"I want to be the best at what I'm doing and I'm going to put the time in."
This week we're joined by designer and illustrator AJ Wiley! AJ discusses his newly launched apparel brand Kumawave, his goal with his art, how TikTok success grew his following, and why artists shouldn't value engagement numbers.
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Iris: Hello, outdoor industry friends. Welcome back to another episode of Outside by Design. I'm Iris and Lisa is off on a much needed vacation this week. So it's just me on the intro. But we're staying super busy around here at WHEELIE. We're working on tons of video projects, enjoying the very last bits of summer as it slowly slips away here into fall, but that's okay because we love fall mountain biking and the anticipation of ski season on its way.
This week, we have AJ Wiley on the show. He is an illustrator and designer, and you might've seen him on @AJwiley.design on Instagram, and he just launched an outdoor apparel brand called Kumawave with his brother, Justin. And you can check them out at kumawave.com or on Instagram @kumawavebrand.
So AJ is here on the show to talk with Lisa about the characters that he creates, the wonderful animals that he creates, his inspiration, the skills that he has that make him effective as a designer, his goal opening Kumawave, and how TikTok led him to blow up on Instagram. So, this is a great episode, especially for all of those designers and illustrators out there. So listen in.
Lisa: AJ, thank you so much for being here today on Outside by design.
AJ: Yeah, no problem. I’m super stoked to chat and, you know, just have fun.
Lisa: Yeah, the very first question we ask everyone is to describe where they are in the world and what they are looking at.
AJ: So I am in Lincoln, Nebraska right now, I’ve kind of grown up here my entire life. And right now I'm in a house with three other dudes. I just graduated college. And I essentially have my bedroom and my office space in the same area. So I’m staring at the wall. So.
Lisa: [laughs] Cool. And before we started recording, you mentioned that you are going through kind of a hectic morning. Let's talk about that. What's going on for you?
AJ: Yeah. So for anyone who's not listening- or doesn't know about my brand, who's listening. I just launched a brand called Kumawave. It's an outdoor apparel brand. And it's me and my brother being co-founders, kind of, you know, leading the ship and you know, there was a lot of process into starting this brand. And it's a unique situation because as a designer I've been selling products and, you know, stickers and shirts and stuff for a couple of years now.
And essentially what we're doing is just adding a brand name to it to make it seem more official. So essentially there's, you know, other details we have to run through. We launched a completely new website. You know, we launched six different apparel products and seven stickers. And the hectic part of my morning was actually... I probably shouldn't be sharing this, but we had to change the color of a sweatshirt, probably about an hour ago. So I had to talk on the phone with my screen printer and, you know, figure out... because there's issues with, you know, having enough stock and inventory for us to order, because we don't want to sell too much and not have enough. And then I had to essentially mock up in Photoshop, the right color. And there's a few graphics that went out earlier in the email list. And so, you know, we had to run through a lot of details, very, very last minute. But I'm a believer that everything will work out. So that's where we're at.
Lisa: That's exciting. Making it happen.
AJ: Yeah, I'm trying.
Lisa: Yeah. And so tell me kind of what the name Kumawave means to you.
AJ: So Kumawave... I was born in Japan, along with my brother. We're half Japanese, my mom's Japanese. And if you see my page, you'll see, you know, Japanese kind of scattered throughout my designs. And it really wasn't until recently where I started doing that.
But Kuma is “bear” in Japanese and, you know, I think a bear really signifies my brand and, you know, I've used so many bears in my work. And we were looking through different ways of naming the brand and what really clicked for me and my brother Justin, was that, you know, we will literally make the name of this brand half Japanese, half American.
So, you know, at the beginning is Kuma, which is bear, and then wave, which is English. So that's kind of the thought that went into that. And then we also were just like, dang, this sounds dope. So let's use it, kind of thing.
Lisa: I love that. So it's Kuma is bear in Japanese and wave in English. Cool.
AJ: Yeah. I’m stoked.
Lisa: Yeah. And I love the logo. I love how the K turns into a mountain.
AJ: Thank you. Thank you.
Lisa: You know, simple, well done.
