An Interview with Nick Pritchard
photo (above) by Bryan Sheffield
Sean Hartman: Tell us a little about your background and the path that led you to become a designer.
Nick Pritchard: The path that led me to become a designer was probably just getting into punk and hardcore music. When I was maybe around 13 or 14, I started doing a little zine distribution. I used to distro 7 inches and zines at shows. Just designing catalogs and flyers for that was where I started getting into graphic design. Music was probably my biggest influence, and is where I found out about designers like Jason Gnewikow from the Promise Ring, and another guy, Phil Dwyer who was in a band called Inkwell. These were guys who were in bands, who were designing their own CDs, and I was really attracted to what they were doing. Reading interviews with them, I found they had no real art training. Seeing that, with no formal art training myself at that time, I realized it was something I could do. That was very attractive. The two things that really brought it together for me was kind of a combination of seeing those people do amazing, inspiring stuff, while already designing on a basic level. From there, it just kind of evolved to where I’m at right now.
SH: Cool, and where did you grow up?
NP: I grew up in a little town called York, Pennsylvania. It’s about 2 hours west of Philadelphia and an hour north of Baltimore. Though a small town, it was sort of near everything. It was close enough to Philly and Baltimore that I didn’t feel secluded. I went to many shows in those areas, and I was able to gather a lot of inspiration.
SH: You mentioned not being formally trained when you began your path, but along the way did you get some form of traditional art training?
NP: Actually my high school had a really good graphic design program. Probably around my senior year I took the most advantage of that. I started learning more about computer programs. We even did silk screening in that class, and it kind of showed all the different aspects of graphic design. That got me really excited, and from there I went to a small art school, Bradley Academy, in my hometown of York, PA. I studied multimedia design. It was a two year program, where I learned video animation, video editing, web, and print design. So, between the end of high school graphic design classes and the art school I went to, that formed my formal education in design.
SH: I’m a believer that if you’re going to be a good designer, you’re going to be a good designer. You don’t necessarily need the structured education, but you definitely need to have the foundation to understand grid-oriented layouts, typography, and the basic foundations of design. Then, you also need to know how to use the tools and usually those kinds of places (art schools) are good for that.
SH: Are there any other elements that you learned from art school?
NP: Yeah, school helped with more of the technical things like the programs people use these days... Like you said, I was already learning about typography and grids just by watching what other designers were doing. I kind of copied them in the beginning, taking elements from what they were doing. But, going to art school actually helped me to understand what I was doing. That, and learning more about design history, such as the Bauhaus movement in Germany. I didn’t know the history of where design comes from, and learning more in this area was very interesting. But, I agree with you. I think, as it is with a lot of artists, some people are just born with that talent. You can teach someone to draw, but if you put two people together: one person who was born with talent, and one person who just learned to draw, I think there’s something inherently different with someone who has the natural creativity which separates them from someone who’s just learning it straight up.
SH: Right, you can tell when it’s a passion, or when it’s a learned skill they just use to make money.
NP: Oh, absolutely. I mean, even if you’re doing something corporate, you can still put part of yourself or your emotion into it. That’s the way I look at it. You can tell someone who’s doing it for a job and someone who’s really putting everything they’ve got into it. Whether it’s a corporate flyer or a corporate identity, or a music album package. Whenever you’re doing something creative you can always put part of yourself into it, and you can definitely tell when someone is and isn’t.
SH: You mentioned looking at people’s layouts and learning from their design choices as you were first starting out. Which artists or designers shaped that development?
NP: Definitely what I was saying before, Jason from that band The Promise Ring. He was doing a lot of design work for Jade Tree records in the mid to late 90s in the emo scene. He was borrowing a lot of stuff from old jazz records, and his designs seemed to be based on Swiss design. Very simple grid... Probably another big influence would be Emory Douglas. He was the artist for the Black Panther party in the 60’s and 70’s. His work really inspired me when I first started working at Epitaph (around six years ago). I was doing the Punk-O-Rama CDs they were doing at the time, like compilations of Epitaph bands. They had an old identity of Hot Rod or Ed Hardy looking art...
SH: Yeah, it was Rat Fink-ey..
NP: Exactly. When I was hired, one of my first jobs was to rebrand that whole thing and I really wanted to do something inspired by Emory Douglas’s aesthetic. In much of the 60’s/70s revolutionary type artwork, (where they didn’t have a lot of money), they could only use one or two colors at the most. They had all these restrictions because of cost, but were still making this incredible, stark artwork. So, I think Emory Douglas’s work is a huge, huge, huge influence on me.
Another influential person would be Matt Owens, who does this site called Volumeone. He was doing flash/experimental website design work, right when I was in art school and also immersed in website and multimedia design. Just seeing him and his artwork was really mind-blowing at the time.
SH: Are your tastes still pretty much the same? Are there new people who are blowing you away? Or, are you still sticking with your roots, with the people who inspired you when you were coming up?
