Feature Friday #016 — Ben Stafford

Collage master, CB alum, and new high school teacher Ben Stafford joins the program this week. His second stint in the interview chair explores how the younger generation uses AI, where his inspiration comes from, and what *hasn't* changed in the past 10 years. You find more of his awesome work over at benillustrated.com. Or you can shop his Cotton Bureau collection here.

Ben! So good to talk to you again. It's been almost a decade since we last sat down. Tell me, are you still in Columbus? Do you and your wife still work together? Are you still a fan of cheesecake (most important of the 3)? What's been going on over the past decade?

I can't believe it's been that long! I feel like the only thing that hasn't changed is my haircut. Some life-changing events happened in the past ten years and some of those things I could have never predicted.

My spunky daughter was born in 2013. In 2014, I began focusing a lot of my time and energy into editorial illustration. Our family moved to a great small town about an hour away from Columbus in 2015. In 2020, I decided to pursue my Master's in Education so I could teach art. While pursuing that degree, I had the privilege of being an adjunct professor at The Modern College of Design.

During the pandemic, I dove head first into making analog collages out of magazines I had available. It was addicting. What started out as a therapeutic way to express myself turned into making collages for clients and giving collage workshops. My whole website changed with that focus now in the forefront. I am now just about to finish up my first full year as an 6th-12th grade art teacher. It has been incredibly rewarding and I have zero regrets making the career change. My wife, Beth, and I will still conduct business together but most of my time is focused on school.

As for the cheesecake, as long as it's gluten-free, I'm in!

Backstop Bear by Ben Stafford. Available on Cotton Bureau.

Holy smokes you're not kidding! That's top-down change, which I imagine was both nerve wracking and exciting. Seems like you picked the *ideal* time to reenter the education system haha. But honestly, now that we're a few years removed from the initial COVID wave I have to think that working with kids in a focus that you're passionate about is extremely rewarding.

What are some of the challenges you face in the classroom? With 6th-12th you get the whole gamut. Is it tough to keep them on track or is it encouraging to see them forming a love for art at such a young age?

I think my biggest challenge is realizing how green I really am. I have to give myself a lot of grace knowing that I'm a career changing adult and this is my first full year at doing something new. As a person, I try to be the best at whatever I'm doing so I set a high bar for myself. I have to realize that I'm not going to get everything right, I'm going to learn from my mistakes, and hopefully I'll get better at them the next opportunity I get.

As far as keeping them on track, some days are harder than others! I love to challenge and encourage my students to do hard things, especially when sometimes projects feel long. There's a sign in my classroom that says, "Great Art Takes Time." Sure, sometimes it's hard to keep the students motivated, but when they see the finished piece, my hope is they realize it was all worth it.

Some students are naturally gifted while others have to work harder at building on their skills. Watching any student grow is a privilege and it's what keeps me coming back! If I can play a small role in that, then I think I'm doing a pretty good job.

That's a very balanced approach. Everything these days feels so rushed while simultaneously having the maximum amount of social pressure. Drilling down on that approach during long projects should benefit them as they progress through their schooling and careers. That has to feel good.

Talk about your time at the Modern College of Design. How did it differ from teaching younger students? I know this might be a bit gauche, but did you enjoy it more than 6th-12th? Less? At that point you have very serious students looking to make a career out of their passion, which is quite different than the younger crowd first exploring their love of art. Was there more pressure as a professor?

I completely agree with you regarding the importance of taking time in their work. It does feel good!

The wonderful people over at The Modern asked me to teach some online branding courses. I got to create videos teaching content as well as explain what the students should do for their assignments. In addition to those video modules, I did get to host video conferences with my students to review their progress and give them feedback. Obviously that part was the most fun! I tried to provide them with my expertise and speak encouragement into their strengths. I'd say that I do that with my younger students too!

I believe you're right that college level students tend to be more serious but I don't think I felt the pressure to help them achieve some kind of status or get a perfect job after graduation. I tried my best not to be that stuffy professor. Instead, I tried to keep things light, fun, and interesting. I felt my role was to be more of a guide, helping these students hike through unknown territory and find some hidden treasures along the way.

