.
All this variety, he believes, is vital to ensure personal and artistic growth. "I've taken advantage of the opportunities that have come my way, even the challenging ones. Gaining skills in one discipline almost always informs another. For example, I never would have gotten to where I am with logo design if it weren't for my history with graffiti. And I couldn't have self-published my books if I didn't have the foundation in printing and print design. I'm still young. I hope to explore many more creative roles."
The Burton job, and many of his own projects, keep him connected with an early and still abiding love: graffiti. It's a habit which he developed during his teens, and, indeed, it was his love of Sharpies (black marker pens) and the clean, clear lines they produce that eventually led to Adobe Illustrator and his experiments with monochrome designs.
"The balance can be tough at times, but I never bite off more than I chew," he says of his gruelling, self-imposed regime. "My wife is also working and in school, so we plan around our schedules. I work lots of nights and weekends, but it's work that I am proud of and it keeps me feeling alive. I believe that a few more years of this grind will put me in the position I want to be in."
Refreshingly, living a rock 'n' roll designer lifestyle doesn't appear to be part of that ambition. With a young family to look after, Moore has recently moved to Vermont for the Burton job, hardly the epicentre of the US design universe, but he's happy there. "I've always loved Vermont. It has been a nice change of pace and we live right in the mountains. Burlington is between New York, Montreal, Boston and Portland, so some of my favourite cities are only a few hours away," he says.
He believes his breadth of experience is vital when it comes to winning pitches. Not that he has to do that very often these days - most work comes through acquaintances and friends he's built up over the years. "My clients come to me for my signature styles and versatility," he says. "Having knowledge in various disciplines has really helped me get exciting work. Some projects come to me with a very loose and open brief - I'm included in the brainstorm and get to contribute ideas before the execution.
"Other times, I get a firm brief that is already dialled and clear. These are fun too because my creative exploration is guided and more refined. Editorials are great because they typically don't get cluttered with messages and copy. The piece is the message, the visual communicates."
One of his most recent projects also turned out to be one of his favourites so far - a series of vector illustrations for design magazine ROJO and Smart Car. "It was a fantastic, open brief that required me to shine however I wanted to within my Vectorfunk style," he explains, adding that it felt more like playing than work. "I feel good about the client, Smart Car. They're making serious moves in the right direction and I really believe in them."
Far from being a distraction, his day job is also a constant source of pride for him, with this year's redesign of the website as a particular triumph. "I learned more during that project than on any other project so far in my career," he says.
As a self-confessed "major type-nerd and fan of monochromatic work", Moore is clearly fascinated by black-and-white design, and the B&W Bangers series exemplifies this perfectly. It began as a simple series of quick illustrations, done on index cards, as a way for Moore to quickly note down ideas for possible use in later projects. It's part stream of consciousness, part experimentation, and part art dump.
When, in 2005, Moore found he had a large number of these sketches in his portfolio, he decided to self-publish them as a book. The idea has grown into a yearly exercise for him - for life, he maintains - and he's about to start on the latest collection.
"Every day for a few months each winter I revert back to black-and-white ink," he explains. "The series is a way for me to do personal work away from the computer, and create a loose narrative that explores my new ideas and visual vocabulary. I plan to continue the series with a new instalment every winter, each time with a new twist and limited tools."
The first collection consisted solely of Sharpie pen work on index cards, Bangers 2 was created on larger paper with more intricate designs, and book 3 is "wet and wild," created using every medium available.
His other ongoing project, the Wallspankers e-zine, combines both monochrome design and elements of graffiti. The idea is to collect and share examples of street art from artists all over the world, and make them available as free downloadable black-and-white images. These can then be printed directly onto stickers and spread further on the global streets.
Issue 4 features 350 stickers from more than 100 artists. It's a gargantuan task, as Moore not only curates the collection four times a year, but also designs the magazine and publishes the website. But like all of his work, he's passionate about it and determined to keep it alive.
As well as his inherent love for monochrome, Moore thinks the medium is a great way to streamline your ideas and set yourself a challenge. "I strongly believe that limiting oneself, and setting parameters on personal work will lead to strong and unique results," he says. "Anything that can convey so much with so little is very powerful. The first ten years of my explorations with art were exclusively black-and-white... there are many moods it conjures up for me, especially one of nostalgia."
This is all the more surprising given the vibrant, almost psychedelic blaze of colour which often appears in his commercial work, echoing the graffiti scene. Is it difficult for him to rein himself in that way? "It's more of a balance than a challenge," he says. "Working monochromatically really forces me to approach the idea from another angle, finding a different balance and flow.
"The masters of logo design say that a mark must be able to translate to black-and-white to be successful. I believe the same to be true for a lot of illustration and design. Finding new ways to create texture, patterns, implied shapes and layers is a very exciting part of working without colour."
While B&W Bangers will be taking up most of his time in the next few months, there are other projects on the go. A show of his Burton snowboard graphics has just begun, and a combined Wallspankers book is going to press soon. Meanwhile, his work for ROJO will be on display in Barcelona.
And Moore's love for black-and-white work will be evident throughout it all. "Monochrome is timeless," he says. "The brightest contemporary artists and designers have created some of my favourite works in greyscale. We will continue to explore and push new ideas and aesthetics.
"I don't believe that new technologies will make black-and white art any less powerful. It is not a trend."
The secrets of monochrome success
Moore's top five tips for making the most of your black-and-white work€¦
1. While working in greyscale, balance and flow can become more powerful than in full colour art. Be bold.
2. Subtraction is just as important as addition. Try starting with a black canvas and carving out your ideas.
3. Texture and line variation are crucial. There are infinite ways to create shading without a gradient.
4. Step back once in a while and squint at your work. Make sure the art pops and has enough contrast.
5. Learn the history of black-and-white art. Be inspired by old woodcuts.