The design field, much like all creative industries, is obsessed with youth. Now, more than ever, we look to see who the next supernova talent will be, burning brightly right out of school and into our consciousness. Long gone are the days of toiling under a master of the form, slowly working your way up, changing agencies just to get a chance to helm your own projects. The internet means that we see everything in real time, and not only what we do, but what all of our peers are designing as well. It can become overwhelming for anyone that might still be finding their feet under them, or hasn’t yet discovered their niche in this industry. That is why my very favorite creatives are not those that are celebrated as their first printed piece rolls off the presses, but rather it is those who grind along for a decade or longer, a potent mix of raw talent and determination, that once refined, brilliant and breath-taking, with the accolades that follow all the more deserved for the hard work and sacrifices it took in earning them.
Here, we celebrate those amazing designers. We celebrate the Late Bloomers.
Our fourth and final conversation is with a man who continues to amaze across a wide range of design solutions. Whether it is beer packaging, a lecture poster, a campaign for a small stationery shop, or a massive health care initiative, Roy Burns brings a fresh outlook, delightful sophistication and care and craftsmanship at the highest level. His winding career started in Birmingham, Alabama, before embarking on a tour of the East Coast, only to find him right back at the beginning, emboldened with experience and helping to create some of the most exciting design being done today.
What education in design do you have?
I have a BFA with a double concentration in Graphic Design and Photography from the University of Montevallo — a small, liberal arts college about 45 minutes outside of Birmingham. Other than Auburn University, Montevallo had, and I believe continues to have, the only nationally-accredited Art and Design program in the state. I had one design instructor, Richard Dendy. I cannot overstate how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to learn from Richard. He remains a great friend and mentor.
What were your early jobs right out of school?
I took all of three weeks off before landing my first design job at FitzMartin in Birmingham. It was a wonderful place to start out, and they allowed me an incredible amount of free reign. Having no frame of reference, I can’t say I fully appreciated it. I was there for about three and a half years before restlessness began to creep in.
At the time, this was in the mid-’90s, Birmingham had a small, but thriving creative community. But there weren’t many design studios to speak of. Actually, in the traditional sense, there weren’t really any at all. FitzMartin came closest. Places like Lewis and Slaughter Hanson did wonderfully smart, impeccably-crafted (and often awe-inspiring) work, but much of that work was advertising. I wanted to do book jackets. Record sleeves. Packaging. Logos. The things that led me to pursue design as a profession, that made me fall in love with it in the first place.
As well, culturally, Birmingham was in a little bit of a trough. I spent most of what little free time I had making the two-plus hour drive each way to Atlanta to see gigs (on school nights!), buy records, hang out, that sort of thing. Atlanta was exciting. Atlanta also had design studios. Plural. And they were doing incredible work. Places like EM2, Wages, Melia, and Copeland Hirthler. So, I interviewed like crazy and was ultimately offered a job at Copeland Hirthler, who were in the midst of doing all of the branding for the 1996 Olympics. But I passed. I don’t really recall the exact reason why. I’ve never been brimming with confidence, so there was probably some of that. It’s also possible that I didn’t want to spend 18-plus hours a day doing nothing but Olympics work — despite being aware of what an incredible opportunity it would be, but also knowing that I’d be taking that job from someone who’d have killed for the chance to do just that.
Not long after, I got a call from Spencer Till at Lewis. I still don’t know why. My work was getting a little bit of recognition locally, and had popped up once or twice nationally, but… not an ad in my book. Spencer still hired me. The culture was a bit different at Lewis in 1997. I worked my ass off. All-nighters and weekends were the norm. It was exhausting, but I learned a great deal — mostly by being thrown fully into the deep-end. Again, free reign. And trust. TV, print, radio, the beginnings of interactive design. I hadn’t a clue, but I was working on that stuff and finding that I was actually enjoying it. I came away from Lewis that first time with a much stronger book, a smidge more confidence, and mild PTSD.
What things do you feel were holding you back early in your career, both of your making and other obstacles out of your control?
There weren’t any external obstacles, really. Of course, I completely thought there were at the time; but, looking back, I realize that I was really the only thing standing in my way. As I’ve said, I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence. I’m not now. I’m better, but It’s a daily struggle. I try to hold on to the positive aspects of that. A healthy amount of insecurity spurs and motivates. I don’t ever want to feel complacent, or that I’m solving different problems with the same approach. Everyone has a bag of tricks, but luckily/frustratingly, I tend to tire of mine before they become crutches.
