Smile Politely

An interview with Barry Abrams: local creative pro

When I first met Barry Abrams, he was a shy kid just out of high school. One day, Barry showed up in one of my classes at Parkland College, where I am a professor in the graphic design program. This was back in 2001 before Facebook existed and Google was still in its infancy. I distinctively remember Barry as one of those kids who was born with a mouse in his hand and a microchip in his brain.

There was also something else odd about Barry. He would never take the easy way out. I remember one project he worked on that had some collage art that needed some masking tape to visually tie everything together. He could have scanned some masking tape. He could have downloaded some stock art of masking tape. But, no, he decided to make digital masking tape in Photoshop by painting the art from scratch with pixels. The result? So good that it looked just like real masking tape.

Where Barry’s talent really shone was in animation. While other students were still learning how to make still images look good, Barry loved to make things move. And he did it with finesse, with rhythmic anticipation and kinetic surprises — once again, showing off his technical wizardry. So it was no surprise when I found out that he got hired at SURFACE 51, one of our top local creative marketing shops, right after graduating from ISU.

Today, Barry is one of those new generation of creative pros that treats problem solving as a game. Where the older generation (like me) separate visual problem solving (design) from technical problem solving (production), it’s all the same to Barry. Can the intuitive creativity that makes great art and the rational linear logic that is programming exist in one brain? Apparently, yes. His name is Barry Abrams.

In preparation for his upcoming presentation at Parkland’s new “Meet the Pros” lecture series, I asked him to answer a few questions over email. Here’s what he had to say about his life, his art and his work.

Smile Politely: What is SURFACE 51? What’s it like to work there?

Barry Abrams: SURFACE 51 is a branding and marketing firm in Champaign. We do logos, websites, brochures, PR, and pretty much anything our clients throw at us. There are eight of us, and we pretty much all touch every project at some point or another.

SP: You’re the technical director at SURFACE 51. What does a technical director do?

BA: I have a hand in all of the digital projects that come through, be it web, TV commercials, or mobile applications. I’ve built Facebook games, social networks, Twitter thing-a-ma-jigs. Basically, we work with clients to find solutions to their problems.

SP: How did you get this job?

BA: I received an Associate’s Degree in graphic design at Parkland, and then transferred to ISU and got my Bachelor’s. I worked as an in-house web designer at an on-demand T-shirt company out of Pittsburgh for awhile. While the job was a great first job, it was a bit unfulfilling. There wasn’t much of a challenge for me. A designer I met at Parkland was working at S51. She kept plugging my name around the water cooler, so I managed to get an interview. This summer, I passed my 5-year mark here. Yes—I did get a (bargain-bin) gold pocket watch commemorating it. And yes, some of the “gold” flaked off. It also loses about 5 minutes a day so I constantly have to update the time.

SP: I hear you play video games.

BA: Yep.

SP: Have you always played video games?

BA: When I was a teenager, I bought an old Asteroids arcade machine that a guy in Springfield was trying to get rid of. I’ve always been drawn to the games that would now be considered “classic.” These games were made between 1979–1983. These games had three-word plot summaries—Blast the Asteroids, Avoid the Ghosts, Kill the Centipede—and they typically only had one or two buttons and a joystick. They’re also really, really hard. I’m drawn to these games because I can play them in 10-minute bursts. In our house, I’ve actually got a room dedicated to just these arcade games. I’ve got about 7 games in the room, and 3–4 more in the garage and at the office. It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s an obsession. You can see a few pictures at I still play newly released games too (I’ve got a PS3 and 360), but I don’t have a room dedicated to them, if that tells you anything.

SP: Does playing games make you smarter?

BA: I don’t know if they make you smarter, but they help train you to solve problems. My favorite games growing up were adventure games, where you’d have to find object A to use with objective B to get to stage C. You’d have to use deduction and brain power to get further in the game. The arcade games require problem-solving skills too, but you only have a few seconds to figure them out. If you’re trying to get a high score, you’ll need pinpoint precision. The red ghost in Pac-Man has a different pattern than the blue ghost, so you have to know how it’ll react so that you can pass the stage. If you mess up, it’s all over.

SP: Rumor has it, you’ve got a farm, too?

BA: Are you talking about Barry’s Farm, my girlfriend’s handmade goods business?

SP: Yeah. What’s the story behind Barry’s Farm?

BA: When I was a student, I wanted to silkscreen a few T-shirt designs I had come up with. I featured them on (what was then) my blog, Barry’s Farm. We printed them in my extra bedroom (I’m pretty sure I never got that security deposit back). It took a little while, but I eventually got a few orders from people who weren’t my family.

SP: Then what happened?

BA: I was going on a trip, and needed some sort of protection for my laptop. So I asked my girlfriend, Katie Martin, to sew me a laptop sleeve that looked like a furry monster. Why? Because it was fun and I hadn’t seen anything like that prior. On the trip, a bunch of people said that they really loved it and that they’d buy one. So, when I got home, we added it to the Barry’s Farm website. A few weeks later, Boing Boing, one of the biggest gadget blogs on the web, posted a link … and we had a HUGE influx of orders. It wasn’t long before we were only selling those (along with other handmade goods), and Katie was able to quit her job in corporate America and do it full-time.

SP: Shouldn’t it be Katie’s Farm?

BA: The only reason we still even call it Barry’s Farm is so we don’t ruin our search engine rankings and have to get new business cards. It’s been five years and Katie does all of the work these days. I sometimes answer customer emails, but she’s the one who’s up until four in the morning sewing stuff.

SP: Is there any time left for fun?

BA: To relax, we’ve taken up playing board games. Not Monopoly or Scrabble (not that there’s anything wrong with those games). I’m talking about strategy games like Carcassonne where you lay tiles to build the medieval French city, or Power Grid, a game that simulates the stock market — “Nerd Games” that would potentially bore teenagers. These games are essentially logic puzzles, and are high in strategy. That’s probably why we like them. We’re constantly working on our house. A kitchen remodel is in the foreseeable future. We’ve also got a crazy one-year-old puppy.

SP: What is the best type of shark?

BA: Easy. Hammerhead.

Barry Abrams will be speaking at Parkland College on Wednesday, November 16 at 12 noon in room C118. Barry’s presentation is the third event of “Meet the Pros,” a new lecture series sponsored by Graphic Design at Parkland College and 40 North 88 West. This free lecture series is open to the public and features designers, photographers, illustrators, and other commercial artists in our local creative community.

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