Steve Simpson: ‘Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by folk art’

We spoke to illustrator and designer Steve Simpson about the inspiration behind his unique brand of anarchic folk art…

We were thrilled when Steve Simpson got involved with the Affinity Designer for iPad Beta and put it through its paces with his instantly recognisable illustrative style. We spoke to him to find out a little about his creative background…

‘La Mort’ created using Affinity Designer for iPad.
Tell us a little bit about your history as an illustrator…

Like any interview you’ve ever read with an illustrator, it starts with ‘I simply loved to draw as a kid’. As I’ve got older and with hindsight, it was probably the easiest way for me to communicate with adults—so much more interesting for me to draw a picture than write a story or stand up in class and recount my weekend (which was probably spent either climbing trees or drawing). I think climbing trees would have been my number two career path.

Not being academic—I’ve always had a poor memory, making it virtually impossible to recollect facts in exams—I left school at 16 and studied technical graphics at a local college. This was in the pre-digital days of the early 90s. I was taught how to draw exploded views of mechanical objects from blueprints, use rubdown type and generally prepare analogue artwork for print. It really wasn’t fun though—I wanted to be a comic artist and when the opportunity came to join an animation company I was more than happy to leave college.

Iconic illustration: An anatomical study in Day of the Dead style by Steve Simpson.
Before you went freelance you worked on some pretty classic 80s cartoons like Count Duckula and Danger Mouse, which was your favourite to work on and why?

I was 19 when I started working at Cosgrove Hall. It really was a dream job. I’d always been a fan of Danger Mouse, even though it was for the kid’s afternoon TV slot, it had a massive following with students. I was initially placed in the paint and trace department as a special effects artist (using an airbrush to spray glows around stars mainly). I spent six years in the studio working in various departments, I spent a couple of years painting backgrounds before moving into preproduction; designing characters, layouts and storyboarding.

What led you to your freelance illustration career?

I moved to Ireland in 1990. I was still working in animation on a number of TV series including Teenage Mutant Hero ‘Ninja’ Turtles, but really wanted a change of direction. By ‘95 I had stepped away from animation and was working in greetings cards and comics. I became friends with a group of graphic designers, who had a company in the same building I had my studio—it was through them I was introduced to the world of illustration for design and advertising.

Describe your typical work day in brief.

I’m usually up around 5.30am, I prefer working early mornings than late nights. I try not to check emails/social media until after 9am, this gives me a few hours of solid work before breakfast. During a typical day I will work on several projects. Lunch is around 11.30am and I bring a sketchbook with me—often I have ideas for projects I’m working on that don’t fit the brief, but I’d still like to work up. Putting them in my sketchbook allows me to explore them and possibly use them for a personal project later. I finish for the day no later than 7-7.30pm.

The making of ‘La Vida Loca’.
What’s on your desk?

I have a 27” iMac, sketchbooks, printer/scanner and a light box. I use animation blue pencils for rough drawings and a propelling Bic pencil for refining them. That’s probably the essentials, the rest is a mountain of paper and coffee cups—I’m quite messy when I’m working.

Your illustrated packaging design for Mic’s Chilli sauces has won awards and much critical acclaim. Can you tell us a little bit about this project and the design process behind it?

This was a big breakthrough project for me. Up to this point I’d been illustrating and working to a lesser extent as a graphic designer—I’d never really felt I was able to marry the two things—the results had always felt disjointed to me. At the very start of this project I decided I would forget about graphic design altogether and treat the whole project as one big illustration—my mind suddenly free from grids I was able to work with more confidence and purpose.

Mic’s Chilli’s Inferno range of hot sauces. Packaging, design & illustration by Steve Simpson
Label detail of one of Mic’s Chilli’s Inferno hot sauces. Illustrated and designed by Steve Simpson.

I hand lettered the main logo and subtexts—only using a font for the copy, ingredients and nutritional info. I made sure the die cut was slightly wonky, matching my illustration style—for the first time it really felt like I had control—the last thing was illustrating the barcode. It made a huge difference not just visually but also took away the seriousness—it felt ‘fun’.

Playful barcode created for Mic’s Chilli BBQ Sauce by Steve Simpson.
How would you describe your signature style?

‘Fun.’ I think style is often confused with technique. The projects I work on cover both kids toys and the drinks industry—very different markets that require very different approaches. The humour and whimsy in my work, I feel, enables me to keep my style recognisable.

“The humour and whimsy in my work, I feel, enables me to keep my style recognisable.”

What has inspired your love of folk art and Day of the Dead imagery?

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by folk art, especially patterns. There’s something about the traditions and stories behind them I find especially intriguing. I think, the Day of the Dead stuff just seemed to take off—I do get a lot of commissions based around it.

Digital sketch for ‘La Vida Loca’, created by Steve Simpson in Affinity Designer for iPad beta.
‘La Vida Loca’, created by Steve Simpson in Affinity Designer for iPad beta.
What achievement in your illustration career are you especially proud of?

I think the thing I’m most proud of is that I’ve been drawing for a living for 33 years and it’s never felt like a job—coming from a traditional working-class background I still appreciate this every day.

“I’ve been drawing for a living for 33 years and it’s never felt like a job”

We love your designs for French toy company Djeco, in particular the vinyl figures. Has designing for a 3D product like this for kids been a new challenge for you?

I’ve been working with Djeco for a number of years and they always have such fun projects to work on. I particularly enjoyed working on the vinyl figures—in some ways it was a mix of the technical illustration I’d studied at college and animation character design—being able to see things from all sides. It does feel like magic when you’ve sent off a two-dimensional turnaround of a character and a few months later it arrives back in the post as a 3D toy! I love new challenges.

Maximus the warrior lion, vinyl toy designed by Steve Simpson for Djeco.
You recently created a limited edition screen-print for Ed Sheeran’s Irish tour. What was it like working on that and getting to meet Ed?

Aiken, Ed Sheeran’s Irish tour promoter, commissioned the print as a personal thank you gift. It was a fairly quick turnaround, I teamed up with Damn Fine Print again, whom I’ve been working with for a number of years on a series of literary projects based on Irish writers and musicians. I was very happy with how it turned out, and getting to meet him was an added bonus—my kids had photos with him too which made me ‘best Dad in the world’—for 10 minutes anyway. :)

Limited edition print created by Steve Simpson for Ed Sheeran’s Irish tour.
What would be your dream commission?

I don’t know—I’ve already worked with so many amazing people and brands on projects I would never have dreamt of—I’ll have to think about that one. :)


You can see more work by Steve at stevesimpson.com, and on his Twitter and Instagram channels.


Artist relations
Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.
Credits & Footnotes

All images © Steve Simpson and used with permission.