In pursuit of excellence: Kevin Cantrell and the business of typography

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As a high school student, Kevin Cantrell watched a friend create a system of branding logos and fonts for a project and immediately knew that was what he wanted to do. “During my first year of design class [at Brigham Young University], I discovered that I had a natural ability with typography,” Cantrell explains. “It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I really started playing more by drawing custom typefaces from old reference materials.”

After earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from BYU, Cantrell began to delve more into lettering and ornate typography as his old craft grew more taxing and boring. “When I lost my love for my work,” he says, “I rekindled my passion through lettering. It changed my whole journey.

Cantrell short Studio Kevin Cantrell in the same way Erik Atkisson, which focuses on business management and branding. “If you’re going to run a studio, you quickly realize that you can’t do everything yourself,” Cantrell says. “You have to have someone whose abilities complement your own skill set.” Attkisson and Cantrell work in synergy, often working from each other’s findings and insights. “I will find something [whose] the visuals feel good, and he’ll find that fits right into the strategic expression,” says Cantrell.

While some artists may use pen and paper, Cantrell attributes advances in digital technology to advancements in his work. “Digital tools have evolved so much that I basically think of my mouse and stylus in Illustrator as an extension of my hand,” he says. “I can actually draw more accurately in illustrator than with a pencil.”


Middle management is the kryptonite of excellence.

Photo: John Barkiple

Using these digital tools, Cantrell has designed for some of the biggest brands in the country, including Nike, Bacardi and a number of popular magazines, to name a few. Despite the high stakes of working with a high profile client, Cantrell feels no added pressure, but is wary of the obstacles presented by working with bigger companies. “I know my process and trust my judgment,” he says. “With greater brand recognition, there are usually more committees and voices that weigh in on the final creative thought, and that presents more roadblocks on the road to excellence. The more voices that weigh, the more you play for the masses, which can often lead to less than desirable results.

Working with a diverse clientele, Cantrell says he’s most drawn to working on projects that fall into two categories: “those who pay the bills and those who appreciate excellence.” He notes that he is fortunate to be in a position where the majority of the work he undertakes is in pursuit of excellence while being profitable. “Hotels and distilleries, especially those that are privately owned, generally care more about quality and see it as essential to their longevity,” Cantrell adds. “Private companies also have less bureaucracy. Middle management is the kryptonite of excellence. I view excellence in my work in the same way: essential to my longevity.

It was in pursuit of excellence that Cantrell won the prestigious Art Directors Club Young Guns Award in 2012 after leaving a design studio in Salt Lake City, where he says he gained experience and knowledge of the industry. “Unfortunately, we just didn’t have the kind of work I was interested in,” he says. “Therefore, I started writing as a side project in 2013 as a creative outlet to fill the void I felt.”


“A good system works without the viewer wondering what makes it work, like a good machine.”

Kevin Cantrell is able to fully appreciate the beauty and humanity presented in every illustrative work he produces.
Photo: John Barkiple

Leaving his former agency proved risky when he had two children at home and a seven-month-pregnant wife. However, it seems that the risk paid off. Among other accolades, last year Cantrell became a Directors Club type Ascender, an award recognizing contributions to typography under the age of 35.

“Type design is system-based while lettering is illustration,” Cantrell explains. “It’s harder to understand and appreciate the systems. A good system works without the spectator wondering what makes it work, like a good machine. Cantrell approaches the brand in a type-centric way, meaning he sees great beauty and humanity in the illustration work he produces.

Much of Cantrell’s work is defined by gold lettering and an art deco style appropriate for the Prohibition era. Specifically, his work for the distillery Tom’s town uses gold as the predominant color for multiple branding components and the type of bold lines essential to 1920s architecture.

“Type as art, or [work that is] more illustration-based, is something that can grab your attention without such knowledge or utility,” he says. “Interestingly, you can still appreciate beauty without understanding a specific medium, but usually it takes originality or exceptional craftsmanship to instill a similar sense of wonder. Illustration also humanizes the system. It personifies the mundane and the inanimate. It’s like looking at an instruction manual rather than reading a novel; you read one out of necessity, the other out of joy. Lettering and typography as a form of art bring joy.

From that joy, Cantrell hopes to forge more luck, hoping to do something more dimensional in stone or metal, or work more into music (“A deluxe vinyl album for U2 would be a dream,” he says).

Kevin Cantrell Studios can be found at kevincantrell.com.


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