NP: I’d still say those people are my biggest influences. I see stuff everyday that blows me away, but as far as my main influences, I’d say the people I’ve mentioned already are the real staples. But I see stuff everyday and I don’t even know who designs half of it these days. It’s extra exciting right now because you can see the constant evolution of what’s going on. How one style leads to another and how everyone is kind of jumping from one thing to the next. It’s inspiring. I feel like everyone is inspiring one another to do different things and push each other. I just try to keep my eyes open constantly, to everything.
SH: As Creative Director of Epitaph Records, what are your day-to-day responsibilities?
NP: The main thing I’m responsible for is the visual output of the company. Whether I’m designing it or not, I’m in charge of making sure it’s top notch. A lot of the album projects I am designing, but mainly it’s working on the Epitaph identity. Anything that’s coming out of our office with the Epitaph brand has to come through me before it’s good to go. On a typical day I’ll be designing some type of record artwork, or I’ll be designing some Epitaph promotional materials. Whether it’s for a website, something for a blog, or something for an email blast. I might be doing something miscellaneous for one of our album releases, like promotional materials: posters, stickers. The bulk of design work coming out of Epitaph is basically on my shoulders. If I’m not designing it myself, I’ll be working with outside designers as well to get it done. It definitely keeps me busy.
SH: I’m sure. When you go about designing a project, what is your usual process?
NP: It depends on what the project is. If I’m working with a band to do their album artwork, the first thing I do; it sounds pretty simple, I talk to the band. I want to talk to the band. I want to get their input. I want to get their feelings because it’s ultimately their record. I’m trying to create something visual for their artwork and it’s personal for them, so I want to make sure I’m getting it right and that they’re happy. So, I talk to the band and try to listen to the music as well. Sometimes I don’t always have their newest music when I’m working on the CD, but I try to hear as much of their current stuff as possible. The most important thing, at least for me when I buy a record, is I put it in, I listen to it and I look at the album artwork and I want to get that feeling that I’ve gotten for all the great records that I’ve had. That really special moment where you hear the music, you look at the artwork, and it all makes sense. That’s the biggest goal. I think that process of really talking to the band and really listening to the music is the most important part of my process, when I’m doing artwork.
SH: Do you ever listen to the music and look at the song titles and have that, in some way, shape the direction that you go with a project?
NP: Definitely, if a band has all their lyrics written out at the time. Usually, when I’m talking to the band initially, the first thing I’ll ask them is: “what’s the title of the album?” But, I always ask for the lyrics as well, because I’ve gotten so many ideas from band’s lyrics. I’ll just be reading through them and a line will hit me and it will put something in my mind, and I’ll kind go from there. Those are very important parts of the puzzle as well.
SH: How do you go about keeping your aesthetic fresh? How do you keep yourself from getting stuck in a rut?
NP: I think it’s just experimenting. Whenever I do feel that I am getting in a rut I always try to do something completely different. It was a little bit ago that someone made a comment to me, “oh, I can tell you did this album,” and that’s kind of good in one sense; you’re creating a visual identity for yourself, but for me, I don’t want that. I want to be constantly evolving. I want to be constantly challenging myself. A recent thing I did was a record coming out for a band called The Color of Violence. I’ve known the guys in the band for a long time, so I had a lot of lead-time to know that I was going to be designing this record. Usually I get a month or two (at most) to design an album cover, but this one I had six or seven months. They told me, “we want you to do it and you can do whatever you want.” They completely trusted me. Grabbing those opportunities where you can really try something different and go out on a limb is what I look forward to, challenge myself, and try to keep things from getting stale. With The Color of Violence record, I went for a completely cut and paste, collage type layout. Usually, I like to do things by hand, but at some point it gets scanned into the computer and modified in Photoshop or whatever. For The Color of Violence, I just sat down with stacks and stacks of magazines and books and an X-acto knife, scissors and glue. I just glued collages and worked on it whenever I had free time. I’d just sit there and glue these pieces together. Then I scanned them into the computer and didn’t screw with them at all. The only thing that’s computer based in that layout is where you see the typography in the credits or the band name on the cover. Everything else is hand done and just scanned in, and that’s it. That was a big departure for me, in terms of looking at some of my other artwork. It’s hard sometimes to do stuff like that for your day-to-day assignments. You’re designing for clients, you’ve got deadlines, you’ve got other work to do, etc. But, when I’m presented with an opportunity like The Color of Violence album, I take it as a chance to branch out and do something exciting for myself.
SH: Name a source of inspiration that people would find unconventional, or surprising.
NP: The one thing that I really get inspiration from is going to thrift stores, going to swap meets and just digging and finding things. Whether it’s some really, really old book or an old painting, I’m always going out looking for inspiration of some sort in those types of areas. In places where people just dump their old things, you can find so many treasures that have just been discarded to inspire you. I don’t know if looking at my work, people would expect me to say that, but I’d say that’s a huge source of where I get ideas . And, I just keep my creative process flowing. I’m constantly finding items that inspire me and I catalog them. Under my desk at home I have boxes and boxes of stuff to help if I’m ever stuck on a project... You know every artist goes through dry spells, and I have those boxes under my desk to avoid that. If I feel that I’m going through a dry spell and I can’t think of anything, I just dive into these boxes and something is going to inspire me, something will bring an idea on. So that’s where I get my biggest source of inspiration.
