Russell Gray established his own creative studio in Utah as a designer and illustrator after years of agency work.
He started his career as a copy-room worker at a carpet cleaning chemical company. Someone invited him to tryout for an opening in the graphics department, where he got the job and fell in love with it.
Designing for kicks as a kid, when he found out this could be a career path, he enrolled at university.
Now Russell works for clients such as Nickelodeon, Sony Pictures, Google and loads more.
He’s recently worked on a number of cool film franchises through Mattson Creative, including Ghostbusters and Jurassic Park.
He’s just finished a project with Dreamworks and McDonald’s – designing playing cards based on the animated film Despicable Me 3. The cards are to be put in McDonald’s Happy Meals for children. And although most of us think of minions straight away when it comes to the Universal Studio’s animated trilogy, Russell had to include all the major characters, bringing out their eccentric idiosyncrasies (Felonious Gru’s supervillain plans, anyone?)
He also created design for Despicable Me 3 style-guide artwork, which is being used on a wide variety of product types (clothing, school supplies, wall art) at most major retailers.
Russell tells us about creating stylised versions of the Despicable Me 3 characters, elements to include, creative process and advice for aspiring designers.
Miriam Harris: What was the brief like for the Despicable Me 3 Mini playing card set?
Russell Gray: "Mattson Creative asked me to design stylised versions of the Despicable Me 3 characters for use in a McDonald's Happy Meal face card set. Universal already had a dieline for the cards, and they specified which characters they wanted for each card. From there, I had to figure out the rest. They also wanted playful minions on the other cards."
MH: How did you come up with the design for each card?
RG: "I had a small handful of early renders of the characters available, but I had to make my best guess when adapting them to the particular poses on the cards. I wanted to keep things simple, making the characters as on-model as possible, with as little detail as possible."
MH: What was the most important elements to include?
RG: "The only real requirements were the characters themselves, and of course the suits, etc. I felt I had to do something with the hands on each character, so as to activate the space, which was tricky with some of the characters. Props were allowed, but no weapons."
MH: Why was your early version (seen here) of the cards changed to the final one?
RG: "Originally, I developed two concepts simultaneously: one with more intricate character designs, with lots of line-work and ornamentation, like on a more traditional face card; the other was more simple, flat, and graphic. Prototypes for both options were presented to the client for approval. The simpler, more graphic approach worked better on the smaller card size they originally planned to use."
MH: Talk us through your creative process.
RG: "There isn't much magic to my process, honestly. I try to approach each project as a new opportunity to try something new and different for myself. Often, my process involves a lot of messing up until I find the solution that feels right. I wish it got easier with time, but rarely does the right solution come the first time (though I love it when it does!)."
Image: Russell's style guide art
MH: How would you describe your overall style?
RG: "I don't really feel like I have a style, though, if I could view my own work more objectively, maybe I do. Because of the particular niche I've spent much of my career in, I have to adapt to a variety of different styles. One week, I might find myself creating photo-real renderings of imaginary products, the next week, creating simple stylised character art. I enjoy trying new things, so I try to always stay on my toes, style-wise."
Image: Russell's style guide art
MH: What advice would you have for aspiring designers right now in 2017?
RG: "Be humble (not un-confident, but rather confident enough to take criticism gracefully). Work hard. No substitute for that. But at the same time, make room for a rich life. Most of my actual time is spent working; but the most important things in my life are my wife, my kids, and my faith. Much as I love what I do, work is a means to an end, not the end in itself."
MH: What’s happening for you right now?
RG: "I can't always talk about what I'm working on until it's released, of course, but through Mattson Creative, I am working on a film franchise that is possibly one of the highlights of my career thus far. That's about all I can say, but it is a huge privilege to work on it. I also just wrapped up a great illustration project with Taschen books, which should be coming out in October."
Image: F.A.O Schwarz key art illustration