How to Do the Work You Love (An Interview with Brad Woodard)

by Dustin Lee December 21, 2015

Brad Woodard Interview - How to Do Work You Love

[QUICK NOTE] Brad Woodard and I recently released the SpaceRanger Brush and Tutorial pack. A collection of premium Photoshop Brush Presets and step-by-step tutorials inspired by mid-century illustrations. If you love good brush presets you can grab it here.

If you're like many designers out there you have dreams of launching your own product lines, focusing on projects you love, and making a killing while you're at it. 

Brad Woodard is one of the guys living that dream. He went from junior designer at a huge design firm to owning his own successful studio, Brave the Woods

Brad has done projects for neat clients like Target, Harley Davidson and How Magazine. But he's also been successful at focusing on some amazing personal projects. 

Learn how he's built a studio doing the work he loves and how you can to!

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your work, Brad!

Can you tell us a little bit about your earliest memories of wanting to be an illustrator/designer?

From the time I was really little, I have always wanted to be an artist. My mom is an artist, and she always pushed me creatively and invited me in on all her projects. That helped me gain a lot of confidence in what I was doing early on. And as I got older my artistic direction kept changing and evolving, but I still knew I would always do something with art. My love affair with design happened in college, so when I mixed my drawing background with my new design knowledge you get.

WAVE campaign tee

Most designers have a period where they have great taste in design, yet don't have the skills to create great design. But from looking at your work on Dribbble from as far back as 2011 it's pretty awesome. How did you develop such a mature style so early on. 

First off, thank you. I would love to say my style matured quickly because it just came naturally to me. But the reality is that I put in a lot of time and hard work to get to the point I am at. Passion had something to do with it, since I spent all my free time reading, interviewing or blogging about it. And that is what I was doing when I wasn't designing/illustrating. 

So, making friends with talented people and putting in the mileage after hours would be the simple answer.

Thinkery by Brad Woodard of Brave the Woods 

Can you share 3-5 specific actionable tips that illustrators and designers can use to find their voice/style? 

I like using the word voice instead of style when referencing a creative's body of work. To me, voice speaks to something more intangible about one's work. It is more than how the elements are arranged on the page, or what color palette is being used. A creative's voice is apparent no matter the medium or style. 

  1. Start up a Tumblr site and make up a daily creative challenge for yourself.This is a perfect way to start seeing quick, positive results for something you may struggle with. For me it was characters. I didn't think I was great at drawing characters, so I set up the Character Challenge (link: project for myself. Each day I challenged myself to draw a new character, playing around in different styles. It didn't take long to see that I was getting better, getting faster, and finding out what makes my work mine. 
  2. Take an interest in the history of the craft. Go out and read some books about the history of design or illustration. Understanding how things were made, why artists created what they did, and how they solved their problems can help your own work evolve and on a much deeper level. 
  3. Start up a blog. I started up a simple blog when I was in college to house what inspired me creatively. At first I used it like an inspiration library for myself. But as time went on I decided to start sharing my thoughts on design. I started sharing my opinion more on topics. Then I began interviewing talented creatives I admired. Sharing my thoughts, and interviewing other about theirs, I started to really find my own voice. Not to mention more followers, clients and friends :)

You're career has transitioned big time over the past few years. You started as a designer at Column Five Media in California, then moved to Boston be a designer at Arnold Worldwide, and now own your own studio, Brave the Woods in Austin, Texas. Can you tell how a little about how you went from employee to studio owner?

The transition from being an employee to working for myself was a huge leap of faith. Though it was something my wife and I had been planning for a long time. Working for someone was always a means to an end for me.

In college, I was enticed by the idea of having a fancy title and working for a prestigious studio. That  idea quickly lost its charm once I started working full-time. I am forever grateful for my past employers, and all that I learned from working for them. But that was not the path I ultimately wanted to take.

From each of the places I got as much out of the experience as I could, saved my money, kept waiting for the right time to start Brave the Woods. That opportunity seemed obtainable once we started getting so much freelance work we couldn't do both a full-time job and freelance. So we took the leap!

Brave the Woods Studio 

One of my favorite projects you've done with Brave the Woods is Tatay's Gift. Can you share how this project started and how you brought it to completion?

That just happens to be mine as well! My wife, Krystal, and I had such a wonderful time making that book. It was truly a passion project. 

When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, we wanted a way to help out. I had lived in the Philippines for two years back in 2005, so I have a special place in my heart for the Filipino people. Donating money is great and all, but we wanted to make a more meaningful gesture. One that would not only bring money to those in need, but one that would teach children all over the world to learn the valuable lesson of giving. 

