Aaron Sechrist Talks Personal Branding, His Unconventional Design Process and the Wisdom of Comedians
Most designers have a style they love and prefer to work in, but don't know how to get there. Being in design almost always includes working on projects you aren't particularly interested in, and that's just part of the job.
Aaron Sechrist, however, has MASTERED the art of building his own unapologetic style, which seems to be a common thread in successful designers.
Through his one-man design studio OKpants, Aaron has been able to work for brands such as Disney, House Of Blues, Red Bull, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, Detroit Pistons, and Fall Out Boy without straying far from the style he's developed and loves.
Keep reading to find out the secrets of developing your own style and doing the work you love.
P.S. Aaron is selling an amazing layered font he created called Leutner at a special price. So watch the hilarious video below and then pick yourself up some Leutner goodness!
Hey Aaron, thanks for taking the time to share a little bit about yourself and your work!
To start off can you just tell everyone a little bit about yourself?
Hi Dustin. I'm a graphic artist from Cleveland, Ohio. While I tend to bounce around between markets and industries I work a lot on logo and illustration projects for clients in the entertainment and restaurant industries. It's an organic by-product of my two main passions in life outside of making art: comedy and eating.
I don't really have any hobbies. I exercise a few days a week but that's more like a chore for me than something I enjoy. I lift weights only because I hate running and I have aspirations one day of looking like an X-Man when I grow up. I like stand-up comedy and try out open mics from time to time when the nonsense rattling around my skull won't fit into tweets.
You’ve made a design business with a loud voice and distinct style. I always love to ask designers that are successful at this, what’s the secret to doing so much work that you love?
Patience and perseverance. I think it's more important than talent or hard work. You also have to kind of not care too much. When I first struck out on my own and said bye-bye to the day job I was so scared and wound so tightly that at any point if I made the wrong move i would never get another gig again. These days I treat my branding and career in general like I did high school—I know everyone just wants me out as soon as possible so I do what makes me happy and say and do whatever's on my mind in the moment. If you ever lose track of the fact that you’re drawing pictures for a living and not performing heart surgery you've lost.
To get anywhere fulfilling professionally, you have to hate doing what you don't like doing even more than what you love. At least that's what got me here. I put in years doing meaningless salaried design work for other people out of a misguided notion that you only exist to make a paycheck until I realized that was going to end badly for me. I eventually decided I was going to make a living doing things my way on my own or end up living under a bridge, which would still be better than working 40 hours a week for other adults who didn't value what I was doing. I went back to the things that drove me to fall in love with drawing and creating as a kid: I chased my curiosities and passions. I did things myself without fear of being wrong or making mistakes.
I made friends with local comedians, musicians and business people, kept my head down and pounded away on projects for them...a few years later I ended up doing posters for my favorite comedians in the world. I stopped saying yes to just anything and only chased after work that was for people and brands I respected. I let the work I attracted come to me.
The funniest part is once I let go of my antiquated notions about working for corporate America I started making a better living.
It also happens that I have no patience for video games, save for one game in particular: Social media. It seems like a prerequisite to running your own brand in 2016 but I really truly enjoy using it and I like to have fun with it. ( I know this will probably shock people that follow me on twitter, IG etc. @okpants) This has definitely helped establish and grow the gospel of OkPants.
Can you walk us through what a day in the life of Aaron Sechrist is like?
This is not a good answer but it's the honest one: I have no routine. My workload varies so wildly anyways in terms of volume and type that I just load up my calendar, take a look at what the next day has ahead of me the night before after wrapping up work for the day and plan as I hit the sack. That’s as rigid as the game plan gets. I spent so long in a routine working unfulfilling jobs that I’m now just starting to enjoy the freedoms of going at my own pace.
Some general recurring activities: Waking up around 8-9am, coffee, a gallon of water, at least 15 minutes of meditation, walking or driving aimlessly to clear my head, working out.
Can you share some of your biggest influences?
Any albums, interviews and books by both Patton Oswalt and Kyle Kinane. Basically any of their mind they've committed to recording or print. I've pulled a lot of common threads from the career paths of comedians in general; they're more often than not very independent artists that aren't afraid to take risks and learn as they go.
I find Henry Rollins, Andrew W.K., David Lynch and Howard Stern to be very profound and inspiring voices as well.
Pieces of the artwork of Wayne White, John Kricfalusi, Derek Hess, Frank Kozik and Reid Miles show up in my stuff.
I believe that “Beauty is Embarrassing” is a must-watch documentary for anyone in our line of work.
You’ve done a lot of work in the music industry. How did you get involved in that?
I did time years ago as a frontman in local bands no one outside of Cleveland will ever have heard of. That experience laid the foundation for everything I have done in my life of note. Performing live was an absolutely transcendent thing to me. It brought out brighter aspects of myself that I didn't even know were there. It brought me home in every spiritual sense of the word.