What compelled you to leave Lewis Communications and travel so far from home to further your career?
The year 2000. Really. I was 29, feeling over-the-hill and way burned out. Time was ticking. I wasn’t getting any younger and the itch to work at a place where I’d truly be able to hone my design chops needed to be scratched. If I felt I could’ve done that closer to family and friends, I would’ve gladly stayed. I love Alabama. And Birmingham. But I believed at the time that I’d have a much better chance of doing it somewhere else. So, I put my book together — filling it with the kind of work I wanted to do rather than the work that I had been doing (actually, I put about ten books together) — and cast a wide net: Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago. Even Edinburgh, and Glasgow. After sending one to Stoltze Design in Boston, Clif Stoltze phoned me to offer compliments and encouragement; but he wasn’t hiring at the moment. Through Wert & Co., another one of my books ended up on the desk of Bob Shea at Razorfish in New York. Ironically, I wasn’t even seriously considering New York as an option. It felt too daunting. On top of that, Razorfish? I mean, I was genuinely grateful for the interest, but I was confused. I had almost no interactive experience to speak of. If anything, I dabbled. Despite having almost zero interest in taking that job, I flew up to New York to talk to Bob. He explained that he was, that Razorfish was, looking for great designers. Period. He was extremely kind and incredibly persuasive. So, I leapt.
Working with Bob was a joy. He’s the kind of creative director that I most aspire to be. Smart, funny, even-keeled, supremely talented. He always managed to get the best out of people without freaking them out. It was a very nurturing environment, but it was disciplined. And he’d put together a wonderful team of designers. He brought me in as art director. I only wish that I were more up to the task. Again, the confidence thing.
I was in New York for a little over a year before the economy tanked. Razorfish had been hit pretty hard and was letting people go in multiple rounds of lay-offs. It was awful. I contacted Clif with the hopes that he’d remember me and that they’d have an opening. He did and they did! So, on September 10, 2001, I gave my notice… and then spent the last two weeks of my tenure at Razorfish going through military checkpoints. Our offices were in Tribeca not too far from the World Trade Center. The word surreal gets thrown around a lot, but I don’t know how else to describe it. Devastating? That would come closer. In the most obvious way, of course, and then personally. I was unbelievably excited about starting at Stoltze (a dream job!), but felt guilty about leaving New York and my friends behind.
You worked at some impressive studios and agencies in Razorfish and Stoltze, yet did so somewhat in the shadows. Do you think that was a reflection of where you were at that time in your development, or of the strong personalities and talents at the top of those places, or both? ]
I’d say a little bit of both, but mainly the former. Both places were run by and filled with some of the smartest, most talented designers I’d ever worked with; and many of them made it look effortless. As inspiring as that was to be around, it was hard not to feel intimidated much of the time. But no one was keeping me down. I was generously given opportunities at both places to work on projects ripe with creative potential. But I wasn’t happy with my work on them. They were, or seemed to be, but I wasn’t. I’m my own worst critic. I really am. And that had me nearly constantly feeling that I was letting people down. Again, though, that was all me. I kept me in the shadows.
Which times did you feel like you finally got a break, only to have it not work out?
Well, there was Razorfish and the fact that, within a year of my being there, almost everyone I worked with was gone — having either moved on or because they were let go. It was a rollercoaster ride. The first nine months of that job were marked by unfettered optimism. I went from working on interactive television prototypes for international clients and being one of the lead designers on the Band of Brothers team — the work garnered the first ever EMMY for interactive design — to seeing firsthand effects of the dotcom bust. A total buzzkill. Add to that the feeling that, after 9/11, I was fleeing New York without having given it a proper chance. Of course, that was tempered by landing the gig at Stoltze. Finally, I’d be at a place where I could work on all of those aforementioned designful things — namely CD sleeves and book jackets. But the economic downturn and the advent of a little thing called Napster meant that those projects were few and far between. To his credit, Clif spread the love when we’d get them; but, when you have a studio full of hungry designers who are all there for more or less the same reason, it was difficult. So, that aspect of Stoltze may not have worked out the way I’d have preferred, but there was plenty of work to keep me busy and most of it just as interesting and fulfilling as those projects might’ve been. Besides, I was learning so much. And the people? I’ve been doing this for 20 years now and I’ve been lucky enough to have landed at places with genuinely nice people. No egomaniacs or prima donnas. No office politics. Raw talent and generosity. At Stoltze, I learned how to collaborate, direct, and delegate. I also learned that there are potentially infinite right solutions to a creative problem — we’d generate so much work to arrive at the finished product. Learning to discern the perfect solution from a literal multitude of right solutions, that was a skill I honed at Stoltze.
