August 23, 2008

Ben Schlitter – a sense of balance between pixels and pencil

Ben Schlitter is in his own words an artist that uses graphic design and illustration to portray ideas. Sounds pretty straightforward … until you take a good look at Ben’s full palette of offers which includes conceptual design, print design, illustration, interactive design, motion graphics and typography. Ben is also well-known for his paintings, sketchbook "teasers", icons, 3D packaging and other tasty treats.

A self-professed constant doodler since he was a wee lad, Ben found inspiration in his rural Kansas surroundings (sounds like another
Midwestern Maker ZN has featured!), especially in the grid-like farmland viewed from the window of his father’s airplane. Taking a journey through his works reveals on many occasions glimpses of these structures along with various environmental themes which he likes to stress.

Ben, thanks for spending time with us. Jumping right into the interview: looking at your career so far, noting your education and also the different "tools" you are obviously skilled at, can you describe how your design process has evolved over time?
My process has remained roughly the same. I love to sketch – so all my projects begin with pen, paper and research. Of course, it is exciting to learn new tools but ultimately they are just tools that enhance the process rather than control it.

Have you always been essentially computer-based in your design work (vs. illustrations or paintings) or has this changed, and if so, in what ways?
Most of my design has been and remains largely computer-based. One area which is different is with packaging projects, which are much more hands-on. I sketch by folding paper and only move to the computer for the final template and graphic creation.

Has there been a good balance from the start between designs you do by hand vs. via computer?
Well, my paintings are entirely hand-made and not aided by the computer in any way. This definitely helps me to preserve a balance. Also, I draw constantly, usually in the form of doodles as I take breaks from the computer. These doodles rarely end up in the finished designs but encourage a sense of balance between pixels and pencil.

As with many of the designers I have met and/or most admire, I find that there is a refreshing "simplicity" with your work, even among some of your most complex projects, including for example the "Geo + Info Postcard Project" or even the
"Bicycle Race" Music Video (ZN notes this is NOT a commercial offer and is only intended to show off Ben’s skills... plus, it’s really cool!).

How do you keep your works simple enough but still capable of conveying the message the customer wants to get across?

I maintain simplicity by committing a great deal of energy toward a project's initial concept. This in turn becomes my guide and forces a simplification down to the necessary elements.

I like to think of design as something that is not finished when you have added everything you can. Instead for me a good design is finished once you’ve removed everything you don't need. I can't remember who said this but I think about it constantly.

Do you see your design processes or designed objects becoming more complicated in the future, even at risk of becoming "over-engineered"? For example, looking at the FHSU Art Department design – although it is very interesting and even "familiar" in its form and functionality – it is an extremely detailed and carefully engineered project. How did you keep it then so user-friendly or perhaps better said usable?
Because I approach design as a process that reduces complexity, I believe that an over-engineered design is usually not well thought out. As such, I hope my work – now and in the future – remains simple and understandable to my audience.

No doubt, projects will continue to grow in scope, and also the number of components and collaborators involved will also continue to increase. New technologies will be utilized. This can all add complexity if not handled properly, both from a design process point of view and also when looking at the finished product.

Speaking earlier of the "Geo + Info Postcard Project" : this has led to a lot of exposure over the past several months and there are many very good articles about it (ZN recommends for example this one). Without asking you the same questions that you've answered now a thousand times already, can you provide us with a quick run-down of this project?
I love the "Geo + Info Postcard Project" because it combines my interest in travel and the desire to design products that promote learning. This type of project is very important to my studio.

This particular project began as a poster design that would eventually "disappear" as people removed pieces and mailed them to friends. The idea proved more practical as a postcard set, which you see currently on the site. It has also been a very good self-promotion piece. Besides selling many sets of postcards, I received numerous freelance projects along with several full-time employment offers as a result of this project.

I find it very interesting that you are so "giving" on your home website. For example, you include links to your sketchbooks, provide downloads of many icons and even other works in progress. Why is that?
Well, it’s no secret that you can always find an audience when something is offered for free. But to be honest, giving away icons has been the best self-promotion I've done and its really helped to attract clients. You see, I try to get noticed without being annoying* and creating icons is a good example of this approach. (*ZN – note to self: must try this some time)

Sure, the Web makes it very hard to share your work and not have it stolen. So I like to create things specifically for the purpose of being able to say "go ahead, I want you to take this". Does it keep people from copying my work? I'm not sure … but I know people enjoy sharing in my creations.

Most importantly, I want my work to be friendly. I want it to make people smile and think. So, I open up the door a bit and let them look in. Not too much but enough that they can sense my passion for design and love of creativity.

How did you get involved in packaging projects?
During my studies I created scores of packaging projects. I enjoy packaging because of the 3D nature. It challenges my mind to think in different directions while exploring and choosing which materials are best for the concept. It is very rewarding in that I get to control so many details. I also became interested in packaging so that I could promote myself properly and undertake in-house packaging projects, such as the "Geo + Info Project" and the "Mini Sketchbooks".

