Having met Leighton on Twitter a few months ago, I was at first intimidated by him. How can you not be, when the designer has over 20 years of brilliant experience under his belt, has won numerous awards, is talked about and is well respected in the design community? With increasing correspondence on and off in the online world of social media, I realized that not only was Leighton a great designer, but a lovely person who treated everyone with respect and was helpful and forthcoming when other designers needed an opinion. I have been following his work for a while and that is another reason why I decided to interview him. I love Leighton’s style of logo and branding. It is unique in the fact that it is versatile and everchanging. I browsed a few of his logos reflecting his style and then a few of his other logos shed a whole new perspective on his creativity and talent. Illustration plays a very vital role in all his designs whether it is character development, icon creation or logo development. He is celebrated, he is published and today Leighton Hubbell from the one-man design army Hubbell Design Works shares his passion for the work he does and generously relives his process and method. "Design With Teeth", he proclaims on his website, yes, the man has a funny side too!
Welcome to the blog Leighton. I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. I hope our readers enjoy it as much as I did and take away something meaningful and useful from your wise words.
1. Tell us a bit about you. Where you are from, what do you do and the personal and professional sides of your personality.
Well, here goes. My name is Leighton Hubbell. I’m a self-described illustrative designer and art director, currently residing in Southern California. I was born in California, but I’ve lived and worked in several other regions of the United States over the years.
I started out over 20+ years ago and have worked in several capacities in the communication arts industry including employment at various design firms, ad agencies and promotional branding agencies.
For the last eight years, I’ve had my own small studio focusing primarily on logo design, icon design, identity, branding and illustration. Although I’ve worked with many large brands, a significant portion of my business is working with small to mid-sized companies on their marketing and design efforts.
One facet of my personality that sometimes comes through in my work is my sense of humor. I love to laugh and make fun of things. If you haven’t found out already, you can’t take this business too seriously.
2. What drew you to the whole world of logo design and branding?
I ended up in logo design kind of by accident. One of the ad agencies I worked for had a very small design group that the company used to contract unique design projects for its clients. I was selected to participate on different jobs with a few of my colleagues. I had done a good handful of logo designs before then, but didn’t realize I might have a knack for it. Working with that group, I was able to put together some pretty nice logos. Only one or two got used, but they were pretty high profile at the time.
From there, l would get various assignments on my own and would slowly get the opportunity to build my portfolio. When I went into advertising, it was always hard to pitch ads for someone’s business if I thought they had an awful logo.
A lot of times, it was hard to sell someone on doing an ad campaign. You end up giving away the farm to get in the door. Depending on their success, they might not want any more ads for maybe a year. And since you’re ‘the ad guy’, they usually assume you can’t or don’t do logos or collateral design. Not so good for expansion or repeat business.
Eventually, my strategy evolved into a more design-based freelance business. As the projects came through, they became larger and more extensive. Getting the logo project would lead to the stationery design, which would lead to collateral design and so on. Several successful launches later, the referrals came in and before you knew it, I became a branding guy.
3. Illustrations and logos go hand in hand. How important do you think the art of illustrating is to a logo designer?
Being able to draw is of paramount importance to creating effective visual concepts for both logo design and illustration. It is especially important for a logo designer if you are trying to show any sort of range to your work. What’s kept me busy is the fact that I have a good variety of styles I can use to execute an effective logo concept.
Granted, there are some logos that are more illustrative than others. Some work on the very fringe of being useful. There has been many a discussion on what type of usage of illustration is suitable for logo design. There are various illustration studios that have created an entire style of logos that work in only the most intricate way. They are cool to look at, but not what I would call easy to work with.
I think what has stood the test of time thus far is clean vector art. That has of course, evolved with everything else in the design industry and will continue to do so. The more timeless and versatile ones have simple, clean design. This is not a hard and fast rule, and I have not followed that to a ‘T’ myself–all of the time.
A designer who draws well, communicates better.
4. What kind of logos do you enjoy working on the most? Do you have favorites from your portfolio?
Believe it or not, I do enjoy being a little forced out of my comfort zone. There are quite a few logos I’ve designed that are for categories or subjects I had never had the opportunity to work on before.
Recently, I got an assignment to do some logo mascots for San Jacinto College in Houston, Texas. This particular college has three campuses and each campus has its own mascot. I had not done logos of that type before and was excited at the challenge. This was a very thorough assignment with a lot of individuals to pass it through. In the end, it worked out pretty well and I am proud of the work.
Other favorites are the logo for Maverick’s Custom Trousers for its simplicity and Campsite Wizard for its sense of humor and fun, included in these samples.