What ultimately led you to return to Alabama and work for Lewis again?
Family. That was it really. Being closer to our families and wanting to settle down and, maybe, start our own. (We did!) That and my wife Liane (a brilliant designer in her own right) couldn’t tolerate the New England winters. At all. I was happy at Stoltze. Clif was an extraordinarily generous boss and mentor; and had grown to become a great friend. Liane and I always knew we’d head back South at some point. Maybe Atlanta or Nashville. I’d have never have guessed, though, that we’d be back in Birmingham and I’d be back at Lewis. But a few good friends had recently landed at Lewis; and their simply being there was endorsement enough to at least consider the idea of coming back. Frankly, I was surprised that Lewis would want me back. But they did, and I’m thankful every day for that. There’s no where else in Birmingham I’d rather be. Also, things were beginning to happen again in Birmingham. Wonderful things like Bottletree (no more drives to Atlanta to see my favorite bands; in fact, some of those bands would end up bypassing Atlanta altogether to play at Bottletree). Immensely talented and like-minded people — many of whom I have the pleasure to work with every day — were choosing to stay in Birmingham, resulting in the slowly-but-surely evolving creative and cultural renaissance the city’s currently enjoying. It’s an exciting time!
How had things changed since you left, both at the agency and for yourself?
Of course, Lewis were still cranking out incredible work. But they were doing it differently. People got older, had families, mellowed. Priorities changed. Doing great work was still the goal, but killing yourself to do it? Not so much. People were working smarter. Which was great. I don’t think I could’ve come back to that same place. The work was better for it too. The way I see it, most creatives worth their salt already subject themselves to an unbelievable amount of pressure to excel. When the environment they’re in doubles down on that, you’re likely not going to get them at their best. But everyone’s different. Some people thrive on that. I don’t. I hate it.
Your time at Lewis has felt like a slow and steady build towards making them a voice in the national conversation, what was the first client job where it really felt like things might go to another level, and why?
If it seems that way, it’s a fortunate coincidence. Really, Lewis has been on that trajectory ever since Spencer and Larry Norris (our CEO) started the Birmingham office 26 years ago. I do my part — and do it as well as I’m able — but trust me, that national recognition has been a long time coming, and scores of people have played a role in it. Namely people like Robert Froedge and Stephen Curry. Why has it taken so long? I would guess it’s because it’s never really been the primary objective. Of course we want to be highly-regarded and sought after. But we’ve never been all that great at tooting our own horn, preferring to leave it to others to connect the dots. All that said, we have had more dots to connect recently, especially in the last ten years or so. As for one particular client job, it’s difficult to say; but recent clients like Tiffin Motorhomes, Stony Brook Medicine, University of Virginia, and Good People Brewing Company have afforded us the opportunity to do some of the best, most resonant work we’ve ever done.
I know your love of music well, and you could not separate that from your work. That obviously drove you to take on extra projects, like gigposters for the Bottletree, and the poster promoting Vaughan Oliver’s lecture at the ICA – how do you think these helped grow your design skills and also your reputation?
