10?’s with illustrator, letterer and designer, Tobias Hall
Illustrator, letterer, designer and long-time Nomad collaborator Tobias (Toby) Hall is the latest in our 10 Questions series where he opens up about his entry into the world of design, snazzy Italian restaurants, Vauxhall whips as well as touching on the important subject of mental health and how to make it as an illustrator.
Toby, my man, we go way back. it was your beautiful work for Newman and Regent that made us pay attention to you and since then we’ve worked together on multiple projects such as Huddersfield Giants and Hackney Laces as well as a bit of our own branding.
We wanted to rack your brain and get your hot takes on our 10 Questions, so let’s go!
Take us right back to the beginning. When did you realise you were good at art? Do you come from an arty background?
No real arty background, but my mum was a talented painter. So other than that it’s the usual cliche of having always been okay at drawing from a young age. As a kid I used to design new cars with colouring pencils on pieces of A4 and make my dad take them in to work, in the hope Vauxhall would make them into their new model (he worked as a manager at a Vauxhall repair garage, so in hindsight, I’m not sure he had the authority to make that happen).
Then when it came time for me to decide what to do after school, I figured maybe graphic design might be a good fit for me, which eventually led me to where I am now.
What many people may not know is that you spent four and a half years at Zizzi, the snazzy chain of Italian restaurants. Talk us through that experience. What was it like?
Zizzi was awesome. I initially started working with them as a mural artist, painting murals in their new and refurbished restaurants. Then after a few of those jobs, I just asked if they had anything more permanent, and to my surprise, they basically made a part-time role up for me.
At first my job I was basically a creative artworker who also took photos of new restaurants 3 days a week, but over time my role developed into something of a brand guardian; art directing other creatives, designing comms and menus and finally redesigning the logo and branding. It was amazing to be given that trust at such an early stage in my career, and it was while at Zizzi that I was able to cultivate a passion for lettering and type; something which would end up landing me the bulk of the work I got during that time and in the years after leaving.
You made your big break into full-time freelance in 2015 and haven’t looked back. Talk us through that moment. Was it scary? What do you remember from that time?
It had gotten to the point where my role at Zizzi meant I didn’t have time to take on some of the bigger advertising jobs that were coming in outside of that role, and I also felt as though creating the Zizzi logo was a really nice way to end my time with the company, so I figured it was probably right for someone new to come in and freshen things up while I focused on freelance.
Yeah, it was quite scary (and still is, sometimes!) but I was fortunate enough to have enough work to keep me going and was still living at home with my parents at the time, so didn’t have to worry too much about outgoings.
You talk openly about mental health. How does this affect your work, and what do we need to do better as an industry, famous for burnout and stress, to help anyone suffering?
Yeah, I’ve been fairly open about my struggles with anxiety in the past (I’m actually just slowly recovering from a pretty hefty bout of it as I type!) - I think talking about it is healthy because it helps to debunk some of that idea that everyone else is fine and it’s just you who’s struggling. It can break a conspiracy of silence, and some of the biggest engagement I’ve had from Instagram posts has been when
I’ve spoken about it and others have responded with their own stories. I’ve never worked at an agency or studio so perhaps can’t comment too much on that, but you do hear stories of some fairly toxic working cultures at some of them, where people are coerced into working extra hours with only late-night pizza as payment.
It seems from the outside that it’s just an accepted aspect of the industry, but I don’t like the idea of it at all. I think ultimately (and perhaps naively) there needs to be a healthy balance between the bottom line and the well-being of the people doing the work.
One of the things I’m most grateful for as a freelancer is that I get to set that balance, but I understand it’s a massively privileged position to be in.
Talk us through your process. How has technology influenced the way you create, and how do you go from a blank screen to a beautiful artwork?
Technology has massively affected my work in recent years. I used to work entirely on paper, scanning things in and re-printing at low opacity to refine them until I was finally happy enough to scan for a final time. But the introduction of the iPad changed all that. Now, I can almost work exclusively on there from roughs to final art; sketches are quicker and much easier to edit, as are the final pieces of work. It’s been a game-changer for me.
Have you ever done a ‘Titanic’ and drawn someone you fancy, naked?
No, but I might ask my girlfriend if she’s keen. Especially if it means we get to hang out on a big yacht
How do you find the process of working with branding and advertising agencies as an outsider? Does each agency have a different way of working?
I think it depends a lot on what the brief is and where the agency is at in the process. Sometimes I’m brought in quite early on, to help craft some initial ideas quickly.
Other times I’m asked to take a chosen idea and refine it to final art. And then sometimes I do both aspects. So in those cases, the way of working is pretty different yeah. But otherwise, I think the general process remains the same, to be honest
Your portfolio is so varied in styles, from crispy vector logos to amazingly detailed scenes, how do you balance working from one to the other and what's your fave style to work in?
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever really had one totally set style like some artists; the breadth of work I want to do sort of requires me to employ a few different approaches, so that’s what I do!
But while the level of detail greatly changes, the general approach to those two styles you mentioned are broadly the same, i.e. it’s about depicting something, often showing light and shadow while using just a couple of colours. The style in which I work is always informed by the brief, and I don’t know if I have a favourite, there are aspects of all of it that I love.
What would you say to any aspiring illustrator reading this who’s looking to make their mark in the world?
I think there are a few things that I feel really helped me: the first was that I always assumed I probably wouldn’t make it. This sounds really negative, and perhaps for a lot of people wouldn’t be a helpful mindset to have.
But for me, it just meant that I had the attitude that any opportunity that came my way, I was going to go above and beyond what was expected of me. In other words, there were zero complacencies, I was really grateful for every opportunity I got. And I try and keep that attitude today. Second, personal work is really important. You should be creating the kind of work you want to be hired for, and if it’s not in your portfolio, then it’s a good idea to create it yourself and get it out there.
Most of the bigger projects I got earlier on in my career were a direct response to self-initiated work that I published online. Then finally, I’m a big believer in ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ - it’s how I landed my role with Zizzi, which basically set up my career, and I’m always surprised at how often things have worked out when I’ve been bold and just asked the question.
What one thing have you taken from lockdown that has made you better, stronger or happier?
I think I’m fortunate in that I already lived alone and worked from home, so I was used to those two aspects which were so destabilising for so many other people.
But I definitely found joy in running and cycling more, and also tried out lino cutting for the first time, which I plan to do a lot more of. Besides that, it pushed me to finally sort my garden out, which looks a lot nicer now, so that’s good :)
Tobias Hall is an illustrator, letterer and designer. He creates logos, woodcut illustrations and bespoke typography from his garden shed in east London.
His clients include The Rolling Stones, Budweiser, YouTube, Netflix and TIME Magazine as well as being featured on numerous blogs and workshops.