[OFFSET Sheffield] Interview with Steve Simpson
Renowned for his hand lettered packaging design, whimsical characters and illustrated barcodes, Steve Simpson's distinctive style, inspired by the arts & crafts movement, 50s advertising and folk art, has appeared on everything from a 1" postage stamp to a 200ft screen in Times Square.
Originally from Manchester, Steve Simpson lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. Ahead of his much anticipated appearance at OFFSET Sheffield in October, we spoke to him about his latest projects, career highlights and overcoming creative block.
Hi Steve, great to have you on board for OFFSET Sheffield this year! You’ve been in the industry for a number of years now – can you tell us a bit about where you’re from, where you grew up and how you got here?
I’m originally from Northwich, just outside Manchester, where I studied technical illustration during the mid 90s, followed by a short stint at Portsmouth College of Art. Up until the early to mid 90s technical illustration was the most commercial of all the genres of illustration. Most products in advertising were illustrated – everything from flashy airbrushed sports cars to watercolour paintings of strawberry jam. It seemed like a lucrative and buoyant area to get into but the advent of digital was coming up fast and printing processes had improved so much during my time at college that you were more likely to see photographs of sports cars and preserves in glossy magazines.
In the mid-90’s most products in advertising were illustrated – everything from flashy airbrushed sports cars to watercolour paintings of strawberry jam.
My first love had been comics. My uncle, John Geering, was one of the most prolific cartoonists of the 70’s and 80s. Most famous for his work for DC Thomson comics including Sparky, The Topper, Nutty, The Beano and The Dandy (Banana man and Desperate Dan amongst many others). This is what I really wanted to do from a very early age. When I was 14 I had worked alongside my uncle in his studio for the summer holidays. I was paid the princely sum of £5 a day. Mainly I drew the borders around John’s panels with a technical pen and some simple inking but just seeing him work and practising his characters was a huge inspiration.
I left college at 19 when I offered a job working on Danger Mouse at Manchester based Cosgrove Hall, which is where I worked for the following 6 years. It was a great place to learn your craft with many exceptionally talented artists willing to pass on tips and share their knowledge.
I think my first job was operating the xerox machine followed spells in the paint and trace department, special effects, backgrounds, layouts, storyboards and character design.
In 1990 I moved to Dublin where I worked on Teenage Mutant (Hero) Turtles. Ultimately I never lost the desire to work in comics, and around 1993 I gave up animation and drew comics for The Beano and Disney for a period. It was during that time I discovered illustration which seemed to pull all the skills I had learned in animation and comics in to one place – It felt like home!
We first read about you in connection with your ongoing series of illustrated labels for the likes of Mic’s Chilli and El Mariachi, which are arguably some of your best known projects – making use of your signature lettering style. Can you tell us how you first got into labels and packaging?
Mic’s Chilli was a bit of an experiment at a time when I was struggling to get my quirky illustration style to work with grid based graphic design. Quite often they looked disjointed. After a lot of thinking, I decided to forget graphic design altogether and approach the label as one big illustration. I attempted to illustrate all the lettering, icons, logos and barcode. Even the die-cut was wonky. It felt like a massive mind-shift for me and the result has changed the way I approach design for ever. In fact what I had done was revert back to traditional hand crafted approach designers would have used back in the 50s. It absolutely suited my style.
Illustrators often have a collection of materials that they use time and time again – what’s in your creative toolkit?
I’m a little type cast with regard to skulls ever since the Mic’s Chilli packaging. something I tried to avoid at first but the truth is I really enjoy drawing skulls so I’ve allowed them in to my personal work too. I’ve always been fascinated by folk art, especially from the Americas – Pre-Colombian art symbolism crops up a lot in my work. Also, the Arts & Crafts movement and in particular William Morris would be a massive influence. I really enjoy playing around with surface patterns. Another major factor would be the limited colour palette. As my work can be quite eclectic it really helps to make my portfolio cohesive.
I won some awards with the design including a gold for packaging design – suddenly I was a designer – I hadn’t really planned that, but soon afterwards I started getting inquiries for packaging design. It’s something I really enjoy doing.
Do you ever have periods of creative block and if so, how do you overcome it?
I usually have up to 10 jobs on my desk at any one time so when I do hit creative block I simply move onto another job. Usually my blocks are about problem solving, finding the right imagery to get a complex message across – these tend to sit at the back of my brain and work themselves out. Occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night with the solution. I also listen to BBC6 music while I’m working, think good music helps, but generally just switching to something else to distract the brain works best.
I’ve always been fascinated by folk art especially from the Americas. Pre-Colombian art symbolism crops up a lot in my work.
Alongside freelance work, you frequently share sketchbook pages on social media, particularly Instagram – why do you think your followers find ‘behind the scenes’ so fascinating? Do you think it’s important to share your creative process in this way?
Drawing has always been the thing I’ve enjoyed most probably since I was able to hold a pencil and keeping sketchbooks is part of my daily practice for years. I don’t see the computer as a drawing tool, for me it’s a colouring tool. (I don’t use a stylus, still using a mouse). Everything, whether its a personal project or something for a client, starts in my sketchbook – I carry a couple with me all the time and doodle at every opportunity, be that in cafes, trains or planes. I think it gets a lot of attention on social media because people are most interested in things that can’t be replicated by an app. Craft has certainly had a huge revival in recent years.
Your portfolio is incredibly varied – can you tell us about your most challenging project in recent years?
Recently I spent 12 months on a retainer for a candy company in the States. My role was much more involved than usual; working more as the creative director and designer. I learned a huge amount about dealing with printers and sending final art – also spent far more time in Illustrator than is good for me – I’m a Photoshop man! It was an amazing experience but I’m glad to be back drawing again.
Can you tell us what you’re currently working on? Where do you hope to be in the next 3-5 years?
Currently I have I have a Day of the Dead related project for a Mexican Tequila on my desk. I have a new label for a super hot Mic’s Chilli sauce in the works and a couple of projects for French toy maker, Djeco. One’s a figurine of a pirate gaoler which has been great fun to work on. I’ve recently got back into painting – something I’ve neglected for much of the past 10 years. I’m planning on having an exhibition of more personal work some time next year – but at the moment I’m really just experimenting and having fun without the pressure of producing a number of images for a specific date. It’s amazing just how therapeutic laying down layers of paint can be!
We often ask our interviewees if they have some advice to pass on to young creatives out there – can you share something you have learned?
My favourite, and perhaps most valuable, piece of advice that I was given when I was a student; “Invest in a good chair” – you’ll be spending most of you life in it – better get comfy!
Steve Simpson will be speaking at OFFSET Sheffield a 2 day design conference on 21st & 22nd October at The Crucible, organised by OFFSET.
Steve Simpson was interviewed as part of our ongoing series in collaboration with OFFSET.