At the age of just 26, London illustrator and typographer Kate Moross has already racked up commissions from the likes of the Guardian, Cadbury’s and Nike, but still manages to squeeze in projects for her pals Jessie Ware and Simian Mobile Disco. Her colourful, exuberant scrawls can be instantly recognised – and we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of them.
You’re part of a digital generation of designers that grew up using the internet and computer-based design, but a lot of your typography is hand-drawn. How much of your work is hand-made, and how much is computer made? And do you ever use paper, or do you only draw with a graphic tablet?
I still really enjoy drawing, it is very much a part of my practice, however drawing onto my Wacom Cintiq screen isn’t a huge departure to drawing on paper. I tend to work straight into illustrator as speed is so important, as I can get a draft to a client in half the time. Pen and paper is great for complex text and I find it very therapeutic, I can put the TV on in the evening and get away from my computer for a bit. So I guess the answer is both, but with the majority being on my tablet.
A lot of your hand-drawn typography reminds me of those bubble letters everyone used to draw at school (or at least, in my school). Were you a bad ‘un or a good ‘un at school? What were you doodling in your exercise books?
I was always first to volunteer to do the bubble writing on school posters or projects. My rough books were covered in text scribbles. I was a total geek at school, I was keen to learn, but I am not a booksmart kind of person. I am much more of a practical learner. I tend to skim read and not absorb enough from books, I learn better from trial and error. This said, I was a pretty good student, I tried hard and I was very enthusiastic about learning. I was the ultimate nerd when it came to design and art classes, I’d stay late after school, and spend all my free periods and lunch breaks in the art department.
Having only graduated three years ago, your rise to success has been dizzyingly rapid. What was the point when you thought to yourself, ‘woah, shit just got real’?
Last week, when we moved into the new studio, I had a slightly terrifying realisation that I have three other people’s lives to support. There are now four of us making up the Studio Moross design team, and that responsibility is very real, and very frightening. I had a coffee with my dad in the new space, surrounded by boxes, and he said, “Look Kate, you’ve built a business”, the fact that I have gone from self-employed straight out of university – to running a company with staff, premises, and lots and lots of clients is sort of shocking to me.
Do you think being part of the so-called ‘MySpace generation’, with social media savvy coming second nature to you, has helped with that rapid success? Or, on the flipside, do you think the social media generation can be too quick to write off the importance of developing face-to-face, tangible relationships with potential clients? Making appointments with people, having a physical portfolio as well as a website, and so on…
I was incredibly lucky. I was involved with social networking as it was tipping, I was an early adopter, as were my other peers, and we used this to create a genuine network, online and in real life. We used Myspace like our professional email accounts, commissioning work, creating club nights, signing record deals, you name it. It was a very different time. The important thing for us at that time was that the online was just an extension of what we were doing in real life, which was very much real face to face relationships and real events. I used the internet to publicise my work, then I backed it up by meeting people in real life, because we had a small network it was easier. Now the network is enormous, it would be impossible to do that with your Facebook friends, your LinkedIn profile, your instagram followers, let alone people you know on Twitter.
You work with huge global brand names like Google, Nike, and Cadbury’s, but still have a very personal, and grass-roots kind of style. Will there ever be a point where you stop scrawling flyers for friends’ clubnights alongside working on big international commissions, or would that be the design-world equivalent of selling your soul?
I don’t believe in selling your soul. I believe very much in commercial creativity. I don’t like the snobbery that surrounds that topic. You are right though, I will never stop the favours, the collabs and the love jobs. That is what design is about. It is about connecting with people, and creating something for them, moulding their ideas into a visual, that is what I love about it, and that is why working for a local shop or Google is equally appealing. Both have their individual challenges, pros, and cons, but both are design, and that is all that matters to me.
Some aspects of your designs – geometric shapes, pastel colours – are very fashionable at the moment. But the downside to being fashionable is that there’s always the concern it’ll date quicker, which I’ve read you expressing concern about in interviews before. How do you keep things fresh, and avoid being too flavour-of-the-month?
Try something new, always evolve adapt and adjust. My typography is my craft, I can make letters do things in my style. There isn’t a huge amount of innovation I can do with that, so I choose carefully which jobs I work on so as not to flood the market. My style does change slowly over time, but mostly it is the craft in the type making. As for design, that is the very reason I started Studio Moross, because although the world knows me first and foremost as an illustrator, I am a designer. I am a creative person, I do lots of things, I make videos, I design record sleeves, I consult for brands, I even do marketing campaigns, that is hard to do under the moniker of an illustrator. The studio is about doing all those things, progressing, staying up to date, moving forward, hiring people with new perspectives.
