Daniel Zender is an illustrator, designer and educator. In this interview, Professor Zender shares a little bit about his life, interests and projects.
KW: Tell us a little bit about your background?
DZ: I grew up in Springfield, MO, which is pretty much in the middle of the United States. There wasn’t a lot of stuff to do, so I sort of had to make my own entertainment. I was outdoors a lot—biked everywhere, camped, went on float trips, explored the woods. There was one museum and the downtown area was about 5 square blocks. It was a fun place to grow up, but in my early twenties I was ready to leave the small town vibe for something a little bigger.
KW: Your first degree was a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Missouri State University (MSU). Did you enter knowing you were going to study Graphic Design & Illustration? Why did you decide to go to MSU?
DZ: I knew that I wanted to pursue art when I went to college, but I didn’t really know what graphic design was, or illustration, or really anything other than a basic knowledge of design fundamentals. The decision to go to MSU is sort of a funny story. I wanted to go to the Kansas City Art Institute, so when I was a senior in high school my mom drove me up for a college tour. Our tour guide had pink hair and kids were smoking on campus…I think my mom was freaked out, ha-ha. She was against me going there, so we agreed (to my disappointment) that MSU would be better. I think it was a really good decision though, MSU ended up having one of the better design programs in the United States, and I got a good-rounded liberal arts education that was pretty affordable.
The teachers at MSU were all really great as well. Cedomir Kostovic and Eric Pervukhin were both from Europe and had a really great background in traditional skills that they imparted on their students. Stan Sante was an expert draughtsman who taught me the value of composition and hand skills. Maria Michalczyk was the head of the design department, and she did a really job of encouraging discipline but also individuality. The education was a lot more conceptual and thought-based compared to a lot of design schools that were more focused on advertising and agency work. I think I got a lot out of that experience and it still influences my work.
KW: Did you pursue graduate school immediately after MSU? Why did you decide to go to SVA? How did graduate school impact your work?
DZ: I took about two years off after MSU for a couple different reasons. I wanted to travel, and ended up saving money in Missouri so I was able to go to Europe and South Korea. I just needed some time to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I am really glad I took that time to work stuff out because it was during that period that I decided to drop the design path and do illustration full time. Springfield was an extremely cheap place to live and I was able to sort of do trial and error work while I was there. It was an incubation painting where I was making paintings, collages, screen-printing–all sorts of stuff to see what worked best.
The decision to go to SVA was more based around a desire to move to New York, which I thought would jump-start my career in illustration. In Springfield I had started to do some freelance work for The New York Times and a couple other newspapers, but I wasn’t really getting the amount or quality of work I wanted to be doing.
Going to SVA gave me the really unique opportunity to devote a lot of time and concentration to the work I wanted to be making. It allowed me to just create constantly, which is really what I needed. It also opened a lot of doors to people I would have not been in contact with in Missouri. I think it was a really great place for me to get all of the kinks out and start making work that had my own unique voice.
KW: Your illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, New Yorker, Newsweek, Playboy, LA Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Bloomberg Businessweek and Playboy. What were your first professional jobs and how did you find them? And what attracts you to the field? What was the most challenging job you have had to date?
DZ: The first projects I got were from the New York Times and the LA Times. Basically, I flew up to New York one Spring, determined to get my work in front of some people to hire me. Luckily two different art directors at the New York Times were willing to hire me, and a few months later I started getting regular work. All of those early assignments were from me just bothering people endlessly, emailing and sending promos in the mail. I was annoying people, I think, but it paid off. Looking back, I find a lot of that work to be pretty embarrassing…poorly made, sort of cliché concepts. But I think I learned a lot in those early stages and grew quickly.
The joy I find in illustration is all about the process. There is a ton of thought and planning that goes into every piece before the paint starts getting applied. Problem solving and conceptual thinking go a long way when it comes to making a successful final image. Of course, I still want to be an artist, and the best pieces I make are the ones that tie to an article, but still maintain a certain amount of ambiguity that give the viewer a chance to think for themselves. The hardest projects for me have always been the ones that I can’t directly connect to or have no interest in. I always make better work when the content I am illustrating speaks to me on a personal or conceptual level that I care about.
