1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?
You know, I don’t know that I ever had that realization. My dad gave me my first comic books when I was maybe three years old. I remember noticing Ben-Day dots, and I have a strong memory of being upset that sometimes the colors would go over the black parts and wash out the black ink. It took me another 20 years to realize that’s called “trapping,” and that this was bad trapping, but it bothered me right away. I was just immediately drawn to printing.
I illustrated the class newsletter in elementary school, and made chapbooks. When I was in fourth grade I started making Christmas cards for my parents’ friends. After gluing photocopies together the first year (to get a design on the front and back) I discovered that we had a small printer down the street. He’d make me 100 or 200 black and white cards for something like $50, and I’d color them with markers. That was my Big Bang: finding out that I could make a drawing and get it printed nice and clean on beautiful paper. Ultimately, that’s still what drives me: I love seeing things on press.
Graphic design is often the way there, sometimes it’s illustration, sometimes it’s writing books. Of course, I love doing movie titles and animating and making toys and doing architectural work, but I keep feeling the pull of the press.
2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?
The biggest hurdle was probably growing up in a small town in Germany. For all the history of the Bauhaus and the great designers of the 60s and 70s, the design I saw growing up in the Hinterland was pretty uniformly dreadful.
But in a way that helped me, too. In trying to find my tribe I connected with the Donaldists — a group of about 400 college professors and students applying the scientific method to Donald Duck stories. The whole thing was a parody of German academic culture, but done with great love and dedication. I joined them when I was 12, and they let me in, because I could draw the characters and was eager to volunteer for their fanzine, “Der Donaldist.” That taught me more about working for publication, and introduced me to using Letratone foils and Letraset letters and all of that old school magic. (I didn’t get a computer until college.)
After being extremely active with the Donaldists for three or four years, I had a falling out with a few of the people leading the magazine, so I had to find another way of getting my work printed. I picked the worst looking ads in the local paper, remade them my way, but to the same specs, and then sold them directly to the shops. “Saw your ad. Hated it. But for $50 you can have this better version!” Most people said yes, and many gave me followup work. It all built from there.
Later I figured out how to have my stuff shot on slides, so my clients could run it at the local movie theater. That was really fun! And those slides ran forever, too. They were still running years after I’d left town. I started getting regional clients. A company in Hamburg gave me my own line of embroidered shirts—like the stuff you get at the Disney Store, just with bears and not as nicely made.
I used the money I earned to take two big trips across the US, and fell in love with Los Angeles. On the second trip it became clear that I had to move here. I needed an acceptable reason, so I finished high school and then applied to Art Center.
After that, things got kind of traditional for a while. Wieden & Kennedy recruited me from campus, and brought me to Portland for a year and change. After they fired me I did a bunch of permalance work for Maverick Records, which was super fun! But in the end, I wanted to go back to working like I had in high school. 344 let me do that, and that’s what it’s been ever since.
3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?
Just doing what I do has been the most successful way of getting work. I suck at outreach. It’s one of my biggest weaknesses. I’ve been extremely fortunate that people have always found me. I can’t tell you how often I hear, “I saw something you did 10 years ago, and I kept thinking about a project we could do together. I think I may finally have something!” I always feel kind of bad, because I’d be happy to do simple projects, too, but I’m not complaining. The variety of unusual projects that come to me never ceases to fascinate and delight me.
4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?
I work my ass off to give them great work. I have deep production knowledge, I deliver on time, and I hate drama. I don’t know… I think I’m fun to work with.
5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?
Sometimes clients have run into cashflow difficulties. As long as they’re upfront about what’s happening, we can make a plan and get everything sorted. That doesn’t bother me. Once or twice I’ve had clients who wouldn’t pay because they felt that they could get away with it.
One was a huge company, who didn’t pay on time as a matter of course, and they could get away with it, but I kept hounding them until they paid. Some smaller operators were just dicks about it, and that’s what lawyers are for. So far I’ve always got what was coming to me.
6. What does your typical work day look like?
Get up, have a cup of cocoa, worry about work, take a five mile walk, worry more, get to work, do the work, have dinner and watch some TV, get anxious, work more, go to sleep. Rinse and repeat.
7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?
Get good at what you do. Some years you’ll be popular, other years you won’t. Some years you’ll make lots of money, others you won’t. You’ll have clients you love and clients you wish you’d sent packing. In the end it’s the work that’ll carry you through.
If you do something that’s genuinely interesting to you, something you care enough about to want to master, it’ll get you past rough patches, through lean times, and beyond boredom and self-loathing. It gives you something to show up for. Also, dedicating yourself to your craft has more longevity than external goals.
I checked a lot of my concrete goals of my list very early, and that left me adrift for a while. You know… now what? But in the end I just want to get better at what I do, do more interesting things in more interesting ways. If you can make that your reward, you’re gonna have a good ride!
You can check out more of Stefan G. Bucher’s work here: www.344lovesyou.com