Hillman Curtis: Web and Graphic Design Innovator

You can let the computer screen speak for itself or let Hillman Curtis – the Michael Jordan of web design – provide his theory on the power of motion graphics. “You can’t rely on text to get your message across in different countries and motion is just one more tool that can help you”.

Take it or leave it, the Internet has become a staple of our modern day existence. Curtis has capitalized on the expanding existence of the Internet to revolutionize his design work within its own art movement on the World Wide Web. Despite any formal training in computer graphics, he has relied upon his natural artistic eye for design and industrious work ethic into becoming a legend within the industry.

Curtis is the founder and Chief Creative Officer of Hillmancurtis Inc., a New York based design firm whose client list of big hitters includes: Adobe, Rollingstone.com, MTV, Macromedia, Iomega and British Airways. His accolades include the Communication Arts Award of Excellence, the One Show Gold, the New Media Invision Bronze, and the South by Southwest Conference’s “Best Use of Design” and “Best of Show”. As an author, his new book MTIV: Process, Inspiration, and Practice for the New Media Designer demonstrates how to perceive, comprehend, and perform to our undiminished designer potential. The Hillman Curtis story is one of inspiration and relevance for anyone hoping to release their innermost creative energies.

Rock and Roll Beginnings

Curtis’s innovative design pieces were born from the raw creativity he projected as a ten-year member of a rock band called The Green Things. They played the typical club circuit across the U.S. and had scored a hit song on “Beverly Hills 90210” that eventually landed the band a record deal. He reflects humbly, “I was the singer/songwriter of the band and played guitar…though not very well”. The record deal never blossomed into fruition and Curtis was left searching for a new creative outlet at thirty years of age.

The hit that The Green Things had on 90210 proved to be an ironic turn of events; what he originally thought would be the big break of his music career became the roots of his design career. He took the money from the publication of the television hit, and bought an old Mac II. With his “new” rig on his desktop, he enrolled himself in a Photoshop class; a program made by Adobe that is the most influential contributor to the growth of digital graphics since the Macintosh itself. A program that he describes as a “pretty exciting place to start for a visual person”.

When asked about hitting age thirty and choosing to begin a different career path, he reflects back on his chance to evolve. “Make no mistake about it…it was hard. But it would have been much harder to not evolve or to not try something new. At the time I just knew I was done with music. I felt exhausted by the thought of starting a new band, calling the 21 year old booking agents everyday to get some horrible Tuesday night slot, and sending the tapes out to managers and record companies…people you wouldn’t really want in your life in any other circumstance. I had put everything into the MCA deal and it didn’t work out. Once out of the deal, I realized how I’d lost sight of my personal values and that got me looking for something I might be better suited for”. Curtis speaks proudly of his musician past as it demonstrates how his experience in the music business led to great success in the design industry. He endured humiliating internships where his bosses were as old as he was and suffered through many rejections and disappointments that provided him with the necessary fire to work his hardest. He recalls, “if nothing else so that I could show the rejecters what they were missing. It’s a very musician mind set…often accompanied with delusions of grandeur”.

Look Who’s Laughing Now

Design is a very democratic field , it doesn’t matter whether you graduated Magna Cum Laude from an Ivy League college, or were President of an association – the bottom line is what you know in the field, and can you produce results. After starting a company with a fellow ex-musician friend, and producing CD-ROM titles for a software publishing company called Broderbund, Curtis began to ride the wave of the technology boom. When that company ended, he got a freelance gig at Macromedia, where he worked his ass off to get hired full time. Once hired, he worked as a freelance designer and within eight months at Macromedia he was their Art Director. This is a rather stupendous achievement to move up that quickly in a wire-to-wire competitive field. Even he confesses, “I did move up very quickly and I think it was a combination of being in a fast moving, changing company and being well suited for the type of work we were doing at the time”.

