Stefan Kunz, a world-renowned lettering artist based in Switzerland, was once a banker. Of course, he didn’t exactly want to become a banker, but as often happens in the pursuits of our creative careers, the road to our passions isn’t as straight as we’d prefer.
“After high school I ended up going to an art school that was for just one year,” Stefan told me. “And in that time I wanted to become a graphic designer. While I was there, I sent in some submissions for graphic design school or graphic design apprenticeships, but didn't get in. So then I ended up applying to my plan B, which was a banking job.”
However, while Stefan was seemingly off-track, he wasn’t lost. In fact, he’d carefully planned for detours just like this one.
“My plan was to pursue the banking route so that, in the end, I would have something in my pocket, but could do whatever I wanted to afterwards,” Stefan continued. “There was always a goal to stop and come back around to do creative arts. It just wasn’t the way I initially planned to do it.”
In 2015, after three and a half years, it was time for Stefan to make his move. He quit the banking job and set out for greener pastures in the creative arts.
“I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do,” Stefan said. “So I pursued photography and some other creative outlets. Design wasn't something I really wanted to pursue because I hated design jobs at the time. I had already been doing my Instagram lettering since 2014, while I was still working at the bank, so I kept kept on doing that. I got pretty good at it and also started getting more engagement and more followers. 2017 is when it took off. Since then, I’ve really done that full time. Now I have a studio in Zurich, Switzerland. And that's where I'm based out of today.”
Now, as a full-time letterer, Stefan’s mission is to inspire and encourage others through lettering, though recently he’s refined this goal into yearly themes.
“Last year it was really a focus on ‘create something today’,” Stefan told me. “Even if it sucks, don’t let excuses get in the way of creating. Now the theme is shifting more towards ‘keep creating’ to help people on the creative path and always encourage and inspire people to create.”
The magic of Stefan Kunz
Stefan doesn’t limit himself to a specific process, though he does often have a clear idea of what it is he wants to make, as well as a specific style. And while he tends to know where he’s going, if he does draw a blank, he doesn’t let that stop him from creating. Instead, he opens up his mind and lets the experience of creation do the work for him.
“Sometimes I'll just put the pencil down on paper and start drawing and creating,” Stefan explained. “And in that time I'll find an idea. But mostly I'll start sketching with some ideas. I'll have some image that I love to work with or I have specific outputs that I want. Like for charcoals it’s usually an interaction between me and the lettering piece. I like illustrating what the quote says and making it an illustration with a real-life surrounding. For example, ‘I already want to take a nap tomorrow’ was a quote where, in the post, I put a real-life bed at the bottom.”
Perhaps the most notable thing about Stefan’s work (at least as posted on Instagram) is how he incorporates these real-life photos into his digital and analog lettering, and there are many notable examples on his Instagram profile. This inspiration-meets-real-life style is something that I believe sets Stefan apart from the vast majority of lettering artists.
The value of putting yourself out there
Any follower of Stefan’s can see that he’s incredibly active on Instagram. With that said, he isn’t a ‘stay-at-home letterer.’ He does, in fact, get out there in the world, whether that be creating huge murals or hosting popular workshops.
As you can imagine, all this activity is incredibly powerful for building Stefan’s brand, but it also comes with a heavy cost in time. I wanted to know his take regarding the outcomes and the costs of putting his art out there in such a big way.
Stefan likens Instagram to an accountability tool. The fast-paced content cycle and high demand from his audience puts him on a shot-clock of sorts, where the stakes are low and the feedback is immediate.
“So there's one big benefit that I see from posting and sharing your work,” Stefan said. “It’s that you are actually creating. So, even though people hate that you have to post consistently on Instagram to grow, for me it's always a challenge that helps me pursue my art and always get back to creating. As long as I'm creating, I'm progressing. And the more I create, the better I get. And so Instagram is kind of the fast deadline that I always need to follow. Otherwise I would probably not be as productive and create less work.”
What’s more, while many letterers stick to the comfort of their iPad or preferred digital or analog medium, Stefan believes it’s important to mix it up. “I love using different mediums,” Stefan continued. “Like murals, chalk walls, drawing with pencils and colors. That has helped me a lot.” I must agree that Stefan’s feed has a lot more dynamism due to the variety of mediums. That dynamism sets him apart from other letterers and likely contributes a great deal to his engagement and follower count.
That all said, Stefan recognizes the drawbacks of the Instagram-obsessed culture we live in today.
“The downside is that you always feel this responsibility to create all the time,” admitted Stefan. Though, I don’t believe that’s very true or accurate. But there’s this feeling that you want to stay relevant. And on Instagram, things move fast. So you end up creating more for instant gratification rather than for any long term creation purpose.”
We can all likely agree on that last point. While the pieces which artists contribute to Instagram are technically accessible forever (as far as we know), their perceived relevance and value is fleeting. Such artistic transience has the potential to create a feeling of anxiety for many, if not most, artists.
But for Stefan, I’m betting the feeling is quite the opposite. To him, making art isn’t a daily chore, it’s a daily calling. Perhaps that’s why his fans love him so much. Put another way, I think he truly lives up to the ideal he espouses: ‘keep creating’.
Today, Stefan is focusing more and more on sharing his knowledge with aspiring lettering artists around the world. In fact, he’s hosting several upcoming workshops in New York City, Los Angeles, and near Zurich. If you’re interested in attending, there are still tickets available for the latter events, but earlier ones are sold out. You can check out Stefan’s work on his website and Instagram profile.