Illustrator and designer Joshua Smith, also known as Hydro74, created this image of a snarling tiger in a glitch style.

Hydro74: Beyond the Surface

Joshua Smith, known professionally as Hydro74, is an illustrator and designer full of seeming contradictions. He's open about tragedies in his youth but guards the technical methods he developed as an adult. He creates dark, macabre imagery while advocating selflessness and service. In other words, he's an interesting guy.

In a recent interview, we spoke with Smith on a range of topics, including keeping clients happy, developing a distinct style, and how design is like a bowl of chili.

Smith relies on Adobe Illustrator to create his artwork. Click the image above to play his reel.

ON TRENDS AND DEVELOPING YOUR OWN STYLE

Paying attention to trends is OK because it's what becomes the eye-opener and common thread, but if you're just regurgitating a style, you're not adding anything to it. And if you're not adding anything to it, then you're a production designer, in my opinion. I know people will take offense to that, but the idea of just copying what is there versus adding a creative functionality to make it unique is just that: a production designer versus creative.

When I first started, I was doing stuff that had a Shepard Fairey/Mike Giant look. I was influenced by them and their work early on. Once I identified that, I realized I wasn't serving the purpose of what I wanted to achieve—instead, I was assuming it was the right direction because it was the trend. Then I started figuring out how to add my own personality to it and develop something that's identifiable as something by my hand.

I can see when someone's copying particular designers or trends. When something starts blowing up, like Aaron Draplin has, and becomes the norm or ‘standard’, you start to see a lot of pieces trying to be in the same style. When someone of his caliber blows up, everybody assumes that's what design should be.

There's nothing wrong with the influence, or in taking what Draplin has done and using it as a foundation. I love Draplin and his work and see the importance of it. But if you're not Draplin, there's no authenticity to it, there's no you in it. If you're just redoing what was done, you don't have a unique approach, and you're replaceable. A client comes to you for a specific reason; they're not coming to you because you're a cheap knock-off of somebody else.

When you're young, time is the most important thing you have. Take advantage of it, learn the skill sets, and don't limit yourself to copying what other people do and hoping that it works for you. It won't—it's only going to work for the person who actually created it. Eventually you'll find your voice. I know we live in the generation of need it now, is it on Skillshare, you must teach me, what pen are you using, what brushes, but none of that matters. That doesn’t make you better, the instant "how it’s done." I believe it slams the brakes on creativity because you're using someone else's solution versus putting in wrench time. Instead, invest time, invest your heart and soul into what you're passionate about and don’t assume things happen overnight. Play the long game. The desire to be better is a beautiful thing.

ON HISTORY AND PLUMBING

Speaking of Draplin, he knows his history. He knows that before him were all these amazing artists. You had Gerard Huerta who did the AC/DC and Pepsi logos; you had David Quay who did amazing typography; you had Rick Griffin, Greg Irons, and so forth. I enjoy studying them, and I buy old books, too. I found a French monogram book from 1912, I think, that went through all the letters. It was beautiful inspiration by an artist long since forgotten.

There is beautiful design created by people we've forgotten or never knew. To me, knowing this adds a sense of reality—a sense that what we do isn’t really that important in the scheme of things. At the end of all of this, our generation will be in the past, and a few people will be remembered but the vast majority lost by name and only remembered by found images. There's a beauty in that that breaths humility into what we do, and it's a reminder that this is just a job. How many talks do you go to with plumbers discussing new methods and how they got to do some celebrity's plumbing? I believe that's just as important a career as what I do. Anyway…

So if design is a recipe, everything we do or we're taught makes up the recipe book. The true designers, like Jessica Walsh, start with the regular recipe book, but then they start creating their own recipes, and those become the next trend. They become the five-star standard. It’s a weird analogy, but the basic idea is that when you get caught trying to copy other people's formulas, you lose a sense of self because you're not trying to make it your own. It's like going to a chili cook-off with Chef Gordon Ramsey as judge and you use the recipe he developed and expect to win on originality.

ON BEING CLIENT-FOCUSED

We're doing a service for them—they're not doing the service for us. If you're yelled at, or your ideas are taken away, or you're pushed in two different directions that make no sense, and your response is, "Yeah, I'll get it done, no problem," then you're going to do really well in this industry. But a lot of people can't handle that. You see the memes on Facebook where designers complain about clients asking for another revision? I'm like, you know what you bought into. Or they complain that a client didn't pay enough for a project. No, you didn't quote enough for the project.

