The helium team has admired the work of Ryan McArthur of Design Different for some time now.
Ryan creates simple, clever, and inspiring art that speaks to everyone. Whether in the form of Zombie Maps or Illustrative Quotes on posters, t-shirts, sketchbooks or in his new book, Ryan creates and designs the stuff he likes.
We admire him for that AND we love his designs. We asked Ryan if we could interview him for the helium tank and we were psyched he said yes. Ryan is a truly humble guy and was an absolute pleasure to talk to!
Check out our conversation in this post.
How would you describe what you do in one phrase?
Simple, clever, and inspiring designs.
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What got you into the industry?
I was in advertising for 13 years. I studied graphic design and new media in school at Sheridan College and graduated in 2000. I always wanted to do something in the arts. I’ve loved it since I was a child. I see this in my own children too, which is really exciting! My grandfather and uncle were artists so it’s cool to see a love for the arts continue in the family.
What got you into having your own business–and when did you realize that you wanted to switch from programming to print design?
I had a good time working in web design for about 10 years. The last 3 were difficult. The company I worked for was becoming less creative and was under new ownership. I was just losing inspiration. My cousin asked me to design her wedding invites and I hadn’t done print in so long I was hesitant to take on the project. I finally agreed to design them and I loved the whole process. I created intricate designs with different printing processes on cool paper. I learned about Etsy and figured I’d try to sell my own stuff. When I actually sold my designs, I felt like I won the lottery! LOL! For 2 years after that I just kept coming up with more and more designs, expanding on my work.
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? As a big kid, what do you want to be when you grow up?
I always wanted to do something in the arts. I was lucky that my parents supported my love for the arts. My grandfather was an artist and my uncle was in advertising. I just saw it as a career option at an early age. I think as a big kid I want to continue doing something related to art, working with my hands. I would love to travel, but that’s not a job so that’s for retirement.
Where do you draw inspiration?
My kids for sure. They just inspire me to do better and to keep going. It’s really cute; my kids ask if they can help with hand printing. They call my work hand printing because they see I make it with my hands. They see how passionate I am about my work and they tell me how they want to do the same thing when they grow up. It’s very rewarding especially since my grandfather and uncle were both artists.
My creative inspiration comes from advertising, after being in the business for so long. I look back at vintage, clever advertising – things that have a twist on words. I love putting an image and words together. It sounds so simple, but that’s what I love about it. A lot of the stuff I do is just that – coming up with a visual and pairing it with words. I want viewers to look at something and at first glance not get it; then they get intrigued by it and solve it.
Who is an inspiration for you?
Again, my kids, for sure.
Other people that inspire me are DKNG – a design company doing silkscreens that are visually interesting. Nathan Yoder, who does hand lettering and illustrations.
Do you work non-stop for hours upon hours or do you do other things and wait for inspiration to hit you?
Inspiration is like love, the more you try to find it the harder it is to find. You never know when it will hit you. So no, I don’t work at inspiration. I just let it come to me, which happens mostly when I’m driving or going for a walk, when there’s peace and serenity. I don’t work nonstop hours. Often times I’ll take a break and come back to a project to reevaluate work with fresh eyes.
[tweet “Inspiration is like love, the more you try to find it the harder it is to find.”]
What is your process?
Everything starts with an idea. I can have these ideas while playing with my kids, or most of the time it’s when I’m driving or quietly having a cup of coffee. I have kept all of my notebooks and will often go back to old ideas. I was told a long time ago to think on paper, so everything I do starts with a sketch. If it’s all in your head you can’t get it out, but if it’s on paper you can refer back to it. Something that wasn’t right at the time will often inspire me later on and I’ll complete the idea. I then flush it out on paper, sketching a bunch of different concepts, expanding on it to the point where I often overthink it. I try and come up with different ideas and ways to represent it. Then I pair those ideas back to its most minimal state. It’s kind of like blowing up a balloon and then deflating it.
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Once I’ve got the idea, I’ll start drawing a more polished version of it either on the computer or by hand if it’s a lettering project.
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Once the concept is complete I play around positioning, placement, cropping, color if it needs it. Sometimes I like to add texture to my work, either an overlay or burn effect if it calls for it.
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Then I’ll take photos of the final piece, polish it up in Photoshop and write a ton of copy to promote them.
