How Designer Bill Connors Translates Sound Into Image

Published October 15, 2019

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As far as art forms go, the gig poster has almost unparalleled reach. Taped, stapled, and wheatpasted across the city’s lamp posts and bus stops, they leave the gallery to meet their audience. A great gig poster enlivens public space. You can thank Bill Connors, resident designer at the legendary Empty Bottle, for adding intrigue to your commute—not to mention, since the internet now counts as public space, your Instagram feed. Even flattened onto a phone screen, the depth and dynamism of his work—a mixture of collage and illustration—comes across.

Connors went from studying at SAIC, to manning the door at the Empty Bottle—plus playing shows there with his band, Dim—to designing most of their posters and merch. In the past couple of years, he has also found himself doing more and more work for out of town acts, with increasingly larger profiles. Some of his recent work, for instance, include posters for The National and merch for Post Malone. And while he’s flattered by these types of inquiries, he’s not necessarily chasing them.

“I tend to want to do the things that are the worst for me financially,” Connors tells me. “I want to do the stuff for my friends’ bands, for bands that I really like that don't have a ton of money. Then it's a balance of trying to do the one or two big jobs that are the least… Uncomfortable? That are the most me, you know?”

I met Connors at the Empty Bottle to learn more about his background, his process, and how Chicago has shaped his artistic sensibilities.

Adam Wray
Bill Connors

You have a pretty distinct style. Do you have any early aesthetic experiences, that, looking back, predicted the work you’re doing today?

The first real memory I have of being drawn to something purely based on how it looked would have to be, like, Alien? All the Giger work in that—it scared the shit out of me but I probably watched that movie 500 times growing up. That and Pushead Metallica shirts my uncle had.

I used to do so much more illustrative, hand-drawn stuff. I would post drawings on my personal Instagram page, and it came to my attention that someone had been taking those drawings, putting them on shirts and selling them. For years. At first, I didn’t really care—I was putting my work on the internet—but what they had stolen was so… It was my sketchbook. It was just very personal to me. To have that taken by someone and put into this other context, it fucked me up. So, I made a shift, and I didn't want to draw for a long time. It was a weird feeling that still hasn’t really left.

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Merch design for Post Malone

I've always done collage work. I went to art school, so I was always buying National Geographic in thrift stores, because that's what you do when you’re 18 and in art school, right? I had a huge collection of this stuff and just figured that I'd go through it again, try to use other people's language, and contort it into my own thing. I put out a book with Brad Rohloff of Bred Press that was mostly this compiled source material that I shaped into something.

From that, it felt like it was natural to keep going through this old shit, compiling these libraries of scans, and drawing into that. Finding these weird, ephemeral things and making them into something that’s appealing to me and that says what I want it to say without just stealing someone else's stuff. That's weird line to walk.

Tell me about your experience in art school.

The faculty at SAIC was insane. To be able to take a class where I worked in mixed media with Karl Wirsum, and he’s just walking around, looking at what I'm doing. I idolized him when I was trying to find my style, and now he's in the corner eating a sandwich while I'm drawing. Completely surreal for me.

But I think I messed it up. I was 18 years old, and basically told just go to college for something. Don’t wait. Just apply, go, do it now. So, in my head, I had the choice of going to a state school for something I hated while accruing a ton of debt or going to art school for something I loved... and accruing a ton of debt. It was like, either way I’m going to be fucked, so, whatever.

I will say that it taught me a way to be productive, but at a very high expense. I wish that I could have waited a couple years. I would have just given myself the opportunity to not rush into it. I didn't take any actual graphic design classes. I mean, the fundamentals are part of the teaching or critiques you get in a typical screen printing class, but I didn't take any specialized course in it because it just didn’t interest me when I was 18. Or type—I would have loved to learn how to design type, but at this point I’m so busy between here and freelance work that I don't have time to even begin to teach myself another thing.

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An intricate, technical thing.

Yeah. My only knowledge of any programs that I use is pretty much from just sitting with them for the past 12 years and trying to figure out how they work.

Just hacking it out one step at a time.

Which is a lot of people, right? But I do really wish that I would have taken those courses to learn how to do that stuff the “proper” way.

Are you from Chicago originally?

I'm from the south suburbs. I've been living in the city since 2010, maybe? I was couch surfing for a while in college, commuting for the first couple years.

