Greg Christman is a designer for 160over90. His fun and illustrative take on design is bred from some of the life philosophies he gladly shared with us.
Our interview took place on at his home in Philadelphia, PA.
What are you most passionate about?
Life? That’s a broad question. There’s a lot of things that designers are passionate about, but more as just a human, being happy. I have a kid, and that’s a big factor for me. As far as design goes, I really like trying everything. I don't have anything that I’m necessarily set on, and I think a lot of people have that thing that they are doing as a designer. They are either a letterer, or an illustrator, or whatever. As far as I see in the community, most are just super passionate about one thing. I try to do a lot of things. But mostly, I just want to be funny. I think that’s the thing that I want out of design the most: that every time someone sees something I do, they laugh. That’s it.
Why is that important to you?
My humor hasn’t graduated seventh grade yet. Dick and fart jokes make me laugh! I don’t know. I just want people to be happy. That’s my whole thing. I have no ambitions to be a world-renowned designer that everyone remembers for the rest of eternity—I don’t want that! I just want somebody to laugh; get a chuckle out of a stupid cat vomiting on a box illustration that I did, or something stupid like that. I did mycatisadick.com because it was funny, you know? It was something that spoke to me and made me chuckle. I hope some other people find it funny, too, and that’s pretty much it.
Has there ever been a time when, because you have a family, you felt like you had to reach a certain point of success for money’s sake?
Money is awesome. I mean, I work in advertising. I do it because I like money. Not because I like money—I wish I could be self sufficient and just making art and making a lot of money off of it—but that’s not the reality of the world. I have to work in advertising—which I find rewarding; I’m working at a great place right now. But, for me, design has always been what I do outside of work, I think. Right now it’s a weird happy medium where I’m doing really cool stuff inside of work, but I still have to find that creative balance in the middle, where outside of work it’s “How do I push myself to get better?” type of thing.
Money is just…I have to provide for a family. It’s just the way it works.
What’s the place you're working right now?
Were there times you had to take a job you didn’t like because you had to be a provider, and was it a sacrifice?
I actually took 160over90 because I wanted to see if I could get some more big clients under my belt. I was working at a crazy shitty design firm for a while—I won’t name names, because I don’t feel like being an ass—I love 160, but the place I was at two jobs before this place was a super stressful design agency. The boss was just an all-around….picture the worst advertising person you could picture, and that was him. And he would call you a fucking asshole, like he would just yell it at you in the middle of the day in front of everybody.
It was just frustrating for me, and I thought “I’m gonna go and take a non-stressful job for a while, design for myself, push myself socially.” Everyone talks about how they want to be known online, have that online persona. So I pushed myself a little bit in that world, started a daily tumblr of drawing every single day, I think everyone’s done that. It was fun, I enjoyed it. It pushed me to learn new things, practice different techniques, which goes back to that idea of trying all these things because it’s fun for me. But, having done that, I started feeling more fulfilled, and I quit that big shitty job, and I went off and took a less-fulfilling job to focus on my own personal career, and did freelance nonstop.
This was before I had the kid, so it was 3am nights every single night, just pushing and pushing myself. Working while I was working [at my day job]. I don’t think my company knew that, but there were weeks where I didn’t have anything to do at the job, so I said “Screw it, I’m doing my own stuff.” That’s how I built up a little bit of recognition, which is cool. I don’t think there’s much stock in that, but it got me some clients, some things to work on that were really fun. Then I said “Maybe I can do this again as a career, and just focus on the 9 to 5, and then come home and just hang out with my family.” That was my main goal: How can I be creatively fulfilled at work and then be happy outside of work? And I think I’ve kind of found it.
So at 160, you’ve met that goal.
Yeah, right now I have been. I’ve been very pushed. It’s frustrating sometimes, too. There’s definitely still weeks where there’s 3am nights, but that happens. It’s one of those things.
Is that a 3am night for your day job or for freelance?
Oh no, I’m not doing much freelance right now. Once in a while I'll do my own personal projects, and that’s fun, and I still love doing that. Honestly, I'd love doing more of that–I think all of us would, but there’s bigger things for me.
What are those?
The guy upstairs sleeping right now, or trying to sleep right now. He’s the only reason I do this, I think. Well, my wife too. It’s the only reason I can fathom pushing myself this hard. I didn’t really push myself when I was a kid. I was a screw-up my entire life as a high school kid, and as a college student. My wife pretty much is the reason I graduated college.
I just wanted to design. I just wanted to be an artist, and draw pictures, and make stupid jokes all the time, and writing and all the academic stuff didn’t flow too well for me. I was not very good at that.
