CONVERSATIONS "IN Stereo":
From time to time we stumble upon designers/illustrators/artists whose creative work we dig. When we do we feel the need to share and let the people in on the secret. Out on the left coast in the upper region of Cali (the San Francisco Bay Area to be right and exact), the designer/illustrator Kaseem Greene creates images for the music industry and drinks a lot of lemonade due to an unyielding pursuit of the perfect swig (of the juice).
Below is part of a convo with the designer and some examples of his work.
DW: Have you heard of the graphic designer Art Sims and his work? I'm a big fan of the design work he's done over the years. He's broken through some barriers.
DW: Yeah. Hollywood and the record industry drove Bill Withers out of there... for years man! He was on NPR sometime last year, or the year before, talking about why he’s been away for so long. He said he had to jet.
KG: It's not for everyone; especially if you're used to being rooted in reality with real world consequences. A majority of the time you can just stop answering the phone and returning e-mails in the Entertainment Industry. Which ironically enough Bill Withers mentioned he couldn't get his own label to do for about 10+ years.
DW: Can you share with me your thoughts on your working within the graphic design and visual communications industries?
KG: From my perspective, it just appears that in recent years, there's been a huge influx of people believing they can become Graphic Designers because they think it's easy to do; when the reality is that it's really a daunting task. I don't feel like the love and respect is all the way there.
DW: But do you think this is because they think it’s a get quick rich scheme kind of thing? Because, as I’m sure that you can attest to (as well as myself), it is not the case.
KG: No doubt, I co-sign what you're saying; when I first got in the game, and even still to a certain extent now, considering the scope of some projects you may be working on, you still find yourself working for practically nothing / pennies on the dollar. But yeah, I'm sure a lot of people ARE thinking it's a get-rich-quick scheme; but it's probably not the only reason. In addition to that, I just think it's trendy to be a designer; something to say so you can appear cool / in-the-know. Sort of like being a DJ. EVERYONE wants to be a DJ now, and can't mix Kool-Aid.
When I make that personal observation of "ALL THE PEOPLE...etc", I'm not speaking on the people with a real passion for learning the craft of Graphic Design, that genuinely fall in love with it and are dying to explore; god bless them. I'm talking about all these folks out there running and grabbing Photoshop and Illustrator and Maya 3D, and haven't taken the time out to learn / explore how to draw or paint, or know anything about color theory, perspective, form, composition, layout, paste-up and drafting their own typefaces; or even take the time to research / read up on the history of what they're trying to learn. In a nutshell, fundamentals are essential to ensure a good 'shelf-life' for an artist; if that makes sense at all. Without them, designers drop off like flies, and believe me, they do.
And please don't misunderstand me, folks don't even NEED a fancy / expensive art school to learn those fundamental things I mentioned earlier; just have a serious passion to learn. I feel we learn best by just DOING, and making mistakes and taking @ss-whoopings. I'm not trying to judge and stamp people "Worthy" or "Unworthy" 'cause that's overstepping my bounds and exhaustive, but what I am saying is learn about what you're (generally speaking) getting into before you stake your claim; a lot of cats aren't doing that 'cause they're thinking "Well hell, I can do that!"”
DW: Where is that type of thinking coming from?
KG: Technology. Especially with all of these fantastic software programs that are out; they create the illusion for some that "it's not hard to be an artist, you can do it too!" But the reality is that while the software programs serve as great tools, they're not the end-all-be-all in the design process. Again, I think technology made it a little bit more of a "Yes, you can do it too" reality for those less artistically inclined, or those without the ways and means (or talent) to receive proper exposure. In any event, the technology boosted their confidence to jump out there, whereas before they were even afraid to try, or willing to take a risk that could result in a lofty commitment where actual skill would have to eventually be applied to sustain life.
The convenience factor is there with technology, it's right at our fingertips. We (generally speaking) don't need to do a lot of the "heavy-lifting" traditionally associated with certain tasks, like design (like comping & setting type on Vellum). True for some, not all.... In some cases that's great (not having to do a lot of heavy-extra work), but in other cases it's a bad thing, because I think it's possible to lose some of the Passion associated with the process. Like Printmaking; There's a real passionate process involved in Printmaking by hand, damn near agonizing! Ha ha ha, but the results are so beautiful once you get it right. A designer friend of mine describes it as "warmth"...