AJ: Well, you know, I always joke that I literally throw mountains on everything. You know, people are like, “Oh, you're so creative.” And I'm always just like, “I literally just find something and put a mountain on it.” And you know, people think it's creative. I had to put it in the logo, you know, it’s all I do.
Lisa: Absolutely. And I loved a post you did a while back where you had the turtle, Lulu, and Kuma, the bear. And, I don't know. I really love how you integrate animals into your artwork. Like why, why animals? Yeah. Why do you land on animals so often?
AJ: I think there's a few reasons I think it works and why I do it. You know, I think animals... it's very nonpolitical. It's very non… you know, there's the representation issue where, you know, you don't want to essentially be biased towards one thing or the other. And I think animals just in general, we can all get behind. It's something that's very universal for everyone where, you know, we can see ourselves through whatever characters. And I think that's why Pixar works. And that's why, you know, making a car have human qualities, anyone can identify with that. And so I think that's one reason.
Also, you know, there's the environmental side of it, where we want to protect these animals. You know, I did a line a while back, it was called the Protect Me Series where I did like a sea turtle, I did a leopard, and mountain gorilla. And I think if anything, it's very... It's very good to be able to come together for something that we as humans can kind of agree on. And that's, you know, to take care of the planet and take care of not just us, but you know, our neighbors and, you know, the animals that kind of live here with us.
So that's kind of where the inspiration comes from. You know, I think animals are more interesting to draw and, you know, humans are... everyone knows what a human looks like, and it's kind of cool to maybe draw an animal that someone hasn't seen, before or whatever that is.
And it's really fun for me and being able to create these characters, it's a representation of who I am. Because, you know, growing up and being a designer, I'm like, you know, I'd love to work for Pixar, but I'd love to work for this sports team and do graphics, but I'd love to make apparel. And this is kind of an opportunity for me to take from all of those and create characters that we can get behind that have the story, put them on apparel, you know, and then we can work out in them or whatever that is. So it's kind of a great, kind of, mix of all of those.
Lisa: It is. And I like how you have Kuma doing all these different things like scuba Kuma, and he's rock climbing, and just kind of like exploring the world in a way that an animal wouldn't with human gear.
AJ: Yeah. Which I think, you know, that gives the opportunity to kind of do this crossover where it's like, you're not going to see this in person. So I want to give you that experience of like, this is what it would look like if this character were to be real and were to do things. So.
Lisa: It's so cool. It's really fun.
AJ: Thank you. How did you get so good at design? I think your work is super special and it’s so, so good with color. So yeah, where'd this come from?
AJ: I would attribute a couple of qualities that I have that I think led me to where I am. One of them being just kinda my competitive nature of, you know, not just being better than people, but like, improving and being better than myself. You know, I was a big sports guy and I wanted to be the last one on the field and, you know, doing extra. And I think with design that kind of bled over where it's like, I know people kind of just draw and it can be for fun and that's totally okay. But in my head and kind of how I'm wired, it's like, I want to be the best at what I'm doing and I'm going to put the time in. I'm going to put that effort in.
So if you look back three years, I'm posting stuff every day. I'm making stuff every day and that's not just because I want to be better, but I also enjoy the process of it. And I think when you combine both of those, you really find this path. And for me with, you know, self-reflecting and kind of what I mentioned with like, I want to include these cute animals and the love for the outdoors and you know, this kind of stuff - through just learning about myself and what makes me me, I think that on top of the hard work on top of, you know, being open to criticism and inspiration, I think is kind of what led me to where I'm at. But, you know - and I'm not sure when you guys found my page or whatever - but it wasn't until maybe four months ago where I was getting more eyes on my stuff and my work ethic has improved a little more, but, you know, the whole thing for three years, it's just been, you know, I just love this and I love making stuff. And, right? Through time you find your style and you find what works in your head and what people enjoy. So that's kind of what happens.
Lisa: Yeah. That's how I ended up starting an agency. I have a design degree and I just loved making things and worked really, really hard and then just started hiring people to help.
AJ: That’s amazing.
