Kirk Wallace is the creative director at Wagepoint – he’s an incredible illustrator and designer based in Boston, and he has a really interesting visual style. I’ve been a fan of his work for ages, and thankfully he agreed to an interview on our blog. A huge thanks to Kirk for agreeing to be interviewed!
Firstly, could you give us a bit of a background about yourself?
My name is Kirk Wallace and primarily I‘m an illustrator and graphic designer focusing on kicking myself to a point of success with a brute-force work mentality.
I’ve grown up in Massachusetts with the help of my tight knit loving family and a whole bunch of violent, fun, and unrestrictive video games, comics, and cartoons.
Moreover, I’m a kid running around with my head cut off trying to do what I love for a living. And not the least bit ashamed to admit it.
The only thing that can get design off my mind is skateboarding which I’ve done my whole life and love it to a point of tears. Seriously, ask my girlfriend about our two year anniversary dinner where we talked about skateboarding way longer than was appropriate.
I’m obsessive, over-analytical, and hyper-critical of detail. I try to learn a billion things a day, rarely ‘relax’, and do my best to sleep well at night with my conscience putting the few people I love in front of me.
You studied computer science but then quit to be a designer – what made you want to make the change?
Yes! I ditched the degree. The reason I changed my mind started with why I got the computer science degree to begin with – I went into college saying “Yeah I’m good at computers so lets give it a whirl.” — That’s it.
I love computers, I love making them do what I want them to do, hardware and software. At the time of choosing, being an artist for hire didn’t even seem possible. I guess there was just the stigma of art being a pastime and computers having good money involved. I don’t think we’re correctly prepared for college. I know damn well I wasn’t. Academically, perhaps, but in every other aspect, nah.
So I graduated with the degree, picking up some art classes here and there, nothing major. Towards the end of my schooling I started taking some web programming courses. Database design was cool but it really got fun when it came to html and css.
I’ve always loved making things look good. From cleaning the house with my mom, organizing the soups in the grocery store when I was a tiny one. I just liked making things look proper. So of course this was my favorite aspect of the programming.
HTML / CSS turned into making silly shitty logos for my prop websites. That turned into color palettes, making sure the site is readable, icons for the site, even custom illustrations to drive my points! This is what introduced me to the idea of designing on the web. Here’s where it all blew up for me.
All the while, I’ve had the idea that making things was better than buying them or having someone else make it. So I went through a lot of life making my own stuff, sewing my own clothes, creating my own backgrounds for my computer, helping make posters for bands, drawing my own posters for my wall, etc.
All this giant mixed hurricane of shit tumbled me from hobby and doodles and admiration/inspiration to web design, helping friends with flyers, to iconography and typography to editorial and children illustrations and most recently, just personal artwork for sale. It’s been a hell of a ride so far and I haven’t even scratched the surface. I probably never will.
You have this really cool style of illustration – if you had to pick some of your favourite artwork, what would you choose?
Thank you for saying that. Hmm, I think the stuff I enjoy the most from an artwork perspective is the stuff that relies on the viewer’s’ brain and it’s ability to fill in the blanks. That is, the somewhat simple cartoon modern era inspired pieces of mine.
The things in my shop are my favorite because they’re 95% for me, in hopes others share the love and want to buy it and hang it on their wall. I find myself most lately battling between the overly simple, mono weight ‘minimal’ stuff like my zelda essentials poster. Then the really wonked out, texture and color rich illustrations like my Mid Century Kitchen print.
For client work I love what’s going on at Wagepoint, the company I’m creative director of. Our mascot, digit, has a lot of great applications. Shirts, stickers, stamps, animations, posters and banners to name some. Bringing him to life slowly has been a great project that’s taught me a lot and always enjoy working on.
Finally a project that I think came out great but is a bit older are the illustrations I did for Boston based Ruby on Rails teachers Launch Academy. I really like the lanky extremities, big gorilla hands, and snazzy shoes combined with a unified but rich color palette and a use of texture for purpose.
You became really well known for your tattoo – have you started designing tattoos for others and how are you finding designing for such a different and permanent medium?
I’ve done a few tattoos after having mine be discovered so much online and then sort of went into hiding the past 6 months or so. I stopped posting the completed projects because I wanted to draw some attention away from them and towards the other illustrations (mentioned in the previous question).
