After a nice month off, the fall season is officially here for the blog. Upcoming posts will include some more recaps of the past month, and what better way to kick it all off than with a recap of the past summer? This summer marked the first Summer Interview Series, and a huge Thanks! is in order to all who participated. Below are links to each week’s featured creative…and stay tuned for future interviews. Cheers!
Interviews with some of our favorite creatives
As summer draws to an end, so too does our Summer Interview Series. Last, but certainly not least, we bring you our conversation with Mike Fretto, whom I met this summer at the Camp Firebelly Wrap Party. Mike is a full-time freelance print designer that lives in one of the oldest cities in the United States. When he’s not designing for his clients, he is screen printing t-shirts for a business he runs with his father. Mike spends his sparse spare time volunteering for a non-profit organization he co-founded called ROSA LOVES.
You and your father run a screen-printing business together. How do the two of you balance business and family?
I certainly have learned that operating a business with family can be challenging, but my dad and I have a great relationship that I believe contributes to successfully balancing both aspects of our lives. Good communication while working together helps get things done, and hopefully when that happens, we can leave it all at the print shop when the work day is over. There are times when business-talk or actual work makes it way into personal time, but we take each situation as it comes.
Earlier this summer, you helped mentor this year’s class of Camp Firebelly campers. Was there anything about the experience that you’d like to share?
Camp FB was a great experience for me. It was an honor for me to be among Dawn Hancock and her talented team, not to mention all of the amazing campers! As you know, there were continuous activities and workshops taking place at camp, but I was specifically responsible for helping with one in particular. In partnership with Reason to Give, we split the campers up into small groups, and visited three families in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Each group spent about an hour with one of the three families in their homes, hearing about their families, their jobs, and life around Humboldt Park. Each group of campers recounted the stories they had heard from the families to the rest of the group. From there, each camper worked on a t-shirt design that somehow told the story of the family they met. It was fascinating to see the variety of interpretations from one story within each group of campers. After a few crit sessions and late nights, each camper finalized their designs, and we all hand screen printed each of them (despite some last minute technical challenges). On the last night of camp, we raffled off all of them at a big party that the Firebelly crew threw. I think we raised somewhere around $450 for the families, which was spent on stuff like school supplies and clothing for their children. Overall, it was quite a moving and enlightening experience for all of us. There was much learned, so many great human beings that we encountered— and I was pretty impacted by all of it to say the least.
Everyone has a favorite (or lucky) shirt: what’s yours?
No one has ever asked me that before, ha! Years ago, as a joke, I stole a t-shirt from one of my best friends (and roommate at the time), JP. I know you’re probably thinking that stealing is not cool. I’ve never stolen before, and I certainly do not condone it—but this was sort of a joke. You see, this dude has a TON of t-shirts, so the whole joke was to see if he’d ever notice that it was gone. It’s a super-soft navy blue t-shirt, probably made in the eighties. Fits me like a glove! It was funny when he noticed it on me one day, but even funnier that I never gave it back to him. I fell in love with it, and couldn’t find the strength to hang it back up in his closet. I still wear it sometimes. Well, let’s be honest… I wear it constantly.
Do you have any big plans for this fall?
Since the folks behind ROSA LOVES have been super busy with their full-time jobs and families during the past year, we’re long overdue for releasing a line of new tees. We’re in the process of putting some new ones together and are planning on releasing them sometime this fall. Stay updated by following us on Twitter or Facebook, and of course on our website at: www.rosaloves.com.
All images © ROSA LOVES and Mike Fretto
As many of you know, last summer I embarked on a new phase in my life by moving to Chicago…and the catalyst was participating in Firebelly Design’s Camp Firebelly. While there, I was able to work with/learn from Antonio García, and we’ve since stayed in touch. Antonio is a storyteller and design strategist who is currently working with the interaction design team at gravitytank, a Chicago-based innovation consultancy. He loves hip hop, horror movies, sushi, kawaii illustration and staying in hotels, but he’s also got a wicked sense of humor and is generally an all-around great guy. You can catch him at this weekend’s Wide Open at Rodan. But first! a little chat:
If I remember correctly, you grew up in the Chicago area: how did you get involved with the local hip hop scene? And how has DJing influenced your work?
