For this exciting addition to the Grain Edit interview series, we kept it local — seeking out one of San Francisco’s finest, Scott Hansen, aka ISO50. My first acquaintance with Scott came in the spring of 2005. The pre-Grain Edit crew had headed up to a lecture in Sacramento featuring Scott discussing his work and process.
I love the work of ISO50 just as much now as I did way back in ’05. It has a great historical reference, while still remaining contemporary. Scott does a nice job of combining clean, graphic forms alongside texture and pattern.
In this interview Scott talks about his entrance into graphic design, his creative process, his interest and involvement in music and photography, and, among many other things, his top 5 favorite albums.
So, pull up a chair in one of your favorite Dolores Park cafes (or imagine yourself there), and take look:
How did you first become interested in graphic design?
I am not sure that I understood what graphic design was at the time, but looking back I think I was practicing it early on. I used to create ID badges, official documents, and various other materials when I was very young. Using a typewriter, my dad’s civil engineering stamp sets, and pen / ink I would make fake credentials for me and my brothers to use when we were playing around. By the time I realized what graphic design was I was using Photoshop to lay out an underground zine in college.
What was your first design job?
Designing newspaper ads for a web hosting company while fielding technical support calls with the other hand…Absolute misery but a great lesson in what I didn’t want to do with my life.
Who / what are some of your biggest influences?
Modernism, Otl Aicher, Bauhaus, et. al. all inform my work but I think the main thing driving me is the collective visual ideal and aesthetic of my parent’s generation. The kind of faded backdrop for everything I perceived the 60’s and 70’s to be when I was growing up in the 80’s.
What current designers do you admire?
That’s a long list. I wish I could say I was more knowledgeable, I see things I really enjoy all the time but rarely know who designed them. Steven Harrington and Si Scott are doing beautiful things, there are a lot
more I wish I could mention but the names escape me at the moment.
What is a typical day like for you?
Late start, food, long bike ride, food, coffee, design, music, coffee, design, food/bar, music, late end.
If you had to recommend 2 books to another designer what would they be?
You got me there, I don’t read as much as I should and tend to stick to non-fiction. But if I must: Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” and T.A. Heppenheimer’s “Man Made Sun” are my two all-time favorites.
I see we share a similar love for coffee. Do you have any recommendations for great coffee in San Francisco?
That’s a tough one, I’m a creature of habit and somewhat of a homebody so I really don’t get out of the neighborhood that often. The three places on my block are really good though: Tartine (also an amazing bakery), Faye’s Video (VHS rentals + the best espresso in Dolores Park), and Dolores Park Cafe.
You run a small studio. What do you enjoy about being on your own, as opposed to the design firm environment? Do you feel you’re missing out on anything from not being in a design studio?
Like everything you think you want in life, it’s a double-edged sword. I can honestly say that I prefer this situation, but there are big things I miss about working in a real office with other people. The camaraderie, the fact that you actually have to get up in the morning and go somewhere, the routine… Those are all things I miss. But I don’t miss being told what to do and I sure as hell don’t miss that feeling that I’m working every day contributing to someone else’s business instead of putting everything into my own. Of course, Alex (intern) comes by a few days a week now so it’s starting to feel like a little office. I think if we had one more person it could be really cool (unfortunately Jakub is based in Brooklyn).
How would you describe your creative process?
This is definitely something that has evolved over time. When it comes to design I usually have some vague idea of what I want to capture with the piece. That is to say the spirit of the piece, what kind of feeling I want to convey. I don’t usually have a set idea of what exactly will comprise the image, but knowing the vibe I’m going for sort of sets the stage for the elements, colors, and typography that I’ll employ. At the end of the day though, my process is pretty much experiment, undo, experiment, undo…etc..etc..ad infinitum. Or until I get tired and realize I have to wrap it up. After trying various things there is usually that “a-ha” moment when you get a glimpse of the end result and realize where you need to take things from there. I’d say 30% of the work is the initial inspiration/creation phase, the next 20% is production — making that idea real, and the final 50% is detailing — dialing it all in and really putting the time into thinking about relationships and placement. This final phase has become a lot more time consuming over the past couple years as I’ve become more and more obsessed with getting everything perfect. I look back at my old stuff and sometimes wonder how I thought that was a finished product.
In addition to being a designer, you are also a musician. Can you describe the music you create? What are the similarities (if any) in the way you make music and the way you design?
It’s always hard for me to characterize my music for other people in any really meaningful way, but I guess you could call it Ambient/Psychedelic/Electronic. There are a lot of synthesizers at work but also a lot of live instrumentation so it’s hard to pin it down as purely electronic — although I’m sure there are a lot of people who think of it that way. There are huge parallels between my music and design, I see them as essentially the same thing although I feel more able to express a mood or feeling through music because it’s more complex in nature than a single image. Process-wise they are extremely close. For me, it’s all about trying to allow the viewer or listener to forget the origin of the work and just kind of be absorbed by it. I want to create a disconnect between the music or the design and every day reality. That usually means effecting the hell out of everything until it you think it came from outer space or something.
