Phil Balsman is a graphic designer whose primary client is Penguin Random House Publisher Services / Kodansha Comics. He handles all of the cover design and logo design for the print division of the company, as well as many ads and promotional materials, handling roughly 300 covers a year. He recently took home an Eisner Award in Publication Design for his stunning work on the Akira 35th Anniversary Edition Boxed Set.
Phil, we’re both Kubert School Graduates who landed jobs at DC Comics when they were headquartered in NYC, and while I recall some of this due to our time in-house together, can you walk us through your journey from graduate to working professional, and was lettering always something you wanted to pursue?
I think my post graduation story is pretty common; I graduated in 2002, and spent the next year trying to figure out how to make a living while doing the odd part time job and graphic freelance gig. Around the middle of 2003, former classmate Jeremy Regan, who was interning in production at DC at the time, told me that DC was forming an in-house lettering department. I was obviously interested and he put me in touch with Kenny Lopez, who was going to be one of the people overseeing the new department.
I’d always noticed good lettering and typography; I just saw it as another component of good design. I had hand lettered a bunch of my own indie comics and projects, but had no real experience in digital lettering. I schooled myself on it as best I could over the course of the next few weeks and went in for the interview, which had an on-site lettering “test” as well. I thought I did ok given the circumstances, but Kenny had forgotten to give me the lettering placements when I did the test; I did’t even know I was supposed to have them, I figured part of the job was deciding placement and flow of the conversations.
So I guess for being as inexperienced as I was, and not having all the resources I should have had, what I did was pretty good, because I started a couple months later.
How many years did you letter for and what are some of your personal highlights from that time? Any favorite runs you lettered?
I was in the lettering department for about 4 years or so, until the end of 2007. When I look back on the first year, it’s rough—a lot of things I would never do later, a lot of misplaced effort. I had the bad habit of just going overboard on title design and sound effects, spending way too long on certain things, trying to do crazy stuff. But eventually I got a balance and did some books I can still look at today and be happy with. Particularly All-Star Superman, Scalped, Blue Beetle, Seven Soldiers Frankenstein, Swamp Thing and Green Lantern Corps, which were all actually some of my favorite comics we were making at the time, so I don’t know if that correlates directly or not; enjoying the book you’re working on means you end up doing better work sometimes—it definitely makes it go smoother I think.
As an in-house letterer you also designed components for the books that lasted long after you left. Your Green Lantern captions immediately come to mind. Many letterers (myself included) adopted them and would riff on them for years. In most instances when designing something for a company it becomes their property. And if you design something for a single book it can then be given to other letterers for an entire line of books. Was this ever something that bothered you? What are your thoughts on this practice?
It never really bothered me; we all know the situation going into it and we’re all basically “shepherds” in that regard—we care for the sheep, we guide them, but they’re not ours, we don’t own them. In many situations I think individual contributions should be credited and recognized, but when it comes to lettering style guides and such, I take it as a compliment that they’re used beyond me—makes me feel like I designed them well enough that they could be used for so long and by people other than myself.
At Random House, have you always been a cover designer? I recall you were in-house, then freelance, then you had your own office, and it’s totally possible my mind has made some of that up. So, what job titles have you had there, and what exactly does a production designer do?
So moving across the street to (then) Random House was totally unexpected. I was happy lettering at DC, for the most part. Sure it’s frustrating and stressful being a perfectionist and wanting to do all this extra stuff when it’s such a deadline-oriented environment, and admittedly, it was tough to get by financially in New York City on what we were making at the time. But the place was my life; I loved the people I worked with, they were my best friends, all my social activities revolved around the place and the people who worked there. It was my only “ family" in the area, being from the midwest originally. My plan was to stay there, or as much of a “plan” as you have in your 20’s, anyway.
In 2007, a friend of a friend had given my name to Dave Stevenson, who was overseeing the cover art direction for Del Rey Manga at the time. They had been licensing manga from Kodansha, the largest publisher in Japan, and the imprint had been going for a while at that point. Dave was looking for someone to do cover design for manga, but really wanted to get some more interesting logo designs for the titles; something that would help “get manga seen by all kinds of readers”, I think was what he said. So I got the call and figured I’d go do the interview over my lunch break, if for no other reason than to be courteous for the invitation, and see what the job was about. I had no illusions about actually getting the job; I didn’t feel i had enough experience in the layout and pre-press areas to be hired for that kind of design position.
But the interview went really well, Dave and I hit it off, he really liked my portfolio—which was almost exclusively title treatments and cover blurb lettering for DC comics. He offered me the job right there, which I was taken aback by. I had to be honest and say I needed to think about it, and also to be upfront and tell him that I knew very little about pre-press, InDesign or (ugh) Quark, which were all things cover designers used there on a daily basis. And it’s cheesy as hell, but I’ll always remember him telling me “Anyone can learn the technical stuff, I want to hire you for the skills that can’t be taught.” But the offer boiled down to simple math—three times what I was currently making, and half as much stress. The opportunity to make new things and have them be seen, as well as learn new skills. It was a hard decision because I didn’t want to leave DC, but it was the kind of choice that’s so difficult that it must be right, if that makes any sense.
