Based in New York, New York
Karan Singh is an Australian New York-based artist and illustrator. Karan’s distinctive approach towards minimal, vibrant designs has yielded him with the opportunity to work with clients such as Adobe, IBM, Intel, among others. Karan and I talk about creative satisfaction, the notion of creativity, and finding your voice.
How are you?
I'm good. It's nice to be back in New York from my vacation.
Where did you go?
I went to South Africa. Basically, the whole premise of that trip was to surprise a friend who I haven't seen for about seven years. I studied in Sweden about seven years ago, which is where I met my girlfriend, and I made a lot of amazing friends while I was there, so one of them was a South African guy. I haven't seen him for seven years and we were talking about catching up, so my girlfriend and I decided to go to Cape Town and hang out somewhere for the holidays. It was fantastic and we got to go on safari as well, which was incredible. It was quite surreal.
What did you take from having that vacation?
I think it's important to have a vacation. My girlfriend actually imposed a “No computer” rule on this trip. I usually take my laptop—I can't help myself. I wander into Illustrator, regardless if I'm on holiday or not, but it was probably the best suggestion ever because and it imposed a disconnection. I think that was one of the best things on the trip, aside from seeing old friends and relaxing. Completely disconnecting from your obligations and responsibilities allows you to immerse yourself so much more when you don't have these distractions around you.
Totally. As creatives, we get so bubbled in our own world that sometimes we forget to take a step back. A vacation not only allows that step back, but also lets us take two steps forward into a whole new experience. And from that experience, we can inject it into something creative.
Definitely. I couldn't agree more. We work in an industry where a lot of this starts out as a hobby and then evolves into a career. For me, it's hard to disconnect because it's my life. It just so happens that I love what I do and I'm really fortunate for that, but the gift and the curse of it is that it's hard to switch off sometimes, because you're constantly thinking. And to your point, two steps forward is probably the best way to put it, because when you decide to look around and take things in, that's when your work really grows because that's where the real inspiration is—it's everywhere around you. Especially the nature of what we do. It's so easy to get caught up, but it’s so important to take stock and disconnect for a little bit.
Even when you start out and even when you've been at it for years, you don't want to steer towards being burnt out. It's not a pleasurable experience for you nor for the client.
I think that's something that we always have in the back of our minds. I mean, for me, it's hard because you want to make sure that you're making bank; that's the big transition of going from a hobby to a career. You want to make sure that the money is coming in and you still have your creative integrity intact. Sometimes that can really challenge this notion of burn out, because sometimes you have to work so hard that you kind of almost teeter on the border of that. I think it's a matter of learning to read yourself, learning to understand the tell-tale signs of when it's probably time to switch off, relax, and do nothing. [both laughing]
Regarding turning a hobby into a career, how did that happen for you?
It was completely by accident. It's funny, actually, I was just having a conversation with one of my friends about this. We were talking about where we were in high school and what we wanted to be before this came about. And I don't know, I feel like everything fell into place. I was really fortunate that I found something that I really liked—it's quite weird. There was this natural attraction. I'm sure you have this too when you're naturally interested in something and it's all you want to do. It [design] was something that never grew out and still fascinated me. It was this consistent dedication to want to be better and push yourself as much as you could, and enjoying yourself so much that you decided this was it... There was no other option. You wouldn't be happy doing anything else. It's more of something that you need to convince yourself of rather than anyone else.
Anyone can go, "You can do this for a living," but you really have to believe that this what your one thing is. I do believe that everyone has at least one thing, and it's all about trying to find out what it is. I feel like this is what is was for me, for now at least!
That's a great justification, because everyone is a creative in their own regards and having a burning desire is necessary. That's a call to action; that's when you know that if you can barely sleep at night, because something of interest is nagging you, then you know you're on to something.
Yeah, and I firmly believe that everyone has that. I'm sure you feel that way about photography. It's not just necessarily a creative thing, someone may feel that way about working in medicine or working in law. Any real discipline has a natural inclination.
In high school I was horrible at math, and you're given homework that is mandate. I found myself disliking it even more because I was forced to do something I didn’t have an interest in and would have been penalised if I didn’t. It can get demoralising, especially when you see your friends acing the same tests. Fast forward to now and I’ve learnt that I do have an interest in things and the only way I'll actually be proactive about them is if I'm genuinely interested in things. I think that's how we fall into the professions that we do, and I think that's how people get to do what they love, by being determined that there's nothing else they can do. For me, it’s important to take risks on the things you love, there's no real plan b, or I don't want there to be a plan b. This is it.
I think a lot of people are stuck in the position of finding their purpose.
It's really daunting and I don't think its worth rushing, either. I think that I was fortunate to find mine as early or even late as I did. Some people find out a lot sooner. I think that it's all about that journey. It's all about exploring different things and learning different things and finally coming to something that you do like.