Lisa: Yeah, but I, I know what you mean on just like loving that process and loving the act of making things. It just feels good.
AJ: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Lisa: Where do you think your desire for self reflection comes from? Because like you're, you're pretty young, right? You…
AJ: I'm 22.
Lisa: Yeah. You just graduated. That's how old I was when I started my company too.
AJ: Hey, nice.
Lisa: So like where do you, like, where do you think that comes from, kind of this wisdom that you have?
AJ: [laughs] That's a very good question. You know, I think part of it is just how I'm wired, where I'm constantly just like, who am I? What do I represent? And I think through that, I've had this kind of, almost like a compass where it's like, am I straying too far from who I am, am I straying too far in this part of my life or whatever.
And I think, you know, in a way I was born with that kind of mentality. I think my faith trickles into that as well as like, you know, I want to be a good guy. I want to, you know, love myself and love others. And so what does that mean? It means, you know, I know who I am and… because the more confident I am in who I am, I can let other people see that in me and know, hopefully get something out of it.
And it's been cool to be able to show that through design, you know, not necessarily if it's like a speech or, you know, talking to people, whatever. Like, they'll see my work and hopefully feel some sort of, “Oh, this is really cool. This is what I'm about too,” and you know, stuff like that. So I would say it is just a combination of how I was wired, being around good people that remind me who I am If I do stray, and you know, just like trying to figure out life. I think when you focus on the important things, that's kinda what happens is you find yourself through that process. So.
Lisa: What a fun conversation. I'm really curious how you've seen your work change and evolve as an artist as you've changed and evolved as a man.
AJ: Yeah. So... I think everyone, and you probably know this too, you can see this in newer designers and when people start out, but it's... I'm going to look at what I think is cool and I'm going to do that. You know, it's almost just like replicating what I think is cool. And it kind of ties in with the self reflection of like, why do you think it's cool? And once you know why, you know more about yourself and you know your own footprint that you can do on the design world, essentially. So I think that's part of it, it’s just really knowing yourself, but also understanding why you like certain things, why you design certain things.
But through time, I think when I first started, I was just copying people. I was copying Patagonia’s style and copying, you know, North face. And the brands that I initially was inspired by. And I think you can only do that for so long. Until it's like, okay, like, seriously, I'm just copying whatever.
And I think it really comes with once you... I'm with my iPad and my Apple pencil every day. And there comes a point where you're like, this is me, you know, this is what I'm doing every day. Like, what am I drawing? What and why? And over time when you're with this iPad for so long, it evolves, you know, ‘cause you gotta come up with something new every day.
And I think through the process ,kind of how I mentioned putting Japanese in my designs and it wasn't until recently where I started doing these cute characters and, you know, characters people can get behind. Once you kind of, it's almost like building a wall where you have these foundational bricks where it's like, okay, I'm learning the software, I'm learning the program. I'm learning how to draw and do it efficiently. Once you have this foundation, it allows you to explore. And now I want to include this in my work and this is my work. And you know, I've done like, NFL logos for this concept I called Nature Week. And, you know, I've tried designs for Adidas and Supreme and, you know, combining things that people probably haven't seen before. And that only comes through having that foundation, like I said, and just putting the time in so every day you can come up with something new. So I think through that, and if you scroll through my Instagram or whatever, like, you'll see, there's a difference in, you know, the tone of what I'm making and how I'm showing it off and stuff like that. So I would say that's kind of what makes it happen.
Lisa: Yeah. It's super playful too.
AJ: Thank you.
Lisa: Super playful stuff. Like your, your “naturising” - is that what you said? Naturising NFL teams?
AJ: Yeah. So I made nature logos for each team, in my style, essentially.
Lisa: They're hilarious. They're really playful. I like what you did for the Packers, with the cheese and the waterfall. Yeah. Super funny. Yeah, but I mean, I see this like curiosity and sense of play through most of your work. And it feels very, like, approachable and attainable.
