Interview with Joe Drinker of FourBux

by Emon Hassan on May 13, 2008

Interview with Joe Drinker of FourBux

Joe Drinker is the pseudonym of graphic designer Joe %&#@!{} I’ve been a fan of his blog, FourBux, ever since I’d stumbled into it almost a year ago. His writing is packed with a brand of humor I like. His cartoons? I blame him for the sudden burst of laughter he got out of me because of that very first strip. He keeps coming back with more which is, frankly, not helping me get rid of the happy-induced wrinkles around my eyes.

So…who is Joe? You may know 50 things about him, but you won’t know his name. I can tell you that he lives in Arizona, and…yeah…that’s all. It doesn’t matter. It matters that he agreed to do this interview and share his thoughts on the many things he is involved in and with; and share more than he has in his blog.

I don’t know of any other person who’d get my ‘typefaces as famous characters’ question and answer it the way he has. My interviews are usually an excuse for me to pick the brains of folks I admire who look at their profession and life from a slightly different camera angle.

Mr. Drinker is a member of that club. And if you’re especially a graphic designer/writer, you won’t want to miss this.

E: What influences can you name from your childhood? What were you reading, watching, or listening to?

J: We had a fairly strict set of rules about what we could watch/listen to/read as we grew up. We only watched TV on Thursday nights, because it was “Must-See TV.” To be honest, I only remember that the Cosby Show was on the docket that night, but I think that’s also when Law & Order came out. My mom worked in the courts, so she drank that show up. To this day I still watch it religiously.

As for literary influence, I was an avid reader when I was little, and read everything from the cereal box and junk mail. Eventually I graduated to real, actual books. Not content to have me come home alone after school, my mom let me go to the library until she was done with work.I used to pride myself on being able to read an entire Hardy Boys book in an afternoon…not bad for an elementary school kid.There were a ton of them, and after I blew through those I tried to read the Nancy Drew series, but I just couldn’t do it.

If we’re talking about comic influence though, I’d have to say it was a two-fold answer. First, Garfield. Jim Davis’ was a huge influence on me, if for no other reason than the sheer volume of work. Watching the metamorphosis of Garfield (and Jon and Odie) from the beginning really gave me not only an appreciation for the art of the comic strip, but also for how much can be accomplished in a single strip, sometimes in a single frame. Secondly, reading Calvin & Hobbes was like looking at a comic strip of my life. I didn’t have Calvin’simaginary friend, but I had his overactive imagination. I obsessed over Dinosaurs. I loved drawing jets. A sandbox and some Matchbox cars would keep me entertained for hours. Once I began to read C&H, almost every strip hit home. I own just about every book.

Music was a completely different story. I never listened to music growing up, but it was normal. In high school, I got into 50’s music for a while, again, because it was so far from the elevator music that was played in our home if there was any music at all. I felt like a deaf person finally able to hear.

Is that a drum I hear?

E: What do you remember about your first creative work? What was it and how did you feel about it then and how do you now, looking back?

J: The first time I remember writing for an audience was in an English class in the fourth or fifth grade. We had to come up with a fictional piece, it had to be a certain number of pages long and I was coming down to the wire, and had zero ideas. I was looking out the window, probably daydreaming, and noticed a card my teacher had lying open on the windowsill. On the cover was a mouse, sitting under a Christmas tree, and something triggered. I ended up writing a huge story about this mouse and how it might experience Christmas. That story ended up being published in the town’s paper.

It sounds like a bigger deal than it was, but to me then, it was huge.

All I really remember about the process was that once I had the inspiration, and started that flow, the words just poured out of me. It was almost like the story was already there, just waiting for me to figure it out. That rarely happens any more, but when it happens, it’s addicting.

E: That experience didn’t make you want to pursue fiction writing? Do you still write stories?

J: I was really young then, and honestly was still under the impression that I wanted to grow up to be an artist. The idea of being a writer never even entered my mind. I don’t write stories anymore, and the process that writers go through is daunting. There’s a difference between being funny or smart or witty and being able to put it together into a polished piece. There’s so much good content out there as it is that I can barely keep up with the authors I have time to read, much less feeling like I have anything new to add to the mix.

