interview with illustrator sam island
all images courtesy of sam island




since beginning commercial work in 2012 for some of the biggest names in news — from the new york times to monocle magazine — illustrator sam island has become best known for his smooth style of clean lines, vibrant color palette and simply-drawn figures. riddled with sarcasm, the toronto-based artist’s professional work provides a ironic slant on otherwise serious topics intended for publication, like social anxiety and weight loss. recently, island teamed up with portfolio hosting platform format on the series ‘how to live like a creative‘, an interactive infographic which visualizes the daily habits — hour by hour — of photographers, designers, illustrators, visual artists and filmmakers around the world. 


we spoke with island about his reasons for becoming an illustrator, what he considers to be his strongest skill, and the current fascinations feeding into his creative practice. 

format – how to live like a creative




designboom: what originally made you want to become an illustrator?


sam island: I always loved to draw and wanted a career in the arts. I almost became an animator in college, but in the end the personal freedom in illustration made me fall in love with it.

illustration for an article about magazines for men created for causette




DB: how would you describe your approach?


SI: I start by trying to break down what I’m communicating into a simple concept. I’m always asking myself ‘does this need to be shown?’ if I can get an idea across without it then I don’t need it. what I’m really doing is working backwards. imagining an image then erasing everything that I don’t need until I have an illustration I’m happy with.

format – how to live like a creative




DB: who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking?


SI: comic books. I’ve read them my whole life. later on in high school I started reading chris ware and later jason and those two cartoonists really changed my way of working and how I thought about visual communication. I learned a lot about how to communicate complicated ideas in images from reading their work.

‘feel creative today’ 




DB: what would you say is your strongest skill and how have you honed that skill over the years?


SI: I think communicating complicated ideas simply is what I do best. I’ve been illustrating for many years and doing this every day and focusing on that as my goal has helped me become better.

format – how to live like a creative




DB: what tools and materials do you enjoy working with the most?


SI: I like a black marker and a piece of paper best. nothing fancy — just drawing like a little kid.

‘so many likes’




DB: how do you think online design resources (blogs, tutorials, forums etc.) have influenced the art being produced today?


SI: well in illustration there are trends that come and go and these resources help showcase the new ones. they find interesting people doing something different and shine a spotlight on them. it keeps things fresh, and as a illustrator I have to be aware of these things, know what is happening and where things are going. it’s important to stay relevant.

illustration about hollywood’s obsession with resuscitating decades-old characters for bloomberg businessweek




DB: what are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your work?


SI: I’m always reaching back and grabbing things from my own life and putting them in my work if I can. not one thing in particular stands out. there’s a lot of me in the images I make, more than I think people would imagine. I’m mostly drawing myself.

illustration for an article in the wall street journal about musicians using toy instruments




DB: what are you passionate about besides your work?


SI: well as a canadian I’m required by law to be passionate about hockey. I’m also obsessed with music and food. my family is the biggest part of my life and most important.

‘bored gang’




DB: do you have any superstitious beliefs or rules that you live by?


SI: I mostly try to work hard and honestly. I want to spend my time doing the things I love. I try to live by this.

illustration for the new york times magazine about stretching




DB: what’s the best piece of advice you have heard and repeat to others?


SI: ‘let’s just order some pizza.’ I’ve found saying this can really help out in a lot of situations.

‘morning commute’




DB do you have a personal motto?


SI: I might be wrong. I say it to myself all the time. I think it’s very useful to remind yourself you don’t always have the answer.

format – how to live like a creative

format – how to live like a creative

illustration for the new york times magazine about eating

format – how to live like a creative

illustration for the new york times magazine about social anxiety 

sam island