I say this is it, but maybe I'll get to a point in 10 years where I say, 'You know what, I've done this and I had a great time, but now I want something else.' There's nothing wrong with that, but as long as you're being true to yourself and you're challenging yourself, and you have that natural interest in it, then fine. Just make sure you're happy doing what you're doing.
I'm paraphrasing here, but Simon Sinek said something about there being around 80% of Americans not happy doing what they're doing.
Wow. On the flip side, it's all very well and good for us to say, “I can't believe they're not doing something that makes them happy,” but it's really hard to do it. There's this level of risk and stubbornness that you have to have to want something.
When we're already in that journey of finding our purpose and acting on it, it's easy for us to tell people to do what makes them happy, you know. It's so hard, because the more you have under you—a family, financial obligations—the harder it is. But we shouldn't let resistance eat us up. If you work towards what's in your gut and it doesn't work out, then either you're not working hard enough or you should look at is an opportunity to work towards something else.
That’s true, or you could also be really close to achieving your goal!
Yeah, it's great to talk to people who are working towards that purpose, because we're all heading towards the same destination but taking different roads. I think a lot of people need to realise that if you follow someone else's road then there might be a turn that you can't make; you have to take your own road.
It's funny that you talk about when one is constantly striving to be better since it's quite coincidental, because I watched this film on the flight back home—which I recommend you watch—called Hector and the Search For Happiness. It's about this psychiatrist who travels around the world to see what makes people happy. There was this one interesting point, and I can't remember it verbatim, but it was something along the lines of: Happiness is always in the future, it's never now, which is a common belief.
It's common for me, you know. I say, 'When I make it or hit this level, then I'll be happy,' which is an interesting notion. People who are really dedicated in their work often forget that they're doing what they love. The moment that they're yearning for so bad is the moment that they're actually in. That's actually the crucial bit. It's the time that's put in towards that dedication that will get you to that point. The point isn't that satisfaction, it's all the things that you learned along the way.
I think it’s a film worth checking out, especially for anyone who's constantly questioning themselves or constantly aspiring for something. It put things into perspective.
You brought something to mind about creative satisfaction. I feel like a lot of people blur satisfaction with appreciation. It don't think you can be fully satisfied, which makes us yearn for more. Nonetheless, we should still appreciate what we're doing. We're appreciative enough to put certain work in our portfolio; we're appreciative enough to show clients certain work. Separate appreciation from satisfaction.
Yeah, I agree. It's also this constant notion that you might get thirty positive comments and one negative comment, and you'll latch onto the negative comment more than the positive comments. I think that's human nature and its just amplified when you're so invested in your craft. You know, it's something that I do myself and I don't think I'll ever stop thinking like that. I'm slowly trying to stop thinking about what others think, but I'm constantly measuring myself. It's only getting worse in certain ways.
You measure your success or the success of something by how many 'likes' it had on Instagram or how many 'followers' you have on Behance. These are all completely ridiculous ways of measuring how affective something you've created is. And again, I'm probably as guilty as anyone.
We're all guilty.
And all of a sudden, you're making things for other people and not yourself. It really dilutes your creative vision if you're looking for other people's approval of your work. And we're talking about satisfaction from your work, and the only person that you should be trying to outdo is yourself. I think that's an inherent thing about being a creative, is wanting to push yourself further and be relentless about it, because it's your life; you live and breathe it so of course you'll criticise it. It's a gift and a curse of having this luxury that we love what we do.
IBM Us Open Sessions
Six of 64 Illustrations made for a project involving James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem for the 2014 US Open Sessions.
We only have one life so we shouldn't focus on the likes of something, because we'll get to the point where we start quantifying work that shouldn't be quantified. Our work should be supported by emotional, tangible, and sensory elements.
It's really interesting—it really messes with this whole thing about quantifying likes and followers and comments. I don't like how it affects my work sometimes, but at the same time it's a necessary evil, because if I don't promote my work on these mediums then I fall behind. As it is, the industry is saturated with so many creatives. You kind of have to play the game and make sure that you don't get too caught up and remind yourself why you're there.
Exactly. It's important to look in front of you so you don't hit anything, but also to look back in assurance that you didn't miss anything. Imagine Behance without the appreciation button.
I know, and it's funny, actually, because Instagram did this interesting thing where they abbreviated the number of followers you had. So might have gone from 5,000 to 5k. People were up in arms about what the point of this change was, and it just really reveals what people are in it for. It's just that number; it's not about sharing beautiful photos for them. The real question is if Instagram would be a success if it didn't have that number. Probably not because it's a constant competition, isn't it?
