In Focus: Matt Withers
We chat to London based illustrator and graphic designer Matt Withers about how he found his way into the industry, his working processes, and what continues to inspire his thoughtful aesthetic touch.
Who is Matt Withers?!
I was born and raised in South West, England. From a young age, I loved drawing and wanted to be an ‘artist’. When I was a toddler my Mum was in charge of a pre-school. She would try out craft activities with me, which I loved (there are literally hundreds of fun things that can be made from an old cardboard toilet-roll tube). I’m sure these activities helped fuel and develop my creativity. I went on to study Graphic Design at the University of Gloucestershire, and graduated in 2010. My tutors would frequently ask of my work “What’s the idea?”, which often stumped me. Yet they taught me how to think conceptually and to wittily engage with people through design.
Where do you currently live and work?
My wife and I live in south-east London, in Brockley. London is obviously a major hub for design in the world; it’s amazing to live and work amongst it. My time is spent working from home, in the spare bedroom of our flat, and also from an office in Victoria where I design YCW magazine. I love working from home. The flat gets loads of light and feels like a cozy, safe space to create from. Brockley’s also a great place to go for a stroll at lunch. There’s lots of great street-art, tasty coffee and food, and there are green parks to help clear your head. The office in Victoria is a less motivating environment to work in however; though it’s awesome working with the editors and as part of a team.
How has your unique visual identity evolved over the last few years?
I think the key thing that’s helped my style evolve is my decision to leave the notion of having a visual identity behind, and to instead focus on ideas. For the first few years of my career, I desperately tried to develop my own “style”.
I tried to make everything look a certain way, whether it was relevant to the brief or not. Lately, I’ve tried to not get hung up on that and instead I’ve just tried to express the idea in the simplest and most engaging way I can find. This, in a way, has led me to a new visual identity where my work doesn’t always match but there’s (hopefully) a common theme, a clear and strong concept to everything.
What do you most enjoy doing when you’re not working?
I don’t think I’ll live in London forever, so I try to make the most of it while I’m here. Perhaps one day all of these amazing gigs, restaurants, opportunities, exhibitions and great people won’t be close by. I love music; playing and listening. I play the drums in a wedding band and in my church (I use to be in a metalcore band but, sadly, we all grew up!)
If you had unlimited budget and time what would your dream project look like?
I think it would be an ongoing project – I’d love to design for the New York Times Magazine, or closer to home, someone like The Economist. Magazines like these create such amazing content to design for, and have an audience who are hoping for design that will challenge and captivate them.
Describe your workspace / studio surroundings; do you collect any interesting ephemera?
I find myself working from a number of places, but wherever I am, the desk has atop it a laptop, sketchbook, mechanical pencil and an empty coffee cup or two. My workspace at home has all my design books I’ve collected. I’ve got the classics like A History of Graphic Design and The Art of Looking Sideways etc. But there are also some more unusual things I’ve picked up along the way, like an anthology of vintage Harrods catalogues, a collection of World War 2 soldier badges and another on American motel signs.
List the 3-4 most read and treasured books on your bookshelf
“A Smile in the Mind” inspired me as a student and helped me to develop my approach to design. “Show Your Work” by Austin Kleon is brilliant and helped me to get past a fear I had of sharing my work online. Also, all of the Harry Potters – Hufflepuff ‘til I die!
What are your preferred tools, and materials?
I use notebooks, sketchbooks and pencils to record ideas, and the Internet (Google image search and Pinterest) and the world around me to help develop them. Typically I use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create artworks, but I’m open to working in any medium. The last is my creativity. It’s a great tool that needs to be sharpened regularly.
Can you tell us a little about what you’re currently working on?
Next month, I’m taking part in an exhibition called Show of Hands, which will be addressing the problem of Plastic Pollution in the world. I’m also in the process of kicking-off two new ventures; one is a running magazine I’m starting with some friends. The other is designing and branding a new ethical coffee company, based out of Congo.
What recent design or creative project have you seen recently that you wish you’d done and why?
My head often spins with jealously when I see any work by Christoph Niemann, in particular his covers for the New Yorker. The ideas and visual links in his work are incredible; his execution is also always beautiful. He seems unafraid of designing with anything; check out his Sunday Sketch series and you’ll see what I mean.