Award-winning designer, artist and illustrator Timba Smits has been working in design for 15 years. Based in East London, he’s the Creative Director of movie and review magazine Little White Lies, and independent cultural magazine Huck. He has worked with a number of household names, including The New York Times, The Guardian, Dunlop and Ride Snowboards.
What made you want to become a designer?
I’ll tell you a funny thing… I never really set out to be a ‘designer’. First and foremost, I wanted to be (and consider myself) an artist.
To paint and to draw are among my favourite things to do. I got into graphic design when I started my own DIY art gallery in Melbourne in my early twenties. I needed to learn about computers and how to create digital work to help with promoting my art shows and communicating with an audience. Through that came making magazines and designing similar things for clients, so design sort of grew from there.
I’m still an artist. I’m also an illustrator and a graphic designer. Lately I’ve been calling myself an ‘image-maker’. It kind of summarises everything I do. I make images but not limited to analogue, digital, pen or paint.
Tell us about your career. What led you to the work you’re doing now?
It’s been a real rollercoaster ride so far. With way too many triple rolls, loop-the-loops and double dips to go into any great detail. If I think about it quickly, my career has been built on organic growth and mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Some of them awful but some with happy results that push me forward.
Luckily for me, from a very early age I knew what I wanted to do, but how to do it has been the ultimate challenge and adventure. I’m 15 years into my career now and still working out how to do things. That much will never change and I like that.
I’m excited about learning and discovering new ways of working and new styles of work. Right now I’m making magazines, illustration and art surrounding film and youth culture, as that excites me. But I have so many other interests that next year, it might be something completely different. Again, it’s all about organic growth.
What does a typical ‘day in the life’ look like for you?
To be honest, my days are never typical. Who wants typical anyway?
Right. Some days can be filled with drawing and designing wonderful images and some days completely chocked with reading and writing (too many) emails. Or taming the social media beast. Some days are filled with meetings and conversations. Some days are spent answering interviews. There’s absolutely no routine and I just let things happen. In that respect it’s very much a reflection of my creative work. It’s completely varied and I prefer that over any type of routine or structure.
What type of design inspires you at the moment?
I don’t really have a type of design that inspires me in the moment, or that I follow for a small window of time. I absolutely hate trends and any type of design forecast, plus I have a very B-R-O-A-D range of tastes when it comes to art and design, film or music.
In my day-to-day job I see a lot of design and art on a daily basis and some of it really excites me, and some absolutely bores me senseless. To be more accurate with where I’m going with this, what inspires me the most is a certain type of designer. I don’t necessarily have to be inspired by a designer or artist’s finished work. I can look at it and think it’s great but I’m definitely more inspired by the people behind the work. So if the work’s great, but the maker is a dick (pardon my perfect French) then I’m not inspired. Get it? Right. It’s those special few who make great work away from the limelight — the type of designer or artist who takes chances and stays true to their own ideals and style without fault that inspire me. The type that take risks!
How would you describe your tastes?
Very, very, VERY eclectic. I have a very broad range of tastes in everything from design, art and music to film, sports and people. I’m the type of person that is very open to new things and change doesn’t scare me. Hotdogs and porridge. I love them both. Would I eat them together? Sure I would.
What type of project do you enjoy working on?
I like working on projects the most where I get to make something that is both personal and fun. I’m not a very serious person and I like being silly in my personal life and consider puns a very sacred gift. So I always prefer to make things that make people smile, or belly laugh. Something spoken from the heart. A kind of project where I can include little personal references to things I love, people I admire and happy memories. Sometimes this can come about through commercial projects, but often it’s more the personal projects where I can let this passion truly run wild. This happens most often when working on exhibition work or limited edition prints.
Do you enjoy working within limitations, or do you prefer to be given full creative control?
Commercially, full creative control or ‘the open brief’ is never a good thing. It’s always good to have limitations in place from the onset of any collaborative or client-based project, to get the most out of the work.
For personal or self-initiated commercial projects, it’s not as important for those limitations, however it’s good to know your limits and know when to stop and move on. That’s always been one of my biggest problems as an artist and designer. Knowing when to stop. To draw a line and say “You know what, that’s finished” and “I’ll improve on the next one”. I do have a habit of fussing too long over the smaller details.
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
Gee whizz, where to begin?
There’s a lot of projects that are secret, but right now I’m working on the artworks for my second solo show for 2016 and my debut London show. Then there’s some film-related (illustrated) books with Laurence King Publishing through Little White Lies. I’m also working on a series of self-initiated design products, due out later this year and more show plans for 2017 (abroad). All fun stuff.
