Crowdsourcing’s Graphics Wizard of Oz
Meet Australia’s Russell Tate — best-selling illustrator and graphic designer
Interviewed By Shazz Mack
What do NASA astronauts have in common with the 1980’s UK pop group Culture Club?
Why, Russell Tate, of course! His graphic design work and illustrations have been featured on the record covers of Boy George’s band as well as NASA’s communications materials – not to mention his work for McDonald’s, Nokia, Mambo, Fox Studios and many other companies around the globe. How did a British graphic designer make his way from the urban London of Malcolm McLaren’s glory days to the idyllic Sydney, Australia beach suburb of Clovelly and, along the way, become a global talent in the crowdsourcing movement? Russell Tate explains that his laid-back attitude, healthy curiosity about the world around him, and willingness to try new things have been at the root of an interesting and diverse career. With almost 33,000 downloads of his royalty-free digital images in 16 months, Russell Tate is emerging as a “stock star” of crowdsourced illustration and design.
Interview After the Jump ...
Shazz: Tell us a bit about your background.
Russel: I started out working in London, UK with people who designed record sleeves in the 1980’s. They taught me about design for print and I moved around a bit to different jobs, ending up doing a lot of music magazine work. I accepted an Art Director position with an Australian magazine in the 1990’s, and was offered some great computer design training. By the time I left the magazine to become a freelance graphic designer based in Sydney, a Mac computer was my main design tool.
What are the skills you apply to crowdsourcing?
My work draws upon my design and illustration skills, as well as art direction and typography capabilities.
Which crowdsourcing organizations do you work with?
My royalty-free illustrations are exclusive to iStockphoto under the name RUSSELLTATEdotCOM. I’ve also noticed that I’m getting a growing number of requests for custom design and illustration work in past months – many are coming to me after seeing my images on iStock. These custom-work clients are mainly ad agencies and solo designers who have a specific design or illustration need that can't be fulfilled in-house or found in stock illustration libraries. Often they will show an attempt they have made and basically say, "Can you do it better"? Other times it will be a brand new project that the client thinks I am right for — based on what they have seen of my work online.
Please describe what your workspace looks like.
I have a sunny office/studio in my Sydney home that I share with my wife Catherine, who is a freelance stylist and Art Director. I do my iStock illustrations here, my freelance work, and we also run our own company, MT Generator, from this space. The office is near the beach and has ground floor street access which is good for keeping clients clear of the domestic chaos – we have with 3 kids!
What tools do you use for your work?
I tend to run things pretty much from my home office’s Mac® G5 Intel computer, only using a G4 Laptop when I am on the road! I also use a pencil and trace pad for sketching out ideas, a scanner for putting images into the computer, Illustrator® for creating finished art, and a broadband link for taking, enquiries, brief deliveries and invoicing. That's all I need to do my work.
What other work do you do, if any?
Graphic design work with my wife on her contracts. She art directs and I design to her brief’s requirements. I also buy and sell Japanese tin toy Robots, but it's more for the love of it rather than making money.
Who inspires you?
No one person really stands out but I am great admirer of designers and illustrators from the 1950s. If I can add a hint of retro to my work, I’m always happy. I get ideas for some of my most successful illustrations directly from clients. For example, the Australian surf wear company, Mambo, has commissioned work from me in the past and given me lots of creative freedom and inspiration. My work with custom clients can also alert me to new subject trends (like the world of blogs and RSS feeds, for example) that have a growing need for stock imagery. I’ll pursue that subject later and add new images to my iStock portfolio.
What’s your favourite print or broadcast media?
I love Vanity Fair magazine (the UK edition when I can find it) and the Australian MacWorld magazine is very relevant to what's happening locally. Ricky Gervais podcasts are fun to play during the day. I don't tend to watch much TV as I've usually had enough of watching a screen at the end of the day. I watch Foxtel a couple of times a week but I’m not a fan of Australian commercial free-to-air TV.
Do you have a personal blog or website?
My royalty-free illustration work on iStockphoto can be found here: http://www.istockphoto.com/RUSSELLTATEdotCOM The website for MT Generator, the company my wife and I run, is at: http://www.mt-generator.com.au And I also have a fun illustration website that I built about three years ago: http://www.russelltate.com but I have never really updated it since then – how slack is that!? The site has lots of animated gif files on the front page and one Art Director described it as “Tamagotchi on Acid.” I’m not sure whether to take that as a compliment or not, but at least it got noticed!
How did you get started in this new kind of work?
