As an expert on typographical portraits and a devoted follower of the scientific method to solving problems, Dylan Roscover seeks to use all types of media to engage people everywhere.
His creative use of text and images was most notably employed when he created a calligram — a drawing composed entirely of text — of Steve Jobs for a university class assignment. Using text from the "Here's to the crazy ones" ad campaign from Apple in the 1990s, Dylan set the words in typefaces appearing in Apple branding and products. Later TIME Magazine commissioned him to create a calligram of President Barack Obama using text from his presidential campaign.
Dylan strongly believes in the importance of effective, immersive visual communication. He founded The Experiential Company in Los Angeles as a cutting-edge design studio "specializing in outstanding visuals across all media." He's a man on a mission. The company's motto: Dissipabit non tempus (no time wasted).
From his studio in Los Angeles, surrounded by Apple monitors and BenQ projectors, Dylan spoke with us about his work and process.
Inspire: Tell us about your early influences.
Dylan Roscover: I've always had a fascination with expressing things visually, and I've been intrigued by storytelling. I made this 20-foot-long mural in the first grade — a gigantic illustration of the Titanic in profile view — which was hung in elementary school. I was fascinated by this huge vessel that was so beautiful and just going across the sea and hit this iceberg. Why did it happen? What did it mean?
Inspire: Where did you grow up?
I grew up just outside a small town west of Boulder, Colorado. We lived on a dirt road with no neighbors bordered by a few hundred miles of the Rocky Mountain National Park. Nature has profoundly inspired me toward beautiful things. A lot of my childhood was spent outside. I'd just go out and play with rocks and build sand cities.
Inspire: Where did you learn your craft?
Roscover: It was in high school in Pueblo, Colorado, where my family relocated to, that I got into computers, and I started using [Adobe] Creative Suite. I started experimenting with all these different toolsets like GIMP, the open-source image manipulation program.
Then I bought my first Mac, an iBook G4, and started playing around with different visual tools for designing and developing visual media. I learned HTML and CSS and became a jack-of-all-trades at school for technical and creative stuff.
After high school, I went to Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida. Full Sail is an interesting school because it has an excellent harmony between the how and why. Those two words are really important to me. I'm interested not only in how we can produce this or how we can make that, but also why we do the things we do.
Inspire: How did you think of doing calligrams?
Roscover: We had this class assignment in our first typography class at Full Sail: you needed to do an illustration that was composed entirely of type of an object of your choice. I figured if I'm going to do this, I might as well do something I love, so I chose Steve Jobs because, for the past several years, I had become obsessed with Apple culture. Apple creates beautiful products that balance the how and why, making something really beautiful but also that works really well.
I stayed up three days straight working on it and barely finished it in time. The image was a hit. After I posted it on deviantART, it got a few hundred thousand views pretty quickly. People seemed to vibe well with it. I guess they thought, "Wow, this kid really must like this guy because he spent all this time on this damned illustration."
Inspire: What's your process for creating a calligram?
Roscover: I first ask what's the essence of this topic or this person. Say it's a picture of John Lennon. I'm looking for lyrics and then once I've compiled the text I try to understand what is most important about this text and what is the least important. Once I have that assigned, I lay out the first piece of type wherever it feels right in the portrait, where there's a good focal point.
I'll examine it for a day or two and really just look at it, stare at it, print it out, put it up on the wall, throw it upside down, reverse it, flip it around. I try to identify where the eye goes first and then use that as the starting point for the largest, most prominent piece of type.
I start building it out from there. You start with the foundation blocks and then work your way out. It's not like I'm engineering something. It's an artistic process, so I meander like a river, going to whatever feels right. When you're connected to something and you really love it, you forget about everything else — nothing else matters.
But it's also literally just me setting type over and over and over again. After 10 to 15 hours, it gets very, very repetitive. That's where using other media to fuel me really helps. While I was working on the Steve Jobs piece, I looped the "Here's to the crazy ones" ad campaign in the background, just to feel the ambience. For a piece I made of [Russian science-fiction author] Boris Strugatsky, I watched a film of one of his novels in Russian. I couldn't understand anything that was going on, so it was sort of an ambience kind of thing. The colors in the movie inspired me and helped push me in the right direction.
Depending on the project, usually I'll have a photo as a reference somewhere in the pipeline. I'll bring it into Photoshop and do a ton of levels and lighting adjustments. One of the keys to making these portraits really successful is the lighting. You'll end up depicting a scary, evil-looking face if you don't light it properly. You have to exaggerate the lighting in these portraits to make them look believable.
