When asked how he’d describe the kind of projects he likes to work on, Portland-based artist and design director Darien Birks answers easily: “Contemporary pop art.” Whether it’s in sports, fashion, music, or politics, he relishes the opportunity to communicate within a certain niche culture, “targeting very specific audiences.” This kind of creative curiosity means Darien is “Always down to learn something new through a project,” although he impresses upon us that “I truly believe that I can create better work when it’s natural and instinctive, and close to my own experiences.” Having attended Savannah College of Art and Design, Darien then spent eight years in New York before moving to Portland, where he took a job with Nike.
Darien was introduced to visual communication during grade school where he entered competitions, partnering with writers to illustrate their words and stories. “I won a few of those competitions when I was a youngster, and that may have been the earliest sign that maybe I should stick with this,” he recalls. “Aside from that, I fell in love with illustration because it was a way to quickly visually express my thoughts, I didn’t need expensive tools to execute – I could get after my creativity at any time.”
This kind of democratic approach to the tools of illustration is something Darien holds dear, ensuring he employs several media in his practice. Recently, he’s mainly been working in the digital space, however, knowing that at any time he could turn his hand to “paint, pastels, or charcoal” is motivating. “That can give the work a completely different vibe in itself,” he says. “The infinite possibilities of artistic expression is very intriguing.”
Flicking through Darien’s portfolio, there’s a unification of all the individual pieces thanks to the style he’s developed over years. It’s what drew us to portfolio which is bright, bold with a wry sense of humour. “I’d sort of describe my style as this mix between hyperreal, stylised, pop art with an airbrush-inspired look and feel,” he explains, putting it better than we ever could. What he likes about his work, and so do we, is that “it’s not trying to be anything other than what it is.” What this means is that Darien’s compositions are kept simple and figurative, on the whole, “with at least one thing the viewer can identify with, and take away.” It also means Darien’s works are highly communicative and his storytelling abilities allow him to connect with an audience, no matter the topic.
A project which personifies Darien’s goals within his work – to leave viewers with something they can take away – is titled Stepping Into Power, and it was created for Apple TV. A campaign produced to “inspire Black kids to find their voice and pursue their dreams,” Darien was one of many artists brought on board to illustrate the menu with the Apple TV app during a curated season of films by Black directors and actors. A project which clearly lays it foundations far beyond the television, Darien tells us “Obviously with the social and political climate in the world, this project meant a lot to me. It gave me a chance to depict young Blacks in a positive light, with confidence, and with optimism.”
In another project, Darien worked with a friend who is also a co-partner at Fisk Gallery to produce a zine called Knew Normal, which depicts Darien’s life after he resigned from Nike. “The idea is that I was stepping into a new space, one that was exciting, and full of possibilities, full of risk, the unknown – and that what I was doing before was normal for me, it was great, but it had a ceiling,” he explains, eloquently describing the struggle many creatives feel when choosing between working at an agency or independently. In turn, he chose not to overthink it and to just be as honest as possible. “I literally illustrated how I felt, what I saw, or what I did from day to day,” he explains. “My goal was to honestly share where I was, and hopefully inspire anyone who’s been itching to take a chance on themselves to take it. I hope I succeeded.”
Clearly a creative who enjoys creating work which is not only visually stimulating but which has impact beyond aesthetics, it’s no surprise that Darien is interested in finding more ways to “give back, sharing my industry knowledge and experiences with the next wave of artists.” In the more immediate future though, he has already has a host of exciting projects lined up across the worlds of sport and fashion, “so stay tuned.”
Darien Birks: Pegged (Copyright © Darien Birks, 2020)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.