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How do you balance and divide your time between the two? Has one become more of a priority?
Balance isn’t a word I’d ever use to describe any aspect of my life. When it comes to work, everything is in extremes for me, it’s all or nothing most of the time. So that means when I am designing, that’s pretty much it, four straight weeks — or months — of design. I do get music done during these periods and vice-versa, but I don’t switch modes well so one side usually suffers while the other is on the upswing. Of course, design pays a majority of the bills so I have to give that top priority most of the time so music sometimes takes a back seat even when it probably shouldn’t. The beauty of the music stuff though is that I always have my guitar around and can just unwind and work on little ideas here and there without diving in too deep. Design is more immersive for me, I get really wrapped up and obsessive about it at times and don’t know when to quit. I find it hard to work on design projects here and there the way I do with music. Once I start an image I want to see it done. The way I approach music is different in the respect that I like to spread out the creative process. I want a song to reflect more than just the way I was feeling on one particular day or one week, I want to build it over time adding complexity and depth as I become more familiar with it. I guess I see design as more delivery-driven, I always feel like there’s a deadline even when it’s my own work.
The name of your studio is a reference to photography, and is an active topic on your blog as well. A lot of your design work is distinctly graphic, bold, or typographic and doesn’t rely heavily on photography. Do you attempt to incorporate photography into your work? Does it have a place in your work?
The name is a reference to film on the surface but that’s where it ends. The main reason I used it was to borrow the idea of how ISO50 film works. The slow, saturated nature of this film type is how I want my work to feel: rich, crafted, vibrant.
There are two sides to my design which are very distinct in my head: all the typographic stuff which I feel like is the engineer in me wanting to see perfection and working towards some ideal, and then all of the illustrative stuff (like the Past is Prologue cover, for instance) which is the painter or fine artist coming out who wants to convey a mood or evoke a more emotional reaction. I love combining the two, but the illustrated stuff is very time consuming for me and also very personal so I reserve that mostly for my own projects — usually music. Overall, I think photography still plays a big part in a lot of my stuff, it’s sometimes very subtle, but it’s always spread around in there and I like to use it to tell a story.
While writing this interview, I listened to the playlist on your website. It’s really great — I really liked the Experimental Aircraft and J Dilla songs. Can you list your five favorite albums of all time?
Oh man, that’s completely impossible but as I sit on this airplane without access to my music I’ll try to think of some highlights. Let’s just call this “Five albums that I really enjoyed listening to for a very
1. Radiohead – In Rainbows (or any of their other albums, except for the first one)
2. Interpol – Turn on The Bright Lights / Antics — I can’t tell you how many things I’ve designed listening to these on repeat.
3. The Smiths – Hatful of Hollow (or any of their other albums)
4. Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress (or any other B&S album)
5. Boards of Canada – BOC Maxima — This was more inspirational, it changed what I thought electronic music was or could be.
What websites/blogs do you regularly visit for inspiration and information?
I try my best to steer clear of being “inspired” by anything going on in the design world so I try to stay away from design sites who focus on current work. I feel like one of the most valuable things about not working for clients anymore is that I don’t have to be on the cutting edge of any trends, I can just keep trying to evolve in my own way. I don’t mean that to sound pretentious, I see new design all the time that completely blows my mind and completely moves me. I guess that’s the issue, I don’t want to be influenced by it and I know I will if I take too much of it in. I set out in design to capture a very specific ideal I had in my head and I feel like I’ve spent my entire career working towards achieving that ideal; it would be a shame to get derailed now!
That said, here are some sites that I do frequent:
Matrixsynth — A blog dedicated to synthesizers and vintage music production equipment.
Popurls — Sort of like People Magazine for the internet: useless but when
you’re bored or in line at the grocery store, it’s all you got.
FFFFOUND — Yes, this site has a lot of current and trend-driven stuff, but I love the related images feature. Once you find something in a particular style it’s easy to just drill down forever and find so much work in a similar vein. Great for finding lesser-known vintage artifacts.
But Does it Float — I love these guys because they seem to focus on the more cerebral, kind of academic visual aesthetic that I absolutely love to consume, but will never produce.
Grain Edit of course! — You guys always seem to dig a little deeper than everyone else. One look at Dave’s stamp collection is a life altering event.
Is there anything exciting on the horizon for ISO50? Any new cool projects you can talk about?
There’s a lot in the pipeline, several new posters, new music and some other surprises. Around October the new Tycho 12″ vinyl (“Coastal Brake”) comes out along with some remixes and two new poster designs (one is based on the cover art and the other is the alternate artwork that will be included with the vinyl). I’m also developing a line of Giclees: http://studio.iso50.com. There is only one design up now as we get the hang of printing (they’re all produced in-house on an Epson 9900) but many more are on the way.
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