Design and Layout • Inspiration An Industrial Revolution

A British designer’s adventures in Detroit.

When designer Xtian Miller announced he was leaving England for America, colleagues might have assumed he was moving to New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. Instead, in 2010, he departed for the automotive heart of America’s “rust belt, ” Detroit. What he found surprised him.

“For any designer coming from Europe, there are definitely more glamorous cities that come to mind,” Miller concedes. “But for me it was a choice that had nothing to do with my career and more about being close to my fiancée at the time. However, what I discovered was a thriving design scene and a gritty, industrial environment that has slowly rubbed off on my work.”

Miller, who grew up in Bedford in England’s Midlands, graduated in 2006 with a BA First Class Honors in Graphic Design. Positions at a British publication, print shop, and several agencies followed. At a small start-up called SO Tech, Miller honed his skills as an interactive designer and front-end developer. “I owe a lot to that place—it was a continuous grind between the four or five of us, but I had a lot of fun and learned a lot in the process.”;

duotone photograph in pnk and black of Xtian Miller in a dark hooded sweatshirt

A New World

When Miller emigrated to the States, he joined Moncur, a Detroit-based digital agency, and focused on website design and branding. He rose to Art Director. Despite his background in traditional graphic design, most of his career has since focused on digital and interactive design. Currently, he’s a design lead at Vectorform, a company that helps major American brands invent digital products and customer experiences. Before the Coronavirus, Miller worked in Vectorform’s office, a converted Barnes & Noble store, in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb.

“I’d say the design scene here is just as prevalent as it is anywhere else,” he says. “There’s a lot of hustle, but with Detroit there’s an underdog spirit that’s trying to make positive change to the city, which often shows in local design work.” That hustle, he says, was a side effect of moving to America.

Everyday Hustling

“Since 2016 I’ve worked on quite a number of side projects that have kept me up at night,” Miller says. He created an iPhone wallpaper site designed to hide the notch from the iPhone X; he built a fun job-title generator for designers called Pseudo Design Titles that was featured by Fast Co. Design; he launched a “brutal” personal website that won a CSS Design Award and was included in the book Typography for Screen. But his current and biggest passion project is an exploration of poster designs, called SIGNAL A.

Miller had tinkered with poster design as a student, creating advertising for a band he played in. “I’d always wanted to go back and explore posters in a geeky design sense because it’s that 200-year-old medium all the great designers in history have mastered,” he says. Miller also felt a calling to let off some creative steam. “In late 2017 I began carving out personal time to design several unsolicited posters a week, and I shared them on social media. I embraced the fact that I didn’t have to answer to anyone, and I could be as extreme and thought-provoking as possible.”

A Style Develops

Over time, Miller’s posters developed. They became more typography-forward, bold, and deeply personal. Embracing some of the style and philosophy of prestigious designers like Armin Hofmann, Bob Gill, and Dutch graphic design studio Experimental Jetset, Miller also tapped into urban aesthetics. “I get a lot of ideas from architecture and industrial signage,” he says.

A personal style emerged, inspired by Swiss modernism and the industrial environment that surrounded him. At the beginning, his posters were largely ignored, he recalls, but he was having fun. Miller started experimenting with topics that fascinated him: mathematics, philosophy, science, and Christianity. “[Faith] has given me a lot of purpose, which was a big motivating factor when doing posters in the first place,” he says.

Creating in Isolation

Today, Miller works in self-isolation at his home in a quiet neighborhood in Oakland County, just outside of Detroit. His home studio boasts high ceilings and a relaxed vibe. An iMac sits atop a carpenter’s work bench, looking somewhat out of place among his iron shelving from 1940s eastern Europe. “I usually work on a MacBook Pro but the large Retina screen is ideal for poster design,” he explains.

Miller’s work usually starts as a sketch in a Moleskine notebook. “I like working with the square grid as it correlates to what I do on screen,” he explains. “From there I dive straight into the design tool of choice. I’ll mostly use Adobe Photoshop since it gives me almost everything I need in one package: grid setup, type, vectors, texture manipulation, effects, and so on. Of course I might draw in Adobe Illustrator for the odd thing, but I'll always bring it into Photoshop.”

Extra Bold

One of his most popular posters on Behance is a self-initiated experiment called “Extra.” Finished in 2018, Miller created letters using huge paint smears. “I used an extremely fat typeface that could handle and balance the weight of the big bold brush strokes,” he recalls. “The trick was actually using high-resolution photos of real brush strokes. They were originally done as black paint on white paper, but when I played around with the tones in Photoshop they looked better inverted.”

“A poster can take me anywhere from two hours, to five or even six. I’ll create most of my own textures to add the impression of printed material or to add patina to a particular piece. I don’t like to go too overboard with them,” he adds.

“People did begin to notice my posters, and that’s when the growth on Instagram skyrocketed,” Miller says. “I never intended for that to happen, but I’m incredibly grateful and blessed for the support. The key is persistence in doing what you love.” For now, that’s living and working in his adoptive city, Detroit. “I believe life is too short to live in one area your entire life,” he says.

You may also like