Best known in the creative community for his isometric buildings and cityscapes, Rod’s retro-tinged illustrations and detailed, character filled work seem to have appeared on everything. You can find it in advertising, theme park maps, iPhone apps, large scale installations, new media and book covers. Not only an award winning illustrator, he is also a well known thinker and speaker on design with a long history of involvement with both ICON and the UK’s Association of Illustrators.
Can you describe the layout and structure of your studio and how does it affects your working practice?
I’ve been in my current studio for the last eight years, it overlooks the Thames Barrier in London and part of a massive artists complex of over 400 studios here with fine artists, printmakers, photographers, sculptors, designer makers and more. My studio is in a converted Victorian warehouse and I have my own room with a view of the Thames. I have around 200sq ft, more space than I probably really need to work in but somehow I’ve managed to fill the room up! I much prefer having a studio to working at home, you work more regular hours and are more production with your time. You also get to see real living people everyday! The social and community aspect as well as being surrounded by other creative people is very important.
Do you think it’s important for illustrators to get involved in the professionalisation of their business? Illustration is quite a solitary pursuit, do you find it helpful being in touch with colleagues both professionally and socially?
I’ve always felt it’s vital to get involved and engage with the industry. I wouldn’t expect most illustrators to want to get quite as heavily involved as I have, but it’s important to build a social and professional network around you. You can’t survive in a vacuum. Being involved with the Board of Directors of the AOI certainly exposed me to things that I probably never would have had contact with working as an individual illustrator. Overseeing a company, managing and recruitment of staff, budgets, ensuring good governance and planning the strategic development of an organisation. It’s a voluntary role and did sometimes take up a considerable amount of my time. But I’m a passionate believer that we are stronger working together to protect and develop our industry through the AOI than working as individuals.
The AOI has helped me develop my career, so I also felt that it was important to give something back to help develop and strengthen the organisation for the future, support other illustrators and ensure the sustainability of our industry. I feel being a member of the AOI is a vital part of a professional illustration career. Working freelance can be a bit isolating and a part of the AOI can give you a sense that you’re not alone in this, you’re part of a community and you know where to get professional advice. With pricing, contracts, copyright and business development it pays to get advice from the professionals, and that is just one phone call or email away by being part of the AOI. My four years on the Board of ICON – The Illustration Conference, the US based industry conference, was much more focused on a specific task, being Chair of PR and Media relations.
Over the course of two conferences – ICON8Portland, Oregon (2014) and ICON Austin, Texas (2016) – we expanded the conference to 4 full days, adding the International Education Symposium and Roadshow maker-seller event. I think my experience with the AOI and international contacts helped bring a different angle to the Board, helping to widening ICON’s reach to be much more global conference. The best part of being on the ICON Board was working with the volunteer Board, made up from some of the biggest names in American illustration and design, who have become good friends. That’s the thing I’m really going to miss the most.
What did you read/watch/look at/listen to as a kid or teenager and did anything particularly resonate and have a lasting effect on you choosing a creative profession?
Comics were the thing that really got me drawing as a kid, particularly British comics anthology 2000AD. I guess I thought I might be a comic artist, though once I got to Art College I was exposed to a wider creative world view.
“The design aesthetic from old sci-fi definitely stayed with me and their visions of the future are still what I think the future should look like. And of course the robots were always cool! I also owned a few old tin robot toys as a kid, which were amongst my favourite toys.”
Apart from comics, I also spent many hours playing computer games. I don’t have the time to play computer games these days so I’m kind out of touch with what’s current, but my inspirations would do back to 1980’s computer games from my youth on the ZX Spectrum like Knight Lore, Batman, Alien 8 and Head Over Heals by Ultimate Play The Game, the isometric ones were particular favourites. Film has also had a major influence on me, as a child of the 70’s and 80’s movies like Star Wars (of course!), Indiana Jones, Gremlins, Silent Running, along with older Sci-Fi like Forbidden Planet, The Thing from Another World, The Day The Earth Stood Still and the 1930’ Flash Gordon TV show. The American painter Edward Hopper has also been a big influence on me due to his lighting and ability to capture a moment in time.
