“I always thought of being in the design industry as you designing as a service, doing what's needed for that specific problem. Whereas this is the first time where I had like a very distinct stylized way of doing things and the company specifically wanted that.”
I had an incredible time interviewing Nate Williams. Moved by the world and all of its colors, Nate cultivated his style in Argentina and began illustrating after a life-changing event happened. He prides himself in encouraging youths to stay curious and seek out possibilities deemed impossible. Nate builds his illustrations piece by piece (or ingredients, as he calls them), not setting expectations for the final dish. He loves the excitement that comes with spontaneity in his environment, which drastically contrasted his past strategic work at Microsoft. Continue reading about Nate Williams below.
Who is Nate Williams?
My name is Nate Williams. I grew up in the Bay Area, and I’m dyslexic. I grew up around skateboarding and punk culture, and my mom was always very encouraging of curiosity, learning and figuring out things: so I kind of gravitated to art like most kids do (and especially being dyslexic). It was a really good way I could express myself whereas in other mediums it might have been more difficult. As I have gotten older, yes, I make art. I'm an “illustrator” artist, but I think I'm just kind of more of a curious person and I dabble into all sorts of things. So art is one of my many interests for sure.
I see that you have a lot of student friendly, downloadable content - what inspired you to create for children in the classroom?
I've done a lot of different website projects, and that (children’s workbook) was one of them. When I was living in Argentina, there were lots of kids that weren't in great economic situations. Our kids were bored when we were taking the bus, and I started creating these exercises and having them think of things at bus stops and everything. Then my daughter loved it so much that she wanted me to come talk at our class. So I prepared some exercises for her class, and they really resonated with the kids.
So then around maybe 2011, I created this website called Cre-activists where people pose questions and people can upload their ideas, you know, to whatever that question was. It was kind of like a small community website where people from around the world would submit their ideas on different subject matters. And so I did that for a while and then retired that website as I got interested in other things. I kept the kid exercises just as something to distribute for teachers to use. Teachers have been using my artwork, kind of just as a kind of activity for the class, you know, and so I just said, okay, they're doing this anyway, here's some more material for you. So I just kind of made it easier for them to do it.
How did you get started as an illustrator in the industry?
I was actually a designer and art director before I was an illustrator. I was about 30 years old, and I always wanted to illustrate. I know so many people in the industry that have very high level positions that if they could, all they would do is make art. I was an art director for X-Box (the first art director of X-box).
Growing up, I always had exchange students near me - I was exposed to all the different ways people live around the world at a very young age, and I was very curious about that. One of my goals in life was to live in another country. I really wanted to do this and my mom was the catalyst to kind of think about these things now, at 30. So I talked to other illustrators at the time, even though I wasn't an illustrator, and I was like, “Can you really make a living doing this stuff?” They were making a very good living, you know, but I just didn't even think of it as an option. I always thought of art as kind of more of a hobby. At the same time, I had traveled to Spain and Costa Rica and a few other Spanish speaking places, and I met a lot of fun, interesting people. I started noticing a pattern: a lot of these people that I met were from Argentina. I was like, what's going on in Argentina? Like they're like these really fun, creative people. At the time, Argentina had just gone through an economic crisis. Their currency was basically debased, and there's like hyperinflation, everything - so it was really affordable to live down there.
At the beginning, I got a lot of feedback from art directors. They liked my work but just didn't know how to use it, you know? So I just started doing my own projects: I sold silkscreen posters, made little ziens and books, and over time, companies started to hire me. One of my very first big clients I had was Converse shoes. They hired me to do a poster and an ad campaign for them.
It was a really important moment for me because I always thought of being in the design industry as you're kind of designing as a service, doing what's needed for that specific problem. Whereas this is the first time where I was I had like a very distinct stylized way of doing things and the company specifically wanted that. So they were kind of hiring Nate Williams, as opposed to I just need, you know, an image of x, y, or whatever.
Did any other artists influence your style? Who was your biggest influence then?