I grew up in Arlington Heights (a northwest suburb of Chicago). But thanks to family friends who lived in city, I started listening to hip hop when I was just ten years old. This was ’89—rap’s golden era—and through those connections, I was exposed to all of hip hop’s elements: rapping, graffiti, breaking and DJing. In junior high and high school I started rapping with friends and buying drum machines, samplers and keyboards so I could make my own beats. When I started college at the Atlanta College of Art (now SCAD), I started writing graffiti. In the late 90s, Atlanta had a lot of “free” walls where graffiti artists could paint in broad daylight—which was fun, but I still liked bombing better…!
I didn’t actually start DJing until just a few years ago, but I’ve always loved sharing music with people and looking for sounds people haven’t heard yet. In that way, selecting music for other people—shaping the mood, making people dance/smile/feel good after a long week—is very similar to how I like to design. Both mediums are about discovery, delight, a call to action. People like soulful music because it resonates with them on an emotional level. And people are naturally drawn to emotive design because it’s authentic and provides meaning and clarity.
You recently started at gravitytank. What is it like working at an innovation consultancy as opposed to a small boutique design studio?
Working at gravitytank has been really interesting. I love it. My exposure to people with deep expertise in areas of ethnographic research, quantitative analysis, business strategy, industrial design, etc. has completely expanded the way I look at design challenges. And the level of experience there is so broad. Working collaboratively in multidisciplinary teams I’ve learned so much, so quickly. The firm has an truly global point of view and the scale and scope of the work is certainly bigger than anything I’d done prior which is exciting. The pace is different too. Most of our engagements last 6 to 8 weeks and team members remain dedicated to one project until it’s done—which is really refreshing. We have the resources and capacity to dive deep into our client’s problems and really immerse ourselves in understanding people’s needs. We also work very iteratively—using lots of techniques for rapid prototyping, storyboarding and agile development—which is a really smart way to make things clearer, faster.
Last time we talked, you and I were discussing the strategy behind design and how it factors into producing work for clients. How can designers start thinking more strategically about their work?
Strategy is really about thinking beyond the design itself. When you’re in school, things like budget, delivery channels, business models, market analysis, viability, competition and positioning don’t really factor into your thinking, learning, work or grades. Students aren’t generally held accountable for those factors until graduate programs. No one asks how a design will be distributed, what segmentation studies have been conducted, if the packaging is biodegradable (or necessary at all). So young designers enter the real world (a.k.a. the business world) where all that stuff matters to clients, and suddenly the people paying you to design for them want proof you’ve considered all the angles.
For lots of designers, making “good” design means creating something original, meaningful and compelling. And I strongly believe all of that matters and should be present in everything we make. But when we can offer clients a point of view on why our design will help their business/organizational needs, we demonstrate that what we do—our expertise—is so much more than just making things look better. Design thinking can have as big (or bigger) an impact on the bottom line as business thinking can. As companies, foundations and entrepreneurs continue to recognize design as a strategic advantage and powerful differentiator, they’ll pay more for it and include designers in their planning and thinking from the very beginning instead of as an afterthought, when it’s that much harder for design to make a real difference.
I know you’re a huge horror movie fan: do you go for the ones that are just plain comical or the purely terrifying?
I can probably find something to like in just about every horror movie I watch, but I get the most satisfaction when the gore looks real, the kills are inventive, the scares are solid and the ending is brutal. The easiest way for me to talk about why I love horror movies is a breakdown by country:
- US – In general, we suck at the genre. American filmmakers get too caught up with the antagonist’s backstory. Wasting too much time explaining and justifying evil origins and behavior is boring. Unexplained ghouls and incomprehensible sadism is terrifying. Too much reason and rationale = not scary. For a while, we just remade J-horror like The Ring (Ringu) and The Grudge (Ju-On) and regurgitated European successes like Spain’s REC but we always dumb it down and prop up the weakened stories with familiar American actors. Some recent exceptions include the Hostel series, The House of the Devil, Orphan, The Last House on the Left and Rob Zombie’s work.
- Japan – It’s all about the slow build in J-horror. And Japan favors two things most: traditional ghost stories (which require some additional cultural understanding to really appreciate them) and extreme, over-the-top violence. Favorites include Tokyo Gore Police, Audition and Three… Extremes (which also features films from China’s Fruit Chan and Korea’s Chan-wook Park.
- Scandinavia – lately Sweden and Norway are all about hot, young kids getting killed on holiday. I really liked Rovdyr, Cold Prey, Dead Snow and of course Let The Right One In, which is quite possible the best vampire movie I’ve seen in a really long time.