As far as "teaching enjoyment level" goes, I have no favorite age. I'm kind of like the Lego box that says "Ages 4-99." I've taught kindergartners, elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, and adults. I love watching light bulbs go off and the students having fun. I have felt joy and fulfillment at each level, but of all of those groups, I will say that adults are the most engaging. I love facilitating collage workshops and would love to host more of them soon!

Justice Collage Concept by Ben Stafford

So just no students age 3 or under. Got it ;)

But honestly, finding enjoyment out of teaching all ages just shows how much enthusiasm you have for the industry and the process. It's refreshing, and something we need more of these days.

I'm glad you mentioned the collages again because I kind of have all the questions on this one. Tell me how you first got the idea for them… were you inspired by someone's work or just trying to create your own niche? Do you have favorite resources for the material? How often do you produce them and how long does it take? (ok you don't have to answer all of these… I'm just fascinated because it's so unique)

My collage journey began in March 2020 during the "two weeks to flatten the curve." I had just begun my simultaneous journey to become an art teacher by going back to school to receive my Master's degree. I was a bit anxious about that but also questioning, "Am I an artist?" After seventeen years as a graphic designer and illustrator, I wanted to go back to my art roots and test myself. Collage was an entirely new medium for me.

Honestly, I just used what I had available: an X-Acto knife, child's glue sticks, several years worth of Wired magazines, and a large art studio desk, also known as my ping pong table. I limited myself to those things plus the small addition of a digital graphite brush in post-production. Some days I would spend thirty minutes, other days three hours. I chose not to look at other people's collage work because I wanted these to feel like my own. And surprisingly, I felt like those initial twelve I created actually do. My design and illustration work is very geometric and grid-based and my collage work captures some of those visual cues. All in all, it was a great way for me to process my emotions and to create by exploration. After posting those, clients began reaching out asking me to create digital-based collages for their book covers, editorial work, or blog posts.

In the years since 2020, I completely redid my website to be collage focused. I now almost exclusively use old Life magazines from the 1930s-60s. They are incredibly rich with inspiration, history, colorful advertisements, and amazing photography. Many of my compositions and subject matter form by honest play and moving things around until two things click and then a third! Much like the 2020 series, sometimes they take me a few hours and sometimes it takes days or weeks for me to find the right pieces to go together. I try to get down to my studio desk (now a quite real one) at least once a week. I'm hoping I get to make a lot more when school lets out for summer. I have no plans on stopping any time soon!

“Window in the Skies” by Ben Stafford

Old LIFE magazines from 50+ years ago? Now we're talking. To me these present as eerie, nostalgic, and futuristic all at the same time. Not sure if that makes complete sense but I can't get enough of them. The way they come together is really striking!

I won't take up too much more of your time but since we're (sorta) talking about the future…

Throughout this series we've been asking what the next 5-10 years of design look like. You might be in the best position to answer out of anybody. Do you incorporate AI into your classes at all? Have students submitted AI-aided projects without permission? The feedback so far is that it's used as a tool, but technology is largely driven by the younger generations. I'm curious if you've seen students adapt to AI easily or use it differently than professionals do at this early stage.

In regards to the feelings you get when you look at my collage, that's an excellent interpretation and I love that you feel all of those things! That's intentional! Thanks for the compliment.

Because I generally stick to hands-on physical mediums, I don't have to worry about AI in my classroom. Last year, I showed my students what AI was capable of doing in the art realm, but I haven't pursued it more than those conversations. I want them to know that exploration is fundamental to making art, no matter the medium. The biggest lesson I can teach my students is to adapt by using tools, old and new, to make works that make them (or others) feel something.

To answer your question about where I may see myself in 5-10 years, I'd have to say I hope I'm still teaching! I'm thankful to God for the ability to have a tiny impact at a great school. It really is incredibly fulfilling work.

Unfollow The World — 03 by Ben Stafford. Available on Cotton Bureau.