AJ: Hmm. Yeah. That's interesting. I mean, that's very insightful because for me like that, those are kind of words I would use to kind of describe myself. You know, I'm pretty laid back, very chill. Like, you know, life is funny and I want to make it fun and cute and whatever, but there's also a level of like grit and like competitiveness and, you know, doing that, which I think, you know, trying to kind of balance what those look like, because they're not, you know, directly similar things that you can include. So yeah, that's kinda the goal.
Lisa: Mmm. What's your goal for Kumawave? What's your hope for this brand?
AJ: Yeah, so I've actually been asked this a lot and I just don't have an answer. It’s... and I would say I'm pretty goal-oriented, but my goal is more just to like, be happy through whatever process I'm doing.
And, you know, I could give you sales numbers, like I want to sell this much and this much, but… one of the things, the best advice I've gotten, is just to be patient. And you can't set this number for goals and for numbers and stuff like that, because I think that's when you kind of lose the point. And I'm maybe just speaking from a designer’s head's perspective, if you're a marketer, you know, whatever, but. The goal is for me to essentially build this to a spot where I can just keep doing what I love and essentially giving me the voice to talk to people and, you know, see where they're at and hopefully give advice and share the love of art and design, but also the outdoors and sports and whatever you want to come to me and talk about. I think that that's really special to me because, you know, there's this thing where it's like, “Oh, everyone wants to be famous,” but then some people don't.
What's nice for me is like, I'm hiding behind work. I'm hiding behind a brand. So it's not about me. But people can see what that is and see my face and, you know, people reach out to me and stuff, which is kind of the sweet spot, I think for me. So essentially, you know, with the brand it's allowing me to hopefully expand and grow and get more products out there, but also letting me interact with more people. So.
Lisa: Mmm. That's cool. You have like the kind of solo time to work on your art. And then you're also really interested in interacting with people.
AJ: Yeah. I mean, you know, you hit a point where you can only draw in your room alone for so long. [laughs] You know, there's a spot where I love community and I love, you know, that whole thing with people and being able to include that with sharing stuff with my work has been really cool.
Lisa: What kind of community are you finding through your artwork and through like your online presence?
AJ: So I've, you know, I've made like good friends, which is strange to say over Instagram, but, you know,I've had photographers reach out to me and I've known them for a couple of years now, which has been cool.
One of them, Jose Romero, he used to be a photographer for a bunch of outdoor brands in California, and he's actually going to help us with some photo stuff with the brand. But you know, like, having people reach out and say, “Hey, like I'm a photographer” or, you know, this or a musician or whatever. And reaching out to me and being able to jam on things creatively, which has been really cool.
But on the flip side, so I'm doing free online zoom drawing classes where anyone who wants to draw can join. And we do it for about 30 minutes every week. And it's been really awesome, like that that's one of the most rewarding things out of what I do, I think, on social. You know, people will message me saying “that was so awesome.” Like I've had, you know, a lot of people reach out and say, you inspired me to buy an iPad. And I'm like, dang, like I should be sponsored by Apple. Like, they should be giving me these free. But you know, I've had people reach out and say, “You've literally changed my life. “And I'm like, what? I wasn't doing anything other than, you know, just talking to you, but you know, it's really cool to have that. It's really cool to have a positive influence on someone's life, just through, you know, my social media presence, because I've never met them in my life. But through, like we talked about the positive emotions and feelings you get from my work, and being able to interact with me and talk to me, I think it's really, really rewarding.
Lisa: Yeah. Are you, are you into TikTok? All about TikTok?
Lisa: Yeah. It's fun. I love TikTok.
AJ: That is what I think - I hate using the word blew me up because that's not true - but since I got a TikTok, it was about three and a half months ago, my social media, my Instagram went from like 2,500 followers to now I'm a little over 9,000. And you see a lot of people who never would have heard of me or seen my work, you know, finding me and following my Instagram. So it's been really awesome.
In other ways too, with TikTok, it's made me comfortable showing my face. Before TikTok I never showed my face or talked on Instagram or, you know, did any lives, anything like that. And it forced me, you know, like riding a bike to suck it up at first. And then now I'm extremely comfortable with it. You know, it's easy, very easy money for me now just to hop on and talk to people. But yeah, those are kind of the positive influences from having such a unique and low key energetic app, like TikTok to bring people together.