What would be your one tip for design?
Invest in a good chair.
What does the phrase “timeless design” mean to you?
Something that is memorable. And by that I mean something that you remember for years and years and YEARS after seeing it for the first time. That might be a logo, that might be a film. It might be a piece of music. And when you look at it again in 20 years, it doesn’t necessarily need to look as relevant or as in-style as it once did — that’s difficult as style is always evolving and changing — but something that evokes a happy memory. Of a time. Of a place. Of someone.
What advice would you give to those looking to pursue a career in design?
That good work takes time. That GREAT work takes a lifetime. Design is a true creative process and process takes patience. And passion. And time. Did I say time? Right. A great career in design is about more than a fancy magazine cover or a glossy award, or that mythical overnight success. It’s more than any likes or follows. It’s the combination of all the small things throughout the journey. It’s about the successes and failures. The mistakes. It’s about helping others, supporting your industry and maintaining a positive and focused mind. And learning! A creative career is something to be loved and passionately held sacred to those lucky enough to be, well, creative!
In September 2013, academics at the University of Oxford published a report detailing the likelihood that robots will take over many professions. Do you think this could happen to design and creative work?
I’d like to say NO. But you never know.
I would agree that robots could do certain design or creative work for mass production, but it would have to be programmed by a human first. But more bespoke or detailed work, driven by intuition and human experience, absolutely not. Sorry robots.
Like a doctor or surgeon, touch and feel comes into play with a lot of art and design that a robot or computer could never create. Recreate…? Maybe. But create…? NEVER!
Does your mood or mind-set influence what you design?
It doesn’t influence what I physically design but it definitely influences when or how I design. Or make. I’ve always been very fragile to the energy around me, and this can have a wonderful, positive or HUGELY negative effect on my creative output. If something’s not right in my life, it almost always affects my design productivity and the outcome of my work. I think I can always tell in my finished work when I’ve been going through life turbulence compared to when it’s all roses.
Is there anything special that helps you stay focused?
Being in my own studio with just a few others around, some really good music and Pomodoros!
What happens when you hit the proverbial “designer’s block”?
First rule: I never fight it. To me, designer’s block isn’t a problem with the flow of creative ideas but more a case of my brain not collaborating with my hand. That, or I’m just not feeling in the mood to create when I’m required. It happens. But I see it as my intuition telling me I need to take a break. To rest. So I’ll often step away and do something else that I love doing. I’ll go for a swim, I’ll read, I’ll watch a good movie and always, intrinsically, I will gravitate back to creating as that’s what I love the most.
What do you think of social platforms like Instagram when it comes to sharing artwork? Do you have any recommended follows?
They bring both good and bad things. Never before has it been easier to share your work with the world, to gain an audience, attract opportunities or engage with like-minded creative people, and that’s a real benefit to designers.
But on the flip side, my opposing thought is it’s having a damaging effect on the creative process, as people discover how to use it. With 60,000 grams, 150,000 tweets on average per minute, that’s a lot of content to pour through, and with the world’s insatiable demand for content, the speed in which we are expected to create is speeding up along with it. So things are starting to look “SAME, SAME” as technology introduces shortcuts, filters and cheat sheets on how to be creative at speed. But hey, that’s a deep, deep well of conversation for another time. Shall we move on? Right.
I think the people using social platforms the best are those who use it organically and their audiences are fully engaged. They focus on making their work, and they post it now and again. They don’t sit around to watch their likes or follows and have no posting routine. I much prefer accounts where I see something really great once a week compared to accounts where I’m bombarded with a load of daily crap that is just fuelling that content fire. Some trusty go-to accounts for me are illustrators and friends @chrisdelorenzo, @studiomuti, @thomas_danthony and @gemmacorrell (for ultimate belly-laughs).
Do you have time to do anything creative in your spare time?
Sure I do. My entire life is built around being creative. I love to cook and this is a real creative outlet for me. I love experimenting and cooking for friends and I treat this the same way as I would a fresh canvas. I also like to write — nothing more than personal thoughts and manifestos at this moment, but it helps me to express feelings that I can’t through my design and art. Maybe one day they’ll make a good book, or the screenplay to a film – who knows. Right now, it’s just something I do for fun in and around my career work.
Are there any other creative mediums or forms of art you’d like to explore?
Too many to name but I’d love to make a film. A stop motion film. I’d also really love to make large sculptures. I really enjoy working with my hands, away from the shackles and confines of computers and digital media. I started out as a fine artist, so that part of me is always trying to balance itself out with the designer in me. The story continues…