Love the way you view this. As exploration. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Okay final question and then you're dismissed (sorry, not sorry). With your focus not being affected by AI as much as others, do you foresee a different source of inspiration for future art projects? I'm assuming you don't have access to a never-ending supply of old LIFE magazines. Any anticipation about your collage style changing or shifting to new material? We always love hearing the speculation about what's coming next in the industry, so it feels like the perfect way to wrap up.

Wow! I love this question and I honestly can say I haven't really thought of "what comes next" after my Life magazine resources are depleted. I still very much believe in using a printed medium. There is a richness to printed things that adds a special amount of story in my work. The tangible will always hold more value than anything digital in my personal opinion. I'm all for style changing or evolving, but I will definitely be continuing to use magazines and photos. I'd like to believe that whatever path my art takes, it will continue to delight, inspire, and spark curiosity.

Cheers, Joel! Thanks for having me and for your thoughtful questions!

Thanks so much Ben. This was fun!

P.S. Use code FeatureFriday15 for 15% off all Ben Stafford products now through 4/28!

Hand-Picked Links — April 29, 2024

A few of our favorite links from last week, plus one funny horse video that somehow we’re seeing just now.

J.B. Mauney, Bull Rider

Plates and screws in his shoulder, hand, and pelvis; a collapsed lung and a distended liver; broken eye-socket and jaw, shattered teeth; torn UCL, MCL, and ACLs (both); various other tears, breaks, and fractures; shredded rotator cuff, then, finally, forced to retire with a broken neck.

Exceptionally crafted story. Don’t miss the videos.

A Sundae with Everything on It

New children’s book illustrated by friend of the site Andy J. Pizza, written by Kyle Scheele. (Not a cookbook, do not attempt at home.)

Megan Plus Board Game Table

Kickstarter remains an incredible platform, one that incubates incredible new products while also spawning horror stories of wasted money and unfulfilled promises — occasionally at the same time.

The original Megan board game table was beautiful, functional, and, in most people’s experience, subject to repeated delays and frustrating lapses in communication. Thankfully ours did ultimately arrive (after two full years), and it’s served us well on countless game nights. Hopefully the supply chain kinks have been worked out, because the latest iteration looks fantastic.

We (cautiously) endorse the Megan Plus for tabletop gaming fans.

Gather (2.0?)

Speaking of Kickstarter, it looks like our friend Jeff has a few new tricks up his sleeve for the Gather system. Tell us more about this “inner circle” or “VIP group”.

Cotton Bureau Drinkware

If you missed the announcement last week, we’re excited to unveil a range of new on demand drinkware products including tumblers, insulated water bottles, can sleeves, cups, and drinking glasses. Shop till you drop, or send us something of your own if you think you have what it takes to be on Cotton Bureau.

Hand-Picked Links — April 22, 2024

Hey, hey. Welcome to week four of Cotton Bureau’s hand-picked links. Hope you don’t mind if we set the rest of this post in Papyrus.

Smack for Heinz

Chicago dogs are phenomenal whether you’re in Chicago or working from home, but as proud Pittsburghers, we firmly support your right to choose ketchup any time, any place. We stand with Heinz in providing this essential resource to all Chicagoans.

While we’re talking Heinz, we strongly recommend you boycott every McDonald’s too cowardly to serve the good stuff.

Richard Serra, 1938–2024

Monumental artist, impossible to apprehend virtually, equally difficult to appreciate. A towering legacy,  ensteeled around the world in massive, brutal profile. His works survive him.

Low-Tech Magazine

A long-time favorite, Kris De Decker pushes the boundaries of what is possible with limited resources. The website is solar-powered and endlessly fascinating.

Quick congratulations to our friends at Stratechery on 11 years. Ben’s writing and business analysis is second to none.

Drinks are on us.

