Columns / Insights

Solving Aesthetic Sudoku Puzzles

Matt Lehman
How did you get started in graphic design? I loved drawing as a kid, but I assumed you couldn’t make a living as a fine artist. I thought commercial art was more in the realm of technical drawings, and I didn’t enjoy the open-ended nature of fine art. Then, I walked into the first day of a graphic design class my sophomore year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I wanted to see what design was all about. After five minutes, I knew I wanted to major in graphic design. I thought, “This is it!” 

A few years ago, I revisited what I drew as a child. I always branded fictitious products, made books or cut pictures out to paste into collages. I had no idea I’d been creating my own analog, childlike version of graphic design at the time.

You’ve designed many logos and icons for brands like the Atlantic. What are the particular challenges of designing a logo for today’s brands? Logo design is the pinnacle of graphic design. It’s like an aesthetic Sudoku puzzle—there’s no place for flaws. For comparison, a poster can distract viewers with added frills. Plus, they’re fairly transient. But a logo has to communicate quickly, feel current—but not too trendy—work in all kinds of sizes, and inform the viewer what the company is and does. No small task.

In fact, the challenge for the Poseidon colophon I created for the Atlantic was more about making the icon readable at varying sizes. He’s a complicated little logo. But it’s still a favorite.

It’s hard to walk the razor-thin line between current trends versus timelessness. There’s pressure knowing a brand or company is relying heavily on me to set it apart amidst the visual sea of competitors. A logo is also the gateway to the rest of the brand. It’s that first impression. A logo is by no means the whole brand, but it should pique interest at first glance. After that, a logo acts as the visual cue by reminding people what this company is about. 

Everything is about finding the idea, that hook that grabs the viewer.


Your work also spans advertising, editorial and identity. How do you approach these different genres? This is a cliché, but it’s true: Everything is about finding the idea, that hook that grabs the viewer. Once you have that, you design the right aesthetic tone to accompany or convey that idea. So the genres are not all that different from each other. Design, universally, strives to distill abstract, complex ideas into digestible symbols and visuals.

A few years ago, I created the patch for the 43rd expedition to the International Space Station. It’s hard to beat getting to do a patch for NASA. There were a lot of challenges, from creating something that would stitch well on a patch to navigating the red tape to getting the design approved.

How is the rise of small businesses affecting how you approach design? Working with smaller brands allows for more experimentation. With most big brands, designers face rigid guidelines that usually result in fairly safe designs. Small businesses enjoy the luxury of breaking out of traditional design pretenses. I like having a mix: working with bigger companies with larger budgets and greater challenges, as well as startups, which usually have tighter budgets, but can create their own rules to some degree.

I love working for local Nashville brands. I had so much fun rebranding and designing for a coffee roaster and shop called CREMA here in Nashville. It’s internationally known for its coffee roasting, and the team is just incredible as well.

What did you learn from memorable mistakes you’ve made in your career? Early in my career, I sent a book cover off to print—spot varnishes and all—without getting any of my co-workers to double check my files. I naively thought, “I don’t need help," or I felt too embarrassed to ask questions. Needless to say, the client was angry when the printer completely messed up the initial run because of my mistakes. It’s okay to look dumb and ask seemingly dumb questions to ensure quality and a happy client.

More recently, I’ve relied too much on a singular illustration trend. I get too comfortable in one style and receive accolades for it. Now, I try to evolve and sell clients on some new styles.

The best way to stay relevant as a designer is to try new solutions that might be uncomfortable. This could mean learning new software, buying new typefaces or thinking about how to solve a design problem—then doing the exact opposite. It feels terrifying at first, but it can provide some undiscovered, refreshing results. It whets your mind into a sharp tool. Keep learning—always.

What design trends are you most interested in? I love this new wave of modernism meets weird for brands. It’s uncomfortable—the opposite of cozy, warm and familiar. I also love that we’re moving away from the hand drawn, Americana vibe. Currently, the best designers make things that are visually arresting, like Studio Victorious, Family Bros., Anagrama, Tractorbeam and Hort. It’s all about disruption, and that’s an exciting energy.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the design field? Work hard. Then, work even harder. Make everything the best it can possibly be. Go above and beyond to differentiate yourself from the field of new designers.

At the same time, don’t make graphic design your everything. Travel, hang out with your friends, call your mom. You’re a person first and foremost. Don’t let your creative identity become your only identity.

Matt Lehman is equal parts graphic designer, illustrator and art director. He began his career in 2001 at the Anderson Design Group in Nashville, where he once laid out packaging for a cassette. In 2007, Lehman joined CMT/MTV, focusing on show identities and the network rebrand in 2009. During his tenure there, he worked on the visuals for a NASCAR DVD and two Toby Keith movies—yes, he has skeletons in his closet like everyone else. In 2010, he formed Matt Lehman Studio, working for brands such as ESPN, PepsiCo and Esquire, to name a few. He currently resides in Nashville.

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