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Design for Chicago band Rash

I'm sure, growing up here, that the city rubbed off on your sensibilities as an artist. Can you articulate how?

I guess I’d say the “second city” mentality, in a way, has informed my personal ethos of art making. To not put too much stock into who is paying attention to what I’m doing over here in my pocket of the world, and instead just focusing on what I’m making and how I can improve. As you can clearly tell from this lengthy interview where I just talk about myself accompanied by multiple photos of me that I will be sharing all over the internet. I would say, by and large, this city is home to a community of people who are nose-down working on shit. That's how I strive to be.

"I would say, by and large, this city is home to a community of people who are nose-down working on shit."

What attracts you to projects or to inquiries that come in?

These days I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of inquiries, which also makes things a bit more difficult for me. I think no matter what I try to do, it always comes back to the fact that I do something, as you said earlier, distinctive, and I just keep doing that thing in different ways. It's hard for me to break out of that entirely, so I feel like I typically know pretty quickly if it's a project that I can be successful in. A lot of the time, people are really excited and dug in and come at me with ideas that they think I’d be perfect for but I feel I can’t do justice to.

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Poster design for Plantasia

How do you check in with yourself to make sure that you're advancing your own craft?

I don't necessarily love everything I make for longer than a week after I’ve made it. I've always seen it as an issue, but I think that's where my check-in is—when I’m faced with something I made and it's only been a few days since I finished it and I hate it, then trying to figure out how to do it better next time.

"...the simplest way to make sure that I’m still on top of things is to just change the medium I’m working with."

I’ve always had a really hard time changing. I get stuck in what’s comfortable for me. For the better part of nine years I was drawing skulls and drippy stuff—and I still do that—but even just this fairly recent transformation in the way that I work is enough to let me know I'm still growing.

You mean your shift towards collage?

Yeah. Turns out the simplest way to make sure that I’m still on top of things is to just change the medium I’m working with. Instead of drawing and painting, it's spending six hours looking through magazines, and then figuring out how to beat them into submission, into something that looks like an image. It's going from directly painting on something to finding it, tearing it out, scanning it, arranging it, printing it out, drawing into it, scanning it back in, arranging it more, printing it out, drawing back into again.

There's something to that process that reminds me of screen printing, which I haven't been able to do since school. There are these steps, and I’ve made it regimental, as opposed to just sitting in front of a blank piece of paper with a pen.

I always found something comforting about the screen printing apparatus. The monumentality of it. Something to orient everything around.

There's some weird, almost meditative moments where you can reflect on what you're doing in the actual process. Waiting for screens to dry.

It's like forced slowness.

Exactly. And it's the same way, for me, with scanning. Scanning things that are really high DPI is good for me because I can make them huge, but it's also really good for me because it takes forever, and I can step away for a second, and think for a minute. It's not just next thing, next thing, next thing. Sometimes even when the damn computer freezes up, I'm happy for that, because I need to walk away for a second. Ever since I quit smoking, it's hard to find a reason to step away from the screen.

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Shirt design for Bill's band Dim

How do making music and design feed into each other?

Designing for my band is the hardest thing for me in the entire world. I'm too much of a control freak to give that up to anyone else yet. At this point, one is the therapy for the other. Music is how I clear brain space after working on visual stuff all day long. When the band stuff ramps up and we're practicing a ton, we've got a bunch of shows, designing is the thing that can bring me back.

Doing posters and stuff, I have to listen to every band to give them something that works for who they are. Things need to look like what they sound like most of the time. At the Bottle, it's weird, because we book so many different types of music. This place has been here since the 90s, and the things that it was associated with then are not necessarily the things that it's associated with now, but these remnants of everything that happened back then are still all over the place. There’s no specific identity to it because it's been here for so long and people who have come through have always been allowed to leave their mark on it. That was a challenge at first, but now I think that the benefit to that is I can sort of do anything with it, you know?

One last question: what's the first record cover that comes to mind for you—that you didn't design—that just looks exactly how the album sounds?

"Things need to look like what they sound like most of the time."

It's really going to be painfully predictable for anyone who knows me, but it’s My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. It's a boring record cover, in my opinion. I don't love the design of that, but, to me, it looks like what it sounds like. That's the gun-to-my-head answer to that question.

It's a good answer! I would agree.

It's also a super predictable and boring, so make sure that you write that it’s a boring answer! Everyone that I know that reads this is going to hate the fact that I said that.

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