Really by accident, I was searching online for image references and iStock images came up more and more; eventually I decided to try and become a supplier. I had piles of extra illustrations that I hadn’t used, but setting up and maintaining an e-commerce site just seemed too complicated. After joining iStock, I got 500 downloads fairly quickly and the company’s founder, Bruce Livingstone, emailed me personally to congratulate me. I thought that was a nice touch. I got really bitten by this idea and I pumped out images morning, noon and night at first – I had no idea what would sell or be popular. Once I'd seen that lots of images were being bought by total strangers I realised that working with large teams of people that you did not actually know was possible, and work enquiries based on my iStock portfolio started coming in.
Why have you decided to embrace crowdsourcing?
The main reason is to have more irons in the fire. I’m based in Australia but there is no reason why I should not have access to design and illustration markets across the world. The Internet is perfect for this. Today, I like working this way because I get to run my own show and the lifestyle is very flexible. I find inspiration in many places – for example, I was on an airplane on a holiday trip to Spain and I got the idea to do a new take on air travel icons. The resulting illustrations have been quite popular.
How is crowdsourcing different from traditional work in your field?
I work on my own from home, so I do miss brainstorming with others – it can feel a bit isolated sometimes. I belong to some of the iStock forums, and have found some affinity online with community members like Simonox http://www.istockphoto.com/Simonox but it’s not like with photographers; we don’t get together for “group illustration sessions” like the iStockalypse events for photos. When a client has commissioned me to produce something after finding me online, I have to make sure the communication is very clear, because face to face meetings and even phone calls are not usually in the equation – it is all via email. Paypal is great help these days too. I like to get an upfront starter fee from overseas clients and it takes some of the worry out the payment process.
What’s a typical day like for you?
6.30 a.m. - Computer self starts loads the applications for the day and brings down the email. 6.45 a.m. - Still in my pajamas, I check email from the USA and England, and fire back any replies to enquires or updates before their day finishes, I know I can answer any further replies from them later on in my day. I also check my Sitemail from iStock for similar enquires. 7:00 a.m. - If I get the mail sorted out before 7:00 a.m., I go for a run around the coastline near where I live, and then I’m back for breakfast and help get kids off to school. 8.30 a.m. - I normally continue with what ever illustration project I was working on the previous day. I get interrupted by email all through the day which is just the way I like work. I reply to folks ASAP and let them know that I’m always available. I try to wrap up around 6.00 p.m., but as the office is in the house I tend to pop in a couple of times during the evening and check mail. I try make it a rule not to answer emails after 9.00 p.m., especially when I have been drinking (…they tend to lose that professional edge!)
Has this work opened any new doors for you?
Yes plenty. People in lines of business I would have no chance of finding out about through online searches contact me in relation to work they have seen on my iStock portfolio or my website and want me to get involved in projects.
Any companies that you’ve particularly liked collaborating with on illustration or design projects arising from your crowdsourcing work?
Statcom http://www.statcom.com/was a recent project that was a lot of fun. Mainly because it was so complicated and specific. The client was great though, and supplied all the reference materials for me to follow. The fact that our time zones were out of synch did not matter one bit and it was a smooth ride from start to finish.
I also did the cover of the Scholastic publishing company’s 2004-2005 Annual report and it was great. They’re a massive global company, headquartered in New York and they found me through my website. The work was very detailed, with complex concepts to communicate. I was very pleased with the results.
What’s it like to see a finished product that features your work?
Terrible! No, of course it's great to have been part of something that turns out well. Even more so when your “work buddies” are people you would not know from a bar of soap if you passed them in the street.
What’s your next project?
Hmm, I’m having a chat with eBay in Europe at the moment about an online project, so it might be something in that area. I’ve also had a few Interactive game enquiries, which might be fun to do.
Any advice for a newcomer to crowdsourced work?
Think about your client when planning an illustration. What do they need? How will they use your work? Develop a unique style. Ask some peers what they think. Upload the best work you possibly can – if you need to spend another two days perfecting something, do it. Personalize your online iStock profile page with a photo of yourself – a real person. Try to add a human touch to what you do. And be organized and prompt with your communications. Take on whatever commissioned work you think you can handle, and don't be afraid to turn down whatever you think you can't. People will respect you more for it. If they really want you to do the job, they’ll often wait until you’re available.
Do you think people can earn a living solely from participating in crowdsourcing projects?
Anything is possible if you have the right skills and a way of bringing them to market. I personally don't like the idea of basing my work solely on one income stream. I also worried about things like solar flares wiping out the Internet! That said, I’m happy with the mix of revenue sources I have now.
Russel's best-selling illustration on iStockPhoto.com, entitled "Custom Chrome."
Is crowdsourcing here to stay?
I think, in one form or another, the concept is here to stay. It’s just a further evolution of modern communications. Being an early adopter of technology and trying out new things is also helpful – just dive in!