Our catalog of on demand products is growing. Today we would like to officially announce support for a range of insulated drinkware including a 20oz tumbler (brushed steel, black powder coated, white powder coated), a 20oz white powder-coated skinny bottle with a screw-on cap, a 16oz clear acrylic cup with a lid and straw, and white powder-coated can sleeves in both skinny and classic shapes. We’ve also added a 16oz pint glass and a 10.5oz old-fashioned rocks glass.

If you can’t possibly read through the rest of this, fine, go start making products.

On demand drinkware is available to all Cotton Bureau creators.

Getting Started

At a glance, on demand drinkware isn’t much different than on demand t-shirts. The fundamental nature of the job maps closely to what we already do with shirts, phone cases, totes, and hats. The steps are straightfoward:

  • find a partner who can provide a high-quality product
  • integrate with said partner to send over orders as we receive them
  • provide a visual representation (mockup) of the product to creators and customers

Sure, there are other boxes to check like looking up harmonized tariff codes, writing documentation, drawing fancy little icons, etc., but those are the big ones.

We found the right partner easily, and we knew it right away. That just left the totally harmless sounding step of making the mockups — which ended up taunting us for, oh, a year-and-a-half. 🫠

3D Rendering

If you look at the pint glass above, you might notice that, unlike a t-shirt laying flat on a table, it curves. In fact, the printable surface of a pint glass is a full 360º circle. We needed to find a way to allow people to see not just the front, but the sides and the back as well, ideally from all angles. With the work that we had done on embroidered hats, we knew that simply overlaying the artwork onto the surface and warping in two dimensions was going to be nearly impossible.

On top of that, something else you will notice when you look at a pint glass compared to a t-shirt or a hat is how much more complicated it is to get the lighting right. With a t-shirt, you have some shadows, highlights, and textures to separate, and that’s pretty much it. With a pint glass, you have reflections, refractions, transparency, and a bunch of other concepts too technical to even get into. Basically, it’s a nightmare. After a marathon conversation on the pros and cons of different approaches, we decided we would need to go all-in on a fully 3D rendered solution. It was something we had zero prior experience with, so a) risky and b) a ton of work. But who doesn’t love a challenge?

With some very generous assistance from our new manufacturing partner, we identified a 3D modeler who could help us with the basics. They fixed us up with meshes and textures for each of the drinkware styles that you see on the website. After (more than) a few rounds of revisions to the geometry, textures, and polygon counts, we brought the models into our own tools to tweak lighting and dozens of other parameters to produce the most accurate and realistic mockups possible. Nothing is ever perfect, but they looked credible to us. Time to step on the gas.

The Browser

Models were good, the plan was starting to come together, time to get cracking on the code. We were confident we would hit our internal deadline of late March. Since you are reading this in mid-to-late April, you might be able to deduce that something went, uh, slightly off the rails. After 15+ years of building websites, our estimates ought to be bulletproof. You simply keep doubling the amount of time you expect something to take until your calculator breaks. And yet, there’s always just something you failed to predict. In this case, while our work laptops didn’t break a sweat rendering hundreds of 3D models at a time in the browser, our latest-gen iPhones… crashed almost immediately? That can’t be right.

Yet it was true. Even a small number of models brought mobile Safari to a screeching halt, not merely spinning and chugging but straight giving up and reloading the page. After a few days of somewhat frantically poking and prodding, we found that the mobile browser world is simply not ready for our big, beautiful drinkware models. Our 3D smoke is too tough. Our high-resolution textures too different. Our alpha hashing too bad. Safari decided to kill us.

Now what?

With a fully in-browser 3D solution out the window, we needed to pivot. Mercifully, we didn’t have to throw everything out. Browsers seemed willing to tolerate one model which meant as long as we could posterize everything else on the page, we would still be able to use the single model for creating and viewing products. After all, how many models can you interact with simultaneously?

The solution took us back to the server and the land of Blender. Like any other time a bag of lemons is thrust at you, you might as well find some sugar and make lemonade. The work that we had done last year moving to a just-in-time image rendering system ended up being essental to delivering our new server-generated drinkware mockups. As a bonus, the ray-traced mockup images created by the server are tack-sharp and provide a useful archive of images for us to draw on in places (like email receipts) 3D models can’t go. Those are actually some big unplanned wins.