E: How did you get into design work? What is it about designing that defines who you are better or makes you express yourself better?

J: I’ve drawn for as long as I can remember. My mom was always very encouraging when it came to art. She had an associate’s degree, dad was a blue-collar guy, and they thought that if I grew up to be a famous artist it would change the family forever. I always wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but I figured out early on that it’s a tough gig if you want to make money before you’re dead.

Getting into the design field was the natural progression of my love of art. One, because I can make a nickel at it, but also because it held a huge mystique.My grandfather was an ad man, back in the sixties in Detriot. My mom idolized her dad, everything from his smoking to his martini lunches and big convertibles. He was a horrible family man, but he was the definitive cool.

He died the summer before I was born.

As for helping me define myself, sheesh. If I knew how to define myself, I’m betting I wouldn’t be in design at all. Sadly, I’m not one of those off-the-wall crazy creative types, although I respect them. By comparison, I’m quiet, pretty withdrawn, but I’m also okay with that. I have people tell me all the time that they don’t think of me as a designer, and it’s because I don’t fit the stereotype.

I don’t even own a black turtleneck.

There are differing levels of creativity. Look at Einstein – extremely analytical, mathematical, precise, but creative nonetheless. Then, at the other end, Pablo Picasso, who is so creative that he actually sees the world differently than the rest of us. A lot of designers skew that way…more like “arteests” than mathematicians.

I’m much more linear than many of my counterparts. That makes my work more tame to be sure, but probably also more mainstream.

I’m not painting the Sistine Chapel; I’m creating a brochure. There is a difference. The comic strip is the first real free-form thing I’ve done. Something that is truly mine, without the overshadowing pressure to make a buck on it.

E: Do you feel that not having the pressure of making money from your strip lets you express more freely? Do you feel your strip won’t remain truly you if it took off and brought you that pressure?

J: What? I was promised a big syndication deal. If that’s going to fall through I have some phone calls to make. Really though, the idea that I can even just do something like this for fun, and that other people enjoy, is great. If there was the added pressure that I had to come up with this stuff for income it may just put me over the edge. That said,however, if it were my sole occupation, I think I could make it work. There are tons of stories about the weird happenings that I can draw from, but right now I just don’t think I have the time. It’s really more time consuming than I thought to produce even a three-panel comic.

E: How do you approach a design assignment? What questions do you ask yourself before you start? Do you have an example of one such project that outlines the process? Sketches, corrections, finishing touches, what it has taught you, etc?

J: As much as I like to draw, sadly I don’t get to do much of that any more, in the true sense of the word. We’re on computers all day long, and sometimes starting with pencil and paper is counter-productive, at least to what I do. The exception is if I’m creating a logo…that is my excuse to doodle. The computer is great for streamlining the process, but it also sanitizes it as well.

Most of what I do is reactive. It’s a visual response to a need, whether that need is to disseminate information, or to build a brand, or to sell something. Rarely is that need defined by my person. I am given a task, and that task is to take this collection of information, put it into a format that meets these business goals, and, if possible, do it under budget.

Every now and then there are moments of brilliance, that epiphany when the perfect idea falls into place, but again, those seem to be rare. Maybe I’m just jaded.

I had one client who exclusively built dentist’s offices. I didn’t even realize that was an industry, so at least I learned something. Any way, they wanted to do a series of postcard mailings, and I had this idea to highlight the similarities between building an office and dentistry: both using drills, fixtures, braces, the whole spiel. As the designer, it wasn’t really my job, but the idea was too good not to pass on.

In the end, the client agreed to only a couple of the concepts, and they were so watered down that I couldn’t even be proud of them.

That’s the other end of this industry; the client. It doesn’t matter how ingenious a concept is, if the client can’t get their head around it, the idea won’t see the light of day. I think in the end, that’s why my style works out…you don’t have to have an advanced art degree to understand anything I design.

E: How do you deal with that frustration when your concept is watered down and your original concept never makes it out there? Is it any different when you’ve worked with clients as a freelancer?

