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Profile: Getting to Know Russell Tate

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Australian illustrator Russell Tate is your buddy. In fact, he's probably everyone's buddy. He's the guy that you always hope will show up to the party because he's just so gosh darn funny and always has a smile on his face. And if you're lucky, he'll bring one of his old-timey Japanese toy robots along.


One of my favorite questions to ask designers is what stereotypes are true and which are false, at least in their minds. I've gotten a range of answers over time, but Tate's answer stands out…and begs for some cheekiness. "None of us like the typeface COMIC SANS." Yes, the all caps was all him. Because of this, this interview will be converted to Comic Sans before I send it to him for a sneak-peek. Based on the fact that he followed up with an email with the subject line of "…see what I mean! [comic sans typeface joke]" (brackets were all him) I knew it was something that had to be done.

You can only be young once, but you can always be immature.

"You can only be young once, but you can always be immature." The next line was that he doesn't drop eggs over the handrail at the mall but my money is on the fact that he used to. His illustrations- both past and present- give you a sense that he truly embraces his inner child, and that is what sets him apart.

In the Beginning

As an adventurous kid growing up in England, Tate never veered from his creative path. One of his earliest memories of being creative is as a 13-year old, sitting in the back garden during summer break with a pad and paper copying album sleeves by Illustrator Roger Dean.

His formal art education consists of a year at St. Albans College of Art in England to prepare to continue on for an art degree. Unfortunately though, his application to the prestigious St. Martins School of Art in London was denied. We all know that's not the end of the story, of course. Eventually Tate turned to freelancing as a Graphic Designer and the world is much more colorful and interesting because of it.


Change is Good

In addition to the website for his design/illustration company MT-Generator.com.au, Tate also keeps RussellTate.com, which is…100% Russell Tate. Every level of this animated machine is a curiosity. I wonder if there is any rhyme or reason to what he decided to link to, but that's distinctly Tate and that alone makes it okay. Here are a few hints: clicking on the red bird at the top brings you to a very large version of that bird and clicking on the fourth rectangle down will bring you to the vast and eclectic library of his work spanning his entire career in illustration.


At 49, he's spent the better part of 20 years creating these distinctive designs. Everything wasn't always about illustration, though. There were some Billboards, Catalogues, CDs, Brochures, Logos, Posters and Point of Sale thrown in for good measure. Chances are if you don't know him for his illustrations, you probably know him from one of those other things.

So how does one go about making such a career change? The answer is simply by seeing people be bad at what they do. In other words, really bad or "really woeful" as he puts it. As with many artists, there were some self-doubts lurking around prior to taking this fateful leap. Then one day he saw the offending art and that changed everything. He says it was at this point he picked up the phone and called this particular publication saying, "Hello, today I have made a career change and decided to become an illustrator, can I come and show you some work?"


The Finer Things

Life isn't all about art for Tate, though. He shares his existence with his wife Kath and three kids: Jackson, a surfing 15-year old, 12-year old Riley who loves basketball and Charlotte, the 7-year old creative with an affinity for stealing Dad's tape and marker pens. One can picture him adding that antidote with a sly smirk, as I'm not so sure he's capable of anything outside of the smile spectrum.

Other than his "domain" at the front of the house that is decorated with Japanese kid masks, his toy robots and a 1960's Pepsi machine allegedly stocked with Grolsch and Coronas, his home is reasonably decorated with family things like a PS3 and the occasional spot of glue on the floor from Charlotte's latest craft project.

His personal life seems pleasantly ordinary with dinner and a movie topping his list of favorite things to do on date night. A cheeky "not sure what my wife does" was quickly followed up with "(joke: we go together)." I have a sneaking suspicion that that comment in and of itself was a joke. He and Kath, a Stylist and Ceramicist, met when they were working in the same building in Carnaby St. London in the ‘80s. They were both working at magazines at the time; he at a music one and she at a girl's one. She had seen him riding his skateboard to work a few times and wondered who he was. Friends got them together at a party because they were both "too shy to make a move." But have no fear, guys. According to Tate, "chicks dig skaters!"


The Robot Did It

The toy robot hobby is no surprise. Many of his illustrations have a bit of a robotic quality to them and many are of robots. One such example is titled "Robot Catalogue" which he created for a client in the US. This piece was for the cover of a catalog of "rare (and sometimes expensive) Japanese tin toys from the 1950-60's." So what came first, his love of the robots or his illustrations? Maybe we'll leave it at one of those unanswerable "chicken or the egg" arguments.

Needless to say, Tate gets his inspiration from everyday life - though more like it's seen through the fresh eyes of an eight-year old.

It should be mentioned that the section of the interview where Tate talks about his robots contains the most explanation points. When asked what the rarest and most interesting robot he had was, I can picture the answer, if being asked face-to-face, would've been instantaneous and may have even elicited a physical reaction like jumping out of the chair or raising his fist in the manner of a super hero. The answer, for those interested is the "Yoshiya Mighty Robot(!), which has been known to sell for as much as $5,000 USD. Not that he paid that much, he assured me.

His dream robot, a "very primitive, key wound" toy containing "crappy revolving ribbons in the head" is named Moon Robot. He's loosely based on Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet. Tate sent along a picture, and when compared to his "Robot Catalogue," it's easy to see a bit of a resemblance, even if it is only the use of the same shades of red and blue.

Needless to say, Tate gets his inspiration from everyday life - though more like it's seen through the fresh eyes of an eight-year old. It's probably this freshness that, over the years, has won him clients such as McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Volkswagen, M&M, Telstra, Optus and Amber Bitter Beer. Though he's old school in the sense of where he didn't immediately get behind the use of computers in his line of work in the early 1990s, ("The laser proofs weren't very accurate") today he can't imagine giving up Cmd-Z ("no way!"). That last part was written with a sly smirk, I'm sure.

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