I say that to say this. Being that we were DIY like a lot of bands, I took on the role of booking shows for us and handling the other business tasks we had to handle. In terms of business, it was a better education in business and developing a brand than any amount of college courses I could have taken at the time. I developed relationships with people and companies that would go on to bear fruit in the form of design jobs in the future.
Can you explain your creative process?
Step 1. The whole thing starts with an email more often than not. From there after deposits are paid, briefs are written and it moves into my schedule. My schedule is literally just the Apple desktop calendar, but it's all I need. Days are blocked out and project notes are entered, milestones are placed where need be.
Step 2. After the project management end of things are handled I go about setting up my file admin, which more often than not is organizing client briefs, reference and assets as explicitly as possible. This pre-production work sounds minimal but often times is more exhausting and time consuming than the actual work itself.
Step 3. From there I'll generally just step away from the computer and clear my head completely. Otherwise the whole project becomes an unclimbable mountain.
Step 4. When I re-visit the project, for example a logo; I'll dive into some research, often times on my laptop or somewhere divorced of my workspace. Otherwise I find myself rushing headfirst into just plowing through comps with no real deeper notion of what the project and client is about. There are times where you get a lightbulb moment while you’re walking to dog or something and that’s a beautiful thing—i won’t run from that but that’s more an exception than a rule.
Step 5. After research I rip into sketching and artboarding. This looks and feels a lot like that scene from the Avengers movie where The Hulk jumps on that fighter jet and just starts involuntarily tearing the hull apart. It's a big blurry mess and a lot of bouncing between sketching and Adobe Illustrator and generally after a while I have an artboard littered with some substantial ideas and a lot of vectors headed for the scrap heap. Also I feel vaguely hungover, my shirt is generally missing and I’m wearing purple shorts for whatever reason.
Step 6. To be very honest, I don't work very organized at all in general. I know this is not the kind of answer a designer should give but it's the honest one and more also it produces solid results that are satisfying to both myself and the client. That's all that matters.
What gear do you use for design?
I have a 27" iMac, a Cintiq 22HD, approximately 539 Field Notes Notebooks, 5 sharpies and 3 2B pencils are occupying my desktop at any given time. I have a MacBook but I rarely do design work on it. It's more a backup and internet machine. It works in a pinch when I travel. I'm very much at home in my workspace between my tablet and iMac however.
What rituals do you have when you work?
I'm into podcasts. Adventures in Design, Bodega Boys, Kissing Contest and WTF With Marc Maron are always in steady rotation. When it comes to background musical selections, my choices are generally more inline with what you'd hear in the background at a spa or trendy first date restaurant. I've listened to the Drive Soundtrack approximately 16,000 times and I'm not tiring of it anytime soon.
In your About page at OkPants you say “I care too much about life to take it too seriously”. Can you explain how you apply that philosophy to your daily work?
Forgive me if this comes off aloof or a little mystical. I’ve not had the hardest life but since I was a kid, that the only thing that has gotten me through its harder and darker stretches is to let a light-hearted approach guide me through it. The notion of "the tortured artist" can sound romantic and works well in movies and fiction but it doesn't work for me in real life. I can't create anything or even do the dishes when I'm depressed. When I feel good, and I feel good quite often; I can do anything in the world except fit into size 34 jeans. I can see things in the world and in my work that would never have been there for me otherwise. It feeds my creative decision making and gives me confidence to not second-guess or over-think my work.
People tend to disregard me as a clown from time to time and I'm fine with that. As if focusing on the shadows and ignoring the light makes you any more enlightened. I don't think there's anything goofy, low-brow or disrespectful about seeing both sides and choosing to gravitate towards the happier side of life that makes you smile and makes you better at what you do. It’s only ever yielded the good things that have happened for me. I can't be around people that think this crazy world will somehow begin to make sense if they scowl or frown hard enough.
I have a sound body and mind and if I can pilot those things I don’t really need to worry about anything else.
You’re active in some cool design conferences like Creative South and Weapons of Mass Creation. Can you give other designers attending conferences some advice for getting the most out of a conference?
Be open to everything. Speakers, while more often than not are great and are stars of the show for good reason are just one facet of the experience. I treat conferences like DIY shows: I remember a lot of conversations just as well as my favorite band's sets. With that said, I found that connecting with people between and after talks are just as meaningful times as seeing the talks.
You recently hosted Weapons of Mass Creation and totally killed it. You were engaging, a warm host and hilarious. How do you get gigs like that and how did you know you’d be able to do it?