- Italy – The classics. No one does zombies like Deodato, Romero and Fulci and no mixes operatic lighting, vixens and violence quite like Argento and Bava.
- France – French horror films are my favorite. They’re actually more survival terror than anything else. The plots are tight. They’re told in real time or are extremely well-paced. Time isn’t wasted explaining why, the viewer is just dumped into the most raw, terrifying situations. There is nothing supernatural about the stories, human beings are being hunted by other human beings and the gore is so real and extreme. The best examples are Martyrs, Inside, High Tension, Trouble Everyday and Frontier(s).
Do you have any personal projects that you are currently working on?
I just found out some of my t-shirt graphics are going to be featured in an upcoming Index Book called TypoShirt One so I’ve been hustling on redesigning the website and online store for Good Night TV, a t-shirt company I started with my best friends back in 2005. Other than that, I’m busy training for my second Bank of America Marathon on October 10th and DJing here and there for fun.
Although I’ve been a long-time fan of Letterform‘s work, it wasn’t until last spring’s Typeforce event and a another subsequent gathering that I met the duo behind the company: Andy and Julie. Visiting with them, you’re just as likely to discuss letterpress printing as home-brewing beer and a good dinner recipe…which is convenient as they also produce a cute and witty line of greeting cards for foodies called Nourishing Notes. Today, Julie shares a bit about what goes on behind the scenes.
How has moving to Chicago from Michigan affected the way you’ve approached design?
I don’t know that it’s affected our approach to design, but it has certainly opened up a number of doors for us. The creative community here is so welcoming and willing to not only share their knowledge but continues to inspire and push us creatively. The only feeling of competition has been a healthy one — it urges us to do better. So if anything I think the move has allowed us to grow much more and in a lot of different directions than we ever imagined. (PS we still love Michigan though!)
Your Nourishing Notes stationery line caters to a foodie sense of humor: which one of you is the foodie, and what’s your favorite recipe?
I definitely brought the foodie gene into the Letterform family, although Andy is quickly gaining on me. He says I have inspired him to be curious about food… that’s about the best I could ask for! We are definitely known for taking extended “breaks” from work to research a new recipe online, go on a hunt for a mysterious new food product, go morel mushroom hunting, or start prepping an extravagant meal just for the fun of it. Technically that’s research for new cards…. right?
Favorite recipe…. anything made in a kitchen full of friends and plenty of home made beer.
Artifacts & Interactions, your recent installation at the Post Family We Are Family show, showcased your finds from traveling around the country. Do you have a favorite story from your travels to share? A favorite city?
Yeah, if we’re not cooking we’re traveling, even if it’s to hop in the car and drive to Milwaukee for the afternoon. We don’t sit still very well. One of our more recent trips was a road trip from Chicago to St. Augustine FL, and back again. We camped the whole way down and back. We had so much fun driving through the back-roads of America and searching for the perfect BBQ, that every single night we pulled into the campground well after dark. We got pretty good at setting up our tent with our car headlights. You can see pictures here.
Our favorite city… so far it’s Montreal. Hands down. We spent three days there (half of it in the middle of a snow / rain storm) and had the BEST time. Andy found his most favorite bagel ever, we ate smoked meats, poutine, the best cappuccino ever, the best croissant ever, I ate kidneys for the first time (and liked it!), the best maple syrup ever…. the list goes on. A trip back is definitely in the works.
You recently moved studio locations: what’s the best thing about your new space?
Not working in our apartment!! When we first started Letterform we immediately got a studio space in Ravenswood. It was a great way to kick us into gear and give us the fire, so to speak, to make some money so we could pay rent on it! It was also nice to have a dedicated space for clients to come in for a meeting and not trip over our laundry. After about a year and a half we decided to save some money, and move Letterform into our apartment. Our tiny, one bedroom apartment. It was a true test to our relationship and luckily, it went really well. However, we soon learned the downsides (there were many!) of working from home. The search was on for a new studio space and we (serendipitously) were contacted by Dawn at Firebelly Design to check out the space right beneath hers, that she was taking over. It was perfect, and just what we needed. We moved in a few weeks later and here we are! We are sharing it with some amazing folks (Andrea of Owly Shadow Puppets) and Chad (of One Tree Forest Films), and of course our friends at Firebelly drop in from time to time. It’s a really great vibe in here, as cheesy as that sounds.
