Creative Inspirations: Stefan G. Bucher, Designer, Illustrator, and Writer
Illustration by John Hersey

Interview and Q&A session with Stefan G. Bucher


Creative Inspirations: Stefan G. Bucher, Designer, Illustrator, and Writer

with Stefan G. Bucher

Video: Interview and Q&A session with Stefan G. Bucher

(Clapping) Speaker 1 (Ramone): We're going to have a question and answer period right now. Terry Lee Stone is going to conduct that. She's a writer, design manager, and creative strategist. She teaches business here Art Center College of Design. She's been friends with Stefan for years and years and has vividly watched his career unfold.

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Watch the Online Video Course Creative Inspirations: Stefan G. Bucher, Designer, Illustrator, and Writer
2h 15m Appropriate for all Jun 24, 2011 Updated Aug 25, 2011

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Meet a truly monster graphic designer, Stefan G. Bucher. Stefan's projects range from his Daily Monsters, to the Daily Letter on the PBS television show, The Electric Company, to CD designs for Sting and Whitney Houston, products for the Echo Park Time Travel Mart (featuring canned mammoth chunks), to writing and illustrating his latest book, You Deserve A Medal: Honors on the Path to True Love. Stefan is a prolific artist who is seemingly obsessed with finding impressive new ways to put ink on paper. Follow his journey from his first illustrations for The Donaldist (a magazine dedicated to the exploration of Donald Duck comics), through Art Center College, Portland agency Wieden+Kennedy, Madonna's Maverick Records, and finally his own company, 344 Design.

Bonus Feature: Join us at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, where Stefan is interviewed by writer and creative strategist Terry Lee Stone after a screening of his film.

Stefan G. Bucher

Interview and Q&A session with Stefan G. Bucher

(Clapping) Speaker 1 (Ramone): We're going to have a question and answer period right now. Terry Lee Stone is going to conduct that. She's a writer, design manager, and creative strategist. She teaches business here Art Center College of Design. She's been friends with Stefan for years and years and has vividly watched his career unfold.

She's here tonight to interview him. So, Terry? Are you up here? Oh, here you are. Okay and let's-- I think we're supposed to bring-- oh there they are. All right. Stefan: Thank you, Ramone. Ah, director's chairs. Terry: So? What are you up to now? What did you figure out and actually start that project that you teased us with? Stefan: Oh yeah. That's the new book. Cause the medals, that was five, six months ago. So of course there's a new book now.

It's called 344 Questions. That's a book of questions for creative people so that was the thing that I was doing the Judd Apatow lettering for. Just questions if you're sort of struggling with creativity and everything and you're trying to work out what the next thing is. There's a book for that now. (Laughter) It's the same size as the medals book so they nice together. Terry: Of course. So is it true that you actually made a font of your handwriting for the book? Stefan: It is true! Who told you that, Terry? The new book is all hand-lettered, since I didn't want to hand-letter every last word and then do typo revisions. I just had a font made of my handwriting, which somebody at Art Center clued me into. And then somebody else, an Art Center graduate, is currently fixing some of it, so it's kerned properly without having to go into every letter space manually.

And then they can do international versions of it as well. Terry: Which brings me to my next question. Is there any cure for your particular brand of OCD? Stefan: It was a setup! I see now I've walked into your trap. Okay! If there is, I haven't found it. I don't know it. It's been suggested to me actually in the editing process of one of the books, it was suggested to me that maybe it wasn't that we were fighting about a particular point of contention. It's that maybe I need medication. And that was sort of a tough moment, because when people actually look at your feedback and say maybe you need psychiatric help, I don't know. But I feel that the book is better for it.

Terry: All your books are better for it. Stefan: Yes! Terry: Especially that Rogue Wave that we saw. Stefan: That's a good slap, man. Terry: So you had the pleasure and agony of collaborating with lots of different kinds of creative people over the years and do you have any advice for all of us on how to choose them, how to choose wisely, and how to deal with them? Stefan: I don't really have advice on how to choose wisely. I think just choose. I just said yes to everything that came in for the longest time.

And I did a lot of stuff that I think maybe wasn't the greatest situation for me personally. but I learned something and stuff happened. Cause it's easy to just... It's easy to smart yourself into unemployment. And to just go "Uh, well, I can see what the difficulties here would be and I can see how this would work but?" You've got to say yes to stuff. You've got to fill your day with something. And this way I learned a lot of stuff and now-- It's not even that I say no to things now.