My process has always been a bit fraught and angsty. Doing that Bottletree work was the most fun I’d had in ages, and I think it shows. It was thrilling to be finally able to work on something that merged my passions. And Bottletree wasn’t just a music venue to me. It was a cause. When something that special comes along, you want to do whatever you can to make sure it stays around. With a heavy plate at Lewis, I had so little time to do them. But because of that, I was able to loosen up and experiment. I also allowed myself the freedom to fail (for every one successful Bottletree poster, there are probably five to ten that make me absolutely cringe.) I know that sounds corny, but really, cranking more and dwelling less really did wonders for me. (And that bled over into the Lewis work.) Of course, I’d hoped that people would respond positively to them, but, honestly, there were no grand ambitions. I wasn’t thinking about growing my design skills or my reputation. I wanted to help Bottletree sell tickets and I wanted to have fun doing it. That made the work better. Friends and colleagues were supportive. Clif was incredibly supportive. He was putting the finishing touches on the 1,000 Music Graphics book for Rockport when he saw what I was doing, and reached out to me about including some of the work. That felt great. And then, later, he approached me about doing the Vaughan Oliver poster. Incredibly, astoundingly generous of him. To be trusted with that opportunity was an honor. I jumped at the chance. Incredible pressure there, though. Imagine being commissioned by one of your design heroes to do a poster for a lecture by another one of your design heroes — the very people that inspired you to go into design in the first place. I’m still surprised that I agreed to it. It’s not perfect work, but I’m still quite proud of how it turned out. Vaughan seemed genuinely pleased as well, but then, he’s very gracious. Shortly after the lecture, HOW contacted Clif about doing a Behind the Design feature on the poster. And then, I got to talk with you about it for rockpaperink. So, I guess I managed to do something right with it.
When did you start to feel like you were garnering some respect locally, and what changed with that attention?
I can’t speak for myself, but I do know that Lewis is quite well-regarded locally among the creative community. I can objectively say this not having had a hand in starting it, but Lewis, along with Slaughter Hanson (now Slaughter Group), really did change the creative landscape of this town. You could even say that they created it. Their presence upped everyone’s game. And if there’s remarkable work being done in Birmingham today — and there truly is — it’s due to the groundwork that Lewis laid back in the early ’90s. The youngsters may not realize it, but I remember what it was like. Even today, there are less than a handful of places in town that garner the type of respect that Lewis does. Unlike 20 years ago, Birmingham is bursting at the seams with talent. So, if you’re a creative at any one of those places, it’s safely assumed that your the best of the best.
Did you start to get different clients, or different types of jobs? How did you advance and grow both the agency and your design skills?
Oddly, we have very few local clients — less than a handful — so we have a bit of work to do on our reputation with the local business community. More horn-tooting. Our pending move to a revitalized downtown Birmingham should do wonders in that regard. I helped bring Good People Brewing Company to Lewis, allowing us to gain experience in a wholly new category while producing work that’s getting wide recognition and acclaim. Also, beer! Obviously, we’d love to pursue more of that. Overall though, I’d love Lewis to have more branding and design-driven projects. After all this time, it’s still a muscle that should be flexed much more than it is. Part of that’s a perception issue. We are a full-service branding agency. More often than not, though, we’re almost exclusively called upon to do traditional advertising. That won’t stop, and it doesn’t need to (we’re great at it); but it’s more than a little frustrating when clients with whom we’ve enjoyed long-term, profitable relationships award those types of projects to specialists (or, worse, keep it in-house!), literally oblivious to that fact that we can do so much more for them than TV, print, and radio.
What was the first piece where you really saw national recognition during your second stint at Lewis?
As a creative director, that would have to be the work we did for the Scribbler, a small, local specialty paper and stationery boutique. It was one of my first opportunities to step back and guide the process. To collaborate with a team. Working closely with designer Holly Hollon and writer Kathy Oldham, we rebranded them, gave them a new mark, developed a fairly elaborate set of business papers, and did some small-space print ads. It was wonderful work, due largely in part to Holly and Kathy. And it was great fun. It also allowed me to try my hand at crafting the messaging for ads. Writing headlines. Using language to establish tone, voice, and personality. Something I’d never really done all that much of before. That all aspects of that project — the design, the art direction, the writing — were recognized nationally and internationally was quite rewarding.
As an individual, it would have to be the Red Cross posters that I did for AIGA | Design for Good. I was blown away, and somewhat taken aback, by the attention that those have received. That it was work designed to affect change, to spur people to action, made it much more meaningful. That’s when you really want your work to resonate and be impactful.
How did it feel to reach that stage of acceptance and recognition?
It felt great. Being recognized for work that you’re proud of is certainly a rush. You just have to be careful not to grow dependent on it and have that be your definition of career success. For the Scribbler, I was more happy for the team than anything. It was the very first thing Holly worked on out of school and it was getting recognition from CA, Graphis, Print, etc.
Do you feel like you upped your game to reach the national spotlight, or it was more of a case of finally being discovered for what you were doing in a small market out of the spotlight?