5. Can you share with us your approach to the process of logo design? How different is it from any other discipline of design like web-design, illustrations, print-design etc?
My first phase is going through the information that the client shared in our meeting. I then take that knowledge and put together an estimate. My typical procedure is getting a signed estimate, a purchase order and a deposit before any work starts. If they are really serious, the deposit requirement usually gets things moving right away.
After the contract is approved and the deposit is received, I start working out thumbnail sketches in my sketchbook or any scrap paper I can find. Usually my brain is working concepts out during our first meeting. So, by the time I start to formally work out sketches, my brain has been processing the designs for awhile. I fully believe that your brain is working on problems in the background while your doing other things. Sort of a brain simmer. Nothing interesting comes from staring at the paper and beating it out of yourself.
If needed, I do additional research to find out more about the client’s company history, present design and any related subjects. I may go to the bookstore, talk to consumers, tour their manufacturing plant, visit a retail store or whatever venue that seems appropriate to glean more background on the project.
During the sketch phase, I decide what kind of styles might be appropriate for the logo. Is it geometric, clean, rustic, hand-tooled or illustrative, etc? I work in about 15-20 minute stretches and stop for a bit. I come back to it periodically until I think I have enough concepts to start on the computer. Some projects come to me right away and some take more time to process.
If I am doing an illustrative logo, I will show sketches at this point. I used to do that with all my logo projects, but clients aren’t as visual as they used to be. When you show a sketch these days, people get scared or concerned over things they probably wouldn’t notice in a completed vector concept. It’s too bad, but that’s what everyone is used to.
For the more geometric designs, I can usually create them from looking at my sketch. I also have an archive or ‘parts bin’ of elements I may use from past jobs that may be faster than redrawing the whole thing. The more illustrative pieces are traced from a scanned-in sketch and fine-tuned from there.
At some time during the process I may have inspiration for an appropriate typeface. Some logos are driven by the font and some are matched up upon completion of the mark. I have no set process for that.
While I am assembling the concepts, I am thinking about color. What kind of palette would work here? How many colors? Muted or bold? Vivid or conservative? I have many color books that I reference, including tear sheets of work I like in my sketchbook. Sometimes I try to match those color selections.
There are a lot of basic similarities to each of the creative disciplines you mentioned. After a well thought out creative brief, there needs to be a concept. Otherwise, there is no reason for the logo, print or web design to live. What is its purpose? Who is it talking to? Why is it here? What does it need to communicate? If there aren’t basic answers to those questions, than the work is just decoration for the sake of decoration–and that is the difference between art and commercial art.
The key to being a good logo designer is being able to distill a basic idea into something someone can look at and understand right away. Whether you use type or an icon or even a color, you need to be able to work with the most basic of tools to get your message across effectively. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of discipline to do it well.
6. Do you ever recall being absolutely stumped on a project? What was the challenge and how did you overcome it?
It has happened a few times actually. Usually that stems from not getting enough information from the client or agency. I often say, ‘If I don’t understand it, I can’t communicate that to the target audience. That’s not the situation all the time, but I have been known to be uninspired by a project.
A couple of years ago, I was just deluged with logo work. I believe I had over 50 logo assignments to design that year. In situations like that, you are just cranking out the work week after week and often get in what I call ‘survival mode’. We all want lots of work right? Be careful what you ask for!
Anyway, the trouble with being a one-man show is that people are coming to you for your take on things–your thinking, your style. It’s difficult, if not impossible to hire someone to help you because they don’t have the same sensibilities and it will show in the work.
The risk is that the work starts to fall short and clients will get disappointed and leave. Or, you turn away work because you’re overbooked. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Sadly, I was running dry on fresh ideas and struggling to get the work out and to an acceptable level.
So what do you do? Take a break. Do something else to take your mind off of it. Which is exactly what I did.
Sounds crazy, right? Well, I started riding my mountain bike and hiking more often–about 3-4 times a week. Even though most people would have been working until all hours of the day and night, I took about 2 hours in the morning to get some exercise and some fresh air.
This ended up reducing the stress enough to get my mind clear and my thoughts fresh. So, when I was in the studio I was more productive and more creative. Getting balance in your life always helps the work. No balance, and the work falls off.
7. What are the three most important things you have learned by working for yourself?
Looking back on it, I have been self-employed for more years than I have worked for someone else. I would have to say the first one is self-discipline. If you don’t have that, you won’t get the work out the door in a timely manner. When most people find out I have a home studio, they always comment on how they would never get anything done. They would be too distracted to do any work.
