This week’s art brand story is with photographer, illustrator, and designer Troy Litten. Some of you might know Troy through his "Wanderlust" series of travel-themed books, journals, notecards, and postcards published by Chronicle Books.
Photography can be tricky to license, but Troy has a gift for creating images that transcend the power of a single photograph. He curates his collections of photos (and, more recently, illustrations) around themes. The resulting artworks are immersive experiences, full of detail, wonderful visual surprises, and a "voice" that is distinctly Troy's own. At the same time these composite images are as decorative as an intricately designed pattern, making his work really appealing for a wide range of product and editorial uses.
Troy established his reputation as an artist through publishing, which I believe can be a great launchpad for an art brand—especially when it’s done in the thoughtful way Troy has approached it. He’ll tell you about this, and much more, in today’s interview.
Betsy: You’ve had a long and enviable career in graphic design. I’d love to know more about that part of your history and how that experience may have informed your approach to your artwork and business.
Troy: I’m a graphic designer/art director by training/profession and for over 25 years have had the good fortune to work for a wide variety of agencies and companies in the design, advertising, retail, apparel, and marketing fields in numerous places such as London, Hong Kong, New York, and San Francisco. Graphic design is all about visually communicating ideas to help clients solve problems and achieve goals and the knowledge and experience I’ve gained in my professional career has been key in my approach to my own artwork and business—being my own client, so to speak (I always seem to find a way to simultaneously be both the frustrated designer and the unhappy client!).
When and why did you make the transition to focus on your photography and building a business based on it?
Having caught the travel bug while at university in Ohio in the ’80s, I’ve worked primarily as a freelance designer/art director for most of my career and have achieved a nice balance between professional work and taking time off to see the world. When I began traveling I was drawn to documenting the things that interest me as a designer which quickly resulted in an immense archive of photography, ephemera, and writing—the raw materials I use in my art. I’ve always loved creating personal design projects as a way to share my world with others and feed my creativity.
I seem to have an inherent desire to make sense of the world around me through collecting, curating, and commenting on the things I see and the experiences I have when traveling. I’m drawn to ways in which different cultures express their unique visual character through everything from street signs to payphones, public transportation such as trains, buses, and subways, to the everyday ritual of having my morning coffee. Buying packaging in the shops, scouring the sidewalks for discarded pieces of paper, collecting airmail stamps at post offices, searching out vintage postcards, and collecting old stuff at flea markets are an integral part of my everyday life on the road.
As a bit of an introvert, I also tend to prefer observation to participation when I travel. Being instinctively drawn to the details of a journey that get overlooked or ignored, or are thought of as inconsequential/unimportant/unappealing, I find I can enjoy, appreciate, or simply find humor in just about anything (from cheap hotel rooms to bad meals to extended airport delays)—really handy when I find myself in unfamiliar environments and situations. For me all these aspects of traveling contribute to a better understanding of and appreciation for each unique destination I visit.
Your "Wanderlust" series with Chronicle Books is such a perfect introduction to your work, your sensibility, your unique point of view and your design aesthetic. You approached Chronicle with a proposal for a book, and it resulted in a long and really fruitful collaboration with many related products. Please tell us more about that process.
My “Wanderlust” series and collaboration with Chronicle Books (which began in 2001) were a direct result of the personal projects I was creating around my approach to travel, such as making postcards and mail art for friends and family after returning from trips. Wanting to do something more substantive with all my “stuff”, I took my first stab at a book proposal, titled “One-Way Non-Stop Hello Kitty”, in 1998. Much rejection ensued. Soon after, a designer friend with experience publishing stationery items suggested I fashion my book concept into something more “useful” and two years later my somewhat more realistic proposal for an engagement calendar caught the eye of my first editor at Chronicle Books and “Wanderlust” was born. Much elation ensued! A boxed set of 30 postcards and four journals were quickly followed by an address book (with images of payphones from around the world), a travel journal, an engagement calendar, and in 2005 the “Wanderlust” book. I’ve continued to add to the “Wanderlust” series ever since – a total of 18 titles in 12 years, with the most recent being the “Wanderlust Skulls” and “Wanderlust Streets” journals published last year.
Through a unique presentation of travel photos, ephemera, and design, “Wanderlust” creates a travel experience that anyone who’s ever traveled can relate to by focusing on the commonplace experiences such as trying to sleep on airplanes, waking up in nondescript hotel rooms, ordering meals in foreign countries, finding your way around a new city, the people you meet along the way, and the souvenirs and mementos you return home with. As one reviewer at the time put it, “'Wanderlust'… created one of the most realistic accounts of the beauty, adventure, frustration, boredom, and wonder of travel.”
What have you learned from that collaboration and how has it helped you build your brand?
I’ve learned so much through my collaboration with Chronicle Books! For starters good ideas and a unique approach, coupled with an editor who shares your vision and can help shape an idea into reality, is key. My experience as a designer plays a big role in my publishing success—from knowing how to communicate an idea visually to the ability to design layouts and artwork for printing. Being comfortable with creative compromise when working with a publisher is also important, as long as I don’t lose sight of my initial vision for a work.
It’s been an honor to publish with such a respected publisher as Chronicle Books and they’ve always been top of my list. “Wanderlust” has definitely helped get my work out there and is an important framework on which I continue to build my brand and branch out into other formats and disciplines. I believe the premise of my work—that the joy of travel isn’t about getting there, but about all the fun you can have along the way—is as relevant now as it was when “Wanderlust” was launched.
