Interview: 3D Designer Rizon Parein Explains How He Went From Writing Graffiti to Doing Projects for Nike and Jay Z

3D designer and illustrator Rizon Parein went from designing nightclub flyers to working with Nike.

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Complex Original

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3D designer and illustrator Rizon Parein has come a long way from working odd jobs in the construction industry after dropping out of high school at 17 years old. Over the years, Parein​ has managed to take his talent and passion for graffiti from the streets of Belgium to the forefront of the world of design and advertising. His unique 3D style is colorful and playful, and his digital models come beautifully close to reality.

With an extensive portfolio that includes the poster design for the 2011 film Drive starring Ryan Gosling, the artwork behind Nike’s Air Max campaign and Jay Z’s BMIA music festival, as well as playful ads for Toyota, Samsonite, and Nespresso, it seems as though there is no major company that Parein​ hasn’t worked with.

Each new design is a challenge for the artist, and he is constantly searching for ways to push the aesthetic and technical boundaries of 3D design at a time when few advertising agencies give designers the liberty to explore new techniques. We got in touch with Parein​ via email to discuss his early influences, his secret to transforming a simple idea into a great design, and his love affair with the creative direction at Nike.


What made you become a designer?

I was heavily into graffiti as a youngster. After quitting school at the age of 17, I thought I could make a living out of graffiti, which didn’t work out that well. So I ended up doing all kinds of jobs, the ones that you typically do without a degree, mostly in the construction industry. After a few years, I was fed up with working for a boss and wanted to be independent, working from home and something that required a minimum investment. At that point I decided to become a flyer designer.

Back then I had no ambition to become an artist. It was just a very pragmatic choice. I started with making flyers for strip joints and hip-hop events that were very basic: a picture and text, no more. But at a certain point I needed a challenge, an adventure, and around that time I met Tom Muller, who was working at Vir2l, a UK studio with an amazing team of cutting-edge designers that were defining new foundations of graphic design. Tom pointed me towards design portals like Newstoday, Surfstation, Design is Kinky, etc. And this triggered a whole new interest for me.

The whole scene had a lot of similarities with the graffiti community: the exploring and claiming of styles, the act of representing, individuals getting recognition. It was a real dynamic culture. Artists were pushing the boundaries continuously, technically, and aesthetically. From that moment on, my focus totally shifted. It wasn’t anymore just a pragmatic thing, but it became a serious passion and ambition.

The whole Design scene had a lot of similarities with the graffiti community: the exploring and claiming of styles, the act of representing, individuals getting recognition. 

Did you have any mentors or major artistic influences growing up?

When I was making graffiti, I was a huge fan of Delta, the Dutch graffiti writer that introduced 3D to graffiti lettering. When I got into design, Michael Young, Gmunk, and dForm1 were huge inspirations for me. Later I fell in love with architecture more and more.

In the current graphic design world, I think too much stuff is repeating itself. It often doesn’t surprise me anymore as it used to do. When I look at the average moodboard that agencies send me, it often is a copy of copy. They sold something to a client which actually already exists. Not many agencies give you the liberty to explore new stuff. Some do of course, and these are precious!

How did you get into designing posters for club nights in Belgium?

Some hip-hop friends from when I was doing graffiti became DJs at strip joints (these were actually the first clubs in Belgium that played hip-hop). They introduced me, and from there it started. Later I got heavily into nightlife and worked myself up in the flyer scene. At a certain point I think I made the artwork for almost every main club in the Flemish part of Belgium. It was fun to be on every guest list.

What feeds your passion for 3D animation and design?

When I was into graffiti, I painted 3D letters, and at a certain point I wanted to re-make them on the computer. I was curious to see the letters from different angles, with different materials and light. This was the start of learning 3D. For each new techno flyer I started a new 3D tutorial. Electronic music events were the ideal playground for crazy experimental 3D stuff.

What influenced your decision to remain in Belgium and continue to make a name for yourself in the Belgian advertising industry after being head-hunted for a creative director position in New York?

Still, I am not sure if that was the right decision. I was unsure about giving up freedom. I was still eager to learn and explore, and I was afraid that a nine to five job would not allow me to do that anymore. But on the other hand, the fire I had back then combined with New York probably would have given me interesting opportunities, too. There's pros and cons, but I have no regrets at all. I'm very happy with what I am doing now.

Could you walk us through the process of transforming a simple idea into a great design? How would you describe your approach to design, and what do you set out to achieve when turning a concept into a design?

In every job I try to find a challenge, a way of doing something different, clever, and new. This could be a certain typography treatment, a certain light set up, a type of shading. It doesn’t need to be complicated. I like to keep things pure, sober, and simple but still in a modest way sophisticated. These days I tend to approach a job as if would be a real physical installation, and the installation should be in balance and interesting from every angle, even if we only see it from one rendered perspective.

It’s an obsessive thing. Sometimes I work days on a little detail that might not even be visible, but at that specific moment it is the fire and curiosity that drives me. It needs to be done, and only then I can continue. Often at the end of creating a visual, that element pops up again in a much more profound way than it was intended. I see myself evolving over the coming years more towards product design, set design, and anything that is physically real, maybe even stepping away from the commercial industry.


These days I tend to approach a job as if would be a real physical installation, and the installation should be in balance and interesting from every angle, even if we only see it from one rendered perspective.

How do you respond to people who try to rip off your work?

That happens quite often. I don’t really care, but I also don’t encourage it. I think this mentality is wrong, and the way that most of the ad agencies brief you doesn’t help this trend. References are sold to the client, and the client expects nothing else then exactly that.

I like to work with the creative ad agencies that have solid design studio themselves. They often respect the aesthetics and appreciate when you don’t just execute stuff. They choose you for that extra input. 

Have you ever thought about starting your own studio?

I recently got a permit to build a new house/studio. I'm not yet 100 percent sure, but I think I am going to take the step to hire people. A few months back I hired my first freelancer. He’s now assisting me with the long order list of neons. I am becoming more and more aware of the advantages, and it sure is tempting!

How did you start working with Jay Z and the Made in America festival images this year?

Jay Z's ad agency, Translation, had a few super cool neon concepts in mind for the festival. Initially they were planning to build huge real neons on stage. They contacted me to design the campaign. It was a tough job. The intention was to make the complete line-up in neon, but the line-up changed continuously, so in order to be flexible enough, we had to build a modular system and design three complete alphabets. We had to make changes in like 24 hours, renders and animations included—crazy.

How did you come up with the creative direction and design for the Nike Air Max Lunar1 campaign?

There is a lot of creative freedom when working with Nike. You work directly with their creative teams, and there are no ad agencies involved. There is dialogue and mutual appreciation and respect. It’s a very organic process.

Nike Brand Design director Michael Spoljaric asked me to do the Lunar1 campaign. It’s inspiring working with people like Michael. His moodboards instantly make you happy and hungry. It’s a demanding process, but it doesn’t matter because you keep on making dope shit. It’s all about passion and fun. You don’t complain when the first thing you do when you wake up is look at last night's render. It’s like all your work in progress can go straight in your portfolio.

Recently I teamed up with other creative teams within Nike and am enjoying it big time. You can tell people love doing their job and being damn good at it. It makes working together so much easier.

Do you have any advice for young designers in the field, or for those considering pursuing a career in graphic design?

I am sorry, but but I need to quote Mr. Jobs here: "Stay hungry. Stay foolish…"

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