I always tell them if I don’t get the work done, I don’t get paid. It’s as simple as that.
The second one would have to be balance. It’s very easy to get completely wrapped up in your work and forget to eat, sleep, socialize or other important human functions. If your life is too lopsided, the work easily suffers. Working in a vacuum (without outside contact), is never effective for good creative work.
Thirdly, treat people exactly how you would like to be treated. Having a good working experience with someone will always encourage clients to come back. I have several clients and business associates I have worked with for many years. As they move on to new companies or ventures, they are always looking for reliable help. Nurturing those relationships keeps your business growing.
8. How do you keep things interesting? Can you share with us your process of breaking out of styles and stereotypes?
One of my secrets to keeping fresh is I keep a sketchbook/journal. You see something you think is cool or different or funny–whatever, it goes in the sketchbook. You can write it, sketch it, cut it out and paste it in. The point of it all is sort of a quick reference for design ideas.
Your brain can’t possibly hold in and recall all of the inspiring things you encounter every day. The sketchbook gives it a rest. It’s somewhere to reference later when you’re stumped and need some help.
I also try and experience things I wouldn’t normally go to on my own. My kids have been great for that. I have two daughters that are into things and hobbies that I would probably never encounter had I had boys. Taking them to different places and events to show and teach them different things also rekindles long forgotten memories, concepts and information. You never know where the inspiration may come from and it’s always nice to learn something new.
A good example of working with different styles to create something new is music. It’s amazing to me how the merging of two seemingly unrelated influences can be married into a beautiful new harmony. Music is constantly evolving from these mergers. Country Rock. Jazz fusion. House.
We can’t help but be influenced by the work being done around us. I’m always looking at what has been done by others to try and find a way of merging otherwise common imagery to create something fresh. Of course, I put my own spin on it. The fact of the matter is, there is always going to be a thread of the common image–that’s what makes it recognizable and communicates. It’s how you render or illustrate or style it that makes it your own.
It has always been my nature to want to tinker with things. I’ve created literally thousands of logos over the course of my career. As with any body of work, there will be some timeless pieces of design in the group and some that were of the moment. You can definitely see a thread of my style in the work and where my current work comes from.
If you’re not evolving the work, it will eventually start to appear dated. You have to stay current with contemporary styles and sensibilities to keep up with the ever-evolving design world.
9. You have been working in this field for a very long time. What advance in technology do you appreciate the most over the years? And what do you feel needed to not evolve and still stay old-school?
In a lot of ways, technology has made things better. Before computers, creating a printed page took an entire crew of people to make happen. An art director had to rely on designers, typographers, color separators, strippers, production artists, photographers, illustrators and others to bring a concept to life. Now, with the amazing tools at the designer’s disposal, they can create some truly amazing, quality work in a much shorter time frame.
One thing I think is going away is a good old-fashioned portfolio. You know, the kind that you actually SHOW to someone. Don’t get me wrong, I love the immediacy and convenience of the website, but a nice portfolio presentation is getting to be few and far between these days. Perhaps that will change. Everything goes in cycles. Look at letterpress.
10. What is in store for you and your business in the coming months? What have you been working on?
I just launched my redesigned portfolio site which evolved from primarily HTML into a CSS style of site design. That will continue to be something I can build on for awhile. The whole idea with changing that over was to make it easier to update and make more searchable content for potential clients to find. There are quite a few projects I have yet to include in that site.
In the works is a personal portfolio site that I will be devoting to just my logos and logo design. The fact of the matter is, I have quite a few categories of logos that I have not yet been able to showcase. This new site will help me achieve that.
Other than that, I have some projects that are finally completing in the next month or so. I hope to have some nice work to show.
11. What do you hope to have achieved and experienced in the next 5 years both personally and professionally?
That’s a tough one. I’ve never been one to plan things too far into the future. Our field has changed so much in recent years, it’s hard to be too concrete.
I would like to feel like I am still contributing quality work in the logo and graphic design field. Expanding more into the illustration world would be a desirable goal for me, as well.
Personally, I hope to keep the balance and provide well for my family–both as a good parent and a fulfilled creative person.
12. In 3 words or less, say the first thing that comes to mind.
Blog Need an article.
Logo design is fun.
Red is always faster.
Work makes Jack dull.
Movie Good. Bad. Ugly.
Breakfast Yogurt, berries, granola.
Hype Don’t believe it.
Design something cool.
2010 is already here?
Thanks Leighton. We wish you the very best in your design journey and personal aspirations in the years to come.
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