Can you describe your creative professional route to your current position?
After graduating from the Cambridge School of Art in 1994 I spent 2 years living in the city of Nottingham, working on my portfolio and also getting involved with the music scene managing bands and promoting gigs. I slowly starting to get my work seen by clients and worked towards getting my first commission. This was pre Internet portfolio days, so I sent potential clients sample postcards and visited London a few times a year to pound the streets with my portfolio. It took me around a year or so to get my first published paying print commission, an editorial illustration for a women’s erotic magazine For Women. It was for a short fiction story about a woman having an erotic encounter with the spirit of the Cerne Abbas Giant (the famous chalk giant on a hill in the county of Dorset)! Things could only get better after that! Like many illustrators starting out I cut my teeth and learned the ropes with editorial work.
“I’ve always felt it’s vital to get involved and engage with the industry.”
Eventually it got to the point where I moved to London so I could go full time. Once I moved to London in 1996 I used to do two mornings a week every week with my portfolio seeing clients, doing in excess of 120 meetings a year. Pretty much all my work was for newspapers and magazines to start with, and it built from there.
For the first few years it was really a struggle to make a living and keep my head above water, but slowly I started building up my client base and reputation.
In 2001, I completely reinvented my work, abandoning paint and mess for a Mac and Adobe Illustrator. I think my painted work had reached a natural conclusion, I felt that I needed a new challenge and wanted to reach different clients. As I continued to develop my new digital language new doors opened with new opportunities which has ultimately lead me to where I an today.
Do you surround yourself with objects that inspire or comfort you? If so can share some of your favourite “things” in your studio and why you love them?
My robot toys are my favourite things on the studio. I’ve had to restrain myself from buying more. I have a good collection of design books too, there’s so many beautiful books I’d like own, not enough shelf space!
Can you identify a major turning point in establishing your current process?
Deciding to buy my first iMac in 2000was a pivotal moment. The internet had become a thing, it seemed obvious that eventually you were going to need a website to promote your work and email to communicate with clients. I also was frustrated with my work and came to the conclusion that I needed to reinvent myself, let go of the past and evolve. I’d played around with digital stuff for many years on my old steam driven PC, but didn’t consider it was viable changing over to working digitally until I bought the iMac.
Initially I started playing about in Photoshop, but I found myself trying to paint with it, almost replicating my painted style which is not what I wanted to achieve. So I decided to use Adobe Illustrator instead as it would force me to change as the process is completely different to painting.
What is your essential studio toolkit? Are there any new technologies that are having a big impact or shaping your professional aesthetic?
Things I can’t do without in my studio as part of my practice, on the analog side A5sketch book, ballpoint pen, 2B pencils, craft knife for sharpening said pencils, quality eraser and 220gsm heavyweight cartridge papers. On the tech side iMac, Wacom Cintiq, scanner and Adobe Illustrator.My digital working process hasn’t changed much for a while, though I keep looking at the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil but Opposite & Above Pencil Sketch to Digital Final quite justify buying one!
I’m a passionate believer that we are stronger working together to protect and develop our industry than working as individuals.
What work of yours, commercial or otherwise, represents a real breakthrough moment in terms of business but also in terms of creativity? When did the isometric angle (see what I did there?) come to you? Did a lightbulb go off above your head?
I guess the isometric computer games stayed with me from when I was a kid, but I never set out to work in this way, but it’s something that has evolved organically overtime. I started creating isometric work at art college when I painted with fat hogs hairbrushes and acrylic paint on paper. After I gradated in 1994 and started working towards getting commissions, some of this work was part of my portfolio. My second ever published commission, which was for New Statesman magazine in 1995,was isometric.
