Kyle Steed is known for his handmade illustration style and honest Instagram photography. The artist’s work is raw and real, a refreshing contrast to the hyper-simplified, pixel-perfect world of digital design. A native of the American South, Steed was raised on a diet of sketching and skateboarding and, surprisingly, wanted to be an architect when he grew up. Now he lives and works in Dallas, Texas as an independent artist and designer. His client list includes Noble Denim, Mercedes Benz, Marriot, PayPal, Lincoln Motor Co., Walgreens, Over, WELD and InVision App.
What inspired you to become an artist?
I didn’t have a specific muse as a kid. I remember being fascinated with redrawing Bart Simpson—I like Mat Groening and his characters, the simplistic style, the lines and the colors. I also had an appreciation for architecture and fascination and a desire to want to do that when I grew up. And I spent a lot of time in school scribbling stuff down in the margins during math class or English class. In grade school I would sit and draw house plans and I’d always be excited to show them to my friends. I’d also draw my name in different ways, in different fonts and styles. I remember that was a funny way I could talk to girls, they’d see what I was working and say, “Draw my name!” Then my senior year I discovered this whole other world called graphic design—you can do stuff on computers, manipulate and tweak and scan and colorize. It just opened a door into a new realm of possibilities.
It took a while for you to incorporate your hand-drawn style into your graphic design work…
Absolutely. It was a drawn-out, lengthy road to come back and connect the two again. In my mind they were very separate. Which is ridiculous because before computers they did everything by hand. The computer gave rise to instant gratification, I suppose. Why would I sit and draw when I can sit and do it in Photoshop or something? I neglected to keep drawing. It took two or three years to come back to that realization, to come back to drawing by hand.
What was it like going back to sketchbooks?
I can show you sketchbooks from 10 years ago that were really sketchy and all over the place and really rough. Now I try to be very intentional about the lines and making them clean ahead of time before I scan anything. I don’t like touching up much after it’s drawn, I like leaving it a little rough around the edges. I’ve listened to (designer)Jessica Hische talk about her process and she’s the opposite. She’s rough sketching stuff, scanning the final pencil sketches, then meticulously lays out every vector point in Illustrator. All of her stuff is perfectly clean. I think it’s great, her work is beautiful. But I don’t go that route. I figure out everything on paper before it gets to the scanner. It’s leaving a little thumbprint embedded in my work that says, “This is meant to look this way.” It’s very intentional to leave things a little wonky, if you will.
How did you become fascinated with typography
I’ve kept a journal for 10 or 12 years now and through the process I started to see how could I exaggerate words or make them look different or stand out. I honestly didn’t know much about typography besides what a font was. I had never taken a typography class. I find it interesting that we can say so much in what kind of style of type we’re using. It’s like your outfit when you wake up in the morning. You can put on a suit and look very professional and if that’s not you, people know that’s not you. That’s how I see typography, it’s like dressing up (or down) the words.
Where do you get your inspiration?
l love vintage type, looking at old labels and on Pinterest and Google Image search. Not to see what designers today have done, but to see how designers handled typography in the past. I also have a book of vintage type from America and Europe during ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. Ads, titles for movies, everything. It’s just this amazing craftsmanship of type. You know it wasn’t set in Futura or Helvetica or Times New Roman. They spent time thinking about how they wanted to depict the title of a movie or how they wanted to share the labeling of something as silly as a stick of chewing gum or a box of matches. The quality and care and thoughtfullness that was put into work back then was just great. That’s what resonates with me about it. It’s just so easy for you not to care about stuff when you’re designing on a computer because it’s transient, it doesn’t feel like it’s lasting. Drawing letters and words and pictures on paper—there’s something about that process that lasts longer.
But a lot of your work is on Instagram, a transient medium…
Our culture is such a throw-away culture, such a newsfeed, status update-like culture. We scroll a feed of information and what was in our feed yesterday was so long ago that we don’t even think to go back and look at it. I’ve sat and people watched at airports and coffee shops. I’m always interested in how people use Instagram. It’s just this quick, thumbing through and digesting all this content and media. If something catches their eye, it’s a five-second hold, they’ll like it and they’ll move on. It’s really interesting and scary at the same time.
How do you approach photography?
Sometimes you just happen to be in the right spot at the right time with the right light and that’s a blessing. Other times you go seeking that and you find it and it’s awesome. Coming out of high school, my dad bought me a camera and I taught myself how to use 35mm film. It’s another great creative outlet that doesn’t have anything to do with drawing and you get to see the world in a different way. The great thing about photography is sharing your perspective on things. I never would’ve thought 10 years ago that we would have the capability now to share how we see the world with millions of people. The only way you used to be able to do that was if you worked long and hard enough and got recognized by a gallery and you got your work in a show. And then you would ask people to come to that gallery to see your photos on the wall. Now that’s all been blurred with Instagram and the Internet. It’s really cool.
Tell me about the first time someone asked you to cover something on Instagram.
It was the Lincoln shoot last summer (2013). I went to Pebble Beach, spent three or four days out there photographing the cars. I shot it all with my phone and it was quite a humbling and amazing experience. I got to work with a few other photographers during that shoot, which was amazing. Working with other creatives on a project like that, when you get stuck you can get their ideas and input and move there. And getting to tavel to Israel was, of course, an out-of-this-world experience. We were treated with the utmost respect and people were so kind and gracious to us. When opportunities like that arise, I have to pinch myself. I don’t expect Instagram to be a platform. It’s just a trend. All trends will eventually pass, but it is fun at the moment and has become a great creative outlet.
Have you done any out-of-the-ordinary projects lately?
Noble Denim recenlty soaked soaked 150 pairs of jeans in Bulleit whiskey barrels. They were hoping to bring out some of that gold hue and oakness of the charred oak into the denim. Two things that I’m really passionate about are good-quality denim and drinking Bulleit Bourbon. So when they asked me if I could come up with a hang tag design for the jeans, I was really excited. I went to Cincinnati and met the founders of Noble Denim—they started making denim out of their apartment a few years ago. It’s a small production, but the quality of craftsmanship is just amazing. I ended up doing a design for the back leather patch of the jeans and three different designs for hang tags for each pair. The whole project just sort of fell out of the sky and I’m so grateful I got the chance to work on it.