We’re currently loading the 3D models on every product page as a secondary view which allows you get a full picture of the product while the default view is a plain vanilla image. Browsers like that. On some level it’s disappointing we had to take a step back from our original plan for 3D everywhere. The good news is that we ultimately received all the benefits of pursuing the 3D model path since it serves as the foundation for rendering out static 2D images. And when mobile hardware and software catches up, we’ll be ready.

The Product

Now that we made it through the jargon, let’s not neglect the product itself.

The glassware is absolutely solid. Simple and sturdy. We think you are going to find that’s a crowd-pleaser. The printing on all of these products is UV which means full-color, slightly textured, and, unfortunately, not dishwasher safe. Seeing printed graphics on glass is kind of wild. We don’t recommend full-bleed color because of the unprintable areas at the tops and bottoms, but anything else you can think of is fair game.

The insulated clear acrylic cup we’ll admit is a touch different, possibly an acquired taste. For summer lounging and general purpose use though, there’s something to be said for a lid, a straw, and hours of temperature regulation — all while being able to see your beverage. Give it a try and let us know what you think.

Speaking of letting us know what you think, we do have access to more drinkware options. If there is a particular form factor you think we should have, tell us. We wanted to keep the launch lineup manageable, so we selected our favorites.

We’ve got two bottle styles right now, the 20oz tumbler and the skinny bottle. The tumbler is a little wider, and the lid includes a quick-slide mechanism. You’ve probably seen (or possibly own) similar tumblers from other brands. The lids should be compatible, so feel free to mix and match those. For the tall and skinny bottle, the lid screws on securely. No leaks to worry about when tossing it in a travel bag.

Last (and my favorite personally) are the insulated can sleeves. We go through more aluminum cans at my house than I care to admit. Everyone loves the insulated can sleeves that we have, but there aren’t enough to go around, and, to be fair, they’re a bit boring. We’re looking forward to seeing what you all add to the site and letting the kids finally each have one to call their own.

That’s it. Go nuts. Create as many products as you want. Feel free to split them up by style or keep them all rolled up together. Everything should ship within a few days, though, to be fair, this is all new to us. You could call it a beta if you want.

Final Thoughts

We’re rapidly approaching our 11th birthday here at Cotton Bureau. That’s a long time to be doing the same thing. Honestly though, we truly enjoy the work and feel like we’re just getting started. It’s always satisfying to set goals and achieve them. On demand drinkware was an absolute slog at times, but being able to ship it today — even if we can’t stop seeing all the warts and scars — is a wonderful feeling.

Please be gentle (and patient) with our poor servers. We’re still optimizing some of the image generation. Ray-tracing is a massively resource intensive operation.

As always, we not only want but need your feedback. Let us know what we could be doing better. If it can be reasonably accommodated, we’ll certainly try.

Better international shipping.

A quick note for our friends abroad, we just added a new service level that we strongly recommend you use. The new default shipping option for international orders is about as close to a perfect blend of quick, reliable, and cheap as we’re going to get. To most places for most packages, it’s going to be cheaper than the existing basic shipping service (still available), and it’s always going to be faster, more reliable, and more transparent. It’s door-to-door FedEx service which means it never leaves their hands. Tracking is top notch. Duties are always paid at the time of checkout, so no surprises there.

When evaluating shipping services, we prioritize the customer experience even if it ends up costing a little more. Until now, that was nearly impossible to find. Options on the low end of the price range (including our existing basic option) leverage domestic postal services to get packages to their destinations. Those services are never as quick or consistent as we would prefer. On the higher end, fully tracked and delivered services were painfully expensive. We’re very pleased that FedEx has been able to develop a service that is much closer to the middle of the price range while delivering the high-end performance.

Over the last 10+ years we’ve tried more or less every shipping service, from DHL to UPS and everyone in between. Our current mix of services is by far the best we’ve ever had. We think you will find that you agree once you experience the new premium shipping option.