Stephen Kelleher has been Stateside for the last 15 years working with some of the biggest agencies and brands in the world including a refresh of the iconic ABC network logo. The NCAD graduate tells us about his time there and shares some home thoughts from abroad.
How long have you been out in NYC now? How’s it been for you?
I moved to NYC in 2007 so almost 15 years ago now. I left Ireland for Los Angeles one year before but knew NYC was more my speed. My time here has been very significant and my life has changed a lot, as is the case when you’re in your mid-20’s vs. early 40’s. I really learned what graphic design should and can be here, have worked with some of the best people in the world and on some of the largest campaigns imaginable. I met my wife and am raising a child here. So yeah, NYC has given me invaluable experience in the design sphere and been crucial in my development as a person in general.
How did you find it establishing yourself, carving your style and path?
In the early years I actually had a distinct style and was working exclusively in the motion design field. After moving from Los Angeles working at a company called Buck, I found NYC a very welcoming and opportunity-rich, inspiring place to live and work. Networking, meeting peers and the ability to work in different roles at different motion design studios came pretty easily for me and kept me very busy for a long time. Overall, I felt like I had landed where I was meant to be.
After working in various agencies, what sparked the thought to establish yourself as an independent gun for hire?
I had actually been working freelance from my second year in NYC starting in 2008. For the next 10 years I was more than happy to be a ‘gun for hire’ for any studio willing to pay my day rate and with whom I could learn and flex my creative skills.
Starting in 2018 I decided to leave motion design behind and establish my own working practice as a studio model to focus solely on areas that I had become more interested in; identity design and creating design systems directly for clients. This gave birth to my namesake ‘Stephen Kelleher Studio‘ which allows me more creative control and the ability to expand and contract the team based on each project. I’ve never been more professionally fulfilled.
How much of your day is creative versus the hustle of keeping work coming in and staying on commissioner / client radars?
I have been fortunate enough to never have sought work / hustled for clients. To date all the work which has come my way has been either from clients who have seen my work out in the world or personal recommendations from people I have worked with in the past. I always mean to do more proactive outreach but honestly my whole week is consumed with the busy work of creating design. That said, I do plan to target some clients and businesses in the near future that I’m interested in working with and whom I feel I can genuinely help.
You work with some of the biggest agencies and brands in the world. Do you have a set methodology for tackling these gigantic projects or is each one individual?
The short answer is that each one is individual. I have a pretty set process framework for identity design projects although that still requires huge amounts of problem solving to deal with the personalities and issue-specific hiccups associated with any business.
When designing for an already established ecosystem like for example the illustration system for Facebook Messenger, I need to fit in to a much larger organization with its own workflow and hierarchies. Creatively, I don’t think a set methodology is helpful but rather a balance of milestone achievement / timeline management with the mental freedom to stay flexible so as to facilitate the best solution for each client.
The perfect project is…
Something I haven’t tried before with an ample budget and high visibility.
The perfect client is…
Open-minded, brave and a believer in the power of design to enact change.
You take on self-initiated projects like the Crocs rebrand. What’s the motivation for these types of creative efforts?
The motivation for that particular project was to show that I could design an effective identity solution that betters the current branding. It blew up on the internet and served as the perfect introduction for a burgeoning studio. Self-initiated projects are the best way to prove your abilities and get the kind of work you want to do.
You most recently worked on the brand refresh for the ABC network. How did you tackle that, especially considering it was originally designed by the legendary designer Paul Rand?
I was brought onboard to ‘re-imagine’ the iconic logo which has become one of the most recognizable visual brands in the world over the last 60 years. As someone who’s favorite designer is Paul Rand, it was a huge responsibility and a highly pressurized honor. Yes, I am a disciple of Rand and the tenets of modernism that his work embodies, but also needed to do my due diligence as a professional, so it was a tightrope walk.
Dissecting the mark and truly understanding the genius of his solution but also its technical limitations, my job was really to advocate for the retention of the Rand equity whilst making sure the new mark could answer the functional requirements of a 21st century television station that simply never existed when Mr. Rand created his version. My hope is that in time the new ABC mark will not erase but reinforce the iconic work by my favorite designer.
Are there any other legendary projects or brand re-imaginings you would love to get your hands on?
I’d prefer to build my own legacy of marks and logos for new companies and start-ups at this point 🙂
After the last 20 months, there’s a lot of conversation about whether we can work on anything from anywhere. Would you ever see a day where you would choose to return to Ireland and work from here or is your life, practice and opportunity Stateside?
As a father with ageing parents and because of the last 20 months, I would choose to return to Ireland now, but given the housing crisis, lack of incentives for expats, refusal of banks to loan mortgages to people who have been earning money outside of Ireland, regardless of how much etc. returning to Ireland seems highly unlikely. If I somehow manage to save the money to buy property outright, it might be an option, but in all likelihood I will opt to remain in the US which has offered me more freedom and opportunities and choose instead to visit Ireland more often.
What advice would you give to Irish creatives based here or trying to make their mark beyond our shores?
Technology can now facilitate your global exposure which simply wasn’t viable when I left college. I think in order to appeal to a global clientele your work needs to feel international and compete in quality with what is happening around the world. I think making your mark in another country still does require living there, meeting and working alongside the people there. For others, their national identity is largely the subject of their work, so why leave? The story of Irish diaspora is littered with creative people who needed more than Ireland could offer, but for everything you gain, you must give something up too, so have a short and long term plan if you ever want to return.
From your viewpoint, what do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities for Irish creativity over the coming decade?
The challenges are stark – in order to be an ‘Irish creative’ you need to sustain yourself financially, spiritually and creatively. How can you create and live in a country that does not see the value in your worth and what you contribute to society? The policies that continue to destroy creative venues and a liveable environment will continue to eject Irish creatives from the country. From what I can see, Ireland needs a huge improvement in infrastructure like broadband and an attitude which celebrates things other than hotel-chains and drinking culture. But that will require people who chose to remain in Ireland to correct it from the inside. And this is the opportunity – to harness the ingenuity we have as creatives to problem solve and create our own future. If I know anything, it’s how resilient and adaptable Irish people are. To quote the legendary Thomas Street mural – ‘There is hope’, that hope is us.
Words: Richard Seabrooke