SH: The first time I saw your work was probably back in ’99 or 2000, and it was on one of those design sites like surfstation, newstoday, or designiskinky, and it was all done under your pseudonym, metrosea. All that work was really cool and experimental, and it seemed very personal. Do you still have time do that kind of personal exploration? Or, are you just kind of stuck doing your day-to-day work?
NP: That’s actually something I still constantly do. I’m not really putting it out that much, not as much as I used to in the beginning. Around ’99/2000 was right when I was coming out of art school, so I didn’t really have a big body of work to show people, or client projects, but I was constantly doing experimental work. So that was the initial stuff I wanted to show everybody. But now I’m constantly doing it, and a lot of it is by hand. I think that’s what The Color of Violence project came out of. I’ve been doing a lot of collage work in my free time. I have folders and folders of experimental work. Like, if I buy a new font, I experiment with it and save the document somewhere. Or, I find some photo online that I’ll never be able to use because of copyright, but I want to do something with it just for myself. So, I’ll make a design with it and save it away. I never know how what I did to that photo, whatever treatment, how it will inspire me later. I would say it is harder to do now that I work, now that I have the job that I do. I think other designers have that problem as well. Once you get a job, and actually start working, the last thing you want to do when you come home is to do more work. For me it’s not work though, it’s fun. I always try to keep that frame of mind where it’s like “this is something I like to do, this is something that I need to do.” It’s definitely important to constantly do that, I mean for myself it is.
SH: What kind of project would you consider to be the ideal project?
NP: The ideal project, again, would probably be like The Color of Violence project where the client is coming to you and knows your work, and trusts you. They trust your vision, and you have a lot of lead time. To have both of those things is rare, but I think the most important thing is to have some sort of client trust. They’re allowing you to help shape where they’re going and they trust your vision, they trust what you’re doing. I think that’s a large issue that can screw a project up. Like when you go into a project and the client doesn’t know you, they kind of just got stuck with you, and they’re fighting you every step of the way. That happens a lot, and that’s something we have to deal with as designers. But, it’s always better if that’s not the case.
SH: Do you have any hobbies that play a part in your overall creativity?
NP: I’d actually say that doing artwork is my hobby. I’m pretty tunnel-visioned on art, so outside of that, not really. I was just lucky enough to turn it into something that I’m making a living at. A lot of my day revolves around artwork, whether I’m looking at art books or going to thrift stores looking for stuff to use in artwork... I constantly feel lucky though, because I go to work everyday and just think to myself, “I love music and I love artwork, and I’m getting to work with both all day.”
SH: Do you have anything coming up, for example a CD that’s coming out, or something you’ve done that you’d like to tell people about?
NP: There are a few things coming out on Epitaph that I’m really proud of. Again, I keep bringing up The Color of Violence, but that’s a CD that I’m really proud of and it was released this year... It’s hard to keep track of street dates now. There’s another band called Vanna, who’s record came out in March, called “A New Hope”. It’s a really, really, really good record and not a lot of people know about that band yet. I like the artwork that I did on that record. I’m proud of that one as well.
One of the bigger projects I worked on this year is the new Rancid record, Let The Dominoes Fall. That’s an album where I really had to work with the band. They’re so established and have their aesthetic already set up, so I needed to design within that. It’s a really good record. The project was a little bit unique, where I was designing three different kinds of packages at once. There is a regular CD, and two deluxe versions. One, with an extra bonus CD of the whole record done acoustically and a DVD making of, along with posters and all this fresh stuff. There is also a super deluxe version which has everything I just mentioned plus 180-gram vinyl. It comes in a 12”x12” box, with the cover silk-screened on it. It’s the first time I’ve done all those things at the same time. We’ve done CDs where we’ll release it and then later we’ll release an expanded version a little bit later, with extra stuff and bonus tracks. This is a CD for a band that’s been on Epitaph since the early to mid 90’s and they’re really important to us, so we wanted to do something extra special for this record.
SH: Lastly, what advice do you have for students or young artists that are struggling to find their voice?
NP: For myself, I really just kind of found artists and things that really inspired me and I tried to figure out how to use what I was learning. I think a lot of people get out of art school and they don’t have a specific idea of what they want to do. They want to do design, but what companies are out there that they want to work for? If they want to freelance, then what kind of clients do they want to work for? I think figuring out specifically what you want to do really helps out. When I was getting out of art school, I was researching different companies that were blowing me away and I put together these little packages of my résumé and a little cd with a demo reel of all my work. I packaged it in a little, weird medical bag and I put four different business cards in it, and sent it out. I just did something that kind of separated me from all the people that were going to be sending these companies résumés. I think the most important thing is to find your voice and to just trust your gut. Trust that the things you like and what you’re going to be doing are going to be inspiring to other people and try not to question yourself along the way. I think that’s the biggest thing, just to put trust in your talent and what you’re doing, and try to have fun while you’re doing it. Try not to get burned out, try to keep focused on why this is fun, why it inspires you, and why it keeps you going.