It's that I've done so much stuff that shows what I actually care about that the people who do other stuff don't even approach me about it anymore. With, you know, cigarette advertising, "You're the guy" doesn't really happen. So in that way I've been really lucky in just saying yes to everything that, it's like a pachinko, my own personal pachinko machine, where just the ball goes down on the little pegs and eventually lands where it's supposed to. Terry: I've noticed that even when you got what I can think of as a conventional assignment, you managed to bring it into your little world.

Stefan: Yeah, that happens. That happens a lot. Terry: You can't not be you. Stefan: No, no. And I've taken on little things that were presented to me as "Oh, this is just a little thing you should do". And it can never stays a little thing ever. Terry: Yeah. Stefan: Which is okay. I'm not-- I mean I'm saying it hangdog style, but it's obviously also I like it that way. Terry: Well that little thing, those monsters that you were doing for your own amusement, has certainly, you know, had a life of its own. Stefan: Yeah, the thing that started out as an afternoon, that's now my life mission? Yeah, that worked out okay.

Terry: What's going on with the monsters? Stefan: The monsters are hopefully eventually getting their own TV show, so I'm working on... (Applause) Set your TiVo for 2017! It'll happen. (Laughter) But I've certainly made it my mission so I'm not going to stop until that is true. Terry: Are the monsters going to tell children morality tales? Stefan: No? But they're going to tell grownups about how weird and difficult life is and...

They are my monsters so they're neurotic and guilt ridden and overly ambitious and all that stuff. So they are my monsters. They're not going to tell kids? jack? (Laughter) Terry: Do your parents get your monsters? Stefan: Oh, my parents love my monsters. My parents are my greatest fans of all. Terry: Well, you're an only child, so. Stefan: And I am an only child, so they're contractually obligated to do all that stuff. However, even within that, they excel at loving and understanding what I do.

Everybody's always like "Oh, I'm a graphic designer. My parents don't get what I do." It's not that complicated. And they do understand, and they care and they love it. So I'm really fortunate with that. Terry: That's cool. Stefan: Because it sucks when you have to persuade your parents. Terry: Yup. Well, I was thinking, were you this funny in German? Or was it?? (Laughter) Was it English that inspired all this? Stefan: The English helps. The English actually really helps. Terry: Something about you and English. Stefan: You know what? It's just-- I probably rambled on about the exact same stuff back in Germany. It's just, I usually got a knuckle sandwich instead of people going "Hey, that's cool." Terry: Here we admire and reward.

Stefan: Yeah, I've found I have created my own little bell jar of weirdness where I'm safe. Yeah, in Germany it's not so much in German. It's more like, "What is your problem, dude?" Except d?de. (Laughter) Terry: In the movie you spoke a lot about your great mentor, Norm Schureman, who we lost, and you also lost another good close friend and mentor, Doyald Young. What is it-- do you think that artists should look for mentors? What is it about these guys? Stefan: It's tough to say.

It's weird. We kind of found each other. I mean, it wasn't that I was going out, like "Oh, I need a mentor or I need somebody to take me to the next step in then work my way to "something." It was just you see people and you immediately have kind of like whirling decoder ring, and you go ohhh, you and you and you're? I see. And then it's just great to meet each other, and it's like finding a long lost family member and luckily it seems to have been the same for them, whether they were always incredibly gracious and generous with their time and their advice.

And both Doyald and Norm would sort of call me out of the blue every few weeks. And would just leave a message and just say, "Hey, how are you doing? Give us a call," or they'd reach me in the car and we'd talk and they'd ask what's going on. And it's really just? When you're in your little monk cell and doing this stuff, it's really just-- You ping each other and go like, "Still around, still doing stuff?" You need to. And I think that was sort of the most important thing about it.

Terry: Well, Doyald was certainly in the OCD club as well. Stefan: Yeah! Norm, too, but I think differently. I think Doyald and I immediately clicked because we also, you know, we definitely both had the angst a little bit, where, obviously Doyald always made it look effortless, but I think he definitely was sweating the details. And so in that sense, we were immediately kind of connected. I feel like I had so much more to learn from Norm, because he struck me of all my friends and especially of all my artist friends., the one who enjoyed himself the most and who really loved what he was doing.