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I use my social media platforms to push it out. I also use a lot of blogging sites to promote my work. I have a huge list of sites and people I’ve kept in contact with to help me spread the word.
Do you often go through many versions of your posters or whatever comes first you just go with?
I go back to my sketchbooks all the time. What I wrote down or drew 5 years ago often comes back around. I tend to find new ideas within the old. My teachers used to tell me to always think on paper. That way you can refer back to it. I never just go with it. I literally obsess over each one and take it in 100 different directions. I often wind up using the first
idea I had, but sometimes I find new ideas in all the reiterations.
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How do you choose what quotes to use for your Quote Series–are they messages you want to have other people connect to or are they just simply from personal interest?
I start with a visual first then I spend hours to find a quote that matches. If I want to do a print with a guitar, then I find a quote that works with that image. With custom work I sometimes have to work backwards. For example, McDonald’s wanted an illustration with Ray Kroc with a certain quote and I had to work backwards. I had to figure out how to represent the quote in a visual way. Though, in the end, we weren’t able to use Ray Kroc because of some copyright issue.
And how do you decide what to keep or put away for a later use?
I keep things as simple as possible. If something is too complex, I don’t use that idea.
Of all the quotes you have illustrated, is there a favorite that resonates with you the strongest?
Yes, the Albert Einstein quote. “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” It summarizes life, because you just can’t stop.
[tweet “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.-Albert Einstein”]
Is there a quote you love and have never illustrated?
“Fairy tales are more than true. Not because they tell us dragons exist, but that dragons can be beaten.” -GK Chesterton
We notice a theme in your work – literary quotes and zombie apocalypse. Do you love to read or do you fear a Walking Dead style scenario anytime soon? OR do you love to read about zombies?
I have a special love for zombie movies. I’m torn with my designs sometimes. I like to tell people I’m an optimist at heart with my Illustrative Quotes but a realist by nature with my Zombie Maps. I think zombies are possible, at least more possible than vampires or werewolves. I tell people that I’m just trying to save the world one person at a time with my zombie maps.
What is in your go-to zombie apocalypse bag if you could only take 5 things?
Knife, water purifier, map, fishing lure, tent and blankets. Matches would be good, but you only allowed me five.
We read a blog post you wrote about shipping out an enormous amount of [I believe] posters and another blog post about setting up an expo booth and thought – how did he do it all? What is your process to stay on-time and sane?
Staying sane? LOL My wife may disagree with that one. It’s hard to stay sane. The hardest part of owning your own business is it’s all on you. Your mind is always going. When I used to work my 9-5 I would count the hours before leaving. Now I don’t have enough hours! When I feel time crunched and worried that I may miss a deadline I use the sticky pad technique. I just make sure each day I write down what I want to accomplish. I find writing it down and checking each item off once it’s complete really helps with completing goals and maintaining my sanity. There’s something about physically crossing it off that gives me a sense of accomplishment. Luckily, I haven’t had to work many late nights at all since I left my job back in 2014. Before 2014 I was really burnt out. I put in a ton of work and hours back then to get where I’m at now.
Who are some of your favorite vendors?
Uline packaging is only 20-30 mins. away so that makes life easy. Lumi – it’s kind of expensive, but I love their stuff. Shipping is too expensive for packaging, but I still use their stamps. I love for shipping. There’s a separate service that will take the shipment across the border and then I can use to ship, which is much cheaper than Canadian fees. Over the course of a year I basically halved my shipping fees with this new service.
How much of your time is spent designing vs other aspects of running your business?
It’s about 50-50, which I don’t mind. Since I’m one guy I really have to do everything, from finances to supply runs. I don’t think I could design every day. I like the variety – packaging, shipping, photography, I like all parts of it.
How do you keep yourself current with what’s new in the industry?
I think it’s pretty easy to see what’s current today with the Internet. As far as what I pick and choose to do, I honestly pick the stuff I like. I think if you don’t choose what you love to do, and create the things you love, it will show in your work. Choose what you love to do and you’ll always stay current with what’s going on.
What is the best/worst about working alone?
