Artist Profile: Sam Soulek found his calling through design

Sam Soulek // Photo courtesy Sam Soulek

Cover artist Sam Soulek’s interest in graphic design was born on a fateful summer afternoon from an unexpected source: a TV ad for an art school’s video game design program. “I didn’t know design was even a thing,” he says. “But I knew video games were a thing, and I had to have this stupid commercial tell me that people had to make them. So I was like, ‘I can do that!’”

As a kid growing up in New Prague, Soulek’s mother fostered his artistic side, encouraging him to draw and providing him with sketchbooks and pencils. As he got older, Soulek says he never lost that interest in favor of a more traditional career path. “You felt like you were supposed to do something really grown up, like business or finance, or something very adult,” he says. “I never gravitated toward anything like that.”

After going through the two-year program and realizing video game design wasn’t for him, Soulek reluctantly went back to school at the now-shuttered College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, where he fell in love with graphic design. After completing four more years of school, he dove into the world of advertising, eventually winding up in his current position as the creative director of 10 Thousand Design, the design firm of Colle McVoy.

When it comes to style inspiration, Soulek is drawn to the clean lines of mid-century aesthetic. “I use a lot of vibrant color, and I’m really into mid-century design and simplicity and boldness,” he says. “Like, what are the least amount of moves you have to make to make something recognizable?”

For this cover, Soulek walked the line between keeping it as simple as possible while also vibrant enough to draw people in, a task that’s much easier said than done. “I can sit and sketch a face with lots of lines and you’ll get that it’s a face, but that’s pretty simple,” he says. “To do it with two lines, you really have to think about it. So when you see the final piece of something that I do, there were probably a lot of layers behind that that were more complex that led up to the final thing.

“For this example, it was looking at stained glass windows, like historical stained glass, and the illustration styles. You have to do things a certain way to make them work in stained glass, because you need that metal framework.”

Holidays cards designed by Sam Soulek, courtesy Sam Soulek

Holidays cards designed by Sam Soulek, courtesy Sam Soulek

Growing up in the Catholic Church, Soulek credits stained glass as an early inspiration for him—aside from being beautiful artistic pieces, each one is tasked with telling a detailed story. “In that small town I grew up in, the church’s stained glass windows were like 40 feet tall, and you’re surrounded by them,” he says. “I wouldn’t actually listen to what was going on, I would just be looking at these windows and the iconography, the illustration of them.”

As a designer and creative director, Soulek has worked with a wide array of companies—from start-ups like Houston White, a barber in North Minneapolis, to well-worn brands like Grain Belt and Indian Motorcycles. While the strategic approach may differ wildly from client to client, one thing stays the same. “Whether it’s a start-up or an established business, I always want to start by getting to the root of their story—what makes them unique, why are you here, why do people need to know about you, and who are those people?”

As an avid fan of mid-century design and architecture (His house has its own Instagram: @midcenturyminnesotan), Soulek’s first rule is to respect the historical integrity, whether that be in his own home or with a client. “With something like Grain Belt, they’ve got decades and decades of history, and you’ve seen them in all of the dive bars, and you’ve seen signs from different eras. So the work that we did with them was really about celebrating that,” he says. “Historically, there’s a lot of craft and care that went into everything—from a beer like Grain Belt or Schell’s, to a house like ours […] there’s a lot of deep meaning there. So I think you need to understand that so you don’t destroy something that’s really at the heart and soul of what it is.”

Cover art by Sam Soulek