Originally from Goshen, Indiana, Joshua M. Smith (aka Hydro74) moved around the United States as a kid. Tagging along with his parents, who frequented biker bars, he saw lots of barroom artwork — skulls, Harleys, scantily clad women, and T-shirt designs of the outlaw biker lifestyle — a factor that may explain the punk-tribal severity and hell-raising edginess permeating his design work today.
Over the years, Joshua has applied his complex, detailed styling to countless designs on T-shirts, NCAA jerseys, logos, posters, snowboards, and other brand paraphernalia for action-sports industry leaders. Adidas, Billabong, Hurley, Nike, and Quicksilver probably have him on speed dial. Harley-Davidson, Levi's, Lucasfilm, and Primus have asked him to create unique imagery for their brand campaigns, too.
Besides his impressive array of illustrations, Joshua experiments with creating dramatic (in his words, "bad-ass") fonts that communicate in bold new ways while harkening back to age-old memes.
Joshua sat down after a long day of freelance work to talk about his background, his influences, and what he thinks about today's art schools — and the kids who attend them.
Inspire: What inspired you to pursue a career in art?
Smith: When I first started out, I had no interest in pursuing a career in art. I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. So I went to college but got kicked out of the teaching program. Next I took some drawing classes because they were easy As, and they helped me keep my GPA up. Then I took a couple visual communications classes, which I really liked. The professor came from the old-school, traditional route — the precomputer phase, if you will. I was learning [Adobe] Photoshop at the same time he was; it was fun but not productive. We did cheesy projects, like designing CD covers and a perfume bottle label. I really had no desire to be a designer since this was just a class to keep my GPA up, but after getting a couple legitimate gigs from my weak portfolio that was hosted on GeoCities, I got hooked. I think the reality of getting paid to draw became more of an interesting option than being a waiter at a steak house.
Inspire: What was your first paying design gig?
Smith: It was 1997, and I was still in college. A friend was building a music fan website, and he asked me to create illustrations for it — they were horrible. But the owner of a record company liked my work and contacted me to see if I wanted to do an illustration for a CD cover. I got US$500 for that job. About three weeks later, another record label contacted me to create some horrible-looking Japanese animations for another US$500. That's how I kind of got hooked because I was getting paid to basically draw really horrible things. Then I dropped out of college — I wasn't learning anything, and I was tired of paying tuition. I stuck with graphic design and forced myself to learn anything and everything about it. I remember doing US$50 T-shirt designs just to get money for food or gas.
Inspire: Did anyone influence or help you?
Smith: In 1999, Joshua Davis contacted me to do an illustration for PrayStation. After the project, we talked a little on e-mail, and I told him I was just a student. I didn't even own a computer at the time. He ended up hooking me up with some trial software on Zip discs for when I did get a computer and said, "Learn this; focus on that. Save up, and once you get the money, buy [Adobe] Illustrator, buy Photoshop, and go from there." He gave me a nudge to try different things. I was still a rookie in the industry, but just getting that hint about what I should focus on assisted me in pushing further.
Inspire: How did your interest in typography come about, and why did you take it in the direction you did?
Smith: It was an accident. In early 2000, I was working at this small agency in Grand Rapids [Michigan]. There was a copy of [Macromedia] Fontographer lying around. I was curious about it and took it home and installed it on my computer.
After playing with it for a little bit, I created a couple of really ugly fonts, basically where I was taking pre-existing fonts and bastardizing them. But then I wanted to create legitimate fonts. After a short while, I figured out the easiest thing: Go into Illustrator, create some shapes, screen your letters, and print the alphabet from there. Then copy and paste them to Fontographer, and you're done. I got kind of addicted.
Inspire: Since then, how many fonts have you created?
Smith: At this juncture, I've created about 140 fonts. It's kind of hit or miss, though. Sometimes they're great; other times they look like crap, and yet some people like them. It's just my personal outlet for exploration and creative challenges.
Inspire: Do you like illustrating or typography more?
Smith: The illustration work is something I totally love. It's one of those things I'm very passionate about. But the typography work — the logos and typefaces or type treatments for different companies — exemplifies my career more so than the illustrations. The illustrations are great, but not everybody is going to get it. Whereas typography has such a wider audience; it's a tool and communicates emotion or substance.
Inspire: Are there any fonts that you really like or identify with?
Smith: I like Comic Sans. I understand the reason why it was made. I understand the whole fascination with it when it first came out. It exemplifies a certain style or design culture of that time, so it's kind of where I want to take my own typography. I want to be able to intensify what I see today. I'm not saying that I want to create the new version of Comic Sans, but the typography that inspires me to want to create tends to be trend-driven and meant for a purpose.