I was waiting for someone to point that out, because I thought what they did was amazing. But you know, the thing is, when we look at Instagram with it's 'likes', Tumblr with it's 'notes', and Behance with it's 'appreciation'... They revolve around showcasing work. If you look at likes and such as a secondary element then it helps us appreciate the ability to showcase work and more importantly curate work—following things that ignite our curiosity.
I think that's a great point. It's funny that you say showcase work, because for the longest time, I was using Instagram for taking photos on my phone and then I started seeing people taking photos with their digital cameras and then putting up their work, so I thought if this is what Instagram is becoming? And then you get it, because Instagram is whatever you make it. Once you put a product like that out into the wild, it's amazing what comes from it; it's amazing what people do with it. It really creates a lot of exposure and work out of itself, and is just a great temporal platform for people to indulge in for hours and also very quickly. Oh man, we're talking so much about Instagram now. [both laughing]
I know! Readers are going to think we were paid for this and all I can respond with is, 'Don't worry.'
[both laughing] We can't talk about Instagram for the rest of the conversation.
Ok, so what are some of the most important elements that you focus on when you're creating your work?
I would definitely say composition and colour. For me, composition is crucial, because it's how I start any piece. I usually sketch a bunch of small thumbnails to rough out a composition, and its something that I've learned from working in design and advertising; it's something you can do to forecast what will work in a piece rather than going straight to the computer and wasting time making something that's probably not going to work.
Composition and colour are the most important things for me, but they're also the most hardest things to work with. You can spend so much time trying to find the right composition, especially if you're trying to establish the right focal point. A lot of my work becomes a bit more stripped back and for that reason, it becomes a lot more tricky when you work with less elements and less colours. Composition is so crucial, because if you strip the work that far back, you don't really have much else to work with. It's kind of ballsy, but easy to get wrong, and there's been so many times where I have gotten that wrong. If things are wrong then the whole piece falls down, regardless of the colours or if you used a cool pattern.
If you look at a lot of my old stuff, the colours have always been a really important thing to me. I don't know where or how it came about, but I've always just loved making bright, vibrant work—it's a constant thread throughout my work. Now that I've started to strip my work back, I've found that working with a few colours really helps tell more of a story. Having a three colour palette is perfect. I like it because I like working with a white, a black, and a third colour to use as a pop. Working with a reduced colour palette is quite challenging, rather than working with the whole entire palette of colours. I find working with a restricted colour palette makes things a lot more deliberate. It conveys that everything has been thought out. All the bones are there for everyone to see.
Your work is minimal in its own regards where you're forcing yourself to focus on very little so it can have this greater output. It's a challenge for the creator, but a pleasure for the viewer, because you're able to instantly concentrate on the subject.
That's really it. I'm glad you said that, because I want people to understand things quickly. I find it more striking because the idea is uninterrupted, at least I hope. Ironically my work could be a contradiction where I make simple objects very busy through the use of pattern. Depth and dimension is something I like to play on and how far we can strip things away but still be recognisable.
Let's date back to that first illustrator file. When you started, was your work similar to what you're doing now, to an extent?
Thank god, no. Hell no. [both laughing] So I first started what I called designing in Macromedia Flash. I initially wanted to be a web designer and I was interested in animation, because everyone had a flash website and that was cool. You do all this really fancy shit and everyone would sit there and be in awe. I never really got to a point where I actually learnt ActionScript and all that, because I'm just horrible with coding. That's kind of where it all started and thinking back to the websites that I made... They were hideous.
Looking back, I can see the general interest. It's nice to look back on that. However, the style of work that I do now is so different—it's more Op Art, which is having a resurgence now. The style that I had five years ago was more of a 80's acid-disco look, and you know what? I did OK with that style. I had some awesome commissions from that style, but it just got to a point where I wanted to push it further.
My incubator was an art collective called ‘Depthcore’. Depthcore was really where I got my first taste to create digital art. And the thing with Depthcore, it was filled with these phenomenal artists who would spend days or weeks on just one digital piece. As a result, it became this idea that the more time I spent adding things to a piece would make it better. However I realised if I sat on a piece for too long, I wouldn't be interested in it. I needed to convey the concept quickly.
Everyone has their own values, which is what makes us different. Different values can be implemented in different ways. I think one part in being a creative is that no one is doing the same thing in the same way.
I think it's all about finding your own way. I’ve been really fortunate to be self taught. I went to university for interaction design, and that was when I was first introduced to Photoshop and Illustrator. I spent my earlier years focussing on the technical knowledge behind the programs but realised at my first job that this was useless without an idea. I was surrounded by people who communicated things much better with lesser technical skills.
A lot of things in life are complementary, especially with the fact that creativity is surrounded by the idea of solving problems. You're contributing towards something bigger than yourself. Creativity allows for self awareness and finding your voice; you should be screaming instead of fucking talking in the sense of finding and distilling your voice.
