I’ve been to my fair share of conferences and seen my fair share of public speakers, but I had never experienced anything like watching James White on stage. When I saw James speak at ConvergeFL in 2013 I honestly think he had 200 slides in his presentation. And I could have seen an additional 200 and still wanted more.
If you aren’t familiar with James, he runs a design and illustration studio called Signalnoise. James is best known for his “1980’s Metal Rock” design style, but his talent doesn’t stop there. He currently has a fantastically-awesome illustration series called StarKade that features professional wrestlers and other prominent characters from the 80’s. I’ve shared some of his work in the image above, but I highly recommend checking out Signalnoise.com and giving him a follow on Twitter or Instagram! You do NOT need to be a designer to enjoy this interview or James’ speaking presentation, trust me…
Creativity Unleashed with James White
1. James White, who are you and what are you passionate about?
I’m a graphic design and visual artist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. In short, I’ve been drawing my whole life which evolved into a career in design and illustration which I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. When I’m not working on client gigs, I’m working on my own fun stuff in an attempt to guide my future toward the kind of work I enjoy. I’m passionate about my childhood, for the most part. I’m still into all the nerdy stuff I loved as a kid in the 1980s, so I try to infuse that child-like enthusiasm into the work I do today. Gotta make it fun, man.
2. I had the pleasure of watching you speak at ConvergeFL and it was awesome. Nay, it was mind-blowingly awesome! Have you always been comfortable on stage? Any tips for aspiring creatives who want to speak publicly?
Thanks man! Getting onstage and telling my story is probably the funnest part of my job these days. I can’t really remember a time when I was nervous onstage. When I was a kid I was one of the best singers in the class, so I was always picked for solos, plays, recitals and whatever else. So being in front of a crowd is something I got used to when I was really young. I guess that plays into today when I can get onstage in front of 3000 people and talk about Photoshop. I truly love doing it and have a lot of fun.
The only tip I really have for aspiring public speakers is to speak in your own voice. What I mean is don’t try to use a vocabulary outside of how you normally speak, or try to memorize stuff that isn’t natural. If you’re getting up in front of people to talk, you should already know your topics inside and out. When you talk casually, the way you normally sound, it resonates with the audience and levels the playing field.
3. I know you’re inspired by movie posters. If you could go back in time and be the main character in any movie, what would it be and why? On the flip side, what’s one movie you wouldn’t want to be the main character in?
Great question. I’d want to play someone adventurous, tough, smart… always in over their head, always gets the girl and always wears a leather jacket. So naturally, I’d have to pick Indiana Jones.
I wouldn’t want to be Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in PREDATOR. All his buddies get killed by a monster. How crappy would that be?
4. You’re a great example of just putting your work out there. A lot of creatives are afraid to do this. Why do you share so much? Any platform you feel you get the most value out of (Instagram, Twitter, etc)?
It might sound cliche or whatever, but our time is short. We really don’t have time to be scared of making and putting our work out there. The biggest fear is somehow failing, but if we have fun creating our own work how could that ever be considered a failure? Because it didn’t get very many “likes” on Facebook? Who cares? After something is posted you should have already moved onto making a new thing anyway.
I share new work all the time because it ultimately ends up steering the kind of work I do for clients. When someone goes to my website and sees my fun personal work and says “I’d like you to do that kind of thing for me. Here’s some money.”, that’s a huge victory because I get to keep doing something I enjoy. My personal work has built my professional reality and I never want that to stop.
There are a LOT of sharing platforms out there, but I always advise to pick only a few where you can connect with the audience you want to connect with. Personally, I use Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to spread the word and also post to my blog to keep everything at a central hub. Those platforms allow me to quickly and easily reach my audience, and they can easily reach me.
5. Most creatives get negative criticism at one point or another. How have you handled negative criticism in your career?
You grow a thick skin pretty fast. But there are 2 types of negative feedback you can get… those who give feedback and those who say “you suck”. People who step forward to give feedback are absolutely wonderful. Maybe try this colour, maybe the font should be smaller… that kind of stuff can shed new light on the piece and allow me to reconsider some decisions. I love that. The “you suck” people are just random jackholes who only want to jam a stick in your spokes. Those guys are easy to ignore and tend to skulk away when they can’t get a reply.
I still get both kinds of comments, but I can remember the first time someone wrote some horrible words about me and my work. It nearly ruined my weekend and my friends Chris and Sameen were there to help me out. I’d never experienced an attack before, so the first time kind of stings. But over time you grow to just roll your eyes and shake it off.