And seemed to be really happy with what he was doing. I've never seen him go like "Well this is a drawing I made that everybody seems to think is hot, but I think this part sucks and this isn't good." No, he just was like, "Well, this is a drawing that I made." He didn't even think about it. He was just-- that was just how he was. I always thought sort of, he's sort of my swami. I sort of aspire that level but I don't think I'll ever get there. Terry: So are you joyful when you're doing your work? Stefan: Oh God, no! You saw the movie, right? (Laughter) No, I'm joyful having done the work.

The more the work is completed, the happier I get. No, no, no. Just... Horrible. Because it needs to get out and I'm guilt ridden the entire time. Terry: Until it's out? Stefan: Until it's out, yeah. I get better about it and the monsters are actually the one thing where while I'm doing them, I'm happy doing them. Everything else is really, "Oh God, I'm screwing it up, I'm screwing it up. Okay, it's alright. Next!" "Oh, I'm gonna screw that up." "Oh, now I'm in the process of screwing it up." Or "Oh no, that's okay." With the monsters it is really like "Oh cool!" "Oh, look, there it is. I see it now!" and all I have to do is drawn line around it.

Terry: Well, you kind of rig your system to take away some of your control and... Good on you. So, to switch gears a little bit, what would you say is your most treasured possession? Stefan: Oh, my most treasured possession? Terry: Do you like stuff? Stefan: I do like stuff! I think my treasured possession, my most treasured possession, is just my home. I think my-- That's not something that's sort of the most fun answer. It's not like "Oh, yeah, hey, it's this little tin flying saucer that somebody gave me." No, it's that I'm happy there.

And there's magic in them, in our walls. So, I've been there for 17 years. I lived there all through Art Center. Yeah, there's weird cosmic rays that are holding me in. Terry: At the intersection of those two freeways. Stefan: The 210 and the 134, yeah. Terry: So, what's next? I mean, are you afraid to move forward? Are you happy, joyful, excited? Stefan: I am so excited. I am tired mostly, because the whole Art Center rhythm of working constantly is certainly very much with me still. So, what's next? I'm working on some movie titles tonight.

I'm working two art catalogs tonight. Terry: Tonight? (Laughter) Stefan: I'm looking at people in the audience? Terry: Your printer? Stefan: Yes... Yeah, and I'm working on a plush animal, I'm working on an iPhone monster app, I'm working on stuff for the Blue Man Group. So there's a ton of stuff just before the weekend. You're asking me in a larger sense, I'm sorry. Terry: So, Blue Man Group? But wait? The Blue Man Group? Stefan: Yeah? Yeah, it seems like a fit.

(Laughter) That was another one of those things where I've been working with Jill Greenberg, the photographer, and she recommended that I sort of become the wrangler of her imagery on this and so next I know I'm doing the lobby for their theater in Vegas, which is pretty cool and they're great clients and... You know what? I've never gotten a job that I applied for. And I've applied for some. I've sent my portfolio out. I've tried to get jobs.

I don't ever get what I apply for; I get what I need. Terry: Interesting. Would any of you like to ask Stefan questions? Audience member 1: My question is a lot of creative people who come here from all over the world but particularly from Germany oftentimes have an affinity for Los Angeles, and I wondered if you can talk about your relationship with the city a little bit? Stefan: My affinity for L.A.? Oh God, it's just so beautiful and open and there is the hard light.

That's amazing and everything, it's just wide and you can see the distance. There are songs written about L.A. and there are movies that are set in L.A. There are songs written about Germany, and there are certainly movies made about Germany. They tend not be so hilarious. (Laughter) Or inspire a lot of longing. So in that sense, I find that LA is a lot more romantic for me.

Germany movies are more bummers. So that's really what it is. It's really just like I like being in a place that is self glorifying and awesome. Yeah. Audience member 2: What are you really, really good at? Stefan: What am I really, really good at? Drawing eyes. Drawing monster eyes. The rest is sort of coincidental. I'm good at-- I'm good at drawing characters that make eye contact. I've thought about this. This is really I think the thing that is my skill in this life. I think the rest is just sort of the lighter things.

Audience member 3: Do you ever suffer from burnout? Stefan: I'm presently suffering from it and it doesn't matter. There is no time for burnout so I just do the next thing. And then the nice thing is that I have so many different things going on, that I can use one to procrastinate on the other. It's just a fatigue problem. Audience member 4: Tell me about your love for music and how that connects to your work? Stefan: Well it connects to my work in the sense that this is what I do because I can't play anything.

