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Saying something new
A conversation with NYC-based graphic designer Charles Wilkin, founder of Automatic Art.
Charles Wilkin

The Creative Seed Initiative is a collaborative endeavor between SCAD and Bluffton-based marketing firm BFG Communications to bring talented, creative professionals to share their insight and experience with the local community. Several months ago, the CSI brought rock star poster design collective Aesthetic Apparatus to town, and on October 6, the series continues, this time with a talk from renowned graphic designer Charles Wilkin, who founded his firm Automatic Art in 1994, and since has done major projects for a variety of clients large and small, including Target, Best Buy and Capitol Records.

Connect Savannah caught up with Wilkin to talk about his recent work and the rare feat of longevity in the ever-changing world of design.

From the mural in PS186 to typography and packaging, you've worked on a lot of different types of projects. Is there anything you haven't gotten to do that you still want to?

Charles Wilkin: I'd love to do something crazy like a stage design or a set; some sort of environment. The mural was really good experience for translating my work into a space instead of a product or package. More three dimensional stuff definitely. A lot of my projects sort of come in randomly, and I really like that randomness, so it's hard for me to say that there's one thing I need to do or I want to do because I have such a crazy variety already.

It seems like a lot of your work is very busy visually. How do you choose the elements that you're going to incorporate into a piece?

Charles Wilkin: I think it really depends on what the project is. For the mural project I tried to come up with some sort of concept. I called it "The Garden of Reading." It was a collection of anything and everything that could be in a book or around the world. With that one, picking the images was just trying to find images that work together to create a surrealistic world; to juxtapose stories and images against each other to create some sort of new story. That's what I try to do, find a new way to say something with things that we've already seen or had experiences with. On other projects, where the project is more specific, I try to choose images that are not necessarily totally representative of what we're going for, but maybe something a little off-kilter or unexpected to try and spin it in a way that's different from what we're used to seeing. A lot of times the elements come down to fitting in the space or working with the image next to it. It's a very random process and if you look at my hard drive I have files and files of images that didn't work. It takes a lot of effort to get them to fit together.

Looking at some of your work as the visual equivalent to sampling in hip hop, obviously a lot of legalities arose from that musically. Have you ever run into problems with source images in your work?

Charles Wilkin: No, I really haven't. In the early days, when I was just clipping stuff out of magazines, I was always aware to stay from things that it was obvious where they came from. I always try to reassemble them to create something new to try and scoot around that copyright law a little bit. Not necessarily willfully, but always being aware that I'm trying to make something new, even if I'm using old images. These days, with a lot of the more current projects I'm doing, I'm just buying stock images and making sure that I'm buying them legally and getting all the rights necessary for the particular project. There's a lot of different reasons for that above and beyond the legal aspect too. A lot of the projects I'm doing these days have very specific needs for the imagery, and you can't always get them out of an old magazine, or retro images are just totally not appropriate.

Graphic design isn't an industry that's known for longevity in a lot of ways. How have you been able to weather the changes in taste from when you got started until now? How do you stay ahead of the curve?

Charles Wilkin: I'm always looking to make my work better, and part of that is an experimental process of trying to keep it fresh and new and moving forward. Because of the way style and trends change all the time in this business your style can go from being hot one day to totally not the next. The other thing is trying to combine a lot of different disciplines together. From the very beginning, I've tried to mix graphic design and art making together. That's part of it. Trying to combine as many things as possible, and trying to always look into the future of where things are going and not resting on my laurels. I tend to get bored very quickly so I don't feel like I want to go back to the past or keep doing the same thing over and over again. I sort of ignore the styles and trends. Honestly, my career has definitely ebbed and flowed as a result of that. As long as I can stay true to what I believe in and make my work as good as I can for myself than hopefully that will attract clients and more work. I've been lucky that that's been the case.

I saw on your website that one of the things that pushed you to start Automatic was a want for or an outlet for your personal expression. Is it ever difficult to manage that balance between what you're trying to express and the expectations of the patron?

Charles Wilkin: Oh yeah, it's super difficult. Sometimes I wonder why I bother trying to do this type of thing, but really what I mean by all of that is that a lot of times designers are taught these rules and they stick to those rules and the design becomes very benign and boring. My feeling is ‘hey, I'm a human.' I have experiences and I'm curious about things so what I try to do is bring those experiences and those ideas to use as a springboard to help bring new ideas and hopefully create work that will connect with people on a much deeper level than just whatever the surface message is. That's usually how I try to navigate it. And then I try to figure out a subtext that is hopefully what I'm trying to get in there, not necessarily my personal message, but trying to create a more emotive design that maybe will connect with someone on a more emotional level, which I think ultimately benefits my client in a lot of ways. If the consumer connects with their product or their advertising in that way they're more inclined to pay attention. There's a lot of people practicing a similar sort of notion out there. People call it all sorts of different things, but I'm not going to label it anything more than what I feel. In the beginning, I was very idealistic and it caused a lot of collisions, but now its sort of picking and choosing what I'm trying to push, instead of trying to push it all.

The Creative Seed Initiative presents Charles Wilkin

When: October 6, 7 p.m.

Where: Arnold Hall Auditorium, 1810 Bull St.

Cost: Free and open to the public