I so admire your meticulous attention to every design aspect of your artwork, your branding, your pitches to licensees, and your licensed products—from carefully considered color correction, cropping and layout of your photo collage images, to custom lettering for product packaging, it seems nothing escapes your fastidious eye! Although you sometimes joke about your obsessiveness around all the details, the result for your brand and your products is obvious—it’s such a strong and consistent statement. So my question is… how do you know when to let something go?
Thanks, Betsy! Yes, immensely obsessive detail driven über perfectionist Capricorn designer here!
Working with clients/publishers/licensees often necessitates making changes to my artwork/designs. I believe I’ve mellowed a bit over time in regards to this inevitability (current editors may disagree) but it’s always difficult to compromise. Sometimes I’ll agree with a request for changes, and sometimes I won’t. But the changes made during design approval phases of many of my projects have almost always made the finished products better, although there have been amendments that with hindsight proved not so great. It’s a learning process—knowing when to stand your ground and knowing when to rely on the expertise of a client—and I try to keep in mind that they pretty much always know a lot more about their industry, markets, and customers than I do.
In my first year of design school I had an instructor who taught us that the real work begins when you think something’s done. My classmates and I affectionately (and rather un-PC-ly) referred to him as the “Design Nazi” and his advice was really integral to the formation of my approach to my work both professionally and personally. For example, when I can’t find just the right fonts I design them myself—there are 3 custom designed fonts throughout my Wanderlust work and I hand-lettered the title type for the packaging of my “Muchos Autos” puzzle published last year by Galison. In my opinion, going that extra mile will always result in something that feels much more special.
You seem to me to have a great deal of comfort with the negotiation side of licensing and with the design approvals phase. These are two areas of licensing where I find a lot of artists are reluctant to ask for more favorable terms, or to insist on seeing another proof. You don’t shy away from those conversations. Has this ever backfired on you? What tips do you have for other artists to be better advocates for themselves?
Ah, the joys of contract negotiations... Working with licensees always involves contracts and my approach to this inevitability is pretty much the same as how I handle my working relationships on the creative side: be willing to compromise but be strategic and fight for what’s most important to you. I’ve yet to pass on a project because I can’t reach agreement on a contract, although I’ve come pretty darn close to throwing in the towel.
I suggest learning as much as you can about the ins and outs of contracts and don’t get bogged down by all the legal-speak mumbo-jumbo. It’s important to understand the gist of all contract clauses and their implications both near- and far-term. Learn about what typically constitutes a good/fair deal and what to steer clear of. Try to network with other artists who have similar licensing experience and compare notes—“industry standard” contract terms seem to me a bit of a moving target (there are lots of “boilerplate” contracts out there). As much as I hate to say it, from my experience licensees tend to “low ball” initial offers and expect negotiation.
When reviewing a contract my main concerns are usually royalty rate, advance, term of license, production grant (for designing print-ready mechanicals), level of involvement in design decisions and proof reviews, and clarity on the exact rights to my artwork (and also what’s not included in those rights).
Most importantly I highly recommend consulting a professional attorney who specializes in intellectual property, especially when first weathering the contract negotiation storm—there’s a big learning curve! I spent a considerable chunk of the advance on my first publishing projects on legal fees but it was worth it. My attorney worked directly with my editor and made numerous requests for amendments, much to the surprise and chagrin of my editor who commented that none of their other authors request so many changes. My attorney’s reply: Then your other authors don’t have adequate legal representation.
I know you’ve been doing a lot of illustration work lately. Please share what’s in the works and how you’re building on the brand you started with “Wanderlust”. What products you’re dreaming up, shows, special projects?
I’ve lately been exploring drawing and illustration as a new way to present the “Wanderlust” aesthetic and all the stuff that inspires me—from my travel collections of photos of signage (stop signs, no dogs signs, walk/don’t walk signs) to shiny objects found at hardware stores. I’m currently working on a series of illustration collages based on vintage travel ephemera such as old airline baggage tags, hotel luggage labels, and transportation tickets which I’ve fashioned into a set of journals.
A current dream project is creating a book and exhibition of my impressions of Eastern Europe, from the early 1990s to now, featuring photographs, ephemera, and writings to share my appreciation for the visual aesthetic of this unique time and place. I would love to curate/create an immersive gallery exhibition that explores our connection with travel and the world around us through the presentation of common travel experiences utilizing both still and interactive elements that allow viewers to react with the content, share their experiences, and respond to the experiences of others. I also hope to continue to find new ways to share my love of travel and design through photography exhibition work, new publishing formats, editorial endeavors, and surface and product design applications of my photographs and drawings.
And, as I approach my 50th birthday, I just wanna keep traveling!
Wishing you many more adventures, Troy. I can’t wait to see what you bring back from your upcoming trip to Southeast Asia and I’m really grateful to you for sharing your story here.
Travel vicariously with Troy on his website, Troyland, in his Etsy shop, and on Instagram (@troylitten). You can also journey with Troy to an exotic San Francisco destination known as Casa Troy… aka Troy’s house, which was featured last year on Design*Sponge. As you might expect, his very personal vision shines through in every aspect of his amazing home.
If you Pin or otherwise share these images, please attribute to Troy Litten and link back to this post or Troy's website. Thank you!