Originally from a small town in Hampshire called Bordon & Whitehill, Dan grew up loving drawing but for a long time, he thought of it more as a hobby than anything else, assuming there was no way he could actually make a living off it. It wasn’t until he was about to leave sixth form college — and go into full-time employment as a golf pro shop assistant — that he heard about a one year Art Foundation course his college offered.
So faced with the option of either a full-time job at the golf club or a year’s free art education, it was “an easy choice” and one that saw him stumble into the best decision he had ever made.
“I like to have that sense of mystery and adventure in my day-to-day life. It keeps me on my toes.”
Today, Dan is a freelance illustrator and animator specialising in bright, colourful, character-based work across multiple platforms and medium for clients such as Apple, Netflix, Google, The New York Times, GQ & Runner’s World. Living, what we might think to be an illustrator’s dream, we sit down with Dan to find out more about why he does what he does and how he got to where he is today.
“I do what I do because it’s the thing I’m best at and I absolutely love doing it. It’s also continuously interesting… every project is different. I like to have that sense of mystery and adventure in my day-to-day life. It keeps me on my toes,” he tells us.
“… somehow, without a plan, and working totally free-handed I managed to pull it off and create something I’m still really happy with to this day.”
Whilst the work content of his day-to-day life is “ever-changing and exciting”, his work routine is consistent and what he refers to as “fairly unremarkable… I’m quite the creature of habit”. He tends to start his day early by cycling into his studio in Kingston Upon Thames, around 7.30am most mornings. Then after making himself a coffee, he settles into some personal work or getting a head start on emails or client work. “It’s my favourite time of the day. It’s so quiet. I can just put my headphones in and bust out two hours worth of work with very few distractions,” he reflects. His lunch is 12 on the dot, “I eat pretty much the exact same thing every day because I’m weird and like to be thrifty. Cheese and pickle sandwich, Wotsits, apple, banana, cereal bar”. He then heads back to work until 6pm, where he’ll then cycle home and have a few hours off to “cook dinner, chill, go for a run, watch a film or something with my girlfriend”. With then ending the day by spending an hour or so replying to emails and planning out the next day.
We’ve often found that the relationship we have with ourselves changes when we become go freelance… there’s some sort of newfound understanding, compassion, and awareness of how we operate. One thing that became apparent to Dan when he made the switch was maintaining a healthy work-life balance. “If you sit down all day just drawing pictures and eating muffins you put on weight. Found that out the hard way… Exercise is important,” he tells us. “Another is that I can be surprisingly excited by the arrival of the postman each morning. Also, that I really hate book-keeping but keeping on top of it and setting up a weekly routine makes it far more bearable. And lastly, that I actually like public speaking”.
“I got here by working very hard. I like to say I’m about 20% talented and 80% hard working… I make the most of what I do have by working insanely hard at it.”
Over the years, Dan has worked with a variety of clients, many being huge global brands. Out of curiosity, we ask what some of his favourites have been? “I’ve been lucky enough to work on really fantastic projects, but I guess there are three favourites that really stand out”. One being the BT Artbox project, he worked on in 2012. “It was one of my first big projects when I was starting out and it was a baptism of fire for learning how to deal with tight deadlines… Long story short, I had six days to completely decorate a full-sized plaster cast of a London phone box. Somehow, without a plan, and working totally free-handed I managed to pull it off and create something I’m still really happy with to this day.”
His second is the LINE emoji project which he worked on around three years ago. “That one was the epitome of a tight deadline!” he laughs. The project was to design one thousand emojis in just ten weeks which meant he was creating one hundred emoji designs a week. “The project was a big success and lead to many other exciting opportunities, but boy was it a huge ask! I was working seventeen hours a day, seven days a week in order to meet that ten-week deadline”.
Then in line with the others — wonderfully odd — his third favourite was the tray mat project which he worked on last summer for McDonald’s Japan. “That project was so much fun to work on… The agency gave me tonnes of creative freedom and I was so pleased with the outcome that I decided to fly to Tokyo to see the tray mats out in the wild for myself!”
“I would encourage putting the internet down for a while if you can. Work in a way that feels natural to you and put your main focus on the ideas.”
So, what is the trick to being able to work with big household brands and having the flexibility to put in your own stamp of creativity into large projects – while not having to sell your soul to your clients? “I’d say I got here by working very hard. I like to say I’m about 20% talented and 80% hard working, there are HUNDREDS of illustrators who are far, far better than me, but I make the most of what I do have by working insanely hard at it”. Which might explain why he goes in early each day, “to try and get half a foot ahead”.
While his style and personality are consistent throughout his current body of work, that’s not to say it was there since the very beginning, now he feels as though he has “found his illustrative voice”. He tells us, “the style itself is a slowly evolving thing that is gradually morphing over time. It’s quite a shock looking back even just three or four years ago and how my work has changed”.
Since the beginning he has loved drawing characters “but it took quite long time to find something I was comfortable calling my own”. For those on the journey to find their own illustrative style, his advice would be “to try not to worry or think about it too much. I realise that that’s easier said than done when you’re staring down the barrel of Instagram every day and seeing hundreds of polished styles… I would encourage putting the internet down for a while if you can. Work in a way that feels natural to you and put your main focus on the ideas. Over time you’ll find a way of drawing that feels comfortable to you. It took me about three years to get to a point where I was happy with my style”. Sound and reaffirming advice for all illustrators, whatever stage they’re at.
“Ask for advice. Being buried deep in your own thoughts can be stifling, self-doubt can creep in and cloud your judgement.”
No matter where you are in your career or how far along you are into it, stress and anxiety can crop up at any time. For Dan, going outside for a long walk along with listening to some music can be enough for him to relieve the stress and anxiety that can come with wrestling with a tricky brief. A couple of other practical tricks that he’s found helpful when he’s struggling to execute an idea are:
1. “When working on an editorial brief, I’ll often ask the art director for the spread/layout so I can see where the illustrations are going to sit. I’ll then print that spread out and sketch out my ideas directly into the space where the illustrations will eventually live. It’s amazing how actually working within the space given to you can impact and better inform the idea itself”.
2. “Ask for some direction, or give yourself some constraints. The ‘totally open’ brief is my worst nightmare, I work much better when there are some restrictions. An open brief has infinite possibilities, that statement in itself makes it almost impossible to know or convince yourself that you made the right decision”.
3. “Ask for advice. Being buried deep in your own thoughts can be stifling, self-doubt can creep in and cloud your judgement. If you’re stuck, ask others what they think, or if you work alone like I used to, throw it up on social media and ask the wider creative community what they think”.
“Whatever you like doing and whatever makes you tick, don’t forget it. It’s what makes you who you are.”
Finally, he leaves us with some more tremendous advice which applies to everybody pursuing creative work. Whatever it is you’re working on or project you’re about to consider, “remember to constantly ask yourself ‘why?’ and why are you making the thing you’re making… This is so important,” he tells us. Then give yourself plenty of time to reflect on thoughts such as “what do you like? Do you like creating a sense of calm in your work? Or do you love symmetry? Do you want your work to evoke a reaction? Or make a political statement? Whatever you like doing and whatever makes you tick, don’t forget it. It’s what makes you who you are,” he empathises.
Humour is something which is visible across his work, and this is something that’s done with great intention. For him, he uses it as a way to amuse himself with his work and when he does that, it means “I’m achieving my goal,” he says.
“I work so insanely hard. If I’m not enjoying and laughing at what I make, what’s the point? I understand this isn’t always easy, it’s a challenge as a freelancer to continue to make ends meet and pay the bills… So, of course, do what you need to do, but just remember that core principle of who you are and what you like”.