Bringing back the fun: An interview with Jetpacks and Rollerskates
Jetpacks and Rollerskates (Blake Stevenson) is a Senior Designer at Shopify by day and Illustrator of all things pop-culture and weird by night. He takes on each project armed with a healthy balance of sugary cereals and Saturday morning cartoons and is member of our Happy Learners Slack channel. In this conversation we discuss what brought him to where he is today, what it’s like having a specific style and how to have more fun with what you do.
How did you get into graphic design and illustration?
I imagine like many creatives, I grew up watching lots of cartoons and eating way too many sugary cereals. This was during the early 90’s where there were so many great illustrated comic books bleeding over from the 80’s for me to fall in love with. I don’t know why, but sitting there being surrounded by so many great visuals I never actually considered that they were made by real people. While I was always sketching for fun, it wasn’t until sometime in elementary school that I discovered Illustrators actually existed. Someone actually drew Garfield. Same with the box art for video games. I decided that if someone created these characters I loved, I would start creating my own.
In my high school years I got heavily into music and skateboarding. There was something edgy about skateboarding that really pulled me in—it also definitely helped that it involved so much cool artwork. Going to a skateboard shop was like going to a gallery—everything was up on the wall and you got to see different artists interpret skateboarding lifestyle. When I learned this artwork was a form of design I thought “Oh, awesome, now I have some sort of a pathway”. I then spent the rest of high school looking into what Graphic Design was. As cool as design was, I still wanted to draw so I took Art Fundamentals followed by Animation at Sheridan college.
One of my animation professors told me that I may not want to get into animation. He said I had a very graphical style and that I might not enjoy the typical animation job—essentially drawing the same thing over and over again with little world building of my own. Because of this I looked back to Graphic Design and after applying at a few Ontario schools ended up at Humber for Advertising and Art Direction. This is where a lot of soul searching took place as I returned to a lot of the influences that I loved growing up such as video games, cereal boxes and skateboarding, and got to see all the marketing that went on behind the scenes. I gravitated towards the art direction path but with a heavy focus on graphics. Fast-forward a bit and I was working in Toronto for a bunch of agencies doing graphic design work and advertising. But I wasn’t as into it as I thought I’d be.
How did you transition from work you didn’t like to the work you do?
Eventually I just decided to start looking for the clients and projects I wanted to work with on my own. I asked myself “If I could work with anyone, who would I choose?” Then I started to mock up projects on my own time for these clients or find similar smaller clients doing things I loved such as podcasts and just reach out to them to offer my services. It was a great way for me to build my portfolio and piggyback on some brands that I loved. Sometimes I made fan art for a company that I really loved and they would reach out to actually hire me to create something for them. Once Dribbble came along and I started posting my work there a lot of clients started to come my way with the kind of work I wanted. Throughout this period I really started to develop my style and choose how I wanted to stand out from everybody else. I knew that design trends came and went in waves but that people with a particular style tended to live in the design ecosystem longer.
How do you view having a specific style vs. being a generalist?
There is definitely a Jetpacks style that I do and I’m known for but it’s not static. I can adapt it to suit other people’s styles or requirements for particular projects. This being said, I sometimes struggle with this because the look I do is very personal to me and I typically try to save it for projects that I really want to sink my teeth into. When I get a job for something like a skateboard deck I’m like “Oh this is definitely a job for the Jetpacks style”. But sometimes I get approached by companies who want the same style but I know from the beginning that it probably is not going to work. I try to steer them away from it. For instance the Shopify illustrations have a very specific look to them so when I do illustrations for them I don’t do the Jetpacks thing but instead do what fits in with their brand. I’ve had the concern before of “What if I get sick of my style?” but I’ve discovered that styles can always evolve so it has never happened.
How should we think about developing our own styles?
I think if you should focus on developing your style in the background of you working on being a better designer. You’re always going to be influenced by a number of different things so that will only continue to help you grow your bag of tricks, mimic other styles and understand layout better. As you do this, you’re going to take the little pieces that you like and develop a style that reflects you. As a designer you shouldn’t always stay in your style—you should be evolving it. I’m sure that there are some artists that have done really good with a single style but design is still a very trend driven world so if you’re not adapting your designs to work with the trends you’re probably just going to be left in the dust at some point.
Between your full-time role at Shopfy, freelance work and personal work, how did you fit everything in?
I definitely have cut down on freelance significantly—especially since I started working with Shopify. I am fairly prolific in terms of just getting work done but I think that’s because after Shopify I come and hang out with my wife and daughter until my daughter goes to bed. After that my wife likes to unwind by watching some shows but I can’t really do that—if the T.V. is on I almost feel guilty if I’m not drawing. It’s during this time that I usually have a drawing pad or iPad with me.
A lot of people have problems working on creative work after their full-time job. Why don’t you?
My job is creative in a very different way—it’s like data-driven problem solving. When I come home, illustration is like the zen moment where I don’t have to think about anything and I can just get all the weird ideas out of my head that I will probably never use at my regular job. And I know that if I don’t get those out there then they will likely just disappear.
Have you considered going purely freelance with your illustration work?
I have thought of that in the past and have done full-time freelance before. I enjoyed it but because it was my first round of freelance I had to deal with a lot of clients and projects and were not ideal. As I said, doing the illustration thing is my zen moment where I can be creative in my own way. I know that my ideas and illustrations are a bit kookier than a lot of brands would ever be into so there are a smaller number of brands and opportunities that it would work for. I think that if I did the Jetpacks thing full-time it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun and off-the-wall. Everything is pretty organic right now and I wouldn’t want to dilute what I currently have fun doing.
Do you deal with creative block?
I do get it periodically but I’ve never really been in that world for too long. I just feel like there are way too many cool things to do. For instance I really wanted to illustrate skateboards so I just started mocking them up and throwing them up on the web. Eventually I got a few skateboard gigs—I have a bunch of them sitting beside me right now and it’s amazing. At another point I really wanted to work with video game companies and after doing a lot of similar work was apporoached by one who I worked with for a year doing marketing materials and character designs. I was like “Wow, I got to do that.”
If you’re really into what you want to do creative block isn’t a thing. I tell people all the time “What do you like to do? Just do more of that!” Creative block is a bit of a weird thing to me because I hear people get it all the time and they just need to create fun projects for themselves. If you really like to draw dogs then do a series of dogs doing interesting things. I know for a fact that I love to draw and I know that I love things. So I just look for ways to connect the dots and make it interesting.
If there is one thing we could do to bring more fun to our work, what would that be?
You as the creative are the only one who is going to know what is fun. As an exercise, just write out a list of things you find fun and draw them. If you like things, replicate them. Because if it’s something you’re interested in, the project will just naturally be fun. I’m not going to jump for joy doing character designs for a bank but if they wanted me to do a mural on a wall in my style I sure would. Just do all the stuff you’ve always wanted to do but with your own spin on it. I sometimes get requests from family friends asking to draw something realistic like their dog—but this isn’t what illustration is about for me. If I wanted to see a perfect representation of a dog I would go down the street and look at one. I want to see that dog separated with jello coming out of it—so that’s going to be what I draw.