[laughing] I'm going to write that down.
What do you find that graphic design takes from something that someone wouldn't relate graphic design with?
Are you asking where graphic designers draw inspiration from outside of graphic design?
Along the lines of that.
I think everywhere. I don't think there is a specific source. I feel like being a creative means that you're being receptive to everything. You have an open mind, but also know what to take out. Everything should feed into you but you're the filter. I think creativity is all about you being adaptable—understanding a situation and responding to it.
I completely agree with you. Creativity is implemented in ways one might not relate the notion of creativity to. One might think that creativity is derived from visual communication, but a doctor is a creative, too. They're interpreting a situation that results in a particular output.
I think creativity is a completely subjective thing. I don't think that graphic designers, illustrators, or any kind of designer really has a license to this idea of creativity. I think everyone has the capacity to be creative in their own right—it’s completely ubiquitous whether you’re a lawyer, doctor, hot-dog vendor and so on.
What's a typical day for you if you even have a typical day?
A typical day is me making coffee, probably ruining the milk, and pouring some really shitty latte. During the morning, I work out what I need to do for the day. I usually have a TextEdit document open, which is a list broken down to stuff I need to do, whether it's invoice someone, reply to an email with a quote, or actually make some creative work. [laughs] I usually try to get all the paperwork out of the way first. There's this "Do-Not-Disturb" mode on the iPhone that is fantastic. You have this sweet spot where you're really into what you're creating, but to have an email or text go off on your phone, iPad, and computer at the same time is distracting.
"Do Not Disturb" is a godsend.
Yeah, it's so important to set up that scenario. That's such a great way to make sure you're doing what you need to do, otherwise you put it off, and there's nothing worse than having to email a client and tell them you can't deliver something on time.
It's also nice to just go outside for lunch and avoid the desk for a bit. It's nice to reset. I don't know if there is a thing such as a normal day.
For me, if I notice that I've been at my desk for more than a couple of hours straight, then it's time to unplug from the world, fire up a podcast and ride my bike.
You just touched on something perfect, actually. What I do quite a lot is put on a podcast—I do that when I work. If I need to get things done and need to zone out, then I would prefer not to listen to music, because I find that I fidget with music a lot. I've heard it a million of times before, but I listen to the Ricky Gervais podcast and it's one of my favourite things ever. If I need something to get me into the zone, nothing works quicker than that. You're listening to a conversation in the background. I like the idea of podcasts and queuing up 50 of them.
The Bully Project Mural
Included work for a project where Adobe partnered with Lee Hirsch, the director of the documentary “Bully”, to help spread the word about the movement.
"My response is based on this movement of acceptance and embraces celebrating our differences. The idea was to use differing patterns and colours on confectionery, an inseparable part of childhood, as the visual metaphor."
Have you ever found that there's a particular time in the day when you're really invested in your work?
It's funny because there's two states to this. There's one state where all I want to do is work, and there's another state where all I do is come up with great ideas. So the first one is obviously during the night, because I feel like a lot of people are able to focus around that time where it's quiet. Conveniently, the best times I can get ideas is when I'm falling asleep [laughs] or when I wake up in the middle of the night and whip out my phone and then I type all these ideas out. In the morning I'll try to work out what the hell I wrote, because usually there's a vision in my head and I'm trying to verbalise it, but there's no way you can connect your head to a printer and go, "That's what I was thinking!"
What do you think the purpose of your work is?
I make it for myself and if people like it then that's fantastic. I care what people think about it, as much as our conversation talked about making work for yourself. I think it makes me happy to hear that people like my work. For me, the real turn around was when I told myself that I don't want to make super-detailed illustrations any more, because that's not who I am or what I do. One of the most satisfying things about being a designer is being happy and comfortable with yourself and your habits.
Do you think there are any other mediums that you would use to make something for yourself in a tangible or digital manner?
Definitely. I've been considering taking my work off the screen. I've been working on an exhibition later this year, which is going to be immensely tangible. This whole year is about taking things off the screen.
Music: Right now, I’m loving Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth.
Food: Coffee and Pizza all day.
Setup: I work with a 15” MacBook Pro and a Wacom Intuos 5 Tablet. My favourite sketchbooks are the 5”x8” Canson ones, which are a perfect size for doodles or scribbling ideas.
Hotspots: I love coffee, and checking out a new cafe determines where I’ll be for the day. La Colombe is one of my favourites in Manhattan.
Reads: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
Apps: I’m a late adapter of digital books, but iBooks on my iPad and iPhone has become a new favourite. Currently, I’m reading ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ by Nelson Mandela.
Interview by: Mahmoud Mfinanga
Posted: January 27, 2015