J: It’s frustrating, but I’ve gotten to the point that I’m not willing to fall on my sword for a project. Bottom line is it isn’t my project, and if the client wants something different they’re the one paying the bill. Freelance or the 9-5 gig, it’s all the same. If they don’t use it, I can always tuck it away and maybe tweak it to work with a new project.

E: What software, hardware, appliances, and unorthodox methods do you use to work on your design and cartoon projects?
J: The only unorthodox method I use in the comic strip is that I try to draw from real-life experiences. The tools are pretty much the same for what I do during my 9-to-5.

The true reason behind the strip is that for the longest time, I was under the impression that everyone had weird experiences in their day to day lives. I just figured that they weren’t paying close enough attention to appreciate just how humorous the situation was, but as I talked about my day people would just start laughing.

My mother in law has always told me to write a book, but that seemed like it would be difficult, plus the fact that my wedding ring has programmed into me the natural inclination to do the opposite of what she suggests. A blog seemed like the way to go.

The comic appeared almost a year into it, more as an experiment at first. While the timing and dialogue of some of my subjects are easily delivered in a text-based form, others just need to capture the slice of time and people involved.

For example, sure you could read about a guy getting hit in the junk with a golf ball, but isn’t it funnier when it’s on video? Unless it’s you, of course, but that’s another story.

I would like to do the comic more often, but I don’t want to run the risk of it becoming another obligation. At least if it’s sporadic, I can feel like there’s a release to it. It takes a while, too. I think Scott Adams had it right…go for line art and let the dialogue carry it.

E: What are some of your favorite typefaces? If each were a famous character – from any field – who would (s)he be?
J: I’m a sucker for the classics: Helvetica would be my number one. It’s nice that it’s coming back into popularity again. Thank you again for the tip on the “Helvetica” movie. My wife almost made it through the opening credits, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Otherwise, I’m all about the clean lines: Optima is one, Myriad is another. Palatino is where I go for an aproachable serifed face.

If they were famous characters, who would they be? Crap. Wish I’d read the second part of the question before I came up with the list.

Lincoln

Helvetica: I’d pick Abraham Lincoln for this one. The font is straight and honest, it looks great in black, and is taller than many of the others.

Diana

Optima: Something about the delicate lines and the blend of serif and sans serif look. Very elegant…maybe like Princess Diana? She’s the last person I can come up with who embodied elegance.

Letterman

Myriad: Something about this font strikes me as comic, with a serious twist. Dave Letterman, perhaps?

Palatino

Who could Palatino be? I have thought and thought about it. I can’t come up with anyone. Coffee must be wearing off.

E: Business aspect of design work is almost never talked about. What have you learned from your own free-lance work?

J: Running a business is hard, at least for me. I’ve often said the business of running the business takes the fun out of it. It probably isn’t talked about much because it’s the ugly part of entrepreneurship. Billing, pricing, following up on delinquent clients, taxes, it all adds up. And typically, creative-type people aren’t the best ones to be managing the books.

Numbers don’t lie, regardless of what font they may be in.

That said, there’s also adrenaline rush from doing something you enjoy and owning it. Making a living at it is gravy. Many of my designer cohorts farm out the bookkeeping, but I’ve found that doing it myself it keeps me involved with every step of a client’s project.

That, and I’m cheap. Good accountants are expensive! I send out the taxes, but the rest of it stays in my office. Thanks Quickbooks Pro!

E: Name 2 people whose work have made you approach your own differently. They can’t be designers, cartoonists, or writers.

J: I have a friend in town who also owns his own business. He’s a printer, and while some people think that the world of print is being pushed to extinction by the internet, it isn’t happening yet. What it has done is created whole new technologies and methods to work faster, cheaper, and smarter. Now, while not all of what he learns applies to the world of graphic design, truths can be extrapolated from his hard-learned lessons. Even though he is frantic all the time from being busy with work, family and his own life, he is always looking for the next new trend, trying to figure out which way the industry will go. He is constantly learning, whether it’s a new software program or a business model, his mind never shuts down.

I realize how unorthodox this answer is going to seem, but I have to say Bob Newhart. Something about his dry sense of humor, his timing and delivery. I didn’t realize until later, but I would have to say that whether consciously or subconsciously, he made an impression on me. I can’t put my finger on it specifically, but I find myself thinking “what would Bob do?” I may have bracelets made up.

E. Tip time. 3 tips each on the following: a) Corporate web design b) Personal Blog design c) Print ad design.

J: Whew. This could be a big one.

a) Corporate web design tips

#1: Test everything. You may think you know what your users want, or how they think, but user testing always uncovers some new piece of information. Like this one: we just assumed that everyone knew it was standard practice for the site’s logo to be a quick link back to the home page. Not so. In our tests, almost nobody knew about it, or even thought to try it.

#2: Decisions will be made that have no basis in reality. Pick your battles and design for the usability of the greater audience. Here, our GM hates the color purple (I’m sure he was fine with the movie). Nothing, in print or web, will ever have purple in it. Thank God our logo isn’t purple.

#3:Take the time to research. There are a ton of resources out there that can point you in the right direction. Forrester reports, trade magazines, usability studies, any knowledge you can absorb will make you a better designer. In the end though, it may not be your call. See tip #2 above.

b)Personal Blog Design
#1: Some of the same rules apply here. Anymore, people are totally plugged into the web. If the sites they go to for work or news have a style they like, if your personal site has terrific content but a lousy design, chances are they won’t stick around to read it. It may be worth it to ask friends/readers what they think of your site. External feedback is invaluable.

#2: I don’t know of and major blog platforms out there that don’t have one, but make sure your site has an RSS feed. Some of my favorite blogs are ones that I may only actually visit once a month. The rest of my reading is in my RSS reader.This will also facilitate reading on mobile devices…another thing you want to allow for.

#3: I think that developing a brand for your blog goes a long way towards gaining readers. I’m not saying mine’s perfect, but I have made the effort to develop a consistent look and feel. People may also want to consider developing a logo. This seems to be a fairly debatable topic, especially in design circles. I like having one, as it gives me a base for the brand, but lots of good blogs don’t have one.

c) Print Ad design
There are so many more qualified people/sources to look to for this one. No ads I’ve ever done has ever won an award, or at least not that I know of. Look to creative sources for inspiration. Publications like Communications Arts are a gold mine when it comes to inspiring me. Advertising is one of those fields that are so ingrained in our minds that almost anyone can know what makes a good ad. They probably couldn’t verbalize it, but what they do know is “I like this, I don’t like this.”

My boss likes to toss around the “rule of thirds” too, but if questioned, I bet they’d be hard pressed to really explain why it works.

E: How do you know which story you want to tell is better suited as a cartoon than a written post? Let’s say you’ve decided it would be better as a cartoon – what’s the process like? I’ve also noticed you keep polishing minor details even after you’ve published a strip.

J: I touched on that a little bit earlier. There are just some things that work well in text, but others require a facial expression, or a pause, or a scene to really get the point across.

On some levels, I think there’s also some relief in the knowledge that there are three, maybe four boxes, and that’s it. Everything that needs to happen to get the reader from point A to point B has to happen in that brief section of time. I also think of it as a service to the reader, too. It’s much easier to read a quick comic and get on with the day, than to read three pages of details about it.The drawback is that it takes me longer to produce.

Again, probably because of the abbreviated space, I do continue to massage the panels a bit after I post it. I’ll come back to it, re-read it, make sure the spacing in the text is fine, or fix something in the picture that may have gotten left out or hidden in the frame. I do the same thing in a text post too, but the changes are harder to spot. In a comic format the changes happen right in front of you.

For what it’s worth, I’ve entertained the idea of doing a flash-based cartoon, but that is just too big a project to tackle. As it is I’m lucky to get out one comic a week, and a flash version would be once a month if I were lucky. I’m no Chuck Jones.

E: How did FourBux start? What would you have missed out on if you hadn’t made up your mind and said to yourself, “That’s it, I’m starting a blog”?

J: It was a combination of reasons, really. There was a slight desire to put my story out there and see if people really did find these experiences entertaining, or if everyone had them, as I suspected. The other part was that honestly, I was going through a rough patch in my personal life, and really just needed someone to talk to, about anything. Ironically, I’ve never been the type of person to keep a journal. I don’t want to write things on paper and hide them in a notebook, but I’ll vent in front of the watching world. Go figure.