This is a hard career and an emotionally draining one. But we're just vendors providing a service. If you hired an electrician who acted like you were a pain because you needed something done, you probably wouldn't hire that person again. Or if you were at a restaurant and you ordered chicken, but the vegan server brought you a salad because they believed that's what you should eat, you wouldn't go there again. Get over yourself. Become selfless, learn from mistakes, build on success, and provide a proper service. There is no shame in asking others how to quote a job or how to deal with issues, but those are your issues, not the client's. The moment you agree to work with someone, you need to accept the terms. You can add to the agreement, of course, but there's a right way to do that, as well.

The secret to success in graphic design is that you're not causing problems; you're solving somebody else's problems so they can go home and enjoy time with their family. They can go home without any stress knowing that you'll get it done. I take that very seriously because if I can be the person who doesn't cause them stress, chances are I'm going to be a continual asset to them.

Sometimes you're working on a big project and it's seven o'clock at night and the client says, "We need this thing by 10 o'clock." My first impulse is to want to react to that and really go at them, so I write the email, I get it out of my system, and I delete it. I take a five-minute break, get some coffee, then come back and say, "No problem. I'm here for you. How do you want these files sent to you?"

I discovered that saves so much stress because when you think about it, you realize how insignificant those little things are. We can take one little thing and blow it out of proportion, when in reality it's so insignificant. Be nice, be polite. I've never said anything hateful. It doesn't fare well for you. We all have our moments where emotion gets the best of us. I've failed more than I succeeded, but that also teaches me how to be better. Find a way to vent secretly because you never know who follows you and what opportunities could be lost.

ON NUDGING THE CLIENT IN NEW DIRECTIONS

I show clients a range of options: What they asked for, and another piece that's more exploratory, more along the lines of my thinking if it were my company. I always try to sling out like ideas that I think would be a lot more fun for them. Sometimes those ideas win, sometimes they don't.

It's kind of like if you work in an office with a boss. You know what they're looking for, and you achieve that, but then you start sliding in these left-field, right-field ideas. And once in a while those ideas are accepted, and next thing you know you're doing something that you're truly passionate about versus doing something that's just a job.

ON PUSHING YOURSELF IN NEW DIRECTIONS

In the morning, I'll do little one-off pieces where I just try things. It's my reward, like a kid and a candy bar; then comes work. At least weekly, I force myself to do something that's out of my comfort zone. I enjoy pushing into new things and trying new styles.

ON PLAGIARSIM

It happens. I do my best to not stress over it. If it’s a large company, I reach out to them; sometimes they understand, sometimes they treat you like crap for pointing it out.  

If someone takes credit for my work, I might say, "Actually, I did that." I used to spend so much time worrying about it, and then it dawned on me that it was stress I didn't need. If someone sells it and make a buck, it's not really affecting me. It's not affecting how I wake up in the morning, it's not affecting the people I hang out with.

I'm not saying that's an open invitation to go through my site and grab whatever you want. But for the most part... I don't know. It's kind of the Zen Buddhist approach. To truly be of service to somebody, you have to have a certain selfless nature. Design in general is an egotistical, competitive market, and I try to filter that out as much as possible. You have to realize that at the end of the day the amount of control you have is zero. Things happen and if you stress about it, are you helping yourself and what you're building?

ON LEARNING FROM YOUR PAST

I was looking at my work from 10 years ago. During that time I definitely had an ego, like, "I am such a bad ass." But I realize now that I didn't even know what I was doing—it was such a montage of things. In the moment it worked well, but looking back, I see nothing with a timeless quality. Nothing that's ever going to be in a museum. These are pieces where you say, "That was probably on a tee shirt." And yeah, you're right. It was.

In my office, I'm surrounded by all my work because I like to look at where I messed up. Each piece has particular flaws and it's there to remind me. I know a lot of other people put their favorite artists around for inspiration. My inspiration is looking at my work and going, "I could've done better." That's a weird way to look at it, but if I'm struggling with something, I look at a piece I did and think, "It's so horrible. What if I did that better?" And all a sudden it becomes possible to redo the idea in a better way.

ON BEING HAPPY

As a designer, you have the ability to play god in a very lowercase sense. You create something out of nothing. You start clicking the mouse and then six hours goes by and it doesn't even feel like that and you have this thing in front of you. Then you take a break and you come back and you keep molding and molding and molding. There's something beautiful about it. I know I’m not curing cancer, or providing solutions to truly important issues, but this is my lot in life and I love it. This is this where my happiness lies.