I heard someone say (I forget who, forgive me) recently something to the effect that the technology benefits the artist by allows us to explore & push boundaries more (creatively speaking) than we previously been able to. While this idea makes sense and is valid, it kind of makes me think of Nuclear Energy. We can be inspired to do 'Good' things with our expanded knowledge, but we can also be inspired to do 'Bad' things with it. Maybe that's a $h!tty way to put it...
So if I'm Buddy X dude who wants to charge $50 for corporate identity, I'm just a font selection and a couple of clicks away from getting paid. Like "I'll make it easy on myself, whip up these logos real fast, charge $50 a pop, get paid" There's nothing wrong with hustling and making some quick bread, it's a 'Good' thing, but you can also get so caught up hustling you forget about the 'Bad' things that can happen.
For example, what if the company Buddy X gave the logo to for $50 blows the eff up and makes Millions; he's gonna feel pretty dumb for only charging $50 for a logo, AND more than likely being forgotten about by the client in favor of a big time studio with all the trimmings, who'll charge a damn sight more than $50 for the logo when they 'Re-Brand' it. May not happen like that, but it may.
But to say something positive in the direction of technology, the technology at-large has also allowed people an outlet to express themselves; you don't have to wait to be recognized anymore by Apparel, Music, Film & Video giants. You can control your own fate by creating your own products, sell & market them on the Internet. You can stop asking and start taking. But that doesn't stop those results of creative freedom from generating 'Good' and 'Bad' results.
All that to say, I guess you have to take the 'Good' with the 'Bad' and keep it moving.
KG: True, true. It's a given that you (as in DW) and quite a few others can discern between the cheap and the top-shelf, because you've tuned your radar a different way, you've studied, observed and experimented; You're the real deal because you're in the trenches (DW). But what about the public-at-large who doesn't really care about process, passion and warmth? All the people know is "I like It / I'll buy it" or "I don't like it / I won't buy it". What's twisted about that is, most of the time people don't even like things for themselves, it's because they've seen someone they admire or roll with co-signing 'X' product. So for example, if ONE talented Artist starts putting ill Skull illustrations in their artwork, web sites, logos, t-shirts, then you can expect 10,000 "not-so-talented" cats to imitate the talented artist, and make their OWN Skull-related design / artwork, and sell it dirt-cheap! I mean like $50-for-a-logo-design-DIRT-CHEAP! I'm not saying that the public CAN'T understand or recognize the difference, or even appreciate it, I'm just saying 'Herd-Poisoning' is very real.
And It is SUPER-exploitative! But it seems like you kind of have to allow yourself to be exploited to even get a shot; low-balling / low-bidding comes with the territory. A lot of cats aren't really concerned because they're just hungry, they're passion overrides any idea they have about monetary gain; and let's keep it funky, we've all been there at one point, still are to a certain extent. We'll take Shorts just to get our foot in the door to certain parties.
Contests are a real bug-out because what usually happens is, the person(s)/company that issued the competition have already gotten what they want, from who they want! Of course, PRIOR to stating there's going to be a 'Contest'. So they're getting all of this free work out of the artists, then using it as reference material or creating an 'Idea Bank' in which they can pull inspiration from later! What makes a Contest even worse is that, when you enter one, they stress in the application contract that (paraphrasing) "Any work you send will become to sole property of the Company, and can be used in anyway to promote, sell products."
Spec work is the same way to a certain extent, but a lot of the time, again, it's one of the only ways to gain entry into the game, including for the bonafied designers; you're going to do spec work at some point early on, it's just a way of paying dues; again, I think it comes with the territory. A friend of mine told me one day straight up "You've gotta get screwed, it's just a part of being a designer; it happens to everyone. You can't really avoid it; you're paying dues.
DW: Paying dues.
KG: I feel the true-blue designer deals with it by just constantly pushing themselves to create jaw-dropping, exciting work for the purpose of making themselves stand out more in the marketplace; and do it with a smile, in between all the grunting and cursing of course, ha ha ha ha. Not an easy task by any stretch, but well worth the risk. I don't think designers gain anything by being upset about the bandwagon-jumpers; it is what it is. Also you can never rule out the variable of X - the unknown, because you never know, some of those same people who aren't for real might accidentally give birth to a great idea, blow up and become well-respected designers. Some of the greatest logos in the known world were created by people who WEREN'T technically Graphic Designers.
