Designer’s block: A Q&A with Stephen Di Donato

Categories Web Design

Illustrator and graphic designer, Stephen Di Donato, like many designers with an agency past, has an eclectic portfolio. Whether he’s constructing an app for designer/developer think-tank hub Forrst or orchestrating the corporate identity for New York based bike-rental company Velocity, Di Donato’s aptitude for accessible user experience keeps his designs down to Earth.

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His new Kickstarter project, on the other hand, is a bit out of this world. Beyond Earth: A Poster Series, is the Montreal resident’s attempt to produce an astrological homage to the United States’ passion for space exploration, consisting of eight posters profiling planets in the Solar System. The nostalgic 1960’s aesthetic caught our eye as the fundraising project launched last month.

Inspired Mag picks Di Donato’s brain on this determined print project, where he looks for inspiration and why “backpacker” hip hop is playing on his iPod.

1. First off, let’s talk about your Kickstarter, you talk a bit on the site about how why you started this project, but how would you describe the design aesthetic for NASA and the 1960’s look at space exploration. What fascinates you to it?

I tried to imagine the feeling of something new and something exciting that was taking place at that time. Today we look at the space program from the perspective of multiple moon landings and shuttles and space stations, but at the time this was all just a vision for the population. So I tried to put myself in that mood of anticipating great things to come and the design came from an idealized vision of space. The 1960’s were more simplistic when it comes to design and advertising, so I tried to capture both the design and vision of the time.

The fascination comes from putting myself in the shoes of a different era, but at the same time using modern technology. I’ve always been a fan of the juxtaposition of the new and old.

2. If this is successful, how would you like to expand on it, is there a similar poster series you’d like to tackle?

I had many ideas when deciding what I should offer as a reward to the backers on Kickstarter. One of those ideas was to create an app. I quickly abandoned that idea for Kickstarter because it was literally a project on its own. That being said, whether or not my poster project is successful, I plan to proceed with the app idea with a couple of developer friends.

Also, prior to setting my goals on doing the planets of our solar system, I did quite a bit of research on various nebulas, black holes, stars and what they were composed of (i.e. gases). In fact, I almost did a series of different (larger) stars that we have just learned about in the last 5 to 10 years. I’m not sure why I didn’t pursue it, but we will see where it takes me.

3. What are some designers (past or present) that inspire your work?

There are so many designers I look up to, many can be found on my Dribbble account. The four people that come to mind right away are Olly Moss, Mark Weaver, Aaron Draplin and Tyler Galpin.

Di Donato's workspace

4. What artistic medium are you dying to try but haven’t yet?

I have done silkscreening in the past, which still piques my interest, however I would absolutely love to own a letterpress machine. I have never used one, but there is just something about reverting back to the days of putting sweat, blood and tears into a handmade project that makes it that much more rewarding. Sadly, a 2-ton machine cannot be easily stored in today’s domestic settings.

5. What’s overplayed in the web design world?

The biggest ones in 2010 and 2011 are large photographic backgrounds and parallax scrolling sites. Both of these clichés focus too much on the aesthetics, a bit like 3D movies, instead of the content and for that reason I find them to be rather boring. However there are very few examples that can produce excellent results if done in an interesting way. My favourite is definitely the New Zealand tourist site that went viral a few months ago (

6. If I was visiting Montreal, what local/favorite coffee shop would you recommend working out of and why? What should I order there?

I’m probably the worst designer to recommend a coffee shop, as I rarely drink any. However, I used to work in Old-Montreal, It’s an absolutely beautiful area that every tourist should see. There is an abundance of art galleries, great restaurants and specialized coffee shops. From time to time I’d go to Olive and Gourmando ( I’d usually order a chicken & guacamole sandwich with an espresso on the side. So good.

7. What music do you play when working? What do you recommend as productive ambient music?

On a day-to-day basis I tend to listen to a wide variety of music, but usually play ‘backpacker’ hip hop (I dislike most mainstream rap). While I work, it’s completely different. I listen to music from Daft Punk, Grizzly Bear, Dert, Rihanna, Empire of the Sun, Kanye West and Raphael Saadiq. It really depends on my mood and how much concentration I require while I’m doing a task.

8. When you have a creative block, where do you go/ what do you do to remedy it?

There are abundant sites that people can go to get inspiration. Some of the ones I often visit are Dribbble, ffffound and Designspiration, even Apartment Therapy gets me going sometimes. A few people recommend talking a walk or doing a different activity to get your mind off of it for a bit, but to me that just results in coming back to your design problem with a clearer mind but still no solution. Keep searching for clues is the way I do it.

My biggest problem however is that I fall into the ‘dreamer’ category (according to Jason’s Theodore’s 8 creative types), which means I have a lot of ideas, but I have a hard time starting or even finishing them. By keeping a sketchbook by my side, I found it really helps me revert back to some of my older thoughts to get inspired and continue on my path. Deadlines and people’s expectations are a fantastic way of curing creative blocks as well. For some reason, things just happen when you have a bit of pressure.

Stephen Di Donato


John Lendman is the copywriter/ scribe of interactive web agency Doejo. Chicago-based Doejo is a creative hub of designers, developers and a bastion of ingenuity and imagination. The company has launched more than 300 web sites, marketing campaigns and applications since its founding in 2007. Follow us Twitter or check out our blog―if you can keep up.