I think like Dr. Seuss really influenced my style. I'm not like I tried to draw stuff that looks like Dr. Seuss, but he really kind of showed me that you can represent a tree in a zillion different ways. It doesn't have to be holistic. There was kind of a moment where I thought, “Wow, you can rethink how you represent everything from a cloud to a tree to a person because every single thing in his world is so unique.” David Carson, the graphic designer, definitely didn't play by the rules and questioned the way we approach things. I think I love that kind of 90s Graphic design because it was so creative and exploratory and, and just interesting. It’s like you can kind of make up your own rules. As I moved to different cultures this was also reinforced because of how you think things work, coming from another country. Some stuff that's important in your country is not important at all in another country - and it just shows you how all this stuff is just human constructs and we just come in, and think that's the way things are, but it's really just the reality we impose on ourselves, you know.
How did you find that balance between making sure you fulfill something a client wants versus something that you want to fulfill artistically?
I really think you should try everything and push things. And a lot of people ask me how you get a style and as an artist, there's a practical reason why a style is important. One is because the client is going to hire you, and they want to reduce risk. By knowing that if they hired you, they'll predictably get a certain type of result. If you're too unpredictable, then it's too much of a risk. Like I think they're gonna play like Metallica, music and then they play symphony. I'm like, Whoa, that's not what I was thinking, you know? So I think you have to be somewhat predictable to be an illustrator as a business, however, I think a style isn’t something you just invent and do.
A lot of young people might be inspired by different musicians or different artists, saying “I'm inspired by a certain artist and I can't be them. Wow, they've done everything I wanted to do.” Eventually you're gonna get to subject matters that they haven't done. And that's when your style is really going to come out.
I think one thing that I always do, like if something hires me, I ask them like, what are three pieces of mine that you specifically like and why do they resonate with you? And the reason I do that is not so I'm derivative of those pieces, but it's more just that I make sure they're familiar with my style. So I want them to have an idea of what they're gonna get, you know, I mean, so it's not, it's not a total surprise, like, whoa, wait a second. I didn't realize it was like this, you know, and so I feel like it's kind of like forcing them to kind of do due diligence on hiring me, you know, and so I just did a collection for Disney. And I'm like, wow, that seems like a really bad match. I don't see my work as Disney work, you know? So I asked them to reference three things that they specifically liked, and then they referenced these things. I was like, wow, I guess they didn't know what they like, you know, and I was actually editing myself. So my first round of concepts were kind of self edited. I'm like, this is probably what Disney likes, you know, and they came back to me and they were super cool to work with. They're like, “We don't want this, we want exactly what you do. You know, we want you to bring whatever it is to it, you know?” They kind of gave me permission: hiring me and a second permission by saying no, like, let's kind of do exactly what you do. I was much happier with the work when I did that and they loved it. And I felt like it really represented the work that I do.
You mentioned change, the idea of change, how you want to make a change. If you could change anything within your power right now. What would you change?
I think one of the most powerful things to change is someone's point of view. Not that they need to have your point of view, but just that your point of view is that you see everything in the world. If you have a healthy point of view and you see possibilities and you see optimism, you're going to enjoy life and have an impact on other people's lives for the good. I think that's the one of the most important things that you can influence and when you're young, moments are more impactful just because you have less moments. It's kind of how you form your perspective of the world. So that's why I see young people as people that we really want to be kind of judicious about how we treat and encourage. I think when you encourage like a five year old or a six year old, it goes very far, you know, it can really change the way they see the world and how they approach things, you know, and so I probably say that I I'd say that if we can just as a society, just really try to build healthy points of view, you know.
What's next for you?
I do have a full time job. I'm a creative director, an artist and illustrator. But I just want to, like on a career level, to basically be able to have the capability to have an idea and make it happen. Whether it's an event, a book, a piece of artwork, a product, you know, really trying to do that. To have the capability to make ideas come to life. On a personal level, it's just like, I just want to have a positive impact. I really want to encourage someone that then encourages someone else that encourages someone else and the net effect, you know, it's just gradually changing things in a good way. I like mentoring people and being mentored. I think there's something really nice about seeing a light bulb turn on in somebody, you know?
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Find more of Nate's work here.
Download Nate's illustration kit here.