Kyle Bean, illustrator and set designer, talks paper, glue and pushing the threshold
Part way through university, set designer and illustrator Kyle Bean decided to respond to a course brief with card and glue rather than pen and pencil, and has never looked back. A freelancer since he graduated in 2009, he crafts 3D worlds from paper using clever concepts and metaphors to visualise editorial ideas and campaigns. Kyle often collaborates with still-life photographers and has recently designed sets for short films and commercials. His clients range from The Financial Times, Vogue and the BBC, to Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
Freelance Illustrator and Set Designer (2009-present)
The Guardian, The Financial Times, Kinfolk, The New York Times, Fast Company, Scientific American
BA Illustration, University of Brighton (2006–2009)
How would you describe what you do?
Largely speaking I’m commissioned to make images. Rather than drawing or vector-based illustration, my process is very tactile and involves making physical models and set pieces out of everyday materials and objects. It is usually a photograph of the thing I make that becomes the image used by a magazine or brand. Sometimes I handle the photography at my studio, but I also regularly work with still-life photographers at their studios. Working in this hands-on way with different materials has many cross-overs with set design, so I often work in this capacity with photographers too.
I work with a range of editorial clients, as well as advertising agencies and brands directly for campaign work. In most of these cases I work on producing imagery, however occasionally I create bespoke installations or display work, including a series of window displays for Selfridges and Diesel.
What does a typical working day look like?
I work from my home studio in North London mostly, but I also work in bigger work spaces for larger-scale projects with other makers. Working from home has its ups and downs but I am certainly used to it now. I get up every morning with my partner and we have breakfast together before he goes to work at 8.30am. It’s good for me as a freelancer to structure, so I’m ready to start work by 9am each morning.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
At my home studio largely. Despite working way with a cutting mat and materials, I still have my computer very close by. I try to work to fairly normal office working hours. Most of my clients are based in New York and London, so I often have to be available to reply to emails well into the evening due to time difference.
“I never imagined I could effectively make something up and people would pay me for it!”
How collaborative is your role?
For bigger projects I collaborate with other makers, and much of the time they might specialise in a technique or material which I am less familiar with. It’s nice to learn from each other in that way.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
For me the most enjoyable part of my job is being able to see an idea come to life and being able to play with materials. There are also mundane aspects – I have to have my business head on when budgeting for projects. This can be quite draining and stressful when figuring out the feasibility of a project. My job is as much about logistics as it is the creative process.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The most satisfying recent project was a photo series for Kinfolk magazine called In Anxious Anticipation. I collaborated with photographer Aaron Tilley and designed set pieces that evoked a sense of unease and apprehension. This included a rock about to swing and light up a set of matches, another was some eggs rolling down a gutter pipe about to smash onto a marble plinth. I really enjoyed creating various scenarios with everyday objects and materials. The project went pretty viral on several design blogs last spring, and Aaron and I have since collaborated on a few more projects on the back of its success.
What skills are essential to your job?
I’d say you need to think conceptually, but also practically. There’s no point in proposing an idea that’s way out of budget or requires more time than is available – it’s about being creative within the limitations of the brief. It’s good to have a broad range of making skills, with a good understanding of using different materials and techniques. Building good working relationships with photographers and other makers has also been vital to my success, particularly as a set designer. My illustration work can sometimes be more solitary, especially if I am shooting the project myself too, but for bigger projects collaboration is key!
What tools do you use most for your work?
A Macbook Pro for image editing, emailing clients and sending sketches; phone for emails, calls and taking progress photos of models to send to clients; a Canon 5D camera for shooting the final images; photography lights; Photoshop and Illustrator for sketches and image editing; InDesign for putting together pitch documents and Excel for putting budgets together.
Then I also use a cutting mat, scalpels, circle cutters, UHU glue, PVA, paper, card, paper plotter, wood, foam board, pins, rulers, a band saw, hot wire cutter, sander and a hacksaw.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
My dream job was always to work for Lego as some kind of designer.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Studying illustration gave me the ability to be critical of my work and think in a conceptual way. This has been pivotal to the way I approach every project.
What were your first jobs?
I was lucky to have my work spotted at my degree show in 2009 by the lead visual merchandiser who worked at Liberty. He commissioned me to produce some models for a display project. I designed a series of victorian-style contraptions, made from Hermes packaging boxes. It was a great experience and quite a steep learning curve. Before that I did an internship at Crush Creative in Brighton, where I learnt how a successful illustration and design agency presents ideas to clients.
What helped you the most at the start of your career?
I would have to go way back to my art teacher at secondary school, Nick Williams. His way of thinking about the world and ability to create a welcoming creative atmosphere in a standard school environment first inspired me to pursue some an arts subject. His art room was like a sanctuary for all of the misfits at school, myself included.
“It’s important every now and then to push yourself slightly over that threshold, otherwise you won’t develop. I would say my biggest mistakes have come from not pushing myself far enough.”
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
One project at university sticks in my mind as a pivotal moment. I decided to approach an illustration brief not with a pencil or paintbrush, but by cutting up an old book and turning it into a laptop. It was an approach that came very naturally, so from that point on I left the paintbrushes behind and made things three-dimensionally.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Communication is key – in emails as well as over the phone. And, of course, being able to communicate ideas in the images themselves. This is a skill I have developed over the years.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenges come from how much risk I am wiling to take. I am always battling that fine line between risk and knowledge. I often find myself wanting to push an idea beyond what I know, but then take a step back and go for a less-risky option. I have learnt over the years that it’s important every now and then to push yourself slightly over that threshold, otherwise you won’t develop. I would say my biggest mistakes have come from not pushing myself far enough!
Is the role what you thought it would be?
To be honest, I didn’t really think that I could or would be doing this kind of thing for a career. I guess I always hoped that I would be doing something creative, but I never imagined I could effectively make something up and people would pay me for it! I straddle a grey area between set design and illustration, so it’s not such a defined career choice.
What would you like to do next?
I would like to work on some bigger-scale installation pieces, animation and film projects, and collaborate with more people.
Could you do this job forever?
I can see myself working in this way for a good few years, but hopefully I will evolve and adapt as my passions shift.
What is the natural career progression for someone in your current role?
No idea really. If I keep collaborating and getting bigger projects it could be good to run a studio with other makers.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a set designer and illustrator?
Keep playing with ideas and materials; the more you learn, the more expertise you can draw upon later for commissioned projects. It’s also important to learn from others, so make friends with other makers and designers.
Interview by Laura Snoad