Child’s Play for a Living: Jeff Kulak talks Craft

Based in Montreal, ADC Member Jeff Kulak spends his days drawing and illustrating. He is responsible for breathing colorful life into OWL’s award-winning children series Learn To Speak. Most recently, he collaborated with Patryk Stasieczek to self-publish another award winner entitled Robot Feels Sleepy, a coloring book for toddlers. Jeff speaks with ADC about the contemporary illustration world and the freelance tango!

ADC: You’ve received two ALCUIN Book Design Awards. How does it feel to receive honors in the only national competition for book design in Canada?

Jeff: It’s really great. I was able to attend the awards night in Toronto, in October of last year. It was exciting to be in a room full of people who were really passionate about designing books and see some other great work.

ADC: How did you get involved with ALCUIN?

Jeff: I worked on a series of books called Learn to Speak. The first one was Learn to Speak Music for OWL, and there were three more titles: Dance, Fashion, and Film is coming out next year. My first encounter with the ALCUIN Society was through winning an award for this series.

ADC: Could you briefly describe the Learn to Speak series and how you got involved with designing it?

Jeff: I was contacted directly by the publisher and asked if I wanted to work on a book about music for children, which was ideal because I liked to work with typography and illustration, and this involved both sides of the fence.

At first, I actually had to turn them down because I was moving cities, and I had a bunch of other work. It was regrettable because OWL in Canada is an institution for children.
They ended up coming back to me, maybe a month or two later, and asking if I would still consider working on it. I was able to start with them, which was exciting, and I hit it off with an editor at OWL, who was also the author of the first installment.

Then, from Learn to Speak Music, it turned into a series. The second one, Dance, is an introduction to the world of dance for kids who are showing an inclination to this subject area and might not know that it can be a vocation or you can make a life out of it.

ADC: Did you learn to dance?

Jeff: I did not learn to dance, but I looked at a lot of hilarious dance videos on the internet. I used to play a bit of music when I was younger, and doing the music book made me get back into that. That’s what I like about this project.

ADC: Amazing, they are inspirational books for children, but through them and through creating them, you found your own inspiration to get back to your roots.

Jeff: I think what makes them successful is that even adults pick them up. The language doesn’t talk down to children. The references are contemporary, and they are realistic. They are not sugarcoated ideas of what these avenues are.

ADC: What’s Robot Feels Sleepy?

Jeff: It is self-published. My friend, Patrick, and I wrote the story. I illustrated and designed it; then I printed it at the local copy shop and spent a couple of days cropping it down, folding it and binding it. I hand-stitched every copy.

ADC: Oh, wow!

Jeff: Yes, it was a bunch of work. The impetus for the project was my friend, Patrick, has a two-and-a-half-year-old nephew. Patrick initially asked me, “Do you want to make a coloring book for my nephew for Christmas?”

ADC: What’s the story about?

Jeff: It is about a robot who feels sleepy, a robot who is low on energy and goes looking for more.

ADC: You worked on typography in that one as well?

Jeff:It’s just black and white, really clean and bright and simple. I let myself make it as cute as possible. It’s for two- and three-year-olds, so …

Since it’s won this [ALCUIN] award, I need to make a new batch of copies. We are also going to translate it into French, Japanese and Swedish.

ADC: What new projects are you working on now, and which is the most exciting to you, personally?

Jeff: The next one is another book project for OWL. This is still untitled, but it is going to be about food.

Now that I have a bit more experience from doing the last books with OWL, I feel more competent and just excited about starting work on the project. I explored a lot of aesthetic avenues in the last installments. I want this one to be a bit more focussed. I love food, so doing the drawing is going to be really fun.

ADC: This just sounds like so fun to do on a daily basis. Did you ever think that you would be doing something so interesting for a living?

Jeff: I think I have always drawn, so it makes sense. I just feel lucky that I am able to be involved in the world of books right now because it is definitely changing. These kinds of opportunities to have free reign with a project of this scale are unique.

ADC: We noticed on your website you have a section entitled “Play,” which are more open-ended projects. How do you decide when these projects are “finished?”

Jeff: They are little experiments or unfinished ideas. I am inclined to jump from one thing to another to really experiment. It’s important to maintain that practice of trying new things.

ADC: As you may know, the ADC’s mission this year is to recommit to our roots of art and craft in advertising and design, so please tell us how you bring this philosophy back to your work?

Jeff: In terms of the craft, it is part of what keeps me interested in what I am doing. I want to maintain a level of physical involvement with the work, so it is important that I keep drawing analog instead of just using a computer. The computer offers a lot of opportunity to try new things, really quickly, but it could end up looking stale if your hand is not in it. Finding balance in between working with my hands and working digitally is something that remains important throughout my career.

To talk with Jeff about life as a drafter, designer and illustrator, contact