I was basically “perm-lance” at Random House. I worked in the office every day, for 8 or so hours, I had a giant cubicle that was basically an office without a ceiling, the walls were like 6 feet high had a door, (thankfully this was in the days before open office plans became a thing). I was technically “full-time freelance”, which meant I was paid hourly, I got overtime, I got health insurance, I could do other jobs for other companies, I could do freelance illustration work (but not design work) for other art directors at Random House, and I was generally less scrutinized than a regular employee. I could keep weird hours and no one seemed to mind. In some ways it was a step below a regular employee, but at the time it worked for me. Eventually the license from Kodansha came up for renewal, and Kodansha wanted to start publishing in the US themselves, so it wasn’t renewed. Without the Kodansha license (and many other factors), Del Rey Manga decided to cease operations. I was basically given the option of staying at Random House and moving over to the Publisher Services division, which was going to handle all the production, editing, etc. for the newly formed Kodansha Comics, or I could take all I had learned and done and go freelance with an agreement that I would handle all the cover design for the print line of Kodansha Comics. Going freelance was terrifying for me at the time, but I realized I’d never have an easier time of it than being guaranteed a full load of work from the start. So I started my own design operation, Odin Star Industries, and struck out on my own in 2010.
Now that you’re an Eisner Award Winning Designer, do you feel any added pressure? Has it changed your mindset in anyway?
This is a tough one to answer without sounding like a complete jackass, but I have to be honest—no, not at all. I’ve worked on many books that have won awards, and Akira taking two Eisners this year, with one being attributed to me specifically—yes, it’s nice, I appreciate the recognition for my work, and I’ll always do my best to be courteous and accept congratulations graciously, as uncomfortable as I am with it, just being somewhat socially awkward as many of us are. But I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself, probably too much, to outdo myself and do more and be better than I was yesterday. That’s just caring about your craft and having a desire to grow. If you look at your career like a marathon, like a long-distance race that you run, some people like to think of a winning an award as crossing the finish line first, getting a trophy. They might look at as a goal. I see winning an award as a sign or a flag a cheering spectator waves at you as you run past; it’s thoughtful, it’s encouraging, I’m thankful for the acknowledgement, but it’s not my goal, and it’s not why I’m here. The race itself is the goal, and I’d be running it just as hard with no one watching as I would with packed stands.
As you're running this marathon, have you ever questioned it? Did you ever ask yourself if you were on the right personal path for the long haul?
I think a certain amount of self-doubt is a healthy thing. I think there are few things as destructive as absolute certainty—some second-guessing is required to maintain a good balance. Sure, some days are bad and you feel like a fraud or an imposter—most successful people, regardless of their profession, have those days. I think that’s totally normal. If you have nothing but those days—that’s not good, and if you never have those days—that’s not good, either. A little bit of doubt keeps you sharp, keeps your eyes open to all the possibilities, keeps you open to the idea that everything you do might not be the best way to do it all the time. As far as being on the right personal path? I don’t know—I’m sure there was more than one way to get where I am right now, there had to be, and I’m sure there were things I could’ve done, or could still do, to be more popular or marketable. But honestly, one of the things I’m most proud of, if I’m looking at my career in the overall scheme of things—I didn’t have to hurt anyone to get where I am, I didn’t have to take anything away from anyone, I didn’t have to do anything I’m ashamed of or deal with people I wouldn’t want to be associated with (for the most part), and I don’t think too many people can say that.
You’ve been a letterer, a designer, created many a logo. Do you see these as appendages to the same beast, or as separate smaller beasts? Are there any notable differences in the way you approach them?
I think so, they’re all parts of a whole in that sense. The approach can be different depending on the particulars of the project; some books leave a lot of options open for doing interesting work—with more freedom to explore and try new angles of approaching a design problem, you can usually make an effort to achieve harmony between the logo and the rest of the trade design, making the whole thing more cohesive. But sometimes you can end up doing some really cool stuff because of how limited your options are—sometimes the problem helps you make a better solution than you could’ve done without being “held back” by restrictions. But overall I feel it’s important for everything to complement everything else, to surround good art and good ideas with good design.
Presentation matters, how you say it is as important as what you say. Go online any time and you can see a nice bit of cover art surrounded by lackluster design and pirated fonts being used as “logos”. The message that sends to the viewer is louder than anything they’re actually trying to say; it says “I don’t care, and neither should you.” Don’t serve steak on a paper plate.
You’re work is always in demand. Your workload is hefty. How often do you have to turn clients/projects away, and is it difficult to say “no”?
As far as just having to turn clients or projects away, I’d guess and say maybe on average of maybe 3 or 4 a month, maybe? I’m not super-high profile, I don’t spend a lot of time hyping my work or advertising or having a social media presence; I’m literally too busy doing the work to talk about it on a regular basis. Some of the things I have to turn down are smaller projects, small press comics and small companies wanting logos. I try to give smaller clients lower rates and do try to work with them if the project seems fun or interesting.
Sometimes a project sounds cool and you just want to do it, no matter how impractical it may be, you just try to find the time. I can’t do that too much, Kodansha is my main concern and I have to take care of them first. I’m always open to doing work for other companies, it’s just that I don’t go looking for it or asking about it, and the ones I have contacts at tend to assume my plate is too full to do more. And sometimes that is true, most of the time it is, but it’s nice to be asked, and I try to make time for new and different projects when I can; I feel it helps all your work as a whole when you have to stretch a bit.
I ask everyone I interview…If you could only give one piece of advice, be it for lettering, or life, what would it be?
I’m gonna cheat and do two; only because they’re short and I find I’ve relayed them both pretty often to people over the years—
Person first, Artist second. Being a good person will make you better at your job. Being good at your job has no effect on your person.
Take pride IN your work; don’t take your pride TO work.
What that means, (to me anyway) is that it’s important to do work you’re proud of, it’s important to do your best, but your ideas will not always be the best ideas all the time. Listen to others, and when their ideas are better, make sure you acknowledge them as such. Being right is never as important as producing the best end product you can.