DW: Yes, some of the greatest logos were designed by people who were not designers. A great example of this for me is Def Jam recordings founder Rick Rubin. He designed the world famous Def Jam logo himself as a budding record producer and NYU law student. Note: He did not design the Technic 1200 tone arm illustration though.
KG: I always heard that story about the Def Jam logo; that's a trip. Wu-Tang's "W" Bat logo has a similar non-designer-becomes-designer story associated with it as well. The logo was created by DJ Mathematics, the Wu's main DJ, who also dabbled in Graffiti. The RZA, so goes the story, asked him to create it in a last minute rush of sorts. I've read about it in many different little side pieces...They never really say much other than what I just mentioned.
DW: That’s interesting. I had not heard the story behind the Wu-Tang mark.
KG: What did you think of Snoop's first album cover "Doggystyle"? I ask you this question because the artwork has been up for debate since...well since the album initially dropped. Since we've been politickin' about Art & Design n' Stuff. This particular subject seems to be a hot topic among Hip-Hop Design junkies. The general sentiment amongst Designers is that IT SUCKS (as I'm sure you've been made aware of already by others); and only happened because the Artist 'Joe Cool' Arnaud is Snoop's cousin, which I've heard as being described as 'Nepotism at it's finest'.
DW: Well, I don't know the back story behind the politics of that album cover being created. However, you are right. The merits of the cover’s design has been a topic of concern amongst those interested in the design of album covers. It has been a debate for some years now. My opinion? I think the cover is fine as a piece of illustration. But in terms of album cover design, it does not work well as a piece of graphic communication. The piece just does not communicate well to the person viewing it (referring to the typography, color, etc.). It's just not clear.
KG: But couldn't that be something that makes this particular album cover great? The fact that it's not effective graphic communication in the way that we traditionally recognize and respect it as graphic / fine artists? It impacted people, albeit negatively, to the point where the controversy eventually lead to certain individuals wanting it banned from shelves (mf's were extra-salty behind that cover, all on MTV News with it); but it generated a reaction nonetheless, which propelled that cover into a nice little conversation piece involving the history / validity of certain album cover design; which is what all designers aim for; a reaction every time they create a piece.
The “Doggystyle” cover comes off to me as a perfect example of one of those things that the Public-at-Large doesn't care about; what I mean that to say is they aren't thinking about how unclear the type is*, or the fact that Joe Cool's drawings display no concept of dimension & form whatsoever... (*Yet it is hand-drawn typography which is the biggest thing going right now in Design, even the $h!tty kind.)
The people love / loved that album 'cause it's a classic (on the West Coast anyways). They love / loved it SO much, I remember EVERYONE in 'The Town' (Oakland that is) rocked t-shirts with the cover on them; cats walkin' around with the 'Snoop' and 'Rat-Tat-Tat' characters too, airbrushed on their clothes, hats, and cars! And not just The Town, back down to L.A., a lot of Young bloods was flossin' something from that cover. Then from that, it transferred over to the White kids, 'cause we were rockin' it so hard. So for me, yeah it's a huge piece of crap, but so are a lot of other album covers (ANYTHING done by Pen N' Pixel anyone?), that defined Hip-Hop and will stick out in our minds forever for whatever reason.
DW: Yeah. The argument is valid and it can go back and forth. I wouldn't say the cover's crap (but I'm not mad at you for feeling that way about it). I believe the cover works as an illustration piece more than a functional piece of graphic design visual communication (as we've come to understand graphic design in terms of the profession's principals). And just because the album was a commercial success does not mean the cover is.
KG: Maybe I'm being too crass:) It's not crap, but it's not great. Truthfully it could've been worse, they could've had Lil' Boogie n' Nem from down the street do it.
DW: I believe the cover works as an illustration piece more than a functional piece of graphic design visual communication (as we've come to understand graphic design in terms of the profession's principals). And just because the album was a commercial success does not mean the cover is.
KG: True, but on the strength of the album's success (the music), they were able to move A LOT of merchandise (i.e. - clothing, posters) just because the public wanted a visual representation to go along with the sounds they were feelin' / their love for Snoop. I think the cover illustration provided this by default. It was successful if for no other reason than because there was nothing else to put up beside it. Not because it was dope, but because that was all there was to consume.