For five years you ran a small independent record label, Isomorph Records. Then last year the label closed down, but you started StudioMoross, which only focuses on music-based projects. Obviously the music industry has changed a lot over the last five years, and I’m guessing this informed your decision. What way do you think that it’s developing at the moment, and what made you decide to switch roles?<
I started Isomorphs because I wanted to design record sleeves, and less people were making vinyl. I also wanted to work with artists and bands directly, which wasn’t easy to do with labels. I created 5 records with 5 artists over the five years, I enjoyed every moment of this process. I learned a lot, about the manufacturing process, about bands, how they feel about their music, how to work with them directly, and how to design with them and for them. Remarkably, record sales in the UK spiked, I think they jumped something like 300%, so labels started making more vinyl, I also had the skillset to work with bands, and they started requesting me as art director to their labels, so I got work with them directly too. So I basically created something to facilitate my needs, then I didn’t need it anymore, so I stopped doing it. Sad and happy at the same time.
I think it’s a nice idiosyncrasy that you’re part of a ‘digital generation’ of designers, but started a vinyl-only record label, with very limited runs, boutique packaging and no digital releases. Do you think it’s indicative of our generation that the more digitalised our culture becomes, the more we fetishise physical objects?
I guess so. I’m sure a lot of the vinyl that gets bought is never even played. There is more of a focus on the box sets and limited editions than ever before. Merch is also a big contender again and it needs to be kept exciting and up-to-date to keep up with the collectors.
There’s also perhaps a nostalgia aspect to this celebration of older physical formats such as vinyl, and even books. I can also see a big eighties influence on your design – the colours and shapes, the bold, graphic style, and the typography on things like the Monday logo. Is that influence nostalgic in some way as well? (Despite being too young to remember much of the eighties!)
One can’t help the influences that are part of your childhood. Although I was only around for four years of the eighties, I have two older brothers who were also collectors, they both left behind hordes of 80s memorabilia, as well as an enormous VHS collection, which I still own a fraction of. I have loved bright colour and shapes forever, my mum let me decorate my bedroom when I was about 7, let’s just say it looked like a 7 year old’s version of my flyers.
One of the artists you’ve worked with extensively through Studio Moross is Jessie Ware. How did your relationship with her spark off, and what do you love about working with her?
Jessie is an amazing, warm, honest and creative person. She trusts your ideas, and will go with them. The team behind Jessie is also incredible, particularly her labels PMR & Island, they also have faith in my ideas and basically let me get on with it. This is VERY rare. This is why I will design for Jessie forever, or until she fires me. We make great things together, she has great ideas, and she lets me run with them, build on them, and make them real. Working on her Devotion album campaign was one of the most rewarding projects I have ever done. We designed EVERYTHING, and it was so well received which made it even more enjoyable.
Making the transition from illustration to film work must have been pretty intimidating at first. When you were working on early film projects, like the first Simian Mobile Disco video you did, what were the biggest challenges to you, and what were the most fun parts of working with a new medium?
Film is scary. There are a lot of parameters, many things to worry about, and a lot that can go wrong. Film however is very impactful, it makes a real impression on people. It is a very powerful medium, particularly for music. I worked with collaborators on the early videos because I was scared to do it alone. These days I have more confidence and I can work on it on my own, though, film is all about collaboration, you have to work with lots of different people, everyone is important to the process. I had to learn a lot of technical specifications, I knew nothing about production, the software, everything was new. I started small, and I studied, practiced and learned what to do and how to do it.
Have you ever had a bash at making music yourself? If you did, what would it sound like?
Yes, but everything about it is top secret.
You’ve stated before that you hate the word ‘inspiration’, and that you’re influenced more by incidental things like sweet wrappers, TV, or shop signage than illustrators/designers. I like this idea that we absorb too much information on a daily basis to reel off a set list of ‘inspirations’ without it being contrived, and I can kind of see this showing through the multi-disciplinary nature of your work – switching between music, film, fashion, etc. It also makes design more accessible in a way: the idea that it can be based on everyday experience, rather than an inside-out knowledge of design history. Does the design world, and/or design training need to be more democratic, or diversified in this way?
I’m not sure. Everyone needs to RELAX. Stop being “inspired” and just make things, I don’t like to over intellectualise to much. I just like to get on with it. Make work, and then make some more. Design should be accessible like you said. Design is an everyday experience, it isn’t just about Lawrence King books and Magma, Pinterest, and the Design Museum. It’s about your personal experiences with the world, whether that’s nostalgia, objects that resonate with you, a typeface you like – for no reason other than you like it. These are the things that are important to me.
Based on this notion that it’s lifestyle, and the things you surround yourself with, that informs your work, how much of an impact did, say, moving to New York for a few months have on your creative output? And would you ever make a permanent move to another city?
Never, London is a part of me, I could never leave forever.
Kate Moross and will speak at Offset, April 5th – 7th in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre.