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Doublenaut Design Studio Opens Up

By Terri Stone

Brothers Matt and Andrew McCracken started the Toronto studio Doublenaut in 2004. They became known for distinctive screen-printed posters, and then made inroads into illustration, logos, book cover design, and more. Later, Andrew moved into a behind-the-scenes role, and Matt now shares the illustration and design projects with Ross Proulx. Doublenaut’s work is still just as distinctive: its vibe harks back to an earlier era of design but is very much of the present.

I spoke with Matt and Ross about their style, inspiration, and techniques.

Create: How do you describe Doublenaut’s style?

Matt: We’re inspired by mid-century modern graphic design—simple illustrations that are geometric, with bold color schemes and simple type.

Ross: That era of design is timeless. It’s not about trends. It’s simple, clean, well-thought-out. You could use a poster from the mid-1960s now and it would be still be relevant.

Matt: But our style has a rougher, weird edge to it that’s influenced by the silkscreen poster scene, even though we don’t do a ton of posters now.

When Doublenaut started, we used to do a lot of screen-prints. We weren’t very good at printing at first, and we found that when we made stuff rough and textured, it not only looked good and suited the bands, but it also hid a lot of our printing mistakes.

We’ve branched out and do a lot more branding and illustration now. The posters are screen-printed, but we design them and everything else on the computer.

Create: How do you get that rough texture in digital designs?

Matt: We use a laser printer in our office to create a lot of our textures. We print them off, scan them in, and play with Levels in Photoshop until we get them the way we want them to look. Then we bring those Photoshop files into Illustrator and run Image Trace on them. It’s nice having everything vector for scaling purposes. Then we apply the textures. We both do our straight-up drawing in Illustrator.

Bellwood beer labels by Doublenaut Design Studio

Ross: Once the design is done, we usually output the files from Photoshop. We tend to do more illustrations for the web—that’s where the industry is going.

Create: What are your go-to typefaces?

Matt: We like a lot of fonts that come out of Klim Type Foundry—Founders, Calibre, Domaine—and Hoefler & Co. makes great modern fonts, like Tungsten and Gotham. We also like a lot of the old stuff. You can’t go wrong with Futura and Helvetica. And we like the ones with more character, like ITC Serif Gothic.

Ross: When we need titling and display type, for example on our beer labels, we pull out our old type books, scan in the lettering, and customize it. It gives it a unique feel.

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Get a quick refresher on Adobe Illustrator CC basics.

Create: Besides vintage books, what’s on your shelves?

Matt: I really like what Unit Editions are doing these days. Their book Herb Lubalin has a lot of great type inspiration. ITC Serif Gothic is a Lubalin typeface, by the way. And Lance Wyman: The Monograph is good. And they released a book on corporate identity guides called Manuals that’s great.

We have a lot of the design staples, too, like Aaron Draplin’s Pretty Much Everything and books on Saul Bass, Charley Harper, and Alvin Lustig.

DIVING INTO THE DESIGNS

Create: A lot of your work seems like it would be relatively simple to create, but I know that’s deceptive. Can you walk me through your drawing techniques for “Greetings from Canada”?

Matt: That was a fun postcard project. We were given the orange and blue color scheme and could do whatever we wanted as long as it was related to Canada.

I draw in Illustrator with Snap to Grid on. I like drawing with the grid because the space is uniform, and the shapes, but you can still get a kind of looseness. I turn off Snap to Grid if I want something looser.

I drew the loon with the Pen tool and worked with my grid so that all of the objects were the same distance from the edge; for example, you can see that the angles of the trees are the same, 45 degrees, and the angles of the mountains. I mixed the hard-edged objects with soft ones, like the clouds. Then I moved them around and played with sizes until they all fit in nicely and created a little scene. You want to create a flow that leads the viewers’ eyes through the illustration.

Create: How about the Fonts.com fox?

Matt: The assignment was to show off the fonts, and again, we had free rein except the color scheme. Since the font was called “Fox,” I thought it would be interesting to make it look like an encyclopedia entry for a fox. That was also a good way to get illustration in there as well as the typeface.

The layout is pretty grid-based. I was a little looser with the fox, but certain elements, like its legs, are grid-based.

For the shading, I used the technique of scanning in a texture I made with a copier or printer and masking it onto the legs and tail. I overlapped the texture in certain spots to give the illustration a nice vibe.

Create: Finally, let's talk about your poster for the National Poster Retrospecticus at the 2015 North By Northeast festival. Did you begin with a sketch?

Matt: We do sketch things out by hand when we’re brainstorming, but I usually see things in my head first. Because our work is so graphic and we do our illustration directly on the computer, it can be easier to visualize the outcome when you put pieces together on the screen. I mocked up this one really quickly in Illustrator using symbols from other projects, just to see if it worked. It did, so I redrew everything for the final poster.

The National Poster Retrospecticus is a travelling show of screenprinted posters from all different designers. JP Boneyard, who created NPR, said my poster didn’t have to connect to the event, but I liked the idea.

My concept was to show three posters—those are the three big rectangles. I layered them with images you see a lot in the poster scene and that I think are cool and that fit together well. The silhouette in the corner is the viewer looking at the poster show as the graphics come to life.

The type is ITC Serif Gothic, the Heavy face, which I think is the nicest one in the family. It has a lot of character, especially the lowercase letters. They complement the design of this poster and the layout really well.

JP had a budget for three colors. I like working with black as a foundation color. It’s easy, and when you use it with lighter colors it has a bold retro vibe to it. The green and blue are close to the official colors for the NPR. My palette is a little brighter but similar in tone. I’ve used this color scheme a lot. Together, they’re a good balance, and the client’s always happy with it.

To see more of Doublenaut's work, visit their website