Designer Kyle Steed’s past took in architectural dreams and Air Force reality. He tells Martin Cooper about finding happiness as a freelancer and why there’s no ‘secret ingredient’
This article first appeared in issue 239 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
.net: Let’s start with an introduction. Who are you and what are you?
KS: I’m Kyle Steed. I live, along with my wife, in Dallas, Texas. I am 30 years old and still find it hard to explain to people what I do. Being a creative person isn’t like being a doctor or a lawyer: you get bored with doing the same thing over and over again. You always think about what’s next and are never satisfied with what you just did. The best title I’ve given myself thus far is ‘Professional Doodler’ because that sums up just about everything I enjoy doing.
.net: How did you wind up as a designer? What’s your career journey been thus far? Did we read your blog correctly – you were in the military?
KS: It’s funny to think that we all just kind of wound up in this industry (referring to the web specifically). You think about other careers and how some people are born into those career paths, as if they didn’t even have a choice. I always wanted to be an architect – since I was a little boy. I remember taking a summer course in architecture and getting a chance to work with real architects on designing a model house. That all changed, of course, during my last year of high school. I sat down in front of my first Apple computer and was introduced to Photoshop. This was 1999 and was just the beginning of what would become a very long and ultimately fruitful journey. I had my first design internship in 2001 with a tiny in-house design department. Back then it was all print work for me. I remember we had one web guy and it totally blew my mind how you made stuff work on the computer like that. Then I took a hiatus from any creative work between 2003 and 2007 while I served active duty in the Air Force. When I tell that story now, people always have the same reaction: “Really?”
.net: Your trademark handmade style seems very immediate, natural and automatic. How much work went into finding, developing and honing it? Actually, is it handmade or drawn, just for the sake of correctness?
KS: Well, I feel that everything is ‘hand-made’ but not everything is ‘hand-drawn’. More of what I do is the latter: from web design to icons to fonts. My path to becoming a hand-drawn artist started way back, when I was just a boy doodling in my room for fun. And that is still the same passion I try and bring to the table every time I sit down to draw, whether it’s for a client or for myself. I don’t want to take it too serious and risk taking away the fun of it all.
.net: Are you self-taught or traditionally trained?
KS: I would say that I am 90 per cent self-taught, and 10 per cent trained. I have had some formal design education, but most of what I do is from years of experience on my own – and trying and failing at new things. The reality is that whether we are self-taught or have a degree from an institution, learning never stops. The moment we feel like we know it all is the moment we need to pack up and do something different.
.net: Who or what are the essential drives and ingredients behind your work?
KS: This is ‘the’ question: I feel that everyone always hopes to discover the secret behind what makes somebody else so great. Well, I don’t mind sharing who or what inspires me – just so long as you know there is no such thing as a ‘secret ingredient’ to success. It’s simply hard work.
That being said, I find most of my inspiration when I am at rest. Giving my mind time away from all the other distractions is the best way to be inspired. Don’t get me wrong – there’s inspiration all around us. A conversation with a total stranger; the sunrise/sunset; architecture; old hand-painted signage on the side of a building that is fading away. Just name a place and I bet you can find something to inspire you there. But when I’m looking for inspiration, it’s usually only as far away as my pillow.
.net: What is a ‘creative voice’?
KS: To me a ‘creative voice’ is the way we designers speak to one another in images. The form is not nearly as important as the execution. You can say so much with very little going on visually. But I think you’re right: an individual’s creative voice is synonymous with their own style.
.net: You’re a freelancer. Have you ever been tempted to don some hipster garbs, tuck an iPad under your arm and join a flashy agency?
KS: Oh ... so that’s where all the hipsters are hiding? Inside the agencies? I’ve been wondering where they all work. [laughs] To be honest with you, I’ve just finished my first year being full-time self-employed and I love it. The rewards and challenges alike are what keep me going.
.net: How do you find work… or does it find you?
KS: Most of my work comes by word of mouth or through my website. It’s a total blessing for sure. But it didn’t just happen with the click of a mouse and a dash of luck. I put in years of hard work networking and building my freelance work in the evenings and weekends. I most definitely thank God for every job I get and for the wisdom to get out there, work hard and network to do what I love for a living.
.net: I’m guessing you work from home. How easy it is to separate work and home life when they both happen in the house?
KS: I did work from home for the first few months, but now I work out of this great co-working space here in Dallas called WELD. In the short few months that I did work from home it became increasingly difficult to stay focused throughout the day. The home presents its own set of distractions, especially having two dogs, and I now enjoy it more as a place of rest from work than a place I work at.
.net: What’s your creative process?
KS: Ninety-nine per cent of what I do starts on paper. I always have a pen, pencil and notebook on me. For example, whenever I start a new design project, I always begin with rough pencil sketches. I’ll come up with a handful of different sketches and then present those to my client. From there we should agree on one design to move forward with. After that I will ink the final sketch and scan it in and convert to vector. The final phase involves cleaning up the vector image(s) in Illustrator and adding any final colours/textures to meet the client’s needs. I use Dropbox to keep all my client work organised and ensure files are easy to share. I have stacks and stacks of sketchbooks at home to keep all my drawings organised.
.net: Is technology a blessing or a curse? Could you live without a phone?
KS: Technology – more specifically the internet – is a double-edged sword. On one hand it helps us connect in ways we’ve never known before; we don’t have to wait a week or two for mail to arrive in our mailbox. Instant messaging and video chat have become the norm for day-to-day communication, and that’s really changed the landscape of working remotely. It’s cool to be able to talk to people half-way across the world. On the other hand, I’m afraid we’re losing control of what real relationships mean. Face-to-face social skills are imperative to a healthy life. We should consider the impact our dependence on the internet is going to have on future generations.
.net: What’s your take on the use and misuse of the word ‘community’ in relation to web designers and developers? Are we really a community?
KS: There is nothing wrong with the word ‘community’. The only thing that’s wrong is how we choose to use the word. By definition, any group of people with common interests and goals is considered a community. So yeah, of course, web designers/developers definitely form their own community.
.net: Who do you admire most in the wider world of design?
KS: I remember the first time I saw [graphic designer] David Carson’s work. His complete abandonment of traditional typographic rules still inspires me. The way that he took it upon himself to break all the rules and wasn’t afraid to try new things is admirable in my opinion. But I think anyone that’s making their own path, who’s challenging themselves and isn’t afraid to fail is pretty stinkin’ awesome.
.net: If you met a young and frustrated designer, hungry for work, recognition and success what would you offer them by way of advice?
KS: Work hard and don’t give up. Don’t compare other people’s successes to where you’re at. There’ll always be people ahead of you and behind you.
.net: You signed your early blogs: “Stay creative” – what’s the secret to doing just that?
KS: I’m not sure honestly. I think just consistently pushing yourself to make stuff and not being afraid to try new things.
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