Interview: Shawn Smith of Shawnimals

Interview: Shawn Smith of Shawnimals

Written by:
Evan La Ruffa
Apr 20, 2020

Header / Features Photo by Alisa Hauser

If you’ve ever met Shawn Smith, you know the guy is a ball of joy. His beard arrives before he does and his smile is clearly an authentic, natural expression of a dude who has built a creative life he can be proud of. Shawnimals is his brain-child, infecting unsuspecting art-lovers with the prints & plush they never knew they needed, and which builds bridges between street art, illustration, & character driven design.

His aesthetic is the epitome of accessibility, melding foreign influences with an illustrative style that invites all equally.

After finally meeting up in person, hitting it off, and making various plans to work together, we thought it wise to give readers a glimpse into the latest musings, tips, and pontifications from the man himself. Shawn Smith is the type of person IPaintMyMind loves to include in our mission – he’s positive, creative, collaborative, and gets things done.

Whether insights into his process, a view into his role at Threadless, or anecdotes about how he got started, we’re proud to share this interview with Shawn Smith of Shawnimals.


Evan: Shawn! It’s been so great to finally personally connect with you over the last 6 months. I’ve known about you and your work since 2008 or so, so it’s not only awesome to put a name to a face but to get along so well. Your positivity is infectious, man.

Shawn: It’s weird how the world works sometimes! It’s like we’ve been in the same orbit for years, just not in the same place at the same time. Glad to finally connect, and make awesome things happen!

EL: So how are you, dude?! Weird times indeed. It would be nutty to launch into this interview without at least addressing the times we live in and the uncertainty and anxiety so many of us are feeling. It’s wild to me how many wide-ranging social issues and area in America that have been brought into focus as woefully lacking. We have a lot of collaboration & creative problem solving ahead of us.

SS: True that. It is super weird right now, but it’s also a huge opportunity to help. This is a sort of peak experience for the world, and I hope we come out of it on a new plateau with a fonder appreciation of each other and life itself. We are as connected as we are fragile, so we need to support each other.

EL: I hear that, amigo. I certainly feel like there is a lot of opportunity to help each other and solve problems in new, cool ways, especially after this.

Do our readers a little favor and give us the synopsis of moving to Chicago, launching Shawnimals, and an overview of your career to date.

SS: My career is… colorful. But that’s a given, right? 😀 Let’s start at the beginning with my time as a video game reviewed for Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine (EGM, for short). I worked there for a number of years as a writer, and it was amazing. But that itch to make art and design was STRONG so I left the magazine to finish my college education.

I obtained a Bachelor of Fine Art in Painting, and never looked back. It was during my redo college years that I started making cute and weird plush toys, inspired by stuff I saw coming from Japan and Korea. I thought, “hey, I have a lot of little doodles of characters in notebooks and sketchbooks, so I could make my version of stuff like this,” and that was the birth of Shawnimals.

I was in the middle of nowhere Illinois for college (ISU represent!) and then moved to Chicago in 2003. Logan Square was a lot different back then! Focused on Shawnimals full time in 2005, had employees in 2007, Ninjatown video games in 2009 and 2010, lots of collectible toys throughout with Rotofugi, Squibbles, and Kidrobot, and now tons of art and murals all over the place. I’ve always operated with a creative bottomline rather than a monetary one, and it has served me well.

EL: I often like to say… exposure, inspiration, creation. It’s that same process we try to ignite for the schools we work with. Specifically, what stuff out of Japan and Korea were you enjoying?

SS: So many great things. In no particular order: Tamagotchi (early stuff), Domo-Kun (long before that character was stateside), Pokemon, Mega Man – and really a lot of Capcom and Konami stuff – not to mention Nintendo franchises. They always walked a line between being for kids and adults simultaneously. Love the thoughtfulness of the characters, while generally being super simple.

EL: Now let’s get into process a bit, because I find that most people who love a certain type of art are thinking about. As in, how did he make that? It’s obviously going to differ based on the project but maybe you can differentiate between client projects and the stuff you put out via Shawnimals.

SS: Sure thing. I’ll start with this: best case scenario – you are your own client. You love what you do and you’re happy to do it, even if it’s a struggle. That’s key regardless of what you’re doing. Second, ALWAYS CREATE. You can hypothesize this or that with regard to social media or maybe what you could or should be doing in the studio, but NOTHING will replace quality work. Period. Focus on that, and then be smart about the other stuff. Remember not to be distracted by stuff that ultimately doesn’t matter as much as your work.

To start simply, I use a mix of analog and digital media and mediums. I like to mix it up. Nothing is like drawing and painting. But I also like digital to work through ideas, colors, and new directions quickly. It’s also nice to use digital since it’s a direct link to social media platforms.

