February 9, 2006

Illustrator Interview: Ron Chan

You all know Ron Chan, right? If not, you're about to...

In this installment, I bring you an artist who probably needs no introduction, but he's gonna get one anyway. I've known Ron Chan for many years (I'm afraid to figure out just how many years exactly, because then I might find out my true age), and if my memory serves correctly, we shared as panelists in one of Sharon Steuer's Wow! sessions at a Macworld way back in Boston (yeah, before it went to NY and then back to Boston again).

The fabulous illustration that appears on the front cover of Real World Illustrator CS2 (and Real World InDesign CS2 as well) were done by Ron in his unmistakable style. Ron is a die-hard San Francisco Giants fan and yet I still consider myself friends with him (I myself root for the New York Mets), and we've had the opportunity to share time together in SBC Park (I think it was Pacbell Park in those days), sipping a hot latte and rooting for our teams (it must be an SF thing -- in NY, we drink cold beer at games).

In any case, here's an little bit of a peek inside the man, the legend, who is Ron Chan:

What kind of work do you specialize in?

Right now I am all over the map. My career started off in the very, very beginning as a Designer/Illustrator. The only reason I became an Illustrator full time was because I started to realize that I could either become a very good Illustrator or a very good Designer but unless you're Milton Glaser, it's very hard to excel at both (especially when you're starting your career). That and I hated going to meetings ;-)

So I became an Illustrator and did, and still do, anything that 1) Pays the bills, or 2) Is an interesting project, or 3) Lets me work with someone that I like - not famous or anything - just a good person. If it doesn't meet any of that criteria then what's the point?

I've worked on everything from Annual Reports to Museum graphics - but sometimes the most fun is the small-low paying editorial spot where I get the chance to draw a dog or a robot, or come up with some really goofy metaphor for building suppliers.

Lately however, somehow people discovered that I do web design and Flash work and I have few web projects going on at the same time. I honestly don't think my clients even know that I do illustration. It's a very schizophrenic situation right now because there's a lot of left brain, right thinking going on. I'll be working a few hours on some Actionscripting for Flash or coding CSS, then I realize that I have a sketch due for an illustration and have to switch gears on a dime. Funny how things come full circle though from design to illustration and back to design. On top of all that I'm co-authoring a How to Wow on Illustrator for Peachpit (plug, plug) - so I guess as long as my head doesn't explode I'll just go with the flow.

What was the first vector application you ever used?

I was actually one of the very first test subjects for an application which was called "Picasso" and later renamed "Illustrator". I
remember going down to this company called "Adobe Systems" located in a nondescript office park, sitting in a small office of this guy named Russell Brown. He brought me there to come up with a test illustration for this application that was using something called "Postscript". I sat in that office for a few days coming up with a b/w illustration using this primitive program that didn't have any undos as of yet. If I made a mistake I had to call Russell or his office-mate over (I wish I could remember his name) and they would go into the code and take the mistake out so I could keep on going. mmmmm . . . good times.

If you could make just one feature request for AI, what would it be?

How about a Selection Palette so that I don't have to keep on going up to the menu to select the same color, stroke color, stroke weight? Does getting rid of Gradient Mesh count as a feature? (jus' kidding)

What one thing most annoys you about Illustrator?

Let's see. You mean besides fixing the Eye Dropper tool so that it actually picks up color from other open documents? Or fixing the Blend tool so that it doesn't invert lines if you blend copies of the line segments of a box? Or fixing the Offset Path function so that it doesn't create curves if you're offsetting a rectangle?

It's like McDonald's french fries - you can't just eat one!!

What’s your personal preference, Mac or Windows?

I'm not a Heathkit kind of guy (http://www.heathkit-museum.com/). The Mac of course.

What’s playing on your iPod right now?

Sad to say, and much to the embarrassment of my teen-age daughter, pop-rock. Gwen Stefani, Alanis Morissette, GooGoo Dolls. Just don't tell my daughter's friends.

What was the nicest place you’ve ever vacationed in?

I love to travel and fortunately I've had the opportunity to do a lot of it. Toyko is an amazing place with so much visual stimulation I could spend a day just standing on a street corner taking it all in - and probably get crushed by the throngs of people ;-) London is cool because there is so much to see and do, so much history, and due to the language you can get into the swing of things as soon as you get off the plane. But my favorite is probably the trip I took to Italy. The water taxi ride into Venice. Then after Venice going to Tuscany and staying in a villa with friends. Shopping for groceries in the local markets. BBQ-ing next to a vineyard. Drinking some of the best cabernet I've ever had and only costing $6 a bottle. Why am I writing this? I should be making money so I can go back! ;-)

Do you have a favorite designer? If so, who is he/she, and why?

I have a lot of favorites but the ones whom I admire the most were both designers and illustrators (two-tool players in baseball-ise). Between 1915 and 50's there were a lot of these guys around such as AM Cassandre, E. McKnight Kauffer, Alex Steinweiss, Joseph Binder, Lester Beall, Erik Nitsche, etc. Back then there wasn't the separation there is today between illustrators and designers. Designers knew typography - often drawing the letterforms themselves, but they also knew how and most importantly weren't afraid to - draw or illustrate anything so that there was a synergy of design and illustration that hardly exists today. The closest we have presently are people like Michael Mabry and Craig Frazier.

What one thing has most inspired your own personal design style?

I don't like to be bored. I can't imagine staying in the same style my whole career without going bonkers. My illustration style has bounced from doing realistic 50-style figures to super abstract modern. Each style had it's limitations in which I would throw away ideas because there was no way to translate them into the style I was working with (try doing a humorous spot in a abstract style)! Today I've settled on a style that although isn't groundbreaking, is a lot of fun for me personally because it's not as limiting. I definitely have a been-there, done-that mentality.

After resisting for years I was finally corralled into teaching at CCA in San Francisco which I ended up to find refreshing. Seeing new ideas and trends by what the students come up with is cool and I think I am benefiting from it.

If you were an Illustrator tool, which one would you be, and why?

How about the Pahfinder Filter? The idea of combining ideas, concepts, and images to create a new entity is an interesting
intellectual exercise ;-) . . . and besides it's neat-o.

Now about those things that annoy me about Illustrator . . . . . . .

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