Thanks, I appreciate that. The short answer: I was local and I was cheap haha. In all seriousness, Go Media and I have had a very good relationship for years. I've attended WMC Fest every year of its existence and have seen it grow from nothing. As a more experienced graphic artist these days, I see a lot of value in it for younger folks looking to figure this thing out and something I wish that was accessible to me at a younger age. Heather Sakai and Bryan Garvin (WMC Fest organizers) had wanted to get me involved since they took over and I was honored and more than happy to let then shove a microphone and captive audience in front of my face for a whole weekend.
I treated hosting it like doing comedy open mics, which hindsight could have proven disastrous but worked out great. I'm glad I trusted my gut with it though. I kept my role light and largely unscripted and planned, kept the speakers the stars of the show and kept the audience engaged and a part of the whole experience.
You have a lot of Cleveland pride. What’s a few things about Cleveland that designers should check out?
Besides it being home to top flight illustrator Oliver Barrett, the only man on earth with more Instagram followers than I; Cleveland's comedy scene is a very vital and dynamic thing going on.
It's DIY as hell and ran by some very hungry and talented comedians. I feel a lot of pride in being a tiny part of helping that grow. We're also known for our food scene and rightfully so. Our Asian and falafel joints will crush you. I know most people are proud of where they come from (and they should) but my city is stronger right now than it's been in probably 30-40 years and it's a testament to the will of artists and independent business people in Cleveland. It's very inspiring thing to live inside of.
What’s a dream project that you hope to do in the future?
Re-name and re-brand the Cleveland Browns. As a lifelong fan I truly believe we will not be successful until we change the whole deal. (Sorry, purists.) Then re-name and re-brand The Cleveland Indians. I am not sorry about feeling that way at all.
OkPants is kind of my dream project to be honest. It's just a constant day-to-day to keep building, and it never feels like a job.
We just released a really bad ass font you designed called Leutner. Can you describe where the idea for the font came from?
I was designing a custom word mark for a client project and after designing the letters needed I kept rolling with it to see what an entire alphabet would look like in that style. Designing a typeface is something in the back of my mind I always wanted to do and as I kept plowing forward on it, the easier the process became. It turned out to be very enjoyable and not the mystifying headache I was fearing it would end up being.
The crux of Leutner's style itself has roots in the 80's, art deco and psychedelia. I like a lot about retro futuristic 1980's design and type but I really wanted to create a set that felt fresh and new and not like a tribute to that era.
This was one of your first fonts. Can you explain how you constructed it?
I can't begin to work on anything if I handcuff myself to a process, so the genesis of it was very messy. After throwing a bunch of things against the wall I had to settle in and really be conscious of proportions and finer points like keeping strokes live. In general I had to be more patient and thorough with everything than I normally have to be with illustration and branding work, while you can get away with being more agile and instinctual.
Building the forms was very fun and far from the heaviest lifting I had to do on Leutner. Refining and revising proportions and curves proved to be the most time-intensive part of the project but in general I was really surprised at how it really never felt like the meticulous drag I'd envisioned.
After establishing the main set of characters I really wanted to add additional levels to it—I love extrusions and flattened 3-D effects, so from there it was really the bonus round. I want users to explore the possibilities there and can’t wait to see what people come up with.
Can you name a few ideal situations for using this font?
It’s suited well for titling and headers for print or digital—if you can somehow find a way to use it for body copy I would love to see it but really its strength is more suited for big applications. I see a lot of potential to re-tool characters and letters for logos. There’s also a lot of potential for pattern-making with Leutner due to it’s geometric qualities. Long story short—If you’re trying to design a legendary piece for print or digital that will net you millions of dollars, Leutner is the font for you.
** SPEED ROUND **
Define success in one sentence.
Looking back at every migraine, sleepless night and negative bank account balance and knowing it was all worth doing over again.
A book everyone should read.
“Wherever You Go There You Are” by John Kabat-Zinn.
What's your guilty pleasure?
96% of my Spotify listening history.
What’s one thing you couldn’t live without?
What’s one thing you totally don’t need but love?
If you could only listen to one album for the rest of your life what would it be?
Type O Negative “October Rust”.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk!
Thanks for having me!
Can you give us some parting words of advice for other designers and illustrators?
Don’t be a crybaby.
About Aaron Sechrist
Aaron Sechrist is the owner of OKpants. A one-man design studio in Cleveland, Ohio that specializes in branding and illustration. Aaron has a prestigious list of clients, such as Disney, House Of Blues, Red Bull, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, Detroit Pistons, and Fall Out Boy. Check out his work here or grab some cool stuff here.
He's also the mastermind behind the new font Leutner.
Great videos like the one on this page don't just happen by chance. It takes a talented team that want to make great work. Follow these guys at the links below (bonus points for letting them know you loved the video!)
Shot and directed by Lee Sechrist
Special thanks to Jimmie Graham
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