Words: Justin Schafer / Photos: Janine Kropla
Christopher Samms is a freelance graphic designer working in Winnipeg. His design style resonates Van Der Rohe’s “less is more” in all the right ways. Chris finds a means to make modern, minimalist design, eye catching and intriguing. You’ve most likely seen his posters pinned to walls and poles all over the city (and outside the city in select porta-potties near St. Malo Manitoba).
Samms is currently one of the go to poster designers for Union Sound Hall. He has been making show posters since back when the Albert was still a venue worth walking into. It was his interest and proficiency in poster work that led him to study design.
A two thousand nine graduate of the Graphic Design Program at Red River College, Chris has accomplished big things in little time. After graduation, Chris was quickly noticed and hired by Clark+Huot, a brand development agency with studios in New York, Toronto, and Winnipeg. There he honed his skills in branding, identity design, advertising, and project management. His quality of work garnered him a role as the Creative Director at Vantage Studios, overseeing and finalizing effective branding projects. This past June Chris left Vantage to pursue a design practice of his own.
On a hazy day in November, Janine and I sat down with Chris at his River Heights apartment. His design aesthetic seemed to bleed through into his workspace, only the essentials. A computer, upon a large practical desk. A vast collection of records, all good work is done in the company of good music. A Super Nintendo, stress relief can be found in the simple stomping of a Goomba. Lastly, a posse of furry and feathered taxidermy friends, cuddly company can make or break long winter workdays, and some apartments don’t allow cats, OK?
As we settled in, folk music played in the background. Jonathan Richman’s voice, telling stories etched in vinyl grooves. Through picture windows the low sitting autumn sun reflected across the hardwood floor, reminding us of those wintery days and the eminent solstice change to come. We sat together in the apartment and talked about Chris’s story, the changes he’s experienced, and all the impressive works in between.
Muddy Water: How did you get your start in design?
Chris: Well I was always into drawing growing up but I got my start in design being in bands and making show posters for bands. I didn’t know what graphic design was at the time but I knew that album art and posters existed and I would make some for the bands I was in. Then someone told me I should take graphic design school and I said what’s that? I checked it out and went to Red River and I loved it.
MW: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment or accomplishments?
C: Designing the livery of a plane for Island Air. I got to go to Montreal and watch them actually airbrush it onto the plane. So that was pretty surreal in terms of scale.
But I think my favourite thing I ever did was the poster for Rainbow Trout two years back. I had an image in mind and I knew my friend Marc Reimer could photograph it. It was just fun gathering things that I wanted to be in the shoot and setting it all up and arranging it. It was a taxidermy fish that I borrowed from Gates Taxidermy in St. Boniface, and a bunch of branches and leaves we found around Ben Jones’ studio. I was scared it wouldn’t work out but it did, and I was really happy with it.
MW: What has been the most frustrating thing you’ve encountered in your work?
C: I’m sure every designer goes through this but just realizing and living through the fact that you can’t just do whatever you want. People go into graphic design with an artistic perspective, but you need to realize that you’re designing something for somebody. A good graphic designer should be able to design for several different aesthetics and industries.
MW: What has surprised you along the way?
C: I still enjoy what I do. This is the longest job I’ve had. And that I can sustain myself.
MW: What is your creative process like project to project?
C: With any project it starts with research. With a branding project I do a lot of research, being familiar with the industry that I’m branding for and what they want to do and who is doing it well. If it’s a show poster, my research just consists of listening to the band. From there Ill usually gather some images of inspiration and get an idea in my head of where I want the look to go. Then its just experimentation and sending proofs back and forth with the client and just nailing down something that I like and that the client likes.
MW: Some designers swear by a few fonts and despise all others, how do you fit into that spectrum?
C: It is very easy to get stuck with some fonts. I always try to look at what’s new in typography. Certain fonts get over used and it’s easy to point it out but everybody does it. Gotham is a font that is used a lot but that’s because it’s a really good font, same with Helvetica. I’ve sort of found a replacement for Helvetica but I use it all the time.
MW: Is it a secret?
C: (Laughs) Yeah I’ll keep that font a secret.
MW: Can you talk a little bit about your experience working on the Royal Canoe album?
C: The Royal Canoe album was a real fun one. A good example of setting aside your own aesthetic or style. They had a very specific idea of what they wanted in their minds but they just couldn’t describe it or get it out. We had a lot of meetings about the feeling of the album and the feeling of the art. They were trying to channel their thoughts through what I can do. They had two pieces from an artist named Danny O’Conner, and they wanted to combine the two.
It was definitely outside my comfort zone. I usually have a minimal style and that’s where I start or where I try to push the designs to but this image had to be big and powerful and splashy and vibrant. The project involved working with paintings and Photoshop textures, which I wouldn’t exactly call my style, but I was happy with the result.
MW: Can you talk about your involvement in the branding of the 2014 Juno Awards?
C: I was part of a team to develop the identity and the concept, including the tagline. It had to express what the Junos coming to Winnipeg means for the city and why Canada should be excited about it. So once we had the concept down, we did a couple of preliminary designs. Then at Vantage I finished the product by creating the design and the look of it. The logo (We Speak Music), will be on banners and print material.
MW: What are you currently working on?
C: Show posters for Union Sound Hall, getting back to my roots. A couple of brand projects, one is for ACI Manitoba. They run a website called www.creativemanitoba.com, that helps creative individuals with jobs and resources. They just started a co-working space for artists. I created the brand for that.
MW: What are your plans for the future?
C: I plan on opening a graphic design studio with a storefront, with my partner, Kate Kidder. It will kind of be a general store, with general cool things. Things that you can’t get here yet, that you have to order online. We plan on opening that hopefully sooner than a year. Kate’s actually going to some business classes right now and I'll be taking some courses too. We already know how we want it to look and how we want it to run but we just need to know what we're doing first. The studio had always been the dream when I was in school but I’m glad I took 5 years to be in the industry and sort of get to know the ropes.
Samms is one to watch. To see what he has done in years past and keep up with current projects look here: