Stefan G. Bucher on life as an independent creative

Stefan and his buddy

Stefan G. Bucher is an interesting dude. He’s worked for big-name clients as varied as Blue Man Group, A&M Records, Sesame Workshop, and The New York Times. But, as you peruse his portfolio, you find that he always brings a personal sensibility to these big-name clients. This is what makes Stefan notable—his work is quirky, playful, and human.

After a stint at W+K, Stefan struck out on his own. And he’s been busy. Posters, flyers, books, CD design (remember those?), typography, illustration, covers, film & television, animation, logos, character design, toys, and a Skillshare class… you name it, Stefan has done it. One might argue that he’s living the dream that many creative people aspire to. Today, he answers some of my questions.

Another day, another monster.Another day, another monster.

You draw a lot. How did that happen?

I’m not sure, really. I’ve always drawn. I do remember my dad bringing home some comic books for me when I was maybe 3 or 4 years old. I immediately set about copying the characters. Looking back, I wasn’t particularly good, but I was good enough to get a pat on the head, and there you go: the start of my fundamental pattern. Ha!

Has anything come in between you and this work? Did you ever stop, or think of quitting?

Not really, no. I get frustrated sometimes, or bored, but it never occurs to me to get into lion taming instead. Astronaut would still call to me as an alternative career path, but it’d probably require some changes in the astronaut HR department.

I also don’t feel that drawing or design are really my primary mission in life. They’re just my best tools for making something entertaining. More and more I’m getting into creating little alternate realities telling stories about the characters that inhabit them. Right now the drawing part is just my surest way of telling those stories. Expect more writing, though, and vocal things.

That said, I always love drawing the Daily Monsters, because I get to discover them as I draw. Regular drawings are always a failed attempt at capturing an image in my head. The Monsters are much more process based, so I get to surprise myself each time. It’s s lot of fun!

Anyway, quitting… no. Evolving, yes.

Type designed by Stefan, for the film ImmortalsType designed by Stefan, for the film Immortals

What do you consider the most difficult part of doing creative work?

Starting. There’s so much fear that THIS will surely be the job where I prove how much I suck. Once I finally get myself to work, that part is easy. Relatively easy. Easier.

You worked at an ad agency—and a respected one at that (W+K). You didn’t stay long, though. Does it suck to work at an ad agency?

Well, I sucked at it, and my creative director agreed, so he fired me. Which knocked the wind out of me. So that certainly sucked. It was just a bad fit. I live to make stuff that gets made. Just churning out comp after comp after comp and then not seeing anything produced is exhausting and heartbreaking. And I’m not motivated by money, so the cash didn’t outweigh the constant disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, I like getting paid, but money is a tool to make more stuff, it’s not an end in itself.

I think ad agencies are great for people who get a charge from competition. And that’s not me. I like getting chosen to do something and then doing it better than you thought I could do it.

An example of what folks witnessed, at Stefan’s exhibit, titled: Everything is going exactly as planned.An example of what folks witnessed, at Stefan’s exhibit, titled: Everything is going exactly as planned.

Since then you’ve largely worked as an independent. Why does this work for you?

Beyond the above, I like having the power to choose what my days look like and who I want to help with my work. Being independent introduces me to a much wider group of people, too. It’s a must change faster pace, too, which I like.

The trade-off is scale. I’d like to work with much bigger clients, too, but larger clients really do require an agency or full-scale design firm to support them. Over the years, working as a subcontractor for large agencies has brought me some of my most fun experiences—I still get to fiddle away in my studio, but I get to do it with the power of a big machine behind me.

Why do you think so many gifted people choose to stay at big agencies?

Some people really love the structure it provides, and the team spirit. The best agencies are almost cults, which is super fun if you’re into it with everybody else. Maybe some people like having a ladder to climb, which is not a trivial benefit. You can measure yourself against others day to day. As an indie you’re left just looking into the mirror and wincing. And agencies provide real support. When I’m sick, I’m still at my desk or everything grinds to a halt. Nobody covers for me. Also, ad agencies will invest a ton of money into their star performers. And you really can do a lot of great stuff at agencies if you work well within the structure.

The main entrance of The Blue Man Theater, the gift store, and one of two video columns—all designed by Stefan.The main entrance of The Blue Man Theater, the gift store, and one of two video columns—all designed by Stefan.

Is there something that creative people at agencies need to know before going indie, like you have?

Just know if it’s what you’re burning to do. For me it always felt natural and inevitable that I’d work as I do. If you have to draw up a long list of pros and cons you might just need to work for another agency. I started at the best place going and couldn’t get it sorted out. That saved me years, because I didn’t need to figure out if it was me or if I’d just landed at a lame agency.

Your LinkedIn profile states that you’re always looking for interesting projects. What do you consider an interesting project?

I like going places I haven’t been before—that can mean doing something I’m good at in a new medium or at a larger scale. It can also mean working in a whole new area. Anything involving flight is high on my list, as well as working with people who make me happy with their work. Anybody who makes me laugh is always welcome, as are musicians and scientists.

344 Questions—the Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic Fulfilment344 Questions—the Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic Fulfilment

What’s a shitty project? Better yet: what’s the worst project you’ve ever worked on, and what did you learn from this experience?

The shitty projects are almost always my fault, because I didn’t ask enough questions before saying yes, or because I didn’t work out a clear process with the client. When I get to work with people who hire creatives all the time, it’s such a pleasure. It’s like dancing with somebody who knows how. You can immediately skip to the good parts!

You’ve worked with some memorable individuals. (I’m thinking of folks like Tarsem.) Have any of them shared advice that changed how you looked at things?

Tarsem certainly did. He’s taught me a lot about sequencing books from the perspective of directing. It’s about guiding the viewer’s eye. I had The Fall title positioned where it looked best in the frame, but hadn’t thought about the shots before and after. The attention was focused on a totally different part of the screen. Playing the title where I had would’ve taken viewers out of the flow. That’s informed everything I’ve done since. (I don’t always succeed, but it’s always a goal.)

The trailer for Tarsem’s visually arresting, The Fall.

Do you ever doubt yourself?

99% of the time, and the other 1% I know I’m wrong.

What do you do to get yourself past these obstacles?

I look at my signature on the contract. The work has to get done. Maybe I’ll get past my anxieties one day, but either way, that layout isn’t going to design itself.

Why are you on Officehours? Who do you want to help? What can people ask you?

I’ve had the help and advice of some great people over the years. I like giving back.

Stefan achieves a typographic drop shadow—the old fashioned way.Stefan achieves a typographic drop shadow—the old fashioned way.

What do you wish creative people knew that most don’t seem to understand?

Oh, I don’t work like that. Everybody has their own struggles, and we all learn things differently. The only thing that comes to mind is that TT needs to be nudged together into a ligature to look nice, and most fonts have too much space around the 1.

How does one go about finding artistic fulfillment?

Keep your eyes open to the world. Don’t become locked in your default settings. And consider the possibility that searching for artistic fulfillment may be as close as you get to finding it.

Want to ask a few questions of your own? You can request a free one-on-one talk with Stefan on Officehours.