I put my first post out there on March 15, 2007. The equivalent of a “hello, world” post, and I figured if nobody read it, that’s fine. At least I’m doing something creative as a hobby/therapy.

It was began anonymously, more because I always wanted the option of really spilling my guts if I felt like it. That, and that most of the fodder for these asinine stories comes from my day job, and I didn’t want to offend my way into the unemployment office. In fact, it was only in February that I told my wife about it, and that was under duress. The blog is still pseudo-anonymous, but if someone really wanted to figure it out it wouldn’t be difficult. I just would rather not have my name come up on a Google search with the abstract “runs a web site dedicated to making fun of his job at X company.”

I think what I would have really missed out on is really great people. I’ve gotten to know cigar critics, Texas housewives, New York film producers, European web programmers, you name it. There’s no way our paths would have crossed if it weren’t for the blog. On some levels, I think that’s why I still make the effort.

E: Advise a young designer-to-be about the corporate world and the things school never prepares someone for.

J: One of the things that school can’t prepare you for is that regardless of how good a designer you are, no matter how good of an eye you have, no matter how much talent oozes from your finger tips, the fact is that you won’t be designing in a vacuum. It’s all about the client. What they need, what they want, what they think they want. There are opportunities to educate the client, inform them as to why a decision was made and why, in your trained and professional opinion, it is the right direction to go, but at the end of the day it comes down to what the client wants.

Being humble goes a long way. Being teachable does too. If you’re the best designer in the world, but by being a cocky jerk you alienate all your clients, does it make any difference how good you are?

There was a designer in my city who designed the logo for a major mall in the area. This mall was basically a landmark, one of a few places that everyone in the city could identify. It was a great project, and he got paid an insane amount of money. That money, along with the pseudo-fame that went with it, went straight to his head. Suddenly his prices were through the roof, and he had priced himself right out of the market. Last I heard he wasn’t even designing anymore.

E: Can you recommend a couple of books every design student should read or magazines they should read regularly?

J: Books are a tough call, as the industry tends to change pretty quickly. If design students are getting into the web world specifically, there are great resources on style sheet-based design, and new technologies developed every day. I hit up csszengarden.com fairly regularly, as well as http://veerle.duoh.com.Magazines are a little better to keep current. I read Communication Arts, Dynamic Graphics, but even non-trade magazines are helpful for a creative jump start. The designs in the trade mags are geared for a specific crowd, but the masses may not appreciate it. If you can spot good design at work in mainstream publications it helps get the juices flowing in your own work as well as ground your designs.

E: What are five of your all-time favorite posts from FourBux?

J: Comics, or all types of posts?

a) If we’re talking comics, I’d go with these:

b) If other posts were included, I’d have to add:

Both events were surreal and made for great stories. Plus, they’re too complex for a comic strip.

E: I want to end this with a, for lack of a better term, ‘requestion.’ Your main character from your current strip meets the first character you’d created (even it’s from your childhood). What would that story be?
J: Hmm, I’d have to chew on it. Honestly, the older character thing would be a stretch, if only because I really never came up with others. That is, until that Mojizu site. I’m so grounded in my day to day life that coming up with fictional characters is tough for me. One that I do want to explore though is the Starbucks Siren character, and perhaps have her be a recurring character in the thread. It would make sense to have her continually popping in and out, as well as she could be the voice of the coffee shop, maybe poking fun at the marketing or something. I haven’t gotten it completely worked out in my mind yet, but I am trying to figure out what it will look like.

Joe Drinker of FourBux.comJoe was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1974, and is one of only three Phoenix-born locals still living here today. He played golf in high school before Tiger made it cool, and drank coffee before it was trendy. He graduated from Grand Canyon University with a degree in Graphic Design, but only after he discovered a double major in Communications and Sociology wouldn’t be the cash cow he’d hoped for. He currently works as a web graphic designer for a mega-corp based in Phoenix. He and his wife just bought a home and are waiting for the first 100-degree day to move in.

www.fourbux.com

Previous post:

Next post: