Multiple award-winning art director and designer Tom White has been creating visual solutions for clients for nearly 20 years. Tom is the owner, illustrator, and designer of 9 Surf Studios specializing in branding, marketing, and storytelling through typographic design, illustration and image design.
9 Surf Studios originally launched in 1995 and was immediately recognized as an early pioneer of digitally-based creative solutions. In 2010 Tom introduced 9 Surf Editions: an archival reproduction studio for fine art and photography. Most recently, in 2013, Exhibit No.9 was brought to life as a gallery for contemporary art including artist representation and purpose-driven art and photography research and placement.
Tom’s work has been commissioned by clients who are looking for new ways to visually communicate evolving and nuanced messages to their audiences. His impressive client list includes AT&T, Business Week, Scientific American, Newsweek, the New York Times, Time Magazine, Forbes, Conde Nast, and many, many more.
Elizabeth Owen, our Vice President, had the honor of catching up with Tom for the latest edition of our Conversation Series. From art direction to brand expression to the evolution of 9 Surf Studios, check out what Tom White had to say about his career, experience, and the world of illustration and design.
Your career trajectory has produced a unique, vertically integrated perspective. Your work as an art director has allowed you to create art that you know appeals to both the advertising and editorial world. Would you recommend that more commercial artists work in advertising in order to gain a wider understanding of the industry?
That’s true. Because of my background I had before I started my illustration studio, I begin each project with an art director’s perspective, not so much an illustrator’s. This helps me get to a solution which will be workable and creative within the full framework of a project. There are timing considerations (deadlines), production issues, client meetings, staff meetings, etc., all of which affect the outcome of the project.
Having that background also helps me ask the right questions when getting to the essence of what I need to do for a project. Because everyone is so busy, it’s not unusual for me to get a request for estimate or project summary by email with just some basic facts. It’s then my job to know what questions to ask so I can move ahead.
Whether it’s an ad agency, a design studio or a magazine or book publisher, understanding what happens in meetings, how content and ideas for projects are generated and discussed by all the stakeholders involved, what discussions they’ve had with their clients, what insights they’ve gained about their client’s or audience’s expectations or any other behind-the-scenes factors that would impact the outcome of a project, all commercial artists should be exposed to and learn from this in a professional environment for at least part of their careers as freelancers.
Design creates the valuable first visual impression. What have you learned about good design in your 30 year experience?
That’s an interesting question and trying to define good design is a moving target. One thing that has always remained constant is that not all clients know that good design is good for them (no matter how much you tell them), and to each client or person, good or valuable means something different. So for me, whether the design or illustration is complex or simple, the design principles behind my projects tend to be classic, no matter whether the project has a vintage or contemporary approach.
Tell us about “brand expression.”
That’s simply a way of saying that brand messaging and strategy have to express themselves in visual solutions. As a designer/illustrator, it’s my specialty to be able to digest the marketing information, strategy, analysis, competitors, goals, audiences, demographics, medium, etc and ultimately design logos, collateral, websites, illustrations which tell the story of the brand.
In reference to branding, how do you distill an entire product or company into a single visual representation?
That’s like giving away the secret to the special sauce! For logos and brandmarks, it involves a lot of research and understanding of the product or entity. Then it’s about making relationships between concepts and visual representations of ideas, forms, letters, etc. The challenge is in simplifying the ideas rather than making them more complex and still representing the idea/product successfully with good design.
What do you do when you find it difficult to conceptualize a product or company?
I write a list of all the attributes and concepts that come out of the research or discussions with clients. I then look for any sort of symbolic or visual connection between any of the elements. Something serendipitous will eventually show itself.
You opened an art gallery and fine art print studio. Is it more satisfying, as an artist, to see one’s work in the physical world rather than digitally?
I started the print studio, 9 Surf Editions, four years ago precisely because I was tired of having all my work sitting on a hard drive. The catalyst was a mural project I did. Some of my work is quite complex and I wanted to see it large. Then there’s the idea of seeing artwork on beautiful paper again. Even though I like working on a computer, there’s nothing like seeing it on paper in larger scale. As I got further into it, I started printing other artists’ and photographers’ work. Now we print many artists’ work for their exhibitions around the world.
Exhibit No.9, our contemporary gallery and studio, is on it’s one year anniversary and doing great. We work with very established artists as well as emerging artists with great promise. We are on our 7th exhibition and people are taking notice of what we are doing because it is so different (and exceptional if I can say so). We focus on contemporary art, urban art and experimental photography. All the artists work with many media, both traditional and digital. Not only do we exhibit and sell the work of the artists, we have “The Art of Photography” seminars, artist talks, a print shop, an artist development program, and even offer framing for clients and artists.
One interesting thing: I feel like everything I did in my career up to this point culminated in the creation of the print studio and gallery, from designing the space, to the branding, marketing and advertising and learning using social media. It’s one thing to do this kind of work for other clients. It’s another thing now that I am the client and I can see first hand how it all influences attracting the right audience.
9 Surf Editions is an archival print studio. With the wide availability of endless digital storage, why is it important to have archival prints of art made?
Digital files can be erased or transferred into the wrong hands easily. They can also be replicated on a large scale very easily. But they don’t occupy any space in the real world. Archival prints will last at least as long as any traditional photograph and have a tangible intellectual property value. And paper still has an artisanal appeal in the face of digital. In today’s world, it’s best to have both digital and archival prints of artworks.
It is possible to increase the value of artwork just by the way it’s printed, handled and presented. That’s not true showing a piece of art on a computer screen, tablet or iPhone. For example, an artist can present a portfolio in a beautiful handmade box, printed on exceptional paper, each print matted and handled with white gloves. It shows the viewer that it’s precious to both the viewer and the artist. Not true with a digital screen. The quality on paper is still considered the most artisanal.
What advice would you give artists interested in your field?
You will have to do this because you love it, not because you expect huge financial rewards and a guaranteed career path. In order to be competitive and attract attention, your work will have to be more unique, well-crafted, have more attention to detail, have more understanding of the culture and world around you, and offer something new that others aren’t doing and that clients need. It is a tall order to accomplish this in such a large sea of talent.
Thanks so much for sharing your insights and expertise with us, Tom! To learn more about Tom’s endeavors please make sure to visit 9 Surf Studios, 9 Surf Editions, and Exhibit No.9. Tom also has a fantastic Directory of Illustration portfolio which can be seen here.