“Be fearless”. This is Dan Kuhlken’s advice to designers, and they’re not just empty words. Creating advertisements and posters for bands such as Explosions in The Sky, Phish, and Flight of the Concords requires such a belief in going places others don’t dare. As the Co-founder of DKNG Studios, Dan can speak from experience how tap dancing on the line between the absurd and the typical can work. Take it from his own words, as Dan has much to teach up-and-coming designers.
How important is brainstorming in your line of work? What about collaboration?
Brainstorming is a big part of our process. It’s a huge advantage, in the partnership between Nathan and I, that we can bounce ideas off each other and really narrow down which ones we both know will succeed. I would say we collaborate just as much or even more into the concept development versus creating the actual artwork. Once a solid concept is in place, we delegate which portions of the project each person is better suited for. Together we art direct and polish the project to completion.
While you are in the process of creating your designs, what are 3 rules you always follow to maximize results?
If I had to think of three rules we follow the most frequently in the creative process, I’d say:
1. Concept Is Key: Take time in developing an interesting and original concept, and make sure the concept has a close and multifaceted relationship to the client. Design shouldn’t be just about making something look good, it needs to have a voice and a purpose, and in most cases, that voice should appear to be spoken through the client’s point of view.
2. Be Fearless: When approached with a challenge, the best results will come from conquering it rather than pushing it aside. I commonly run into issues with projects where I will have to explore a new style of illustration or technique that honestly scares me to pursue. But some of our most successful projects came from approaching these new experiences head on. The weaker projects often come from avoiding new experiences and staying within a realm that is familiar.
3. Don’t Let Your Ego Get In The Way: The difference between a fine artist and a designer is that a designer will be more willing to compromise. The reality of our business is we are hired by clients to create an aesthetic for them, not ourselves. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to see a design/illustration rejected, but it’s important to have tough skin and remind one’s self that your job is to satisfy the client, not your ego.
Why did you decide to create DKNG studios with your friend Nathan? What advantages have you experienced since the inception of the business? Are there any disadvantages?
It really just started off as me reaching out to Nathan because I knew he loved design and it’s something that I have always been intrigued by but was never my strong suit. I’ve always been more into fine art, drawing, and illustration. Nathan is an amazing business man as well. I knew that he had so much to offer and our two minds could go to some exciting new places.
I’d say the advantages and disadvantages stem from the same place. Nathan and I are very different people. He’s analytical, logical, consistent, and sturdy as a rock. I’m spontaneous, impulsive, and experimental. I believe these differences between us challenge our work and keep things growing. Opposites attract, but it can be difficult when it comes to understanding each other’s point of views fully.
How do you two work together? Is there a lot of handing off back and forth with projects? Who does what?
Overall, Nathan is more of a graphic designer and typographer whereas I focus most of my attention on illustration. Most projects call for both, but some are either fully illustrative or completely design-oriented. However, let’s say the project is 95% illustration. I will keep Nathan in the loop with my progress and he will have very strong critiques on the work that I may have missed. Having both our minds on one project really brings it to its full potential.
While you were starting out in your career, how did you define your strengths and weaknesses? How did you enhance your strengths?
I understand my weaknesses the best when I am approached with conflict and have trouble resolving it. I’d say at first my communication skills with clients needed work, but that just takes practice and patience. One of my biggest weaknesses is how sensitive I am to my work. At first, I didn’t like hearing negative feedback on my work, because to me it felt like I wasn’t good enough or I needed to learn something new. I learned overtime to swallow my pride and take people’s criticism in the most constructive way possible. This lead me to developing new strengths and improving my current strengths.
How do you keep up with your creative side when you are working under pressure/strict deadlines?
I’ve learned to like pressure and use it to my advantage. At first, the pressure of deadlines made me nervous and hindered my ability to work and be creative. The hardest way to be creative is when a gun is pointed to your head demanding you to be creative. However, over time I learned that having a timeframe/deadline gave me a reason to plan ahead. Having a plan is motivating because you can see your steps ahead of you at all times. That’s why it’s so important to have a great concept to follow in a project, because you can envision a final piece of work in your mind and it motivates you to discover how to reach it.
Do you ever do any research before starting a new design project? What type of research do you conduct before starting? How does this help you achieve better results?
Absolutely. We especially do research for bands when starting a poster design. The concept we are digging for is often times hidden in the details. We search for interviews with band members and find something personal that stands out. We listen to the music and find lyrics that spark compelling imagery. We look up what other posters have been made in the past to know what has already been done. The more research we do, the better we understand the client, which gives us the knowledge we need to produce something original and meaningful.
You have explored many different mediums throughout your design career from logo design, poster design, package design, web design, apparel design and more – what is your favorite medium? Are there any mediums you want to experiment with?
As of now, poster design has been the most rewarding. A huge part of it is because we are admirers of the bands we work with. However, we’ve always admired film as well and would love to be more involved in that industry. Movie posters would be a nice start, but we also love title sequences and the art of film itself. So making music videos isn’t far out of the realm of what we can imagine doing in the future. We’re really open to anything that comes our way.
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