You’ll be showcasing Nourishing Notes at the DIY Trunk Show this November. Any other plans in the works where fans can catch up with you or buy your work?
Fans can always buy our work! Nourishing Notes is available on etsy and we’re in the following amazing stores here in Chicago : Green Grocer, WolfBait & B Girls, Four Sided and Anjenu. We even recently got one of our cards into Paper Source! We’re also in various stores throughout the country, now if we could just get our website updated… you would be able to check those out! That’s definitely a 2011 goal.
All images © Letterform
After a short break, the Summer Interview Series is back for Round 2! This week, we’re featuring Eric Nyffeler of Doe-Eyed. After discovering Eric’s work through a friend earlier this summer,Â I noticed that he just so happens to be based out of Lincoln, Nebraska…which the honorary-Nebraskan in me loves. Doe-Eyed’s gig posters have been featured in numerous magazines and blogs including Print, HOW, and For Print Only, and also honored by both the AIGA and Addy Awards. Eric was kind enough to participate in this year’s interview series, so without further ado…
Many claim that cutting edge design only happens in the big cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, etc. Yet there seems to be a growing design scene in the Heartland (Design Ranch, Tad Carpenter and Hammerpress of my hometown, Kansas City, spring to mind). What are your thoughts on this? Have you felt being located in Nebraska has affected your career for better or worse?
I think the design scene in the Midwest is very focused on craft and tangible creations. There are more screen-printing and letterpress shops and handmade paper mills than I can count. While some people might argue that letterpress and screen-printing are hardly CUTTING EDGE, I’d argue the cyclical nature of art has pushed handmade objects back to the foreground. We’re all so fucking tired of Flash animations and animated websites and Youtube videos. However, the other side of the coin is that all that technology that we’re already grown so sick of has also helped level the design playing field across America. No one really cares that I’m in Nebraska or thinks I’m any less “hip” than any Los Angelan. I’m also not going to scoff at how much cheaper the cost of living is in the good ol Heartland.
You just had a show open in Chattanooga, TN on the 6th. Do you have any advice for others hoping to exhibit their work?
Kiss people’s asses and then talk shit behind their backs. Every artist does it…seriously! Or if that approach doesn’t work for you, try the opposite approach and try to make a lot of friends with people. I’ve had people tell me that I’m really good at “networking” but I can’t help but feel repulsed by the negative connotation of that word. I’d prefer to think I’m making genuine connections with people I actually like…rather than just numbers I can link to on the internetz.
You describe yourself as “strictly a print designer and staunchly against advertising”. How do your gig posters fit into that? Would you consider them advertising, or more as art prints?
Well, that phrase is kind of just a bit of fun, smart-assery…kind of… While a lot of my gig posters are actually used to promote shows and technically count as advertising, about half of them are used strictly as merchandise/memorabilia items. I guess my quote is just a bit more of a barb aimed at giant ad firms that work with giant clients…companies with names like John, Paul, George and Associates. Some people really seem to get off on making work for giant companies like Pepsi or Old Spice or Kanye West…and more power to them if that’s what they enjoy. I guess I just personally prefer working with smaller, more personal clients and actually creating objects and products that people truly desire. Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks.
Since you live in Lincoln, NE, it’s hard to avoid any talk of the Cornhuskers. Are you a college football fan? And what is it like to work in a college town?
Ugh. I hate football…especially Nebraska football. It really brings the whole town to a complete deadlock every game day. I honestly try to not even leave my house on game days! I guess it’s an excuse to stay home and work?
I first met Jeff while acting as Social Media Chair for AIGAKC. Jeff saw a real need for design education in Guatemala and has been recruiting creative professionals to help Guatemalan youth ever since through Design4Kids. After learning about the program, I asked him to contribute to our Discussions blog, and I am honored that he agreed to participate this year in my Summer Interview Series.Â Aside from his involvement with Design4Kids, Jeff also works as a designer and photographer.
How did you become aware of the need for a program like Design4Kids in Guatemala?
In October of 2006, I was surfing the web looking for programs that taught photography to impoverished kids. When I found Fotokids and learned that former Reuters war correspondent, Nancy McGirr, was teaching kids from the Guatemala City dump how to use cameras for documentation and self expression I was moved to tears. Somehow, I had to help.