Lack of sunshine! It’s difficult to get out. I miss daily social interaction so I plan lots of social events in the evenings and on weekends. I find myself chatting up the post office lady sometimes just to keep my sanity, LOL. The 9-5 work environment definitely gave me more social interaction.
Best – the quiet. With two kids and a new puppy, the evenings and mornings are pretty hectic. When I get back to the house after dropping my kids off at school, the quiet is really nice.
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What do you listen to while you work?
Am I doing monthly finances or working on a new project?! LOL Typically, I’ll put on some mellow stuff like George Ezra or Vance Joy. For packaging and faster work I like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters. I like everything, really.
How do you de-stress?
Exercise – running or going to the gym, playing with my kids or date night with my wife, getting out socially. Also, just drawing helps. Sometimes I just draw and sketch and my mind completely forgets any worries. Doing something with a set goal makes the stress goes away.
Is red your favorite color?
Nope, LOL. It’s more of a blue-green, turquoise color. Our living room was just painted that color and I love it! It’s very calming. I chose red because I read somewhere that it stands out.
What was your breaking moment where you thought, ‘this is becoming bigger than I imagined’ and what keeps you motivated to keep going?
When I started making more money in my side job than my full-time job. It was two years after I started that I thought I wanted to quit my job. It was a great feeling saying to myself, “this is what I want to do for a living.” It was so rewarding. I didn’t start out with the thought of doing it full-time as a career. It was just a creative outlet. To be able to sell my own work and have people like what you are doing is amazing. I feel so blessed to have this opportunity.
We’d imagine having your work be seen at a national level can feel pretty amazing, but what has been your proudest moment so far of your career?
My book is pretty awesome. I never thought in a million years I’d have a nationally published book! That one was a surprise and very rewarding to hold it in my hands.
Who are some of your favorite authors or favorite books?
People Over Profit by Dale Partridge is my favorite book. I could read that over and over. It’s very inspiring. Every time I listen to it, I think of different paths I can take with my business. It’s about connecting with people rather than focusing on money and being successful. I want to give back and I’m looking for a charity to partner with now, but it has to be the right charity.
Do you know our Art Director, Ryan, has a not so secret obsession with your work?
LOL! Too funny!! I’ve noticed you guys have supported me for a while now with some kind mentions and social referrals. Thank you. ☺ I actually just contacted Ryan via email to get some feedback on an upcoming project. I value his opinion along with the entire helium team. You guys have a great shop over there.
Your work has been featured on in so many major publications. What do you think was the key to getting featured?
Hustle – and by that I mean not stopping, just continually punch out as much work as you can as quickly as you can. I submitted a lot of stuff to blog sites. Eventually 4 or 5 years later it started to snowball. It’s about getting your work out there and having enough of it to hit that tipping point where all of a sudden people are finding your work. I have spread my work around online for over 4 years now. It was a slow start, but once it’s out there things can spread virally. It’s really quite amazing actually. I’m truly blessed with the amount of support I’ve had.
Do you work with a PR firm?
Do you have any series in the works you can give us a hint that you are working on?
I’m really trying to expand into the apparel market. You may be seeing t-shirts soon. The t-shirts will have brand new designs, staying true to my core principle of simple, clever, and inspiring art. I want to represent a quote in a minimal way with an image and then a few words, kind of like a tagline to summarize the quote.
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Where do you go from here, what is your next goal?
The idea is to brand myself better. Lately I’ve been focusing on three key principles throughout my work – simple, clever, and inspiring. I think apparel and other tangible items you can hold in your hands would be fun – hats, mugs.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned since launching your business?
Relax and enjoy it! You can really get caught up in the sales. That’s a killer for creativity. Sometimes you find yourself focusing way too much on the next sale or what’s going to make the most money. I find if you concentrate on the now and the creative, and just designing the stuff you love and have fun with it all – that’s the key to success.
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A huge thanks to Ryan for this interview! It was great talking to such a talented, successful designer, who is also incredibly sweet, funny and down to earth! We love that Ryan has dedicated himself to making a career out of something he loves and does it to the best of his ability. The helium team is lucky to say the same, we get to do what we love every day and always deliver the best work possible.
Be sure to check out Ryan McArthur’s work at and on Instagram @DesignDifferentInc. Follow @heliumcreative on Facebook and Instagram for more inspiration, design and conversations with people that inspire us.