Nicholas Felton is a freelance graphic designer living and working in New York City. His editorial works have appeared in PRINT, Wired, Good, Metropolis and numerous other big name publications. And his personal annual reports are a certified internet phenomenon. The reports can be found on his personal site, feltron.com, and they’re really worth checking out. Nicholas also maintains a professional site associated with his studio, megafone.
In this interview, Nicholas expounds upon both his personal and professional work. He also offers advice to upcoming freelancers, and shares his thoughts on humor’s role in design. Thanks again to Nicholas for chatting with us.
How do projects like the Feltron Annual Reports and Hello China, Goodbye Nepal relate to your professional pieces? Do you use your personal projects to test ideas and designs?
Well I’d like to think that I’m constantly testing new ideas and designs, whether it be for personal or professional assignments, but with the personal projects the luxury is that I get to be the “decider” as well as the “maker”. What is really important about these projects is that they showcase my strengths, which I hope stirs up assignments which are a natural fit for my interests & abilities.
You’ve produced editorial artwork for several magazines, including PRINT, Metropolis and Wired. How are those projects different from say, designing a logo or a typeface?
In a lot of ways, they’re actually very similar. I approach every project systematically, and develop a set of rules that will help me make something consistent and interesting. With a typeface I’m considering all the angles, lines and transitions which will create a kit of guiding principles that direct every decision. The same is true in a logotype or a diagram or a publication, I try to develop a system that is robust and interesting enough to carry all the parts of the design in a successful manner.
The Obsessives layout for Print Magazine ldescribes a week of consumption through metrics including food, drink, utilities, media and more.
As a freelance illustrator and designer whose enjoyed quite a bit of success, what advice do you have for others who are hoping to follow a similar career path?
You have to stay busy. If you’ve got a day job and you’re not doing freelance or personal projects at night, you’re not doing enough. If you’re working for yourself, and not working on the weekends, then you’re basically standing still. Experience and a solid body of work takes time to accumulate, and there’s only one way to get there.
Infographic for Metropolis displaying all of the LEED certified buildings in the United States and throughout the world.
You seem to like working with charts, graphs, maps and the like. What is it about those things that you find visually interesting?
I do love working with information graphics. They are these remarkable constructions that can be widely understood and, at the same time, rapidly communicate reams of information.
How did you get to where you are now? What did you study in school? Have you always been a freelancer? What skills have served you best?
I studied graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduation, I worked for a few years in advertising, learning some valuable lessons about branding and marketing that the typography classes in school didn’t prepare me for. Eventually I built a small portfolio of my own work and began collecting enough clients to support my practice. In hindsight, my advertising years were an extremely valuable foil to the idealism of design school.
How has technology, specifically computers and software, changed the way we display information? Are graphics becoming more content rich? Where do you think we go from here?
One of the most fascinating things I see happening at the moment is the introduction of resolution independence into display technologies like the iphone. The combination of a high-resolution screen and the ability to effortlessly zoom in on any area means that print designs can live and function more effectively on digital devices. It’s currently a struggle to find an effective resolution to rasterize pieces for a website, but these new methods of interaction can negate a lot of these issues.
Where do you look for inspiration? Do you find commercial art more stimulating than fine art? What about the web as opposed to print?
I tend to find my inspiration outside of my profession, from traveling and reading. Frankly, design magazines and blogs don’t inspire me and seem like an express route to making derivative work.
The Feltron Annual Reports are like graphic journals, and as such, they really do provide a suprisingly full account of your life, at least since 2005. Why did you decide to start producing these reports, and what purposes do they serve both professionally and personally?
In 2004, I designed a year-end report called “Best of 04″ that included a few numerical details about the year, like the number of postcards sent and airmiles travelled. The following year (2005), I created the first true “Annual Report”. This segmented the year into sections like Travel, Photography, Music and Books which I thought would be mostly of interest to friends and family. Surprisingly, the report was as popular among people who had never met me as well as with those who knew me intimately. As a result of increasing interest in the project, I have dedicated increasing amounts of time to documenting and charting the passage of each year.
The reports serve numerous purposes…. they are an incredible encapsulation of a year’s experience…. the over-the-shoulder presence of the report encourages me to do new things, go new places, try new restaurants, etc to keep the report interesting…. and of course they appear to be a great way of introducing the world at large to my design practice.
You’ve designed websites, typefaces, print pieces, an iPhone interface, corporate logos and a handful of other things, so obviously, you haven’t been constrained by a single medium. Are you learning as you go, or did you always feel that you could design anything if given the chance?
I wouldn’t claim to be able to design anything, but given a strong enough desire or idea I am certainly willing to follow it into uncharted territory. This was certainly the case for the iphone interface I designed… my opposition to the stock interface was strong enough that I was willing to face some unknown technical hurdles to make it happen. I always find a design project particularly satisfying if I can incorporate a new technique or technology.
Inspired by the creases and tabs of cardboard boxes, Shipflat extends this idea into a typographic construction. Shipflat was released by T-26 and received a type design award from the Type Director’s Club.
Your annual reports are, I think, pretty funny, and your Shipflat typeface is undeniably clever. How and why does humor or wit enhance a design?
Well thank you! I think that humor and wit are good content… and I’m thrilled that I’ve succeeded in making a typeface that people can enjoy. Humor is also an essential element in the annual report. If the report did not succeed somewhat at being self-effacing I think it would risk leaving an unpleasant aftertaste.