Once I went over to working digitally in 2001. Men’s magazine Maxim asked me to create an isometric lingerie shop which helped me to develop my new digital isometric language. This then lead to more commissions and refining the style. The book cover for Change the World 9 to5 in 2006 then started me on the path of much more complicated scenes and cityscapes, the culmination of which was Where’s Stig? with Top Gear which took the detail and sophistication to a whole new level of detail.
Today I’ve created some hugely complex and detailed pieces such as the Bhartiya City|: City of Joy campaign with Wieden + Kennedy in new Delhi and my IKEA advertising campaign with BBDO in Moscow, either of which I would have had a clue how to approach in 2001. All along I’ve followed where I saw an opportunity and what I was having fun doing.
A new project lands on your desk…take us through your initial process?
Everything starts in an A5 sketchbook with very rough and throwaway compositions to work out the overall page layout and where text will be placed. At this stage I purposely draw with a biro so that I can’t erase anything, keeping away from detail to keep the ideas flowing.
Compositionally it’s important to have flow through the piece, leading the eye on a journey. The piece has to work as a whole and not look like the sum of its parts or be disjointed. It’s important not to be seduced into the detail too soon and lose sight of the overall goal. I also need to give myself enough thinking and doodling time at the beginning of a project before producing a finished rough drawing. That’s where the real hard work is done and is the foundation of a great piece of work.
After I’m happy with the very rough compositions and idea, I moved on to creating a detailed fully finished pencil rough, drawing with a 2B pencil on heavyweight cartridge paper usually atA3. It’s at this point I work out the amount of detail in the piece. With some of my detailed pieces the old adage “less is more “might not initially seem to apply to my work, but it’s far from chucking loads of stuff in and hoping it holds together. If I keep adding more stuff, it doesn’t automatically make it a better piece. In lots of ways it’s like having 20 illustrations in one, each small part telling a story in itself, which then forms a larger story.
The roughs are then scanned and used as a guide in a background layer in Adobe Illustrator to produce the final artwork. After using a normal Wacom tablet for quite a long time I decided to invest in a Wacom Cintiq to help with the work flow and speed things up. It’s been a pretty wise investment as drawing directly onto the screen made things much more natural and intuitive.
I tend to use Illustrator as a straight drawing tool and use effects sparingly, aiming to keep the hands on feel with my work, despite producing the final artwork on the computer. At the end of the day the computer should just be seen another way of making a mark on a page. Everything is broken down into many layers so I can keep track of all the detail and make things easily editable for myself.
Can you share some thoughts on what you are working on at the moment or planning to work on in the next few months?
Currently I’m working on an annual report for an energy production company, it’s more of an information graphics type of thing. I’m also planning out some new self initiated projects, just need to set aside the time to get properly stuck into them!
Do you still have time to produce personal work? Do you have any hobbies outside of work?
I’m pretty much constant with client work but I do try to fit in self-initiated and noncommercial projects a few times a year. It can’t all be about money, we need to have some creative fun too. I guess I must be pretty boring as most of my interests revolve around the creative arts; galleries, comics, movies and music. I do try to fit some cycling in when the British weather isn’t totally atrocious!
Do you have any advice for someone interested in following in your chosen path?
Get out there and get your work seen by as many people as possible. You should never be afraid to show people your work. It’s important to invest enough time and resources in promoting your work and explore all possible markets. You may be the best designer/illustrator in the world, but if no one sees your work you won’t get commissioned.
Be yourself and indulge your personal interests in your work, that will set you part from everyone else.
Perseverance. It can take quite some time to get really established.
There’s much more to being an illustrator than drawing pictures, so it’s vitally important to educate yourself if you want to have a successful and sustainable career. There’s a steep learning curve for the actual business of illustration – pricing, contracts, ethics, copyright and managing clients., so I highly recommend joining the Association of Illustrators (AOI) www.theaoi.com .
They’re constantly campaigning to protect all illustrator’s rights, and if you need advice and support with developing your career it really pays to get help from the experts. I know first hand the value of being a member and the confidence it gives you in your career. I wouldn’t be the successful professional I am today without their training, advice and guidance over the years.