Type design, textiles, book covers and more: Willie Shaw brings function and beauty in equal measure to his graphic design practice
Inspired simultaneously by Peter Saville’s “visual poetry” and Dieter Rams’ modernist principles, the School of Visual Arts grad takes a logical approach to his confident and sophisticated work.
You can see Willie Shaw’s key visual influences – Peter Saville and Dieter Rams – most clearly in his typography and book covers, which boast instant appeal in its confident visual balance. It’s these traits that first piqued our interest in the graphic designer’s portfolio, showcasing a consistently accomplished and mature aesthetic that’s rare for a recent grad. This ease seems to come from a logical and patient approach to design. A process, he understands, that cannot be rushed, where dividends are only paid after a lot of research, iteration and feedback.
His passion, he explains below, lies in making work that interacts with the end user, from a magazine or book that readers pick up, to signage that guides people through an experience. That driving force stops Willie from veering off (where others do) into trends and tropes. Instead, he designs work that lands in that ideal spot between subtle simplicity and attention-grabbing impact. It’s a common intention that unites Willie’s endeavours into several creative disciplines; from type or book design, the creation of magazine covers or textile paintings. And to this designer, it’s important he doesn’t stay in one field. In fact he has dreams for a multidisciplinary studio of his own one day, though he’s keen to learn the tricks of the trade inside out first – another testament to Willie’s measured professional attitude.
“I try to approach design as a series of problems to solve in a way that is functional and beautiful.”Willie Shaw
It’s Nice That:
How did you come to be a graphic designer?
Willie Shaw: I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia called Havertown. I think I was always drawn to design without knowing what it was called. When I was little I was obsessed with road signs and symbols like the handicap icon. I drew a lot of graffiti in my notebooks. I was also drawn to Apple and their products. There was something magical about the way Steve Jobs spoke about them.
Something clicked for me in high school when I took a class on advertising that taught Adobe Illustrator. I asked for the program for my birthday and got a little obsessed with it. I had always been a good student and planned to go into medicine or engineering. I spent a year of university on a pre-med track but I failed my first chemistry exam, which sparked me to realise that this was probably the only chance I’d get to study design, so I took a leap of faith and applied to the School of Visual Arts in New York.
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Willie Shaw: Roads With Cars And Songs
At the time, I didn’t have much of a design portfolio but I had a batch of photographs I had shot for Instagram, so I kind of snuck in through the photo program and then transferred to the design department. Now I live and work in New York City.
INT: How would you describe your style and approach?
WS: I try to approach design as a series of problems to solve in a way that is functional and beautiful. Two foundational influences for me were Peter Saville and Dieter Rams. I discovered each of them when I was 13 or 14 and was really taken by their work.
Peter Saville’s album covers have an aura about them, a sort of alchemy that occurs when everything has been placed in exactly the right spot. They don’t explain themselves, but there is a sense that there is more going on than meets the eye. It was the first time I had encountered imagery that worked as a kind of visual poetry.
Dieter Rams is on the opposite end of the design spectrum. His strict adherence to modernist principles of form and function made me think critically about the world around me and how it had been designed. It’s one of those things where once you see it, you can’t unsee it. I’ve always been drawn to logic and problem-solving and his level of quality and craft really blew me away.
INT: Can you talk us through your creative process and how you want your work to progress after graduation
WS: My favourite kind of work, regardless of the subject, has some level of interaction with the end user. Printed matter that people pick up and read, information hierarchies that make something easier to understand, signage that guides people through an experience. At the start of a project, I do as much research as I can on the subject and pull a bunch of reference images together. Once I’ve got a fair amount of material in front of me I sketch as many different ideas as I can, quickly and at a low fidelity.
Most of this early stuff is terrible but it helps to get the obvious or cliched ideas out of the way; interesting stuff usually starts happening after the 20th sketch or so. I’ll come back to my sketches in a day or two with fresh eyes and pick out a few things that have potential. From there it’s a process of iteration and refinement: doing many versions of a few concepts and graphically refining them.
“Peter Saville’s album covers have an aura about them, a sort of alchemy that occurs when everything has been placed in exactly the right spot.”Willie Shaw
Of course, none of this happens in a bubble. I’m constantly showing work and getting opinions from friends and from whoever is in the role of creative director. At SVA, that was my portfolio instructors Pablo Delcan and Ben Grandgenett.
Right now I see graphic design as a way to get my foot in the door of the broader art and design community. I want to learn the business. How to get work approved, how to attract and manage clients. Down the line, my dream would be to open a small and nimble studio that can direct any kind of creative project: architecture, branding, objects, graphic design, art direction, industrial design, clothing. I’ve heard a lot of creatives that I respect say it’s better to be a specialist than a generalist, but if that’s true, it’s a lesson I’m going to have to learn the hard way.
INT:Take us through a few of your key projects and the stories behind them.
WS: Roads With Cars And Songs is a photobook that pairs shots of cars driving on highways with curated playlists. The original assignment was to create a photobook with images sourced from the Picture Collection at the New York Public Library. I spent a month combing through their files of images before I settled on these photos of cars on highways. The images were nice on their own but my instructors and I felt it needed another dimension to give the book a reason for existing. The idea to pair playlists with the images is a reference to the music we listen to on road trips. Each playlist draws from a different genre or mood or time period—I wanted everyone who picked up the book to be able to find a collection of songs that they felt connected to.
Nexus Magazine is a prospective redesign of an Australian publication that focuses on “alternative news” which amounts to a lot of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. I wanted to bring a sense of mystery and conspiracy to the typography and cover illustrations without going over the top – the tone I was shooting for was “tasteful clickbait”. I did a lot of experiments in Photoshop to get the effects on the typography right, and I probably did 200+ variants of the covers before I arrived at a coherent system.
The Textile Paintings grew out of an assignment to design a one-inch-tall poster and then recreate the poster at 50 inches tall. I decided to sew the poster because I wanted to teach myself how to use a sewing machine. Each piece begins as a one-inch-tall vector drawing and is translated into a 50-inch textile made from secondhand clothing which I’ve scoured from thrift stores. I’m still not sure what to call these – they’re not really posters or collages – but I think Textile Paintings works for now. I’d love to put together an exhibition of these once we’re able to safely gather.
“It helps to get the obvious or cliched ideas out of the way; interesting stuff usually starts happening after the 20th sketch or so”Willie Shaw
Willie Shaw: Firminy Sans
Willie Shaw: Firminy Sans
I love working on book covers and print work in general. It’s a lot of fun designing things that make me want to pick them up and examine them. I’m particularly fond of the box set I designed for a set of Stephen McCauley books. The gradients on the covers references two characters who are moving in and out of each other's lives.
Sometimes I will design a typeface if I need something that I can’t find; other times I’ll draw a letter that I really like and then I want to see what the whole font looks like. Cadmium, for example, is a variable font which ranges from ultra-bold to thin. It started with this super thick ‘G’ that I had drawn for an identity I was working on, and I ended up using it as an experiment to teach myself about variable fonts. Firminy is a quirky sans with letterforms inspired by the church of Saint-Pierre in Firminy, France, which was the last major work by Le Corbusier. Both of these typefaces could use a good deal of refinement; right now, I’m working on improving my level of craft.
INT: What's the most important thing you learnt during your time at university?
WS: Set your ego aside as quickly as possible. It hurts to get a bad critique, especially when you’ve poured your heart into your work, but try not to get defensive – be humble and accept criticism graciously. Even if you think a suggestion is terrible, try it out. The more holes people poke in your work, the better it will be in the end. Likewise, don’t let a particularly positive critique go to your head. There’s always more to learn.