Success Ideas from Master Illustrator, Michael Schwab

Success Secrets from Michael Schwab:

  • If you’re lucky enough to find something that you’re inspired by, enjoy and that you truly have a talent for, that’s a magic combination.
  • You cannot be shy.
  • You have to be aggressive.
  • It helps to be obsessed and driven.
  • When you’re starting out, strive to work for people who really inspire you, and who you admire not only creatively, but ethically.

About Michael:

One of America’s most recognized and beloved illustrators, Michael Schwab focuses on the interplay of positive and negative space to create iconic images that are strong and simple yet always contemporary. His resonant images codify his work as thoughtful, lasting, and sustainable; characteristics that are increasingly rare and highly appreciated by clients that include: Nike, Polo, Wells Fargo, Amtrak, Sundance, Pebble Beach, Muhammad Ali, Robert Redford, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

From his studio in Marin County, Michael is currently winning awards in virtually every major graphic design and illustration competition and is regularly featured in publications worldwide.

Early beginnings:

Growing up, I think we all had a class ‘artist’ in school -in whatever grade we were in. I was that kid. I was the kid that people would ask to do posters, or drawings for their reports, or posters for sports rallies, or whatever. I was always available. People would say, “Oh, get Mike Schwab to do that. He can draw.”

I can’t tell you why exactly, but I was always excited about lettering design and wild illustrations. It goes back to that whole 1950’s hot rod era – flames on cars and artists like Big Daddy Roth and the Mad Magazine guys. It was then that I was probably first inspired graphically. And, of course, when the 1960’s evolved into flower power, Fillmore posters and record album covers, I became very inspired as an illustrator / designer.

I grew up in Oklahoma. Someone mentioned this little school in Texas, East Texas State University. Apparently they had a graphic design department. It was one of the first times I’d heard the term “graphic design,” and it sounded intriguing. I studied under 2 very inspiring instructors there – Jack Unruh for illustration and Rob Lawton for design and advertising. Rob really opened my eyes to the art of typography.

During my 2 ½ years at East Texas State, I kept seeing work coming out of New York, most notably from Pushpin Studios, Charlie White and Paul Davis. I also started seeing the cool images promoting the School of Visual Arts on 23rd Street.

Soon, I was actually attending school there—living in the Chelsea Hotel. But, it got to be summertime in New York. I couldn’t see the sky. It started getting hot and I realized I was ready to go back home. So I returned to Oklahoma for the summer. That year, in the fall, I ended up attending Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. That would have been in 1973.

I was entered as a 5th semester student. At Art Center, I was able to study under John Casado and Jamie Odgers. It was competitive and intense.

I still hadn’t decided if I was an illustrator or a graphic designer. I’m actually still in that quandry. I think illustrators consider me a designer and designers consider me an illustrator, but I’m happy to ride the fence. I have found my own voice.

After graduation, I worked a little bit in the Hollywood area and assisted a few different people. I considered myself privileged to be John Casado’s assistant for awhile. I also assisted Los Angeles illustrator, Dave Willardson, one of my early role models. In addition, I was working on jobs for the art directors who had been my heroes – art directors like Mike Salisbury of West magazine and Rolling Stone magazine. I worked occasionally for Roland Young, the art director at A&M Records. There was lots of new, exciting design happening in LA at the time.

Then, I visited San Francisco.

Now, please understand, I loved LA, but once I got to San Francisco, I realized that this is where I belong.

Once there, I approached Chris Blum, the creative director for Levi Strauss & Co. via their agency, Foote Cone and Belding. He was famous for the very artistic, award-winning Levi’s posters and animated commercials. Chris was a mentor that I had always wanted to work for, and I created several historic posters for Levi’s with him.

By 1976, I had my own studio. I was living and working in a loft setting on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. With a view of The City, I was very comfortable there.

On making the transition from assistant to freelance to studio owner:

I watched and listened to my mentors and saw how they talked on the phone with clients and art directors. Truthfully, being in art school, you don’t learn anything about business. I didn’t take any MBA courses. I had to make up my own rules and keep track of what I was getting paid. No one was really there to tell me how to do it. I treated my apprenticeships as learning opportunities — like graduate studies.

I was very careful to work for people who not only inspired me creatively, but who I admired, ethically. I wanted to just be near those people who were my heroes. I wanted to be around them and watch them. I was obsessed with my work and my craft and the people around me. I wanted to study under my heroes. It’s like an actor wanting to be working with someone that they respect so they can watch and learn from them.