KW: What skills do you need to be successful in this field? What advice do you have for students wishing to pursue illustration (or design)?
DZ: I really think it is less about the quality of work, and more about the determination of the person. If you really love art or design or illustration or whatever, your chances of success are going to be much higher than someone who hates what they are doing but feel obligated to do it. Of course, it is best to be passionate AND good, but the number one tip I think I can give is to just keep pushing and trying harder. I have encountered so many people that I felt were successful or famous even though they weren’t necessarily great at their job, and it was because of their passion. You have to be doing something that is fun to do everyday, month after month, year after year, or you will get burned out.
KW: How would you describe your style/aesthetic? Who are your influences?
DZ: I have a dark sense of humour that is represented in simple, colourful graphic solutions. It comes from a lot of influences: horror movies, pop art, comics, Italian Art Deco, Swiss design, Polish poster design, modernism, Bauhaus, Renaissance painting…the list goes on and on.
KW: What prompted you to start HYDROCHLORIC (and what is it)?
DZ: Hydrochloric is a zine that I art direct and design, which asks illustrators and designers to interpret a new theme per issue. I put a new one out every 3-4 months. I started that project when I was at SVA….I had access to a photocopier that was open for students to use, so I took advantage of that. Now I print it slightly higher quality, with nicer paper. I am usually interested in getting a healthy mix of “up-and-coming” illustrators, people who haven’t been published yet, or are at the start of their career, and well-established people. I think it makes for a nice mix and gives people that are interested some new people to explore and get excited about.
KW: You have a number of self-initiated projects. If you had access to unlimited funds, what would be your dream project?
DZ: Lately all of my self-initiated work has been comics, before that it was a number of zines, and I am always making paintings based on themes. A popular painting project was my Light Terrors series. I have also started making clothing and pins and accessories…I like to try new things and see where they go.
If I had unlimited money, I think an installation would be really fun. I would love to fill a huge space with paintings, sculptures, interactive pieces, video…I love the idea of a totally immersive artistic experience.
KW: What skills or software do you want to learn next? Do you have any desire to animate your work?
DZ: Yeah, my goal right now is to start animating actually. It would be good to learn some of the basic animation software so I can start making little movies. Last year I made some very small animations for Halloween (they were basically .gif animations) that I ended up projecting on the wall across from our building. It was pretty successful.
KW: Your work has been recognized by American Illustration, Society of Illustrators, 3×3,Communication Arts, Creative Quarterly, Graphis, and HOW and you received the MoCCA Award of Excellence for “NOPE” and named one of ADC’s Young Guns of 2015. Has this fame made you an impossible person to live with?
DZ: Ha ha. You would have to ask my girlfriend, but no, I don’t think so. I am really humbled by all of that recognition and feel a certain sense of satisfaction knowing that I am the same person now that I was three years ago or whatever. I really hate when people let that stuff go to their heads, and I would be horrified if the same thing happened to me.
KW: What’s been the best exhibit you’ve seen in the past year?
DZ: The most recent one that comes to mind is the AV Motley show that is on display right now at the Whitney Museum. Of course, I just love the new Whitney Museum in general and would recommend checking it out if you have the chance.
KW: Do you think technology (mobile devices, etc.) is increasing the need for illustrators? What is your prediction for how technology will impact the field of illustration in the next 10 years?
DZ: I have seen a lot more illustration and animation work as a result of the rise in app usage, online platforms, etc, and it seems like people are starting to rely more on illustration as a way to communicate ideas and information. My prediction on the future of illustration is that there will be a lot more animated work illustrating content as more information is available exclusively online. The NY Times and MIT Technology Review are already using a lot more gifs on their websites instead of static images, and I have seen some really amazing websites incorporate interactive and moving images to illustrate articles that would have been normally accompanied by singles images or photographs. It is really amazing and exciting.
KW: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
DZ: Don’t be a jerk.
KW: Kathryn Weinstein is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design, Queens College, CUNY
DZ: Daniel Zender is an Adjunct Professor of Graphic Design at Queens College, CUNY