About the same time I learned about photographer Phil Borgesâ€™ foundation, Bridges to Understanding. Bridges unites kids around the world through storytelling using digital cameras, audio recorders, and technology. They had a training program for adults to learn the process and mentor kids in telling their stories. Later when I learned they were conducting their program in Guatemala with Fotokids, I signed up immediately.
During one amazing week in November 2007, 16 adults worked with 16 Fotokids in Santiago Atitlan to develop, write, storyboard, shoot, record, and assemble two simple but powerful films. One of the stories entitled â€œMi Futuroâ€ was narrated by 15 year old David Ixbalan, a talented young artist who dreams of being a graphic designer but loves his village and wants to return there after he finishes his education in Guatemala City. There aren’t graphic design jobs in Santiago, so his dreams seem impossible.
Against this backdrop, Nancy McGirr told me about her plan to develop a Santiago extension of their design studio called Jakaramba. Established by Fotokids graduates in Guatemala City, Jakaramba serves businesses and non-profit organizations and provides jobs for young design professionals. Before you knew it, I was offering to come teach what I could. When I suddenly realized that I couldnâ€™t do this alone I said â€œand Iâ€™ll bring colleagues too.â€ As it turns out, thatâ€™s the best part. Not only is Design4Kids a chance to teach, mentor, collaborate, and grow with talented youth, itâ€™s an opportunity to meet and work with other talented creative professionals from around the world.
You recently finished the Summer 2010 program: could you share a few highlights with our readers?
Design4Kids Workshop 4, aka D4K4, was a little different than the first 3. Instead of working with teens, D4K4 students were mostly in their early 20â€™s: all founding members of Jakaramba. Our workshops are always structured around producing a real project for a non-profit client. This time that client was Fotokids, and the project was a 20th anniversary book which was presented and discussed with Nancy McGirr and one of the board members. You can see the results here.
The heart and soul of our workshops are the creative professionals who donate their time, expertise, and hard earned cash to travel to Central America and join our workshops. D4K4â€™s Traveling Mentors included Dutch portrait photographer Eric Lolkema, who taught Lightroom basics and lead the morning photo walks, Washington D.C. architectural photographer Stu Estler, who taught lighting and HDR photography, and HP Marketing Director Cathy Shea, who taught basic marketing and project management. All coached one-on-one and in small groups during project time.
To expand our studentâ€™s access to more creative professionals we once again invited designers to comment on the students’ first draft designs. Nine creative professionals took time out of their busy days to visit our web site and leave thoughtful critiques: Phil Borges, Rodrigo Zarco, Von Glitschka, Jacob Cass, Stephen Tiano, Neto Gonzalez, Donovan Beery, Dariela Cruz, Nate Voss, and Telva MejÃa Tefel.
Building on the success of using online reviewers in D4K3, we extended our classroom to include two creative professionals teaching and mentoring directly from a distance. Kitty Florido and Vanesa Juarez gave a class on using social media via Skype, and then worked with their students via Twitter, Facebook, and email. During the workshop, students made regular postings to the Design4Kids blog as well as to Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook. They pioneered and proved the concept of Online Mentors so well that we will offer that way of volunteering again.
Aside from coordinating the program and working professionally as a graphic designer, you are also a photographer. How have your experiences working with these teens affected your personal work?
Tremendously: I now consider Design4Kids as my most important creative work. Itâ€™s more collaborative, demanding, and rewarding than anything Iâ€™ve ever done. It benefits the kids, the volunteers, and me. We all grow together. Now the photography I value the most creating and working with, are the images I make of my students and their mentors. Both groups have all challenged me to stretch and grow myself as an artist. For instance, Iâ€™m now exploring different techniques for mixing light, shadow, and hands-on print making processes. One is screen printing, an interest that began as a way to bring our students low-tech printing technique they can do on their own. I think itâ€™s important that they learn the fundamentals of printing in a hands-on way.
How can designers and other creatives get more involved with Design4Kids? Are there other ways to show support aside from volunteering?
Our mission at Design4Kids is to help youth develop their creative potential by working with creative professionals in a project-based learning environment. We are always looking for big-hearted folks with related ad agency, design studio, photography, fine art, or marketing communication skills, to travel with us for a life-changing experience working with talented kids from another culture.