I had nothing going on at that time except work and my passion for it. There’s a point where it becomes almost an obsession. To get somewhere, however, you really need to be obsessed and driven, at least for a while.

On developing business contacts and relationships:

I was meeting several photographers, art directors and designers – everyone was inspired. It was a very exciting time and people really communicated about their craft with each other. There weren’t that many people that were part of this community, so everybody knew and respected each other. There were healthy rivalries, but everyone respected each other’s work and enjoyed discussing it.

Thoughts on developing new business:

As far as getting work, you can’t be shy. I would go to art directors’ offices. I would sometimes just show up with my portfolio. I wanted them to know my work. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, they would call me back and have a job for me. You cannot be shy. You have to be aggressive. And if you’re truly inspired, nothing will hold you back.

Favorite accomplishments:

Most recently, my portrait of Lance Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. That felt good. I’m also very proud of the Environmental Leadership Award from the San Francisco AIGA that I received several years ago for the Golden Gate National Parks logo series. Truthfully, I feel privileged to have worked with so many creative talented art directors and clients through the years.

New business development today:

At this point in my career, I seldom call people to get work (luckily). There are even times when I have to stop myself from saying, “I wish the phone wouldn’t ring so much.” That’s a frightening thought. The alternative is not very pretty.

The phone does ring a lot, and the thing is, it’s hard to rein my enthusiasm in. Once someone describes a project — and usually they’re not calling me unless my work is appropriate — it’s very hard to say no because the creative wheels start turning and it’s hard to turn it off.

Thoughts on having assistants:

I have two incredible assistants that help me out, Lisa and Carolyn. They bring digital production skills to my studio, which I have none of. I can’t do it alone. Their presence makes my work more fun. They are my ‘studio wives’.

On the power of ink on paper:

I draw on my drawing table. I do not have a computer on my drawing table. I was inspired to draw, I think, partially because of the equipment. I love the drawing table equipment. I’m very comfortable working with T-squares, triangles, and compasses. I love the drawing tools, even the French curves. In grade school, I wasn’t really sure what a French curve was. I’d see these old things laying around and now I know every curve on every one of them. Personally. (Laughter)

I never wanted to be a typist. I like to draw. I enjoy paper and pencil and ink. There’s something about ink on paper and multiple images of it that is powerful. It’s like theater. It’s like performance art. There’s something powerful about it. It’s communication – the ability to affect and influence people

On the flow of work:

I feel privileged to be working for the people I work for now. I’m creating images for huge corporations, wine companies, athletes and movie stars. It’s very exciting. The National Park series really was a defining family of images for me.

On inspiration:

I think it’s great for people to be inspired by many different genres. I get inspiration from many urelated places, whether it’s theater, travel or nature — inspiration from lots of different resources.

On attending seminars and trainings:

I’ve been asked to speak at events like that, but I never really attend seminars. It is probably my loss, but I’ve just never really found time to go. Again, I learn more from other people who are doing other unrelated things than just talking to other designers—at this point in my career anyway. Classes or seminars, when you’re young, are probably terrific, but be careful to whom you listen.

Thoughts on outside activities:

I go mountain biking here in Marin County. I do yoga. I go rock climbing. I like snow skiing, water skiing. I really like to get outside. I’m not the type of person that can sit at a drawing table all day, every day.

I have to get out and be physically active. I really pull a lot inspiration and ideas from being outdoors.

Tips on building and sustaining a successful career:

Do those things that you are passionate about. Concentrate on one powerful and memorable thing you can offer to people and do it better than anyone—instead of spreading yourself thin doing many different things. Strive to be memorable and powerful. If you’re lucky enough to find something that you’re inspired by, enjoy and that you truly have a talent for, that’s the magic combination. If you love what you do and you’re good at what you do, that’s the key. That would be the ideal. I still crave working. I enjoy it.

However, occasionally, I need time off — going skiing and spending time with my family. Traveling together with my wife and my sons nourishes and fulfills me.

But, you know – there’s a part of me, a couple of days before we go home, when I’m thinking, “Wow, I’m anxious to get back to the studio.”

3 Comments:


  • By Jeff Fusner 10 May 2008

    Awesome interview. Michael Schwab is and has been one of my favorite designers/illustrators. His work is inspiring to me. He’s truly mastered how to create simple graphic shapes to communicate powerful messages that are timeless.

  • By Andre 30 Nov 2017

    *moans*

  • By daddy 30 Nov 2017

    i love male chickens

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