Lisa: Yeah. TikTok’s outrageous. I think it's so much fun. It's just so experiential and I, yeah. It’s fun.
AJ: I'm with you. Yeah. And I experimented a lot with my design stuff on there too. It's... you're allowed to more than you are on Instagram and other apps. I think.
Lisa: I think so too, like Instagram, you spend the years beautifully curating your feed and TikTok is just like, welcome to the ride, here we go. Buckle up.
AJ: Yeah. And people don't care, you know, like you're not going to go on there and be like, “Oh, this feed socks. And you know, not follow them. You get one amazing piece of content that's on your For You Page or whatever and you're like, I'm following them. Like, you know, he or she earned my vote and, um, I think that's really cool. It's not about necessarily aesthetic, but you know, rewarding people for having even just one piece of good content. So.
Lisa: Yeah, it's super cool. What have I not asked you that you'd like to share with our audience?
AJ: You know, I think. And I'm still learning, you know, but I think there's such a heavy power on like, “Oh, this person is an influencer” or “this person has a better voice because of following” and stuff like that. And the whole battle between numbers and all these things, I think have made people less happy. I think it can make you happy if you have a lot, but that's not substantial. I can say for myself, you know, I'll get... so before TikTok got me a lot of followers, I was getting maybe 150 to 200 likes on a post. And I was just super fricking happy when I got like 250 likes. You know, I'd be like, dang, I'm the man. But now on TikTok with that, you know, I'm averaging maybe like 800 to 900 likes on a post on Instagram. And then now I calibrate because I'm like, well, “Frick, if I'm under 800, then I suck.” And you know, I think that's just kinda how my brain works and it's the wrong thing to focus on, right? Because then it's literally, I'm gonna put this coin in the slot machine and hopefully I get a good number and that has nothing to do with design and the love for it. And whether it's design or any other creative field or whatever your passion is, the goal is to be happy, you know?
So what makes you happy? Is it, you know, posting this type of content, even though you don't think they'll like it or whatever? I think when you get into the battle of likes, all you're consumed about is the opinions of other people. And I think when you're focused on that, you lose the simple joy of doing something.
So my advice would be, you know, I've had people look at me and say, you know, “Oh, I can't believe you responded.” Or “I can't believe,” you know, like, you’re so... whatever. And it's like, no, I'm just a normal guy. Like, you know, please don't think I'm better than you or that you don't deserve my response just because of a following count.
You know, my goal is always just to respond to everyone and I would say that's what it is. Like, happiness is literally in your head, you can't let other people make you feel a certain way or define what happiness means based on comparison. But you know, the brain is a powerful thing and you can choose for yourself whether you're you're content and happy or not, and you can also choose the opposite. And, you know, I've been on the receiving end of both of those. So, you know, my advice would just be, just like, focus on what makes you happy and what makes you, you, and you know, things will fall into place. So.
Lisa: Some wise words from a wise dude.
AJ: [laughs] Thank you.
Lisa: Cool. Well, thank you for being here today. We're going to put links to everything in the show notes. Where can people follow you? Where do you want us to send everyone?
AJ: So my Instagram is @ajwiley.design, but we just started our Kumawave Instagram, which is at @kumawavebrand. And then TikTok is @ajwileydesign. So I'd say those are the three follows I'll steal from everyone.
Lisa: Perfect. Perfect. Well, thank you so much for being here and your time and all your energy. This was a fun one for me.
AJ: Yeah, no problem. You, you ask excellent questions. So this is definitely one of my favorites, so thank you.
Iris: Thank you so much for being here AJ and thank you to all our listeners for joining us. If you haven't already, please leave us a review in iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts. That really helps us grow the show and get out to more people. If you have an idea for who we should have on the show next, please hit us up on Instagram at wheeliecreative and let us know who you'd like to hear on Outside by Design.
And if you're looking for podcast transcripts, links, and older episodes, you can find them at wheeliecreative.com/podcast. That's wheelie with a w, like a bike doing a wheelie. I'm Iris. And thank you so much for listening. Thanks for being here.