Of course not everyone can afford the time or money, so the next biggest way folks can help is to spread the word about our program to tell everyone they know in the business. You never know who might be harboring a secret desire to combine a love of travel with a chance to make a lasting impact. This is a grass-roots effort, and all of our volunteers have come to us through friends of friends and through social media efforts. So every conversation matters.
Designers may also participate as Online Mentors, or Online Reviewers. If any of you are interested, contact me at jeffspeigner [at] yahoo.com. We also accept design books, art supplies, and teaching aids. You can find a wish list here. People can also support our efforts through tax-deductable cash donations through the San Carlos Foundation and Fotokids. The funds help us purchase and transport books, art supplies, and teaching aids.
A belated post due to a busy week at work! So without further ado, our weekly feature:
I first met Jeremiah while showing work at this past year’s Firebelly Holiday shop: what an honor to be showcased in the same room! Jeremiah Chiu is a Chicago native, co-founder/partner at Plural and a musician with local group Icy Demons (that’s him on the keyboard). He received his MFA in graphic design from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since co-founding the studio in 2008, Plural has received recognition by the Art Directors Club, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Communication Arts magazine, Print magazine, How magazine, and The Society of Typographic Arts, among others. With a focus on typography and visual experimentation, Plural explores new ideas within the design process as they collaborate on a wide range of print, web, video, textile, and music projects.
What’s your favorite part about Chicago in the summer: any fun tips for new residents, such as myself, or visitors?
Chicago’s a great city to be in, whether it’s summer or not. It’s not too big, and not too small. You can ride your bicycle everywhere and there are tons of great cultural happenings every day of the week.
I don’t know, I’ve grown up here my whole life, so I bet other cities are great as well. If you’re visiting I highly recommend going to Millennium Park.
Typeforce was earlier this year and the Post Family show recently wrapped up: what’s next?
It’s been a great year for Plural so far: busy busy busy. I’m not sure what’s next. We’re feeling really good to be buried under tons of exciting new work right now. We’ll be pushing out some more Lumpen magazines, working on a building mural with Edmar down in Bridgeport, making books with The Stockyard Institute, working on some new album covers, curating a poster show at Depaul, missing meetings with the Chicago Printers Guild, etc… Same as it is everyday… Wake up. Make things. Go to bed.
How do your installations and other artistic endeavors influence your design and vice versa?
I definitely don’t differentiate the two. Ideas are ideas. Design is the way we think. The execution differs based on the audience, location, space, time, etc…
Most of the ideas/works that end up as installations or in exhibitions are derived from experiments in the studio, all of which are nonsense. (It’s all the stuff the clients won’t buy) 🙂 With exhibitions, it’s our opportunity to do whatever, without consequences, so we usually go with the most absurd idea and just let it be. Why not?
Playing music has helped me learn to work in different ways. It helps me approach things from a different perspective, writing a tune and composing a poster are very similar things, you have an idea, and then you organize that idea into a cohesive thought and deliver the message in the best way. If you always design your poster by placing the image before the text, next time try it the other way around.
On Humble Pied, Renata’s and your advice to young professionals was to practice and experiment. What are your favorite ways to combat creative block?
Headstands. Hands down. Try not to over-think things. Take a break.
Lately, we’ve been using the phrase “keep it funky” a lot. It’s been working pretty well. I think the idea behind that is to do something you think is wrong, or that you wouldn’t do, like use drop shadow or something silly like that, and then force it to work. You can make anything good, you just have to work through it. School made me a rigid designer, and I think only now am I starting to realize how to balance that with the other “wild” side of me. The rules are instilled, everything I make will always carry more scrutiny now than it did before, because I learned right from wrong.
How did you know that grad school was right for you, and how did you decide on a program?
I decided to go to grad school because I was ready to spend 2 years devoting all of my time to learning more about graphic design. I had been working at an art gallery and doing a lot of freelance for two years after college, and as I started looking for a change of pace, things just sort of fell in place. I learned about UIC from a friend of mine, Jon Krohn, as he was studying there. My roommate at the time, Chris Kalis (future Plural partner), was also interested in the program, so we both applied, and both got in. UIC has a great program, with the faculty there, I think it’s the best GD MFA in Chicago. Marcia Lausen heads the school. After meeting with Philip Burton and hearing numerous stories about Paul Rand, Armin Hoffmann and Wolfgang Weingart, I was sold. UIC also began accrediting the Basel School of Design at the university level, so we were afforded the opportunity to study in