Inspire: How do you know when you're done?
Roscover: Never, never! I know a lot of creatives with this problem, so I guess I'm not alone. I don't really have any work that I'm truly 100% happy with. I think it was da Vinci who said, "Art is never finished, only abandoned." I just abandon my work.
But that's the beauty of the design industry. You have a finishing point: the deadline. I do everything in my power to get it done by then. I will adapt my sleep schedule to fit the work and meet that Holy Grail of a milestone.
Inspire: What inspires you?
Roscover: Different things inspire me. Some say that originality doesn't exist, and I see where that statement comes from. We all borrow bits and pieces from everywhere in our lives — as creatives I mean — to make stuff.
More than anything else, science inspires me. Science is a method for testing the truth. We're all able to understand things, such as this is the reason the sky is blue and gravity does exist because we're observing it every single day. You have evidence. As with earth science, there is a science to design and aesthetics. There's a reason why we like the things we do: why blue is the most popular color, why Facebook is blue, why Twitter uses blue, why 80% of all web apps use blue now, and why red is a very powerful color. In the old days, you took people at face value. "They're the designer so they must be correct." But now we have evidence to back these ideas up.
Inspire: Who inspires you?
Roscover: I love people who are passionate about things. To me, it's not about being better, it's about fulfilling what I can give back to the community. A few names that come to mind are Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
You may not be expecting a designer to name these scientists. Carl Sagan was the host of the PBS show, "Cosmos," in the 1980s, of course, but his book, "Pale Blue Dot," was very inspirational to me on a more scientific level.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and also hosts a cool radio show online called StarTalk that's really inspirational. He goes over a wide variety of topics and promotes the idea of science to normal people, like you and me. Neil inspires me to work on projects in my spare time that promote science in ways that I can execute.
Jony Ive is the head of industrial design at Apple. The intensity he puts into his products speaks for itself. He's a detail freak, very obsessive, and he really, really cares about what he does. I think that's super inspirational.
Another guy is Frank Chimero, an illustrator who recently finished a book called "The Shape of Design," which I highly recommend to anyone interested in design. Frank is a brilliant mind. He really understands design, his work is really catching, and his attention to detail is stellar. I have a fond appreciation for him as a designer as well as a thinker.
Inspire: What are you working on now?
Roscover: My side projects revolve around experiential design. I started my company, The Experiential Company, for the primary reason of creating graphics that are immersive — that you actually walk into. We take these really expensive projectors and project onto not just walls or flat surfaces but tangible extruded surfaces. People call it projection mapping.
You're in an environment with other people and experiencing these visuals, like an art installation. These visuals are synchronized to music so you are watching and hearing something. Not only are you getting a really cool sensory experience, but you're also tickling your brain. It's somewhat educational.
For example, one project we did recently was called "Journées." It's fast-paced travel through Europe. It's outrageously huge and a big technical achievement for us. "Journées" was the first of many projects that we have planned. We want to give a more objective view of what you think. We invite viewers to experiment on their own, so it becomes a communal thing and everyone feels more connected and participatory.
Inspire: How do you balance your work life with your personal time?
Roscover: I wrap my life around my work rather than trying to separate the two. I love to integrate them because my work is my life. I feel bad when I hear people say they're just working for the weekend.
I know there's a great sense of security and comfort from steady, stable income, but I encourage people to take the risk, go out there, be bold and risk everything in the name of what you love. You should be looking forward to going to work, not getting out of work.
Inspire: What advice do you have for other designers?
Roscover: Do what you love — or try to do as much of what you love as possible — because that's what shows through the most. True passion is always transparent. That's how I approach client work. I try to connect with clients, try to understand them and experience it in their shoes as much as I can because that's what ends up creating the best possible work, versus just trying to get it out the door and finished.
Examine things with a scientific mind and you will find your answers. On top of that, you'll rise to the top of your trade by simply understanding why things are the way they are and why people behave the way they do. Doing things less randomly and more for a reason, I think, is what design really is. Everything around us was designed — our homes, businesses, offices, cities, everything. The more intention you have in doing something, the more confident you will be, and people will see that.
Stefan Gruenwedel is the senior editorial producer for Adobe Inspire Magazine. He occasionally finds time to make short-form documentaries.