At this time, he was primarily doing presentation work with a multi-media design program: Macromedia’s Director. He later dampened his feet with After Effects, another flexible multi-media program. The web boom hit and Curtis decided to agressively pursue his interest in web design, which also coincided with his introduction to the motion graphic design program called Flash. Macromedia had just acquired Flash and its entire engineering team. By working in the same building, he had the distinct advantage of merely walking down the hall to ask any Flash developer any question he wanted. Always a film lover and a sucker for the visual side of arts, Flash became his passion and it fit perfectly to accomplish his goals of communicating through the web medium. Curtis ads, “I love film and Flash gave me the ability to quickly experiment with cinematic motion…rhythm and pacing. At the same time I started to become aware of motion designers like Saul Bass, Pablo Ferro and Kyle Cooper”. From this moment on, he dedicated himself to knowing the ins and outs of the program and pushing it to its limits towards providing a captivating message and emotion.

The Firm

Today, Curtis works at the helm of a five-person enterprise that designs under the slogan, “Making the Invisible Visible”. Hillmancurtis, Inc. thrives on their mission to discover their client’s essential vision through theme. By taking that theme and supporting it consistently and clearly, the theme will take off and support the identity of the project. Curtis’s work with Adobe on http://hillmancurtis.com/site2/webmotion01.html is a prime example of his work within thematic boundaries and principles to convey a message with conviction. There is a cinematic result to his work that keeps the viewer’s attention to the very end of the message, an essential element of commercial web communication.

By using emotion to convey a visual message, the firm excels in the broadcast medium as well. At http://hillmancurtis.com/site2/broadcast01.html, there are samples of video work done for Rollingstone.com with interview/music clips of Stevie Nicks, Widespread Panic, Girls Against Boys, Badly Drawn Boy, and Billy Bragg. These personal videos shine in portraying a more intimate side of the artist within a cozy living room. This is another side to the business that Curtis loves, although he believes film work is much harder and requires so much more logistical planning than web design. He has worked previously with director Jonathan Demme, of Silence of the Lambs fame and hopes to experiment more within the film industry.

Inspiration Is Everywhere

One might think, as an ex-musician that music might serve as a creative stimulus for his work, especially for someone who works around the clock. Curtis finds himself more in tune with his eyes than his ears. “Sometimes I listen all day on headphones, but I’m more inspired by visuals”. When he does choose music as means of stirring the creative juices, Curtis’s play list consists of Girls Against Boys, TuPac, Radiohead, Talking Heads, BlackStar and Underworld as some of his favorites. Although many previous styles and ideas are borrowed as a source of inspiration for graphic artists, some designs are merely enhancements built upon prior frameworks, eventually resulting in its own identity. New and fresh ideas can be more than a scratch on the head, as many of even the brightest graphic artists struggle with “designers block”. Curtis notes, “I think all creative work has elements that are begged, borrowed, or stolen…but if done right still manages to stand out on its own and truly reflects the time(s)in which it was created. You hear a ton of Pixies in Nirvana, but both bands, represent and speak to/about a time in my life and remain completely original in that right”.

Non-Geek Factor

For all the non technically adept people out there looking to leap into a computer driven field, even Hillman Curtis had trouble figuring out how to use email at one time. He explains, “My guitarist once tried to explain the difference between memory and a hard drive, it took hours and I still didn’t get it. I used to lay out type with the rub on letters for our band flyers and then go to a copy center and dup them up. One day my friend showed me Freehand (a Macromedia illustration program) and I couldn’t believe it. Although it took me a couple years from that point to get into the field, I instinctively felt that I could be good with design, computers and software”.

In a world surrounded by the cell phones, pagers, laptops, I-pods, and other gadgets, it’s easy to get drowned within our technically evolving society. Curtis hasn’t owned a television in 15 years and confesses he never will. He explains, “I think what’s important is being open to the possibilities of new technologies and I am fascinated by the progress, but I am not driven to own them myself.” Looking for a system to better balance his life, Curtis hopes his days of around the clock work are nearing its end. Although he thrives on meeting his client’s goals, his venture into web design is only perhaps the beginning of another creative cycle yet to enrapture him. In a fitting conclusion to fulfilling your creative potential, Curtis insists, “Don’t be afraid to proclaim your love”.

That being said, love will appear where you least expect it, go out and find it!

For more information on the work of Hillman Curtis, please visit hillmancurtis.com.

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