6. What’s the biggest failure you’ve had (that you’re willing to share) and what did you learn from it?
My biggest failure was my inability to break into the movie poster scene. I love designing movie posters and wanted to somehow make that my job. I dedicated a year of my time to making a bunch of posters to pump up my portfolio, but the whole thing imploded and I gave up out of frustration. If you’re an independent artist and not strapped to a big movie studio, or have access to licensing people (who actually return your calls), or work with someone like Mondo… you’re kind of left out in the cold.
I had almost landed a commission to do an alternative movie poster for SPRING BREAKERS, my first big crack at an official poster, but when the deal fell apart I was disgusted and threw in the towel. Hollywood is a big weirdo.
7. Going back to your presentation at ConvergeFL, you had a bucket list with some items left on it. Can you share that list? Which one can I help make happen (seriously)?
Ha! Well, other than the items that got marked off onstage, the list was 100% bullcrap. But if you are friends with any of the Ninja Turtles, I’d love an introduction!
8. I read in another interview you had a little bit of college experience. I think my time in college was a huge waste. Would you advise young creatives to go to college or take some other path?
I would never tell kids to not go to school in order to study their craft. If anything, school sets of boundaries and introduces students to the tools and techniques they will need to get a footing in the industry. Sure, we can learn it on our own, but I genuinely believe that school speeds up that into process. But I DO know that some schools are better than others. Just because a school costs a ton to go to, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better than the cheaper ones.
I witnessed both sides. Fresh out of high school in 1995 I attended a community college for 3 years. 1 year of graphic design and 2 years of something called Interactive Tech (learned how to make websites). The whole venture cost about $7000, but it got me what I needed to get a solid foot in the door and landed a job at a website design company immediately. After 5 years in the industry I decided to attend an art school to study fine art (painting and stuff). 1 year later (and another $8000) I dropped out. Despite being a “reputable, big, fancy art school”, they were just NOT as good as the community college.
In short, if you’re going to attend school for art or design… do your research on the place and talk to people who went there. Make sure you’re heading to the right place.
9. There’s a business side to being a freelance creative that a lot of creatives aren’t good at. What are some tools you use or processes you have in place to make the business side of things run smoother?
I’m one of those creative who aren’t very good at the business side. My agent helps out a lot with the invoicing, paying, and client liaison, but on my end I try to be as organized as I can… while still falling short when I get busy. I do the best I can to keep things smooth.
10. If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice, what would that advice be? (think of this as a question for the young aspiring creative)
Never stop making stuff. The more stuff you make, the better you get. It’s that simple. We live in a world of “instant gratification” where we can find anything we want all the time, but achieving our personal creative goals won’t happen overnight. It’s a decision to dedicate yourself to honing your craft. You need to love what you do… and put the peddle to the metal.
Rapid Fire Round with James White
11. The upcoming RoboCop movie?
I already have the ROBOCOP movie I love. That new thing looks like something else.
12. Favorite sketchbook/journal?
For sketching I use generic black hardcover sketchbooks. For idea generating, my trusty Field Notes.
13. The ultimate pizza?
When I was a kid, my family always ordered from a little place called Pizza Express in my hometown. Best pizza. Sadly, the place isn’t around anymore.
14. You get to be the frontman in one metal band, who is it and what’s your stage name?
Iron Maiden! And my name would be something like Duke Lightning.
15. The creative process?
Sketch, re-sketch, vector sketch, colour experiment, build final in Photoshop, have a beer.
16. What outfit are you currently wearing?
Currently sporting a Frankenstein shirt designed by my buddy Eric Miller of the Dartmouth Clothing Company.
17. Animate GIFs?
18. More lightning?
MORE FUCKING LIGHTNING.
19. You have to move somewhere else in the world, where do you go?
An island with a kickass WIFI connection. Preferably owned by Adobe.
20. Final thought or last piece of wisdom?
Don’t forget to rock.
I don’t know about you, but I’m amped up to create some stuff after this interview! I love the way James looks at posting his work on social media. He’s not concerned with how many Likes it gets, he doesn’t try to optimize anything, he just wants to do work he loves and share it with the world. Take a look at James’ upcoming speaking schedule and I’d highly recommend attending an event so you can see him in-person, it is absolutely worth whatever the event registration price may be.