Is there a particular form, media, even effects or textures you look for in these projects?
I gravitate towards simple materials such as paper. Also, it's refreshing to turn an everyday element into something unexpected. For example, I used rubber bands for the "TWENTYFOUR" wine label design and transformed an everyday item into something beautiful. This design to me reflects then the ability of a good wine to transform a meal into a special occasion.

How do you balance the artistic side of packaging design with the obvious need for functionality?
With packaging design, you definitely need three components: concept, material and functionality. First, I look at the project's concept and then I explore to see which materials feel right and what is the best way for them to function.

I usually yield to functionality because it is so important. And to be honest, I often find the balance through trial and error.

I also really enjoyed surfing through your "inspirations" section, where there are several images that elicit very different, often emotional reactions. If you could briefly sum it up : what is it that inspires you most?
I'm inspired by details. Whether in nature or in man-made structures, I love exploring the details. Details show you care.

As a hobby "pencilist"-slash-bad-cartoonist and even infrequent user of oil-based paints, I’m curious as to why you chose going down the acrylics pathway? Just wondering, I’ve had a similar discussion with my father, who's much more of a fan than I am of using watercolors.
I like the immediacy of acrylic and on occasion I’ve flirted with watercolors. Both are simple to work with and give me the effects I want. On the other hand, I don't use oil paint because of the fumes. It’s just too complicated with all the cleaners, thinners and such.

I'm also picking up in many of your selections what seems to be a strong interest in mechanics and machine forms, noting quite a few rocket ships or even "Russian robots".
The mechanical aspect is an influence from childhood. My father designs airplanes and bikes so I was exposed to detailed drawings from a young age. In fact, I have three brothers and we all have a mechanical bent in our art and design. No one was immune!

How do you decide on the color scheme to include in your different projects?
There are different ways I approach this. One is that I take numerous photos from which I sample colors. That is one way to get a good basis for moving ahead with the coloration. I also think I have a strong built in sense of color. Because of this I’m pretty good at mixing colors from scratch until I find something that works.

Overall, the colors I choose usually tend toward a friendly palette. I've learned that people react strongly to color and that if you can nail the colors, the rest of the design process is much easier.

It can be a real challenge when I have to use a customer's existing color palette. If the color is particularly unsuitable in my eyes, I will minimize it by introducing other elements, such as photos, to counter balance the effect.

Have you ever had a project that you thought just didn't work out – for any reason – and what did you learn from this experience?
Yes … but you won't find them on my website!

Bad projects do happen but I always learn something no matter how painful the experience. I've discovered it's best to keep moving, learn from your mistakes and put the new knowledge to work with the next project. I think that usually the person who makes a lot of mistakes is also the one who learns the fastest and in the end produces the most innovative work.

A couple of questions I always enjoy asking creative persons: EXCLUDING all your talents or current interests, if you could do any other kind of work in the world, what would it be and why? Turning it around: what kind of job would you absolutely hate doing and why?
If I could do any other job, I would teach, specifically design. It's very rewarding and I love the exchange of ideas between student and teacher. I really find that I learn the most about something when I teach it.

In terms of what I’d definitely not want to do would be telephone solicitation. I would have a terrible time calling people and asking them to buy magazine subscriptions.

Looking ahead for the next years, do you see any particular design trends in your field(s)?
Well, everything will need to look good on the iPhone, ha ha!

But seriously, I think people are embracing friendly-looking design not only because it makes them smile but also because it's very functional when done right. I would consider the iPhone interface an example of friendly design that is incredibly functional.

How about for design in general?
I see design continuing to become more "integrated". While all designers – and that’s a very broad description, I know – specialize to a certain degree in their areas of choice, I see great benefits for those who really understand how to utilize and incorporate aspects from other various fields that may overlap or be close to their own.

How do you see your own business evolving?
More logo design and illustration. Also, I will continue to do projects like "Geo + Info" that blur the line between design, promotion and education.

Insert here: Free Space for Any "Advertising" You Want to Do (e.g. what's next for Ben Schlitter and "Studiobenben", etc.) :
Up next is a new series of "Geo + Info" postcards and several new icon sets. I’m always interested in pushing my portfolio and all my new ideas, including my original drawings and illustration prints. And as always, I love it when folks visit the web-site to inquire about new projects!

I guess if you’re giving me a free pass to advertise, I’d tell everyone that before leaving on your next holidays, please stop by and
pick up some postcards. And if you’re not too busy reading "Ziggy Nixon", then also follow "Studiobenben" on my blog!


In 2005, Ben Schlitter established "Studiobenben" as a multi-disciplinary studio in order to facilitate the creation of the myriad of his design endeavors. In 2006, he received a Master of Fine Arts in graphic design from Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, where he also won various design contests along the way to graduating.

In 2007, he made the jump to California to pursue his art and design opportunities in the interactive industry. Ben currently resides in Santa Monica and when he wants to "get away from it all", he also enjoys reading, bicycling, cooking and travelling, just not necessarily all at the same time... remember, keep it simple!

All pictures and images full copyright of Ben Schlitter, used by special licensed permission.

If you want to copy something, at least have the decency to try out his free stuff first...

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