Weapons Declassified: Bill Beachy & Steve Knerem

Written & Designed by: Raji Purcell

Edited by: Jon Savage

Photography by: Pablo Contreras

This summer, I had the pleasure of being one of Go Media‘s design interns. This, of course, is why I’ve been given the privilege to write the Weapons Declassified articles. During my internship I had the honor of being guided, influenced, and instructed under Adam Wagner, Jeff Finley, and William (Bill) Beachy. Each guided me in their own ways; however, it wasn’t until Bill Beachy sent me an email asking me to take a crack at a client logo revision that I got some of my hardest hitting real-world experience and advice. There is a unique amount of care that Bill takes when speaking with you, even through email, where he pulls no punches or subjects you to brevity, making you feel like he is too busy or too important for you. He has told me many of things I’ve needed to hear as a young designer. Some being:

  • Young designers are slow, and need to learn to work faster.
  • You are not a design God. Learn to collaborate with the client.
  • Be extremely humble in all aspects of your career.
  • Measure twice and proof read. Basically, make sure you are following directions.
  • Be proactive, self-motivated, and assertive.

Bill’s design and illustration are indicative of this same level of care and attention. While guiding me on the branding project that we double-teamed, he consistently pushed me to take care at the smallest levels of details. He always paid attention to detail. He asked pertinent questions, like, “Is this distance around this shape or letter form the same as that one?” rather than a simple, “Looks good, Bro.”

Now, when I met Steve Knerem at WMC Fest, I realized that he was a mirror image of Bill; he provided the same care and attention to detail to all of his work. Steve took the time to talk to me, as did many others at WMC Fest, asking me about my schooling, giving me the advice of finishing strong, and humbly thanking me for watching their talk, noting the important quotes, and tweeting them. All of this was icing on the cake as I was drooling over his intricate illustrations. His work demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that this same extreme focus and attention to detail was vital to quality work. This common ground in work ethic and living made Bill and Steve the perfect duo of speakers at WMC Fest.

Who are Bill Beachy & Steve Knerem?

Bill Beachy is founder of the creative agency Go Media in Cleveland, Ohio. He worked to build an amazing collective of illustrators, designers and coders into an extremely well-recognized, design-community-serving  creative machine. Though I’ve been following Go Media for years, I just recently learned that up until only a couple years ago it was run in Bill’s house. This speaks for itself.

Bill is basically a design Iron Man, who, when isn’t illustrating using his background in comic books, creating finely crafted designs, and making inspirational posts on the GoMediaZine, is probably running a marathon. Seriously.

Steve Knerem is a masterful illustrator, who, when isn’t illustrating — well, honestly, I don’t really understand how he’d have time to spend on much else with such intricate work.

Here’s what happened:

Sitting in my front row seat, I was excited to watch the first panel discussion at WMC Fest. With my experience of Bill’s expertise and recent exposure to Steve’s work in my head, I was in for a great talk. Unlike the previous talks, Bill and Steve set up to have an open discussion where they would take questions about the various topics they’d discuss.

They started the talk out with their own brief bio’s. Bill explained that he has been a life long artist and that he had artists for parents.

“They basically handed me a box full of crayons, and I thought every kid on the face of the planet just laid on the ground and drew all day long.”

He explained that he would be miserable being dropped off for art classes, but then not want to leave by the end of it. Following this course of life-long artistry, he became the guy in class that would always draw stuff for people, a title that I am familiar with. He then went to Ohio State and switched from fine art to industrial design, explaining that he knew how to draw but didn’t know how to use a computer for artistic purposes. This is a great example, in my opinion, of challenging yourself to do something unfamiliar instead of something you know how to do. He launched his first studio afterwards, but found no financial success in just being an illustrator. So, he began doing design work, building GoMedia starting in 1999.

Steve Knerem then echoed Bill stating that he also started young, but in high school was more into sports than art. However, an injury changed his future goal from athlete to artist. He then went into school at the Cleveland Institute of Art for Illustration. Upon graduating, he worked at American Greetings for 10 months before deciding it wasn’t for him. He started searching, developing a style, and trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his art. Knowing he didn’t really want to do cartooning or character conception, he began, little by little, taking on freelance projects and the launching his own t-shirt line.

The talk then turned away from the average talk at WMC into a very personal discussion about whatever the audience had questions about. Bill briefly went over some suggested talking points from how to prepare your portfolio, to what is cheating. Immediately following the recommendation of the cheating talking point an audience member—in a timing that was almost comedic—exclaimed she wanted to hear about that. With a laugh, Bill began to explain that when he first started he had the misconception that the comic book artists he admired were able to draw everything out of their head, the same going for any of his favorite master painters like Norman Rockwell. He later discovered that most of them utilized people as models, photographs, and even tracing paper to composite imagery into a masterful illustration or work of art.