I’ve talked about a lot of this struggle at creative mornings in Boston a few months back but answering the more meaty part of the question, designing for skin is tricky. I can’t say I’m a master at it (at all) but I try my absolute best and put 110% into it.
I find myself a bit more nervous and picky with tattoo clients because of the permanent nature of the medium. I get a surprising amount of people that come to me with half assed ideas that are ambiguous and seemingly without much care. “Just give me some leftover doodles” doesn’t really cut it for me. If that’s what you want on your body then that’s fantastic (seriously, I’m the last to judge), but I wouldn’t be interested in helping you out with that.
I like helping people create unique, memorable and important stories to have on their body. Something that’s important. So the permanent bit makes things more focused and choosey.
And just technically, its tough because you want to keep it as simple as possible while still maintaining visual interest and harmony and some fun but not too intricate because our bodies aren’t always the most roomy canvases. Usually my process is to start big and detailed and start deleting things, revising until I’ve got the same story, but with as few extra elements as possible.
Here’s an example of that:
Where do you get your inspiration from? Which designers work do you really admire?
A lot of older books, old cartoons, Disney, Pixar…the mid century modern cartooning era of the 30’s-50’s. There’s SO much out there. Browsing Etsy for old illustrated cookbooks. Seeing the visual storytelling in something like the Lion King. Comic books mainly 1990’s and on.
Once when talking to a great friend and phenomenal designer, Richie Stewart on the topic of heritage, he mentioned that we are all complete makeups of a million tiny things that (unless intentionally copying) make it impossible for us to create something that’s not unique to our own self. There’s years and years of us collecting our own bits of inspiration, liking certain things and not others. Somewhere in there that gives you a creative and unique output. Mine comes from my brothers getting me into cool shit, comics, cartoons, video games, skateboarding, punk rock music, and a bit of anime.
On a more practical and tangible level, I get a lot of my inspiration (especially when first starting out 3-4 years ago in the industry) from Dribbble and Behance. There are dudes (and female dudes) that are so flipping talented.
I think one thing thats particularly special about them is that they are humans. They aren’t authors of books or directors of movies. They are people with an account. but when you see them posting shots of the most recent work they did for Nike, Google, or The Decemberists, you start to realize that this is entirely in the realm of possibility and that’s been one of the biggest motivators so far. Knowing that if I work at it and converse with these guys, pick their brains and work hard I can be at the level of my idols.
Particular people? Ok I love everything Glenn Thomas does. I think Rogie has a great eye for characters and an amazing outlook on progressing. Brian Miller has created such a visual style for himself without bottlenecking his storytelling at all. Something I think thats really important. He can still have many moods and tones with still knowing its his work. Luke Flowers has mastered color I’m certain of it. The list goes on.
Final question – do you have any advice for people that are thinking about starting a career in design?
If you want to do it don’t let anything f***ing stop you. Grind. Grind forever. Make sure you are focusing on making your work a playtime. “work hard play hard” is less of something I think of and am more in favor of “make your work time your play time”.
TELL A STORY! Think in a retrospect about the shit you just did. Write little case studies. Think about WHY you did something. What did every single element of the project do? if you can’t find a purpose (because it made it easier on the eyes is still a purpose don’t worry) then get rid of it next time, or at least consider it.
Remember that what we are here to do is solve problems and tell stories. Don’t just say that though, figure out what that means to you. Saying it is great, putting a heading, “My name is Kirk Wallace & I make beautiful usable products” is one thing but actually showing that you do that is another.
Write blog posts about what you do and why you did it. Do what you enjoy doing too. Eventually there will be a niche for it. Make sacrifices when it will help you get to your unique success but don’t fall down the slope of what is easy and seems to work in the short time.
Be diverse, remember that design is more than pretty pictures. its the way things work, its the keyboard you are using and the way the ‘F’ and ‘J’ keys have little bumps on em to help you find your “starting position”. The way every sign on the street tries to get you into their store. Be critical and hyper analytical. What signs work? What don’t? Why? Always why.
But most importantly remember that I have no idea what I’m talking about and neither do you. All we can do is the best we think and continue to leave ourselves open to learning forever and ever. Never close yourself off to new ideas. Stay humble.