July 9, 2011

Nothing Beats a Good Designer!

An Interview with Ian Leino

Part 1 of 2 (link to
Part 2)
Click on any picture to enlargenize

I’d better get a move on with today’s introduction. No, it’s not because I’m in a particular hurry nor is it necessarily because of the letters the faithful have been sending me lately that can be, um, politely summarized as ‘for the love of humanity, will you just shut up and get on with it?’ (Okay, Mom, I get it! Don’t make me de-friend you!)

No, it’s mostly because if I don’t get it in gear our guest for today, the one and only Ian Leino, he will undoubtedly be releasing another 2 or 3 designs before I’m done!! And trust me, I’m checking back every few minutes as it is to make sure I’m as au jour as I can possible be (that means dressed from the waist up, right?).

Ian is what one could call a prolific artist and designer person. Now, I know I’ve said that about others that have graced these good e-pages – including colleagues in the same genre such as Chow Hon Lam, Jared Moraitis, John Sprengelmeyer and Nichole Lillian (shameless plugs, I love ‘em! Thank you, CostCo!) – but Ian is busy with a capital Oh Boy! If he’s not pushing his tee designs at Threadless or other fine retailers, then he’s busy helping judging others’ designs, all for good causes and valuable cash prizes! And if he’s not busy putting out another great newsletter (subscribe now!) about what’s he’s sending your way soon, then he’s carrying tons of packaged loot to the post office to mail away! And a lot of that may include the very generous give-away’s that he offers on a regular basis. Have you subscribed yet? Hello?

Let’s put it this way: in the vernacular of my ‘people’ (howdy y’all!), Ian simply ‘churns the stuff out’. And yes, to answer your next question, I have churned butter the old-fashioned way, so I know of what I speak. I’ve also milked goats, but I can’t provide any more details to that owing to the pending legal proceedings. So like I’ve been trying to say for much too long now, let’s get on with the interview and meet this talented fellow.


Hi Ian, welcome! Let’s start off with a favorite standard: Can you tell us a little bit about Ian Leino please and how he became, quote, ‘a graphic designer and illustrator currently living in Asheville, NC who specializes in design for the entertainment and apparel industries?’
Thanks for the invite Ziggy! Me? Well, I'm just a nerdy guy in his early 30's who's equally at home in a fine art museum or the action figure aisle of the local toy store.

I graduated with a degree in fine art and computer science, and took a job doing graphics for a local news station. I'd never touched Photoshop before, but luckily there wasn't that much actual work to be done! So I used the rest of my time to go through every Photoshop tutorial that I could find online, and slowly taught myself how to use it.

From there I took a job at a film and video company, at first doing still graphics then eventually working up to motion graphics, compositing, and editing. At that point I also started doing freelance work on the side, and my enjoyment of music and entertainment drew me to those sorts of projects and clients.

I’d also be interested in knowing more about your life as – hang on, let me list all these – an amateur chef, a bassist, home-brewer, oh and also the bits about owning both a jeep and a pug. Are these in some way all done simultaneously or how does that work with your graphics business?
I love food and music, but have no real formal training in either. I'd like to think that if I weren't a designer I'd be a chef or musician – but in reality I'd probably be a computer programmer (which was my original college major).

Concerning the beer thing, two years ago I was introduced to home-brewing and found that it was a great way to be more involved with the process behind something that I truly enjoy. I find it really fun to experiment with new styles and recipes, and I've found that quite a number of my friends are incredibly appreciative of the end result.

The jeep has been invaluable in traversing the snowy mountain roads of the Appalachian mountain region of Western North Carolina in the winter! Oh and our pug Norman has the very important job of ensuring that I always know when the delivery guy is here by announcing his presence with an excited round of barking.

You have some really great works already out and about. What were your influences that helped you develop your style?
I still don't think I've developed a signature style, as I have too much fun trying on different looks for each project. I enjoy the challenge of finding the one look and/or style that I think best communicates the core message of the piece.

The great thing about being in this sort of work is that everything that I enjoy at any stage of life can become an influence - everything from Looney Tunes cartoons to video games to beer labels.

Ian, you are of course very well known in the world of custom tee-shirt design. In fact, when we started talking, you were listed as the ‘best seller’ on the TeeFury site. A few questions if you don’t mind about this aspect of your work:

First of all, your work appears on several different sites as you show in your ‘printed apparel’ listing. Why do you submit to so many sites? Or do they – as in the other sites – approach you once one site takes off with a design?
A lot of that stems from trying to find the right market for certain designs. For example, some of my best-sellers at TeeFury would never have been printed elsewhere, and some of my Threadless designs that have been reprinted multiple times might not have even registered on other sites.

But you’re right: having a design that really hits at one site is also a sure-fire way to get emails from lots of other sites, as everyone is looking for good artists and potential big-selling designs.

What do you think it takes to succeed with a design and get it printed?
Like with any form of artwork, strong ideas and refined artistic skills are incredibly important; but finding the right audience that really connects with your work is equally important.

Some of that comes from time that I’ve spent building relationships and investing in communities; and some of it is sheer dumb luck. Since I can't control luck, I tend to rotate my focus between the other three depending on my current mood – that is, refining ideas, practicing new art styles, or spending time connecting with communities.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve talked to some of your peers in the recent past and am just curious if the group of designers in this market is relatively close or is it more of a situation where you share mutual admiration for each other but not necessarily Christmas cards?
A huge percentage of the friends in my circle are people that I've met through various online design communities, most of whom do at least some work in t-shirt design. For my part, I'm terrible about forgetting to send cards of any sort, but yes, I did actually receive Christmas cards from several other artists this year!

I think the Internet has really changed the nature of communication and affected all of our relationships in the process. I have several online friends who I've only met once in my life (or never at all) that I talk with daily, while I may go weeks or months without seeing some of my good friends that live here in town.

To take this thought a step further: do you feel like you’re in competition with these other designers – even the ones you may ‘know’ well – or is it really focused on pushing yourself to come up with a great design?
I'd say on some level, all designers are in competition with each other but in a more positive way than that concept is generally perceived. I mean, without competition, the first caveman who grabbed a smoking ember from the fire and left a charcoal mark on a wall would be hailed as the greatest artist in human history; the creator of the wheel would have had the pinnacle of modern transportation forever; our concepts of art and communication and technology and beauty would never have advanced and society would be in pretty lousy shape.

I think we're all competing with ourselves, but it takes the work of others to show us how our own work measures up. A person on a desert island who makes a spear is pretty impressed with himself … until an aircraft carrier cruises by.

I’m also curious about your ‘available designs’ section. Are these designs that you feel strongly about that haven’t yet found an outlet or where do they fit in?
Exactly. After completing them, there are a number of designs I've created that I enjoy and that I think could work well as a t-shirt but I just haven't found the right home yet.

Also, when I'm contacted by companies looking for designs, it gives me a way to point them to one central repository of all of my currently available designs, rather than sending out PDFs that may soon be out of date as new designs are added and old ones are sold.

Continued in Part 2

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