I’d say it was more the latter. Lately, it seems to have served us well in that there’s an angle. Most of the country has been conditioned to expect so little of worth to come from the South, that it’s a surprise to discover that the work being done here can hold its own with the work of larger markets. The talent here is incredible. After moving away, it was surprising to me! Reviewing the books of new hire candidates when I lived in Boston and New York, I was amazed at how uninspiring and generic some of the work was. Maybe, because I’d been conditioned to expect otherwise. And these were folks who’d come out of some of the country’s top design programs.
I won’t lie. It feels absolutely wonderful to be recognized for my work, and for the work we’re all doing at Lewis. But it’s honestly never been THE goal. If I’ve upped my game, it’s been to challenge myself. To grow. To get better. As a designer. As a creative director. As a mentor to others. Not for recognition. Of course, as an agency, we enter competitions and tend to do very well — locally, regionally, nationally. Winning awards is THE prime motivator for some people and I can’t begrudge them that, but it’s just not what drives me personally. I want to be happy with the work. I want the client to be happy with the work. And I want the work to do its job. To be effective. If I’m not happy with something, it can win all the awards in the world and it won’t make me feel any better about it. I’ve just always thought that if you kept your head down and made the work the thing, people will notice. At the same time, I also suspected that I might be naive in thinking that. All that said, that’s sort of how it’s played out.
Do you think it was better to receive that kind of attention after you were more settled and mature, both professionally and personally?
I do. For me, recognition is the cherry-on-top rather than the end-all be-all. Besides, it’s important to remember that it’s all so subjective. For instance, we’ve had work do absolutely nothing at the local ADDYs go on to be recognized by the Type Director’s Club, CA, HOW, Graphis. But, again, you can’t let that stuff define the worth of what you do. Again, love it when it happens, but don’t spiral into depression when it doesn’t.
How has all of this helped grow a creative community in Birmingham? Your work with the local Design Week is always inspiring.
You could almost say that the Birmingham creative community has been a late bloomer. Not to denigrate the long-time efforts of more seasoned members of the community (of which I am one), but the influx of young talent is, I think, a big part of that. UAB, Samford, Auburn, Montevallo, are all turning out young designers with far more skill and ability than I had when I left school. The big difference: they are staying. And that’s because Birmingham is finally becoming a place where people feel like they can stay and grow and be creatively fulfilled. That talent and ambition and pride of place has made this the strongest creative community Birmingham’s ever seen. And, as much as I’d love to take credit for Design Week, I’m a small, small part of what’s made that so successful and inspiring. I’m fortunate enough to know (and work alongside at Lewis) two of DWB’s founders and prime movers — Andrew Thomson and David Blumberg. Their tireless energy and the energy and dedication of people like Jared Fulton, Shannon Harris, Bruce Lanier, and Cana Grooms (to name but a few), are THE reason why it’s been so successfu… and why it’s popped up on the national radar. Again, I came back to Birmingham without reservation, but I had absolutely no idea at the time that it would be populated by such passionate and talented folks. Unfortunately, Birmingham’s still not a huge draw for outside talent; but as perceptions are challenged and changed — and Design Week has played a huge part in that — I believe it will be. If not, I honestly don’t feel like we’ll be left wanting.
What are some of the exciting things you have tackled recently and what is on the horizon?
More wonderful work for Good People — building on the work we’ve already done. Yes, everyone wants a beer client, but we really are personally invested in what they’re doing. They really are good people, their beer is undeniably great, and they’ve played a pivotal role in the betterment of Birmingham. We’re also gearing up for a huge campaign for University of Virginia Health System. To call what they do game-changing falls incredibly short of adequate, accurate description, so we’ll need to come up with an equally game-changing way of telling people about it. Of course, our move to a revitalized downtown is palpably exciting. And then, there’s this year’s Design Week in October. I’m also excited about being able to help Lewis tap into their already existing strengths a bit more. To bring in different types of clients and projects. To help us continue to grow and, hopefully, make people more aware of us and what we’re able to do…
John Foster is principal and superintendent of Bad People Good Things. He is the author of New Master of Poster Design, Volumes One and Two; Paper and Ink Workshop; 1000 Indie Posters; and several other books on design and creativity, and is a frequent speaker on design issues.