An interview with Richie Stewart

By Ed Vinicombe on Aug 14th, 2013

Hi Richie, for those who are unaware would you care to introduce yourself?

My name is Richie Stewart and I am 1/2 of Commoner, Inc., a design studio in Boston MA.

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How long has Commoner Inc been going for and what are the plans for the future?

Last February my fiancé, Brook Lyn, and I both decided to quit our day jobs to make it a fully functional design studio. We weren't getting any younger and we had fantasized about working for ourselves for some time. Luckily, I had a few larger size commissions come in all at once, so I knew it was as good a time as any to pull the trigger. Brook handles all the project management, finances, paperwork, emails…essentially all the things my brain can't handle, which I can tell you is a lot! That leaves me to focus on the creative side of the business.
As far as the future is concerned, I wish I had a legit answer for that. For now we're just trying to focus on doing the absolute best work we can for our clients and hope that we can continue doing what we love for as long as people will let us. Learning from every experience we have, negative or positive, and always trying to one-up ourselves.

This has got to be one of my favourite pieces of your work. Where did the inspiration come from to get such an awesome style? Plus - does it taste any good!?

Well, thank you! So Allston (where the brewer is located) is a very old neighborhood in Boston and is coined by locals as 'Rat City' due to the super gritty nature of it. The neighborhood is grimy and sketchy to say the least and I totally mean that in the best way possible. It's got character. Historically, it is an extremely blue collar area of the city as many working class families live here. But over the course of time it has been pretty over run with a younger, super eclectic population. Tons of tattoos on everyone, skate rats, bike kids, punk rock basement shows, $2 PBRs, mom and pop cafes, independent record stores, etc. Basically, it's a very strange mix of 'old and new', for lack of a better phrase.
The idea was to really draw inspiration from the prohibition era, where people had to brew their own beer / make their own alcohol based solely on necessity. To us, this was one of the greatest forms of DIY, which really resonated with not only how Rat City Beer is brewed, but the general feel of Allston as a whole. So conceptually, we had a jump off point that really made sense for the brand. We wanted it to be somewhat nostalgic as an homage to how beer brands traditionally looked at the turn of the century, but put a 'punk rock filter' on it.
Like, how would these old brands look if they existed today and in this specific neighborhood? How can we take what's already been put in place and recognizable…but make it relevant to the locals and breath new life into it? How can we design something appealing for a 50-year-old iron worker as well as 22-year-old tattooed bike messenger? So taking cues from the timeless aspect of design from the early 1900's and infusing it with a more youthful and relevant execution was how we approached the project. I'm not one to pull any punches, but the beer is fucking killer!

Could you walk through your process when you start a new project. Do you spend a lot of time researching & drawing your ideas first or do you jump straight into Photoshop/Illustrator?

My process probably isn't massively different than anyone else's, in the literal sense of creating something. Definitely a lot of sketching and enough research to get a well informed solid concept going, then taking your findings to the screen to execute. I'm definitely a cavemen when it comes to technical knowledge of the Adobe programs…the pen tool and the pathfinder are really the only tools I use when making the majority of my work.
A lot of people will definitely disagree with this, but I believe there is such a thing as 'too much research.' I feel great concepts can be killed when you over analyze them. I think gut feelings tend to provide pretty honest results.
I never really cared for 36 page documents trying to sell an idea to a client…they either get it or they don't. The work should be strong enough to not be accompanied by an extraneous explanation detailing every single choice you made and why. It's not like your audience is going to be reading "Well I used a serif typeface because…", they are going to just see the end result, and that's it. Of course there are times, where you need to channel your inner 'Don Draper' and talk them through all the reasoning to get approval on a piece, but that doesn't mean it can't be done in an honest, no-bullshit way.
I like presenting concepts with a minimal amount of explanation, then going back and talking through all the design choices once the client has had time to let it set in. This way, they are also involved in the 'gut feeling' aspect of the process, which I think is super important.

Are all the typefaces you use custom? Where do you tend to go on the web for design resources?

I would say that 90% of our typographic work is completely custom and made from scratch. I have a pretty large collection of scans from old type books and other wise, so I may use one of those as a jump off point and modify from there. So much of the work we do revolves around creating custom word-marks and type treatments, it never feels right using a font that already exists. I want as much as possible to be made specifically from the ground up for that particular project, so the end result is something special and unique.

5 designers that you have been inspired by recently?

Curtis Jinkins

Simon Walker

Josh LaFayette

Olly Moss

Jennifer Lucey-Brzoza

Some are friends, some are strangers and some are internet pals. But in my eyes, these are the people that live to make and inspire me daily.

What is the design scene like in Boston? Are there many opportunities for designers over there?

Boston is a small town to begin with and the creative scene is very tight knit. Basically, if you know 2 people you will inadvertently know 100 more just by association. Of course that provides stiff competition, which isn't a bad thing at all because it keeps you on your toes. It's rad because since it's not as congested as in NYC, or the like, but there are a plentiful amount of opportunities once you start to get some attention on your work.

Outside of design what keeps you busy?

I hate using the term 'lifestyle' when referring to my job, but design takes up so much of my daily 24 hours, at the end of the day all I want to do is turn my brain off. I guess just like most everyone else, spending time with my friends and family. Hangin' with the misses and our dog and cat. Drinking beers and watching shitty horror movies. Eating fried seafood. Cruising around on my skateboard. I'm totally a homebody, which my 20 year old self would have never envisioned…but I like it that way.

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