DW: You could argue that Snoop's album's success is derived more from the success of Dr. Dre's “The Chronic”. If it was not snoop's project but someone else's, would it have been as much of a hit? Would the cover have found its way into so many people's homes where the argument for the cover’s worth/value has been raging? I don't know.
KG: I seriously doubt it! Definitely not. It would've went over with little or no fanfare. Maybe even been largely ignored. That brings up a whole 'nother subject too; How does the MUSIC itself influence the visual landscape? Like, even if the music is good or just popular, how do the visual elements that come with it in the form of videos & packaging become accepted?
DW: It's a similar thing with graffiti. A lot of people love graff but graff is not the discipline of graphic design. It is a form of illustration- fine art. And when you look back at some of the covers during the 80's, some of the covers are splashed with graff and they are not very visually communicative. But at the same time there are people who love graff and swear by its aesthetics.
KG: True, true. But you couldn't even share that with a lot of people, 'cause they wouldn't understand the point you are trying to make; especially when it comes to a Hip-Hop album cover. However these days, it does appear that Hip-Hop as related to Music packaging is trying to move away from Graffiti-styled covers. You may see an occasional hand-style "tag" writing for a track listing or something, but that's about it. A lot of the cats that do Graff are now moving into Graphic Design because they've seen it work for countless others before them. Not to mention, it's not like a lot of Graffiti writers outside of some of the Legends, like Futura 2000 & Haze, get paid handsomely for their efforts.
I've had conversations with Graphic Designers, Art Directors and Animators and do you know one of the most common things that comes flying out all of their mouths during a conversation? (Paraphrasing) "I always ask people first, 'Well can you draw?' And they typically say 'No'." That's crazy right? Not that we all SHOULD be able to draw, but it's one of those things that improve skill greatly and separate the real from the not-so-real. For example, we all love Pixar, but the majority of the guys that do those movies are traditional animators. They get hired on because of their skills with the pencil, then Pixar teaches them how to use their in-house crafted / generated software programs. Or here's a good graphic design one. Milton Glaser's, THE Graphic Design God, his favorite thing to do is Draw and Paint.
DW: Well drawing is becoming a bit of a lost art.
KG: And that's a shame to me, 'cause it should count for a lot. That was all I had for many years, before I touched a computer, from the time I was very young; Mama used to take us places, bring a notepad and some pens, and be like "I got business to handle, go over there, sit down and get busy...' Ha ha ha. So before I'm a designer, I'm an artist; the way I came up and my main influences were mostly fine artists. Comic Book Artists, Animators, Illustrators, etc.
On a personal level, I LOVE design, but I'm not sure if I'd love it like I do without first possessing a love for drawing; being the little dude sitting in class getting in trouble for drawing Heathcliff and Fat Albert instead of paying attention. Or flipping' out on Pedro Bell and Overton Lloyd on the P-Funk covers in Mama's record collection.
DW: Yeah. Well, the hand skills is an important tool to have. Cey Adams used to teach em that all the time especially in terms of designing logos.
KG: That's dope to hear. Cey's a real legend in the game; crazy inspiring dude. The Drawing Board crew brought forth a lot of great work, and a lot of brilliant designers, like Mr. Darius Wilmore; look him up right NOW!
ABOUT KASEEM GREENE:
Kaseem Greene is a Graphic Artist / Illustrator based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
He was born in Oakland, California in 1979. His love for drawing began at an early age
when he discovered the Parliament-Funkadelic album covers in his mother’s record collection.
Largely self-taught, Kaseem began his career designing flyers in the San Francisco Nightclub
scene. He currently maintains a thriving freelance design business, creating t-shirt graphics,
packaging, logos and spot illustrations with clients ranging from Corporate to Creative. Some of
Kaseem’s notable clients include Ubiquity Records, Latchkey Recordings, Graphis Inc., Ninja Tune
Records and now 2K by Gingham. His work has appeared in Design Is Kinky’s Semi-Permanent
2008 book, and on MTV’s ‘Run’s House’. He is obsessed with hand-drawn typography and is in
constant search of the perfect lemonade.
To see more of his work, please e-mail him @ firstname.lastname@example.org