Inspire: Your fonts exhibit a lot of detail — filigrees and such. Why are you drawn to such fine, organic details?
Smith: I've never been one to look at super simple work and think it's awesome. To me, talent is displayed in the details. The thing that I want most is to learn how to take advantage of the space without making it look cluttered. Just look at the old Robert Williams comics from back in the day, where it's just him doing a whole spread based on just pen and ink and making everything look like chrome. His stuff is just amazing. So when I was looking at his work, I knew there had to be a way for me too because I enjoy the little details as well. It's more the concept that details define a piece but also need balance.
That's why I love working in vectors. I had an art show in Manila [the Philippines] a couple of weeks ago where I had these huge 30 × 40-inch prints, which concerned me because they were going to be blown up so big that you could actually see all the details — as well as all the mistakes. But I love that those details are in there. There's still a lot of negative space, and there are still a lot of little essences within the work. To me, it's those little things that make the piece at a larger scale look much more functional.
Inspire: How do you go from an initial idea to final design?
Smith: I start in Illustrator. Say I have this idea to do a lion; I'll find five or six different images online just to have a visual reference. Then I'll create a generic diagram of the lion that indicates where the eyes, the nose, the chin, and ears should go. It's just a quick diagram to show the client.
A lot of people will first sketch it out, do a perfect pen-and-ink drawing, and then go over and trace it. I don't work that way. When a client is only paying a certain amount, why should I double-up my time by first drawing something and then vectoring it? Since vector is so malleable, I can get something done and sent to the client within three or four hours — more depending on complexity.
Inspire: How many iterations do you generally go through on a project?
Smith: It depends. Clients can be very, very subjective at times. While some clients know exactly what they want, and they'll tell you what they want, other clients send you revision after revision because they don't really know what they want. I try to be up front with them and encourage them to give me insight on what exactly they want to accomplish before getting too crazy in a piece.
Inspire: How do you deal with clients who don't know what they want?
Smith: I continue to push them to think and tell me exactly what they want. When you're freelancing, the biggest drawback is that you usually can't spend US$600 to US$1,000 to fly out and meet the clients. So I usually create a storyboard, post it, and get the clients to review it and tell me exactly what they want. Once I know what they want, I can build the foundation. And once I figure out the foundation, I can build the house; it's not overly complex. I also have to make sure that the end goal on the piece is within my range of techniques.
Inspire: Do you use any accessories like a Wacom tablet?
Smith: No, no, never. I don't use any tablets. I do everything by mouse because I'm a control freak. When I want to draw a line, I use a Pen tool to create the entire line, not a brush or some other simple solution, because I think the authenticity of what I do comes from the fact that I create everything. You can tell when people use a Wacom tablet at times; it looks like they're using certain brushes or tools too much to define their piece.
I'm just used to drawing by hand. I like looking at the screen and drawing with the mouse. I kind of enjoy the click-and-drag, click-and-drag ability to control. The mouse forces me to want to make sure I'm staying true to what I believe it should be. I'm not trying to find a simple solution to get my work done quickly but rather trying to focus on the things that define me within the quality of work.
Inspire: To a large degree, you are self-taught; art school was not for you. If you had the opportunity to talk to a young person who is considering going to art school, what would you say?
Smith: I would say don't do it — unless you know exactly what you're going there for. A lot of people think that being an artist or graphic designer is the simplest, most awesome job ever and that you're going to be this bad-ass rock star who's this super huge, bigger-than-Jesus sort of thing. That's not the case. It's a difficult industry.
But if you're going to attend art school, be focused and dedicated. Teachers can only teach you so much. If you're not willing to invest at least 50 or 60 hours outside of the classroom, then you're wasting your time. There has to be passion and a desire to be in this industry because it is not an easy one to be involved with. My biggest suggestion is figure out your end goal and work toward that.
Inspire: So what's next for you?
Smith: It's hard to say. My goals always differ depending on what is ahead of me. I want to hopefully strive to get the attention of higher level agencies or clients and to break into a different market or to progress into that arena. There is a lot of standard work on deck as well as travels. I've also been speaking recently all over the world. I have plans to speak in Spain, Dubai, Toronto, and a few other spots. I really enjoy getting out of the United States to speak to different designers and get their perspective. So yeah. I'm not sure.
Stefan Gruenwedel is the senior editorial producer for Adobe Inspire Magazine. He also produces developer videos for Adobe TV and the Adobe Developer Connection. Stefan occasionally finds time to make short-form documentaries.