You can burn the midnight oil and all that crap and try to be as productive as possible, but in the end everyone has to sleep. Everyone has to be happy.
What were you doing before your son was born, and how did your goals change when he was?
I pushed myself before him, but it was a different kind of push. There’s more of a reality that sets in…it’s more personal when it’s just you. Once you have a kid…it’s still personal. I'd love to on every project put my heart and soul into it, but in reality, you can’t. I can’t come home from work and then devote 12 hours into the night designing. You just can’t do it. You have to find that happy medium of “Is this project worth it? Will this take away time from my family? Will I be able to be happy with it in the long run, or is it just going to be a nightmare and should I turn it away?” It’s one of those things you have to weigh. There’s been a lot of times I haven’t weighed it, I’ve taken it, and then I have to deal with not being around. I’m sitting around here on the couch, not designing in that fun little place right there. I’m in a miserable place just going “Ugh. This is awful. I’m not having fun doing this, this is not what I want to be doing."
I think basically what it has to be is, you have to find the jobs that are right for you.
So now you try to just take the ones that you're really interested in.
Absolutely. I just don’t have the time to be wasted on some client that’s going to be a jerk. It’s a good position to be in, I think. And I honestly don’t even take that much freelance on right now.
It’s hard. Working in advertising and working a full-time job—it’s difficult to find the time to do the fun stuff outside of work. I do some stuff once in a while just for bands and people I really feel invested in. When I started out I started doing a lot of punk shows and flyers and being involved in music and being around that creativity in that world, which I wish I still could be a part of. I miss playing music. But you have to find your priorities.
After we'd been married a few months, Kyle started thinking about quitting his band. You just think maybe you can do everything you want to, and then you realize you only have so much time. You can only be invested in a certain number of things. He thought “How can I be a good student, and a good husband, and an artist a musician?"
You can’t. Everyone has those hobbies and those loves and everything they want to do. You can’t do them all. You can burn the midnight oil and all that crap and try to be as productive as possible, but in the end everyone has to sleep. Everyone has to be happy. No one wants to...well, maybe some people want to but I don’t want to be the person whose kid says “Where’s Dad?” For me, I have to be around for those situations, and I have to be happy with what I do as well. It’s hard, it’s a little medium there that you have to find. But yeah, you can’t do it all.
This might be a dumb question, but has there ever been any moment where sacrificing for a kid doesn’t feel worth it?
Yup. Dumb question. [laughs] No, kids are great. They're the most fun thing you'll ever do.
They seem terrifying.
Oh, they are! I’m still terrified. 99% of the time I don’t know what I’m doing. I think that goes with design too—I don’t know what I’m doing! Career, life, all of that stuff is just flying by the seat of your pants. Having a kid was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s gotten me motivated to be the best that I can be, as cheesy as that sounds. It sounds very cheesy.
Is there anything you're afraid you'll never accomplish?
Writing a children’s book. I mean, I have written children’s books. Getting a children’s book published would be a better answer. My wife and I are pretty passionate about that. We have so many written, but just haven’t had the time or the money to like start it off the ground, like how do we even get it going? Someday, though. It’s a passion of ours.
At the end of the day when you go to bed, how do you decide if you were successful that day?
Going to bed. [laughs] I like sleep. I think there’s a lot of people that do that late-night hustle all the time, and I honestly think they're going to burn themselves out.
Is that what started to happen to you when you did that?
Absolutely. While I was doing the whole easier job thing I was so passionate about it at that time—I’m still passionate about design, don’t get me wrong. I love design. But there’s got to be that cut off point where you realize: “It’s not worth it, I’m draining myself, I’m gonna get worn out. I’m gonna hate design in a little bit.” I don’t want to hate design! I want to love this. Why would I keep doing this all the time and get frustrated with it? You’ve got to sleep. You can’t just push yourself all the time. It’s stupid. Really, really stupid.
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. I’ve got nothing more than fart jokes.
When you were listing the things you have to do before—you’ve got to eat, you’ve got to sleep, you’ve got to be happy—I was surprised because I don’t think being happy is something necessarily everyone would list as one of the requirements for life. I think a lot of people don’t care if they're happy now, they just want to work.
These are the prime years of my life! Why would I not want to be happy? That doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m 29 years old, I’m kind of getting to the point now where I’m going to be unhappy; I’m going to teeter on to the world of after 30 and it’s all downhill after that. So why not be happy now? Why would anyone want to be miserable in what they're doing?
I mean, yeah there are days when it’s tough. Design is hard, it’s a frustrating job to be involved in. Advertising’s hard, too. But you make the best of it. There’s so many people who have negative attitudes about everything, and that just bums me out because I'll think: “Yeah, okay. Today’s shitty. But guess what? You're drawing all day! Or you're designing something all day. You're life’s great! Stop being a baby!” I don’t know. It’s frustrating to me. That negative attitude is just not something I’m into at all.