So we decided to make a children's book that showcases the kind, self-less nature of the Filipino people, through a story about a little Filipino boy and his dad. The boy and his dad (tatay) do a different job each day of the week, from selling popsicles by the beach to driving a jeepney through the city. As they work, he learns the lesson of serving and giving to others by watching his tatay everyday.

Knowing we had to get it made quickly, we created a Kickstarter project to help us self-publish the book, where the money we made from each book would go directly to disaster relief in the affected areas. The story was written, but we didn't finish illustrating it until after we were fully funded. Which really put a fire under my butt to finish :)

And yeah, it worked out really well. We reached our $10,000 funding goal and printed the books and shipped them out! It was rewarding to be able to donate money, but much more rewarding to hear from parents that Tatay's Gift is their kid's favorite bedtime book. The impact this book can have on young kids will be much longer lasting than any amount of money we could donate.

Tatay's Gift Children's Book

One of the things that holds people back from doing projects like this is fear. Will I invest the money to print the books and they'll look horrible (bad printing, poor quality, etc)? What if no one buys them?

What would you say to designers and illustrators considering doing personal projects like this that are fearful?

You have to be willing to take risks to do anything great. No matter what happens, you created something you are passionate about. That is all that matters. People may not buy it, and that is okay. Hopefully you made it for yourself before anyone else. We learn through failure. I love the quote by Seth Godin, "If you don't start, you can't fail". You'll never know if it could have been a success until you do it.

RetroSupply Co. and Brave the Woods just released a PSD brush and tutorial pack together. We spent many hours on Skype together creating brushes that would help achieve the style of illustration from 1950s children's books.

Can you tell us what was most important to you about these brushes (in terms of aesthetic) and what you think makes these brushes so special?

I wanted these brushes to feel as authentic as possible to the physical tool. There a lot of PSD brushes out there that feel fake for two reasons mainly: 

  1. There is no feeling of randomness to the marks you make. 
  2. You can't control the lights and darks, and thicks and thins very well. 

These brushes are different. And what is super cool about the brush set as a whole is that each one has been specifically chosen to help you achieve this mid-century children's book feel. Not that the brushes are limited to a particular style, but it allows you to see exactly what you can use the brushes for, and how to use them via the tutorials that come with the brushes. Though, who really needs an excuse to draw cowboys in space?

SpaceRanger Photoshop Brush Presets

How do you recommend illustrators and designers use the brushes?

To achieve the best results from these brushes, play around with how much pressure you put on the stylus. Sometimes when trying out digital brushes for the first time, it is easy to make one stroke across the screen and then give up on it.

If you play around with the pressure and speed you use with the stylus you will see some amazing results. This is especially true with the Form Builder brushes. There will be very authentic looking marks left on your artwork.

You've included 3 detailed video tutorials with the pack. Can you share with us what's in each tutorial and why you chose to break the tutorials up into this specific three parts?

The SpaceRanger illustration was made to showcase what these brushes could do. So in the tutorials I wanted to highlight each brush I used to show how they worked, and how I used them to achieve that style. The videos are broken up into the 3 main elements within the design: Blocking out main shapes, line work and shading.

I hope those who purchase the brush package take the time to go through the tutorials because it will help you learn how to get the most out of these brushes, and give you the opportunity to see how another creative works to create an illustration from the ground up.

SpaceRanger Brad Woodard Tutorials 

You've built an incredible design studio from doing projects you love. From projects for Target, to teaching, to releasing meaningful children's books. 

If you had to give one piece of advice to designer's out there on how to build a career full of work they love what would it be?

Do the work you want to get. Don't wait for someone to come hand you your dream project. Go and do it and then show it off to the world. I promise you will start getting more of the type of work you want to get that way, rather than if you sat there wishing you got better projects/job offers coming in the door.

Nobody came to me to illustrate any children's books because they didn't know I did that! I didn't have any of that type of work to show off. The answer to that problem was to make my own children's book and self-publish.

After I did that, all of a sudden I started getting requests to illustrate children's books. I actually have a children's book (with a space theme, believe it or not) with Simon & Schuster coming out in April 2016. 

Clients don't know to give you the work you want until you show them you can do it. 

Thank you so much for taking the time share your story and work with us, Brad! Any parting words?

Love your work! Own it and keep putting on the creative milage. Don't ever stop exploring. Brave the woods!

About Brad Woodard

Brad Woodard is the owner of Brave the Woods. A small design firm located in Austin, Texas that specializes in graphic design and illustration. In addition to client work, Brave the Woods also creates children's books, posters, shirts and more. Check out his work here or grab some cool stuff here.

Dustin Lee
Dustin Lee


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