Born and bred in the Lone-Star state, Brent Couchman is a designer and illustrator that now calls San Francisco his home. Noted for his generous use of color, he employs vibrant yet sophisticated palettes that elevate and accentuate the playfulness and meticulous nature of his work. He has received awards and accolades from distinguished publications including Graphis and Print and has established himself as an accomplished designer with a distinct visual voice. After stints at Fossil and Hatch Design he recently decided to venture out on his own with the launching of Moniker – a design and branding studio focused on timeless work and strong client relationships. In our latest addition to the Design in Process series we chat with Brent on his creative process and the challenges of managing a studio.
Lets start off with a little bit about your background. What was your first design gig?
My first official design job was in high school at a local print shop. I was hired to help the owner, who handled all of the design and production work that came in. I got the hang of things pretty quickly and worked on my own designing a lot of business cards, brochures, ads, etc. It was a great introduction to design because I was exposed to the production side of things and had projects with clients and timelines. They also let me wear flip-flops to work.
What challenges have you faced managing your own studio?
It took me about six months to get comfortable with the ebb and flow of new work. I was afraid that at some point new projects wouldn’t come in and I’d have to get a job at Kinkos. After a while, I got used to the inevitable downtime and have since learned to take that time to relax, work on personal projects or develop the business.
Another challenge was leaving the studio environment, where you collaborate with talented people and see the work they’re creating. You miss a lot of the interaction and even inspiration that happens from walking around and seeing the awesome things that people are working on. Now I have a pretty good network of designers who I share work with and get feedback from, which has been invaluable.
What do you enjoy about being on your own, as opposed to the design firm environment?
There’s a feeling of freedom that comes from running my own business, and that shows itself in several ways. I can choose what projects to take on or go after specific work that I’m interested in. Even if I need to take on a project for financial reasons, the decision is still mine, and it directly benefits me.
Time is another way I feel that freedom. Whether it’s the day to day schedule of how long to work, or the amount of time I take off for vacation. It’s great to have the freedom to choose how I spend my time.
Could you walk us through one of your projects? Please describe your workflow, including your tools, from pen and paper to software and devices
Up Global is a Seattle-based company offering resources and support for entrepreneurs of all levels. I was hired to develop a visual identity system for the company, who had recently gone through a merger. After a few days of discussing goals, audience breakdowns, competitive landscape, and other key information, I went back and hit the sketchbook.
One of my favorite ideas was a very literal interpretation of the name, combining an arrow and a globe to make an abstract human form.
After sketching, I took the best ideas and moved to the computer to work out rough comps. I use Adobe Illustrator pretty exclusively, even for most of my presentation mockups. Because I was working directly with the creative director, I showed a larger number of concepts in a rougher state than I would on a normal project.
One of the goals was to create a symbol that was truly international and could identify the company easily without the type. The simple arrow/globe emerged as the favorite, but we moved forward with a few other concepts as well to see how we could expand in each direction.
In the end, the arrow/globe/human icon won. We developed a system through which each future regional chapter could pick their own color and customize the logo with their location.
With so many regional chapters, one of the other major considerations was building a visual language anyone could use. Rather than creating a complex system of guidelines, we opted to keep things simple by keeping the focus on the logo, and breaking it apart to build the visual assets used across the brand.
How has your process evolved since you first started designing? Are you a creature of habit or do you like to try new technologies, applications, and features?
When I first started designing, I did a lot of work to generate ideas. I’d sit down and write word associations, lists, and spend hours sketching, trying to perfect each line and form of a logo or illustration. Then I’d take those to the computer and see what worked. Now, the process is more dictated by the project constraints and time line. I’ll still sketch, but it’s more like jotting down a few words or scribbles to remember an idea later. Through the years I’ve gotten a better feel for what works, so I don’t have to rely on such a rigorous process to generate good ideas.As for new technologies, the two services I’ve used since starting out on my own are Dropbox and Adobe Creative Cloud. Dropbox is great because I can access files from anywhere, which really helps when working from the road. Creative Cloud is great because you can get the software updates as they come out rather than using one version of the software for several years, which I used to do.
Analytical tools are now ubiquitous, and because of this designers are often asked to back up their work with data and research. With this in mind, how much of your work is based on intuition — and what role should intuition play in design today?
I think intuition and research and data go hand in hand. The best work comes from being completely immersed in as much information as possible about the goals, challenges, audience, etc., and then finding a solution based on that information. Without that aspect, there’s no way to communicate effectively, so I definitely think both are integral to good design.
What are your passions and interests outside of design and why?
I collect rare design books and ephemera, which all started when a coworker at my first job let me borrow his copy of Paul Rand’s Design Form and Chaos. I had not heard of Paul Rand at the time, so I was blown away. After that I worked in-house at Fossil and was exposed to more mid-century designers and started collecting old Graphis annuals, which led to more and more rare design books. Now I have a network of dealers in the States and Europe who help me get my fix. My wife isn’t a huge fan, especially since we live in a tiny San Francisco apartment, but that hasn’t stopped me so far.
Another thing I’ve really come to love is exploring the Bay Area and California in general. My wife and I will find new restaurants or shops and take time during the week for day trips in and around the Bay Area. It’s nice to get a break between projects and refresh from time to time.
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