When was the moment that you felt like a professional for the first time?
I still don’t feel like a professional. I am a professional, but I don’t feel like one. To this day, I still feel like I’m learning, even from the new junior designers that come on to my company. “You're really talented at this. I can’t do that. Thank you. You're proving that at some point, I’m going to have to move to middle management because I will not be able to do [what you can do] at some point.” [laughs] It’s one of those things: Everybody is so good. That’s one great thing about Philadelphia. I’ve learned that I’m surrounded by so many talented people that even if I’m doing something super awesome, there’s like, 3,000 people that are doing it way better than I’m doing it. I just take it with a grain of salt, try to make cool shit, and learn from them.
You said before that notoriety and being known isn’t important to you. Talk more about that.
I think it’s great to be known, it feels good. I’ve had mild success in that world. I use the “mild” very…
Yeah. My problem with it is that people invest too much time in it, and they spend too much time focusing on designing for that than designing for the actual product, and the actual thing that needs to be designed for. As designers, what we're doing is trying to communicate something. We're not trying to communicate something that is likable by a certain group of people. Designing for designers is the opposite of designing for clients. And that frustrates me a little bit. You see that a lot, I hate to say, in the dribbble community, in the sense that people want to design for likes. And that is not the way to design things. I’ve probably taken a few nips at it here and there of being an asshole—kind of a dick move on my end. But I think there’s something wrong with that, because I think we should be designing for actual clients, because we're supposed to be communicating something, and actually working towards something. I think the likes thing is a problem right now. Is that wrong?
It might be wrong. Maybe that’s the right way to do it. I’m sure there are people who are making careers out of this stuff. They're probably making so much money off of the idea that they have found this wonderful world of design and they can design for it. And I’m not knocking on anybody. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer by any means. Designing for design’s sake is fun, too. I do it all the time, it’s for me. But there’s a whole community that’s doing it, that’s solely for themselves to get their ego stroke. There’s a lot of that.
How do you tell the difference between making something for you and something that’s for ego-stroking?
I think for me, if it makes me laugh then I’m fine with it. It might be something that the dribbble world will like, but ultimately I just want to laugh. That’s my stance on design.
Talk about community.
As far as the design community goes, Philly’s pretty awesome. I think we're lacking a little bit, we should probably step up the game. I was involved in a group called PhilMA for a while—we're still kind of a group, I think we have a meeting coming up in the next couple weeks—but it kind of fell short because Philly is a weird place. Everyone is so busy working that no one has time to be part of a community [laughs] Everyone is a hard-working designer and busting their ass, so when they go home they don’t really think about the bigger picture. It sucks because you look at places like NY and the Midwest and there seems to be a general community of people that get along and are happy and cohesive and they all hang out.
I mean, we have that here; there’s definitely hangouts. Dan, Greyhood, the dude from Lost Type that did the Dude typeface and the Ribbon typeface, we jam everyone once and while and play music with some guys-Tim Goff, a super talented illustrator from Philly—that’s the thing: Philly is so full of so many illustrators and designers and awesome people, and I think it just needs more recognition. And that’s a thing we're trying to work on, I think. I think the community’s trying to be better and cooler. I don’t know, though, it’s tough. Again, like I said, everyone is just working all the time. It’s hard to find the time to gather people together to do things. We tried that PhilMA thing for a while but it was so Dev heavy, like UI UX people, and it kind of killed it for people for a while. I don’t know, we're still trying. It'll get there. Philly’s awesome. I love Philly. I don’t think I could imagine myself anywhere else.
If you could pick only one word to describe your advice to other creatives, what would it be?
I read that and I had no Goddamn clue what to answer that with. I don’t know, that’s a tough one! One word to give advice….“Work.” I mean, that’s the only thing I can say. For me, when I was designing and coming from college on to the real world, everything for me was just practice. Just try to find new styles, just try to explore. That, for me, was all I really cared about; exploring new techniques, whether it be illustration, type, calligraphy, everything. I think for me it’s all about seeing a bigger picture and broadening your horizons. That’s such a hard question to answer.
Tell/show us a hobby of yours.
Well, I wish it was music, but it’s not anymore. I used to play in a band for a little while with this dude Justin, another super talented designer. Actually, everyone I’ve met that’s a designer seems to be a musician. We all seem to play music but we don’t ever do anything with it. He seems to still find the time to, but I don’t because I have a kid. My hobbies now are just hanging out with a kid and designing late at night, like stupid fart jokes. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. I’ve got nothing more than fart jokes.