Appropriately, this lead into the consideration of a client’s budget. Bill explained that if a client needs something really elaborate in a short amount of time for a couple hundred bucks, he doesn’t have the time to create everything from scratch. He has to find a process that will get him to the end result. He then gave this important insight:

“I don’t think anything in particular is wrong or cheating, so long as you are being to true to the process and the passion behind what you are creating. And that you are transparent about what it is that you are doing.”

Steve, complementary, chimed in, refocusing the discussion on stylistic cheating. He pushed the thought that taking another person’s style and calling yourself ‘creative’ is just lame. However, it’s a different matter entirely to learn from someone. Citing art nouveau and the work of Alphonse Mucha as an examples of influence, he said that he takes what he learns and integrates it into his own style. He further encouraged the audience to branch out and learn from what’s inside themselves. Describing his own creative mantra:

“Close the books, close the internet and everything — what’s in here? Pull from my heart, gut and mind and say ‘What is me’?”

Steve continued by saying that he likes to draw everything by hand to make it as original as possible, but reference materials are still important. Bill continued by saying that even veteran artists use references and props in order to get the right perspective and look, and he had to learn over time not to put so much pressure on himself to draw something out of his head. Steve echoed this by emphasizing the importance of learning fundamentals. The repetition of learning how to draw various things will give you a personal arsenal of things you can draw in your own style straight from your head.

Bill then discussed his views on keeping true to your concept regardless of what reference materials you find. Not letting the fact that you didn’t find what’s in your head change your idea, and sticking to the concept. He also discussed his technique of making a sort of reference collage or Frankensteining as he calls it, in order to save time and money for clients.

William Beachy and Steve Knerem at WMC Fest 2011 from Weapons of Mass Creation on Vimeo.

“How do you react when someone says I want work that looks like Shepard Fairey’s or Ed Hardy’s?”

Bill responded by saying that usually, the case is more of “Make it look like Affliction or Tap Out” — it made me cringe to think about a request like that. Steve said that he has actually gotten the opposite request of no Affliction look, or no wings in the illustration. Steve’s solution for such a request was to simply do ‘your take’ on ‘that look’. Also, never be mean about it, but just push originality and your skill set to the client as much as possible. Saying “They did this, lets make you better or different than that.”

Bill gave a great insight about the fruitlessness of copying some other style, at the end of the day its not going to look as good, and probably is just going to look like what you draw anyway. It’s more important to be transparent about your skill set and say, “This is what my style looks like,” and if they don’t care for it, then you can redirect them to a friend or coworker with a different style. Bill talked about the importance of bringing the client along for every step of the illustration, making sure it’s what they want before you go ahead and fully render and complete it.

Bill then briefly touched upon consistency of branding, a point I found very important. If you are an individual designer or illustrator, with a business, t-shirt line, fine art career etc., it is important to brand them all the same because there is only so much time you have for branding, and it lets everyone know that you are doing all of these different projects. Sell yourself as an artist.

An audience member then asked about boredom, and how they deal with it. Humorously, Steve gave an anecdote about a recent project illustrating a t-shirt with skulls and roses where he felt burnt out.

“I didn’t want to say I’m so tired of skulls, but there is a check coming, so I have to push through.”

Steve gave the advice of looking at many different types of artists in order to get inspired for your own type of work.

Bill confessed his emotional feeling about illustrating has ranged across the spectrum from loving it to never wanting to touch it again. He gave the example of it being like a relationship you have to work at in order to gain success with. That’s just the way it is. You are never going to feel great about anything 100% of the time.

Bill then again discussed reoccurring style and how it relates to branding yourself. The people that get the most work and remembered are those that have a distinct recognizable look to their work. From a business aspect as well as a recognizability aspect, if your style is always different you won’t be as recognizable.

Bill finished the talk off by telling the audience to find time to draw every day, and that he finds time at the office to do illustration because he knows it will get them more work. Explaining further, he said that sometimes he sacrifices high pay for illustration work at Go Media because they want to work on them. This is beneficial because it gets them better clients on their résumé, better projects in the future, and portfolio pieces. I felt like this was important advice to take on as a young designer/illustrator that is constantly taking projects for lower pay, and free in some cases while I’m in school. I know in the end it will pay off, get me more exposure, and diversify my portfolio. This same sentiment would be reinforced by many of the speakers at WMC.

Listen to the Talk

As I watched every talk, I kept Garage Band open on my MacBook and recorded everything I could. So the quality of the mp3 below may not be the best, but you can get an idea of what it was like from my perspective in the front row. Bootleg version!