In The Spotlight: Charles Williams

Fri 11 Aug 2017

Jelly's Charles Williams is well known for his unique illustration style. His intricate use of geometric shapes and 3D lettering are iconic recurring themes throughout his work. And with clients like Nike, Bestival, Creative Review and The Oscars under his belt, Charles is no stranger to an exciting brief. We recently caught up with him to find out more about the way he works, how he first stepped foot into the industry, and to delve deeper into some of his most interesting projects to date.

What came first, typography or illustration? Well I used to be a graphic designer (wait a second... I still am!) and got really into typography then, specifically breaking type apart, toying with it, and treating it as the foundation for an illustrated piece. However I used to love drawing when I was at school so I suppose that's more illustration. But then I used to like drawing 3D letters when I was 6. How far back should I go?

How would you describe your style? Interconnected, dimensional, surreal, fluid, synthetic, organic, free range, GM-free, DELISH.

How do you usually go about answering a brief? Initially a client asks me to create something (hopefully). At this stage I'll generally ask the client lots of creative direction questions - as much as I love to go wild on every job, sometimes clients have very clear ideas of what they want, and sometimes they only realise this once you've done a load of 'out-there' stuff, so it's good to have a really frank chat about this early on. I will typically present a selection of sketches to the client - some very loose ideas, then a few of these tightened up and fleshed out. Then I'll take one or two of the preferred sketches and really tighten them up so they are as accurate/suggestive as possible in relation to the digital finished piece. If the client is happy to sign the idea off I will start 'recreating' the drawing in Illustrator. I love working in vector format as it allows for complete editability (not a word, I know), gives the work a super-clean aesthetic, is restrictive (this is a good thing), and has some basic 3D capabilities that allow me to explore dimensionality. Once the vector design is complete, I will take it into Photoshop and add some shading/tonal work. I like to use bitmap shading to give the finished piece an analog feel. Then I will share with the client who will be totally blown away every time and never ask for any amends ever.

Talk us through your design process. Lots of drawing early on. This will start with very loose, terrible sketches, and will generally progress to less-awful sketches, and will eventually result in drawings that make a modicum of sense and are even, dare i say it, ok. I draw with the digital process in mind; this means often drawing using an isometric grid, which uses infinite perspective and is great. Hopefully anyone reading this is sufficiently design-savvy to know what that is. Being able to draw the design on paper is important - if I can't visualise it with a pen, I don't really want to create it digitally. I think that lends all my work a certain style, which is obviously key, and means I am less restricted stylistically elsewhere. For example I love working in stark black and white but love using bold saturated colourways too. I've recently started exploring Cinema 4D and looking at incorporating that into my process, but I'm a long way off being able to use it properly. 10 years+ of using Illustrator means my brain probably has an Adobe logo on it somewhere.

What’s one of your favourite projects that you’ve worked on? I did a project for The Oscars last year where the client basically gave me total creative freedom. Not always music to a designer's ears, but in this case it was (music). I'd been playing with some handmade type ideas using acetate and photography and used this technique - the client was happy for me to explore ideas right up to final artwork, which is the first and last time I think that's happened. It was a lot of work but totally worth it and produced some pieces that I'm proud of. The finished art was screen printed and given to celebs at the glitzy awards bash. The lucky buggers!

What has been your most challenging? Producing a pitch for a festival branding job (Bonnaroo) in the States was a new experience for me, and ended up involving more insanely complex sketching than I ever thought possible. The client wanted to be totally confident with every aspect of my creative vision before signing off the sketches, so I drew everything in minute detail. Actual blisters from sketching. Many late night conference calls. The creative route was pretty insane - sort of isometric liquid surreal type + illustration. One of my favourite projects ever but definitely rock hard.

What was your first ever commissioned job? I put some experimental portrait stuff on way back in 2009 when I was starting out as a freelance illustrator and it led to a commission to design 3 T-shirts for Nike. This gave me a slightly unrealistic idea of the nature and consistency of freelance illustration work!

Who or who inspires you? Everyone and everything!

We really love your Data Projects work created for Cannes Lions 2017, tell us more about that. Adobe commissioned me to create a portrait using type for the Cannes festival. They gave me some copy which I could use in any way I liked to create a likeness of the subject, a digital wünderkind from Poland called Ana. I'd been toying with this technique of creating 3D rotated type, so the extrusion follows a rotational axis, so I thought it would be cool if the whole portrait was made of swirling circular type. It was pretty (extremely) fiddly but I'm happy with how it came out. Ana was pretty stoked too!

We hear you love cycling? Tell us about your project with Fireflies. Yes I am an avid cyclist. It's the perfect antidote to spending too much time at the desk - also being freelance means that my schedule allows for some cheeky unscheduled rides whenever the sun comes out. Or just when it's daylight. Actually any time I'm awake. Chris, one of the guys involved in FFCC, liked my work and asked if I'd be up for designing their socks + beanies for the Fireflies tour this year. Obviously I said yes. FFCC ride huge miles around the world and raise money for charities that fight blood cancers. FFCC's tagline is "For those who suffer, we ride". I thought it would be interesting to focus on the word 'suffer' - it seemed a fitting word for both the cycling and the charity aspects. The type follows an undulating mountainous path, much like the ones the poor FFCC guys will be dragging themselves up soon (I am jealous).

Any new work you can tell us about? Some new work for Adobe... a cover for IBM magazine... some branding for a bike shop... some murals for a pizza restaurant... nice and varied at the moment, which I love.