Beyond that, I look at it like this for both my own work and for others…

  • Brainstorm and understand what it is you’re trying to accomplish, even if it comes from a place of make believe.
  • Sketch, sketch, sketch – thumbnails and visualizing things with images and words is super important. Gotta work through it.
  • Asterisk to the above: don’t be paralyzed or think any ONE idea or image is precious or perfect. What you make is important, but don’t cherish only one idea. Iterate, push through, and see where else your ideas can go.
  • Trust your gut and focus on what’s working, and continue refining. Difference with clients is sharing ideas with them, of course.
  • See it through, and make sure everything you do has purpose. Why is that mark there, or why are you choosing a color, or texture, or anything? The reason doesn’t need to be epic or grandiose, but when you can answer that with confidence, you’re doing it right.

Shawn Smith of Shawnimals: 5 Tips on The Creative Process from IPaintMyMind on Vimeo.

EL: You’re also newly minted as part of the Threadless team, congratulations!! How’d that come to be and what’s your role with them?

SS: Thanks! I’m the Art Director there now, and am absolutely loving it. I’ve been Chicago homies with a lot of the crew at Threadless for years (they’ve been around 20 years this year!). Have had nothing but love for them and what they do for artists, but honestly didn’t consider a job there until we started talking about it seriously. And then it was like “oh, wow – this is the perfect fit and I could really help out artists around the world and the company itself,” so it was ultimately a no brainer. I feel very lucky.

Given the state of things, we all rallied together and started the Community Action Plan where artists on the Threadless Artist Shops platform can earn a ton more money right now at no cost. It’s dead simple and awesome, and we all feel so good that we can do something like that right now!

EL: It’s so cool to see you added to that outfit. Very cool. How did you settle on the aesthetic of Shawnimals? What would you say the influences are and were you making stuff in a wildly different style at any point?

SS: There’s three things I think about:

  1. Cute but not saccharin (fake sweet)
  2. Purposefully naive
  3. Weird but relatable

I like figuring out how to give enough but not so much that the mystery is taken away. I want people to make my work their own. I don’t want it to be so simple that it lacks emotion, but there’s so much work out there that’s so incredibly complicated and seemingly for no particular reason. It’s not that I don’t appreciate an intricate or detailed technique, but I personally respond to work that is simpler and poignant and/or funny in some way.

The ninjas are a great example, as are the shapes.

EL: They really are…. During one of our conversations recently we spoke about Rotofugi and how Kirby and Whitney (RIP) have been so instrumental to so many artists careers & art fans collections over the years. I first found out about your plush stuff through them. There’s Rotofugi of course, but what other awesome, collaborative, good-faith relationships have been essential to your career?

SS: Rest in Power. I miss her. With being in this game as long as I have been, it’s a long list but I’ll pick some top ones: Rotofugi always, Squibbles Ink (Joe Somers), Kidrobot, Dark Matter Coffee, Harper Reed, CLIF Bar, Max Temkin and Cards Against Humanity, Lance Curran, the ORD Camp family, and a very very long list of fans who collect my stuff. There are so many, and I apologize for anyone I missed.

EL: I am always interested in the creatively inspirational moments we have as kids & as young adults, and how those influence our worldview and the way we think about art, creativity, making, and thinking for ourselves. What were some of those moments in your life?

SS: I have a few that are always top of mind:

  • Kermit the Frog (Muppets in general) – I had / have a Kermit plush toy with velcro on the hands and feet. I remember laying on the floor with my Dad and he’d throw it up into the air and it would land with the hands and feet in all sorts of crazy places because of the velcro. I’d laugh so hard!
  • M.U.S.C.L.E. toys – no idea what they were but SO imaginative and weird. The fact that they came from Japan (even though I didn’t know it back in the day) HAD to inform my aesthetic on some level.
  • Megaman – I remember playing the original (holy shit, it was difficult!) and LOVING the imagination. The world, all of the characters, the bosses, the story, etc.
  • And, of course, sci-fi and fantasy in general, and comic books. A long list of examples here, but they all collect in a big ol’ pool of pop cultural reference material that I draw from for inspiration

EL: What artists are you paying attention to these days? What are the last few pieces of art you’ve purchased?

SS: Baldur Helgason, Steve Seeley, Laura Berger, Blake Jones, Tara McPherson, and Yukinori Dehara, in no particular order.

EL: Do you ever wonder or guess what you’d be doing if you weren’t making art?

SS: Honestly, no. I’ve thought about it before, and I don’t think I could do much else. I think it’d be amazing to work for an arts foundation finding artists who need grants. That’s the only thing I could think of.

EL: If you could have dinner & drinks with one artist past or present, who would it be and why?

SS: I have to pick two. Philip Guston and Steven Spielberg. I love Guston’s work, and I’d love to talk with him about his choices and the dynamics of changing up his work so drastically (and why) and how he thought about the narratives behind his work. And then Spielberg because of the stories he tells and how he makes them come to life.

Written by:
Evan La Ruffa
Apr 20, 2020

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