Nick Chaffe on discovering graphic design, going freelance and surviving tornadoes

Photography by Anderson

An artist, designer and typographer, Nick Chaffe's uniquely detailed illustration style has attracted the attention of some of the biggest brands in the world.

With bold, bright icons and typography born out of his love of '80s graphics, he has worked with Amnesty International, The Guardian, Time Out and Lonely Planet since he launched his own business in 2008.

After a decade of success, we caught up with the Manchester-based creative to talk about discovering graphic design as a career path, the ups and downs of freelancing and what he'd change about the industry.

Did you always know you wanted to be a graphic designer?

I spent my early years living in Pittsburg, Kansas and if I think back I can remember drawing flags in the basement of our home where our family and neighbours would hide during tornadoes. Later at school, I did one of those job test questionnaires and it came up with a "graphic designer for sports equipment". That's when I found out I could do drawing as a profession.

What has surprised you about your chosen career?

When I was in my second year at Croydon College, I did a work placement at an agency off Tottenham Court Rd, I was surprised that there were no paints, pens, scissors, basically art school/workshop materials all over the place to be creative with.

In that case, do you think traditional techniques and materials are getting left behind?

Traditional techniques may hold more value in future. Fewer people will be able to use them well.

After university, you worked at various agencies around London. What brought you to Manchester? And how do you find it here?

Well, I moved back to my hometown Nottingham first, and that’s where I picked up many of my initial clients. I met my (now) wife in Nottingham but she lived in Manchester, so I eventually moved there. Manchester is a great city right now, the creative community is thriving and friendly, I’m so pleased to be here.

It's been a decade since you went freelance. How have you made it a success?

Make your own luck, as they say, I really enjoy creating new things and self-initiated projects often bring in commissions. I also feel really privileged to be asked to collaborate with people so I work extremely hard to make sure the I don't let them down with what I produce.

Which self-initiated projects have drawn the biggest crowd?

My Good-Bye mural that was in the concourse at Nottingham railway station and my really energetic pieces like Tokyo and Communication City. When I lived in Nottingham with a group of friends we created a studio/shop/events space called Shop; I won an award for coming up with the idea and brand.

What has been your biggest challenge since going freelance?

In quiet periods convincing myself I'll get busy again, it always has (touch wood) and when it does all the jobs come in comically at the same time.

How do you cope with those busier periods?

You have to stay focused and be very organised, the best ways I've found to do this is by taking regular breaks with exercise. I like to cycle and still go for a quick skate (skateboard) sometimes.

Is there anything you'd change about the industry?

There are obviously some big changes going on right now, it's a hot topic – equality in the workplace, making brands act more ethically and it's all long overdue.

We also need to take more responsibility for what we are putting out there. It's become all about the numbers, reaches and clicks, which creates shallow repetitive communications. I'd like to see more big brands tackle issues in our society like Benetton did in the '90s.

You have a particular way with words. How did you develop your hand lettering style?

I've always liked drawing type but it has definitely developed from being a graphic designer. Working on design projects you sift through hundreds of typefaces all the time so I would say that comes through when creating a lot of the lettering.

I like to express something in each letter or word, sometimes in an obvious way like painting the word "fast" really quickly but other times I like to do something quite random that may not make sense at the time but end up fitting well in the final piece. Machines are taking over in graphic design but it's our human input to communication which gives it soul.

Any favourite projects you can share? Can you talk us through the process?

Oh wow, there's loads. My Amstel Light advertising campaign with Droga5 in New York was a large job and great fun. I worked with a top team producing lots of creative work in a fast turnaround. I was able to work from initial concept and also mix illustrations with different styles of hand-drawn lettering.

What was really cool though was seeing the photos of the work all over New York and beyond – I regret not flying out there to see it in person. Even the other day I saw a film on TV and the couple in the film were in Times Square and walked right past one of my posters.

Are you creatively satisfied?

This is a really good question. I'm very fortunate and satisfied to do a job I enjoy, but I do still have to do some monotonous work that comes with running a small studio. I'd love to have a larger space to throw more paint around too. I think, like a lot of people, when you finish a nice job or finally come up with a winning idea it is very satisfying but it can sometimes be a moody space in between to get there.

Do you have any dream clients or projects?

Dream clients are the ones that communicate well and create a sense of camaraderie within the working relationship. Project wise I'd like to be outside working more so Pow! Wow! Hawaii would be pretty cool.

Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us

I'm half Swedish and part-own an online craft beer company called EeBria.com.

What advice would you give to those starting out?

Always have your portfolio ready. Try and learn by working with the best people in your chosen field.

What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time?

You are going to have the most amazing family.

What can we expect from you next?

Well, I've just signed with an exciting new rep in America and they have a great roster of artists which tend to do more large scale, experiential projects, which is what I like to do.

I'm about to start working on a digital project for Manchester International Festival; it will use my hand lettering to produced intensely detailed portraits. And, last but not least, I'm helping an old friend with the branding of a new online skateboard company which has real potential to be massive.