I think if I knew how to make music, I'd probably do that. And I'm not done yet, so I'm hoping to get around to it. When I try to get inspired, I obviously look at design books and I do all that kind of stuff, but it's not that helpful because then you're just ripping stuff off. But I love, like that VH1 classic series, classic albums thing, where they go to the mixing desk and they show you exactly how each track is put together.

I love that, because it's all about creating patterns and seeing structures. And so from that I immediately go "Oh, I see they used a tray of cutlery to make the robot feed in that Black Sabbath album." I can see how I can do something like that, like where I could double track that track or I could bring something like this for the drawing, so it hooks up that way. The next thing you know Def Leppard are your teachers, which is sort of a tense moment in your life, but there you go. Pyromania, a lasting statement of artistic excellence.

(Laughter) Audience member 5: I had a question. Considering your natural reputation towards typography when you were young and your tendency to draw, why advertising? I was a little bit surprised. Stefan: Yeah, me too. Yeah, that didn't work out as I thought it would. I choose advertising for two reasons. First of all, I thought, naively, that I could do everything in advertising, that I could write and illustrate, and photograph, and make films, and do everything.

And that turns out not to be true. That's true to some degree while you're here at Art Center, and then you go out into an ad agency, and you go, "Oh, I'd like to write and photograph and make films and do all that stuff." And they go, "That's hilarious. Go sit there and make a layout." The other thing, the reason why is I particularly choose it here at Art Center, is I wanted to study illustration, then I saw the Art Center illustration, the Art Center catalog, and I saw the samples for the Illustration department. And I thought there's no way I'm doing this, because there's no way I could possibly compete with these nutbags.

There was one particular one that was like an oil portrait of a bare-chested young man who had carved, who had an Exacto in his hand, and had carved into his chest, "ignoble." So it was, first of all, so art school angst-y. So awesome, right? And I was like, wow. It was really tightly rendered and it said the guy's name. First term student. I'm like, "Oh, I ain't racing with these horses," because I mean, as much as I like a challenge, I like to, you know, make it into the 80 percentile.

So it was like, yeah, no. I'm out. I later found that guy. Of course he had a prior degree and he was a complete-- completely maladjusted, just sort of sitting in the corner rocking himself. So this is how life choices happen. (Laughter) But I came around. Terry: Down here. Audience member 6: What is some of the things you dothat regenerate you outside of your craft, which is obviously, you're pretty emersed in? Stefan: Yeah, I was going to say outside of what now? I think what regenerates me is just to incorporate everything that is supposed to be outside of my craft into my craft.

So it all all becomes one delicious art goo. Cause otherwise, I don't how to do it. And I should be better at it and it's causing some sort of larger problems in my life and it has for... since ever. But I don't know. That's pretty much the only way I know how to do that. Terry: One question in the back. Audience member 7: Do you ever get out of your comfort zone, and want to do new things, like environmental, motion, things that you haven't had enough experience with? Stefan: Oh, absolutely. That's what the whole like getting monsters on TV thing is about.

I haven't-- You know, my experience in making TV shows is very limited. You know, I would love to do environmental stuff. I'm doing minimal environmental stuff with the Blue Man thing. Yeah, I mean, that's my my whole thing is just chasing the dragon of the new. Again, I'm doing a super fancy plush animal right now and stuff like that. It's just, you know. What a great life. And... There was a short period right after I graduated from Art Center where it wasn't happening so much just because I was being too responsible and I just wanted to please everybody else.

And I didn't give my opinion, as I said in the thing. So it took awhile and it also took keeping myself small, financially. So that I wouldn't have to say yes to stuff I didn't want to say yes to. Audience member 7: I like the idea that you continue to try new things, but doing that, how do you know to bill for it? (Laughter) Stefan: Boy, the brass tacks question. How to bill for it? Usually people tell me what they have and then I go, "That sounds great." (Laughter) I'm trying to be a little bit more assertive and it's difficult because it's what I love to do and it's hard to-- For the first 10 years, you just feel really s%$@y but then after a while, I bill for the expertise now because I know not to go down certain blind alleys.

I don't know. And I also have learned that, you know, how excited I am about, you know, paying top dollar for experts like doctors and accountants and lawyers and that kind of stuff and I'm always kind of secretly thrilled, like "Yeah, that's my expensive lawyer right there." And I'm like ooh, well maybe I can bring that joy actually to my clients! (Laughter) (Applause) Terry: Well, we'll be watching.

Thanks for the inspiration. Thank you all for coming. Stefan: Thank you guys so much! (Applause)

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