May 2, 2010
Zelda Harrison

Stefan G. Bucher: The Monsters Made Me Do It

AIGA XCD catches up with Stefan G. Bucher in Cape Town

Editor’s note: a slideshow of Stefan’s work is available on our flickr page.

Philosophy and Inspiration

AIGA XCD: Please share your background with us. What inspired you to study art? What took you to the United States? Has the cultural shift been significant enough to change your outlook on life and your work?

SGB: My whole life seems to be an ongoing quest to make my circumstances match what’s in my head. I was born and raised in Germany, and while I’m glad for my education and for a safe and in some ways downright idyllic childhood, I also didn’t fit in at all. Which was frustrating and depressing, and also made me deeply unpopular. Nobody likes a weirdo. There.

As soon as I came to California for the first time I immediately noticed how much better everything meshed. I didn’t realize it until I made the move, but I think my head had gone to California a few years before me without bothering to let me know. I was just a little slow to catch up. There wasn’t really a cultural shift for me. I just found a place where things worked the way I’d always thought they should. Which made me happy. I work well here.

Along those same lines, studying art wasn’t ever a choice, just an acknowledgement of what was already bubbling in my head. Me and everyone who knew me – there was never even a thought that I’d do anything but this. It was a foregone conclusion. Art Center just gave me some serious tools for getting ideas out of my brain in one piece.

AIGA XCD: What was your first (or first favourite) job like?

SGB: Well, my first job was picking poorly done ads out of the local paper back in Germany, remaking them from scratch (all by hand with pen and ink and Letratone film), and then walking into the unsuspecting client’s store to sell them on my version. It was the best! I got to draw, I got to fiddle with typography, I got to be judgmental, and tell people how I thought things should look—and I got my drawings printed! That was the biggest thing about it: seeing my drawings in the paper! I was 15 years old then, and to this day nothing is real until it’s on press.

AIGA XCD: Please share some detail about how your career has evolved. Have there been any interesting events that have re-defined your work? What kind of support have you received?

SGB: Drawing came first. I became an illustrator, went to art school, then tried my hand at advertising on the romantic assumption that it would let me draw, design, write, take pictures, and make films. When that turned out to be wrong, I started designing CDs for record labels, which really was as fun and excellent as I had dreamed it would be. When the music industry took a turn, I discovered book design, which—in a roundabout way—led to the Monsters. Now I’m an illustrator-designer-writer who aspires to be an entry level animator.

All along the way I’ve been lucky to always have brilliant people in my corner who gave me encouragement, support, and inspiration. For example, some of my earliest jobs were overflow assignments I got from a famous German cartoonist who liked my stuff, and who took me under his wing. Later I was fortunate to have great teachers and excellent creative friends. And of course, I’ve found clients who love and support what I do, but also push me forward.

The Monster Project

AIGA XCD:  How did Monsters develop and what have been the sources of inspiration for their look and feel? What kind of themes develop as they take shape?

SGB: The first Monster appeared on my arm as I was driving on the 10 freeway here in Los Angeles. It was a sunny afternoon, and the little guy seemed friendly. As soon as I got home, I tried to draw him, and had so much fun making Monsters that I haven’t stopped since.

Which sounds a bit contrived, I know — a vision made me do it — but that’s how it happened. I’m usually much more methodical, but the Monsters just showed up and took root in my brain.

Visually they definitely show my love for Ralph Steadman, and if you trace them back through my earlier work, they have some Hans-Georg Rauch DNA, too. The only major themes that have developed are that the Monsters are neurotic, a little shy and goofy, sometimes frustrated or even angry, but never violent. I sometimes get requests to make some truly evil, nasty Monsters, and I can’t do it. It’s not in their nature. They do like pinstripe pants and high heels, though. They’re very stylish and have strong arches.

AIGA XCD: What has been your audience’s response to the Monsters?

SGB: The response the Monsters have received is beyond anything I ever thought possible. Hundreds of people started writing stories about them on the site. Some sent drawings of their own, and now teachers are telling me that they’re using the Monsters to teach drawing and writing to their kids. I had absolutely no idea that this would happen, but now I’m curious to see how far I can take it all.

AIGA XCD: The Monsters have crossed the world, and different media. Please share some of the latest developments of The Monster Project

SGB: There is a Monster mural in Seward, Nebraska, a big new framed Monster in a law firm in New York, and a whole gaggle in an ad agency in Brussels.

Cousins of the Daily Monsters appear on the Electric Company on PBS under the name “The Daily Letter.”

I’m working on a new portfolio of large format Monsters, and on a few skunk works projects that I can’t talk about yet. More Monsters are definitely on the way!

Design as the Ultimate Career Choice

AIGA XCD: As a Design Educator, what have been some of the thoughts/experiences that you’ve shared with your students? What lessons have your students taught you?

SGB: I actually don’t teach. I just visit a lot of schools and say irresponsible things. I have the highest respect for teachers, and when I did teach a class at Art Center years back I loved it. I hope to do it again, but right now I’m a better uncle than a dad.

AIGA XCD: In your opinion, what have been some of the significant changes in Design Education in the past decade? Are these changes for the better or worse for budding designers?

SGB: I think a truly significant change in design education will come when most of the teachers will have grown up using computers. Right now there is still too much of a love/hate thing going on that makes some teachers ignore the computer, or place too much emphasis on it. Once that becomes a non-issue, and classes are taught by people who played “Little Big Planet” when they were six, I think it’ll get interesting.

Regardless of the tools and techniques, it all boils down to discipline anyway. Everybody has ideas. Everybody has a way of seeing the world, and an opinion on how things should look. All you can teach people is how to turn all of that into actual work. And that comes down to discipline. How much time and effort are you willing to invest in your craft?

AIGA XCD: Any advice for students with a great idea, looking to strike out on their own? And for students in an international market?

SGB: Again, discipline is the answer. If there’s an idea that’s so undeniably brilliant that it’ll become real on its own… I haven’t seen it. Even the best ideas require countless hours of work and dedication to get them out into the world. You may need to spend years drawing or writing. Maybe you have to develop a whole new process for your idea. And if your idea is so brilliant that you can doodle it on a napkin, you may end up spending years finding the right person to show that napkin to.

Right out of school I recommend that you take a staff job for a while. There are a lot of day-to-day things you just can’t learn in school. Things you need to know. You can learn them on your own, of course, but why not pick up some experience from people who’ve been there?

AIGA XCD: In the hallways of the Indaba conference, someone asked if you were American or German. The conclusion was that you were “German-American.” Would you concur? How do you define yourself?

SGB: It’s probably more accurate to call me a Prusso-Californian — Bauhaus with an ocean view.

Stefan G Bucher is the man behind 344 Design and the Daily Monster – an online drawing and storytelling experiment. His monsters have invaded computer screens all over the world, and their savage adolescence is chronicled in the book 100 Days of Monsters (2008).

He has created gratuitously ambitious designs for Sting, David Hockney, director Tarsem and the New York Times, and works with a whole roster of brilliant, driven clients. His time-lapse drawings currently appear on the rebooted TV classic The Electric Company on PBS.

In 2009, he published The Graphic Eye: Photographs by International Graphic Designers and a new Taiwanese edition of his first book, All Access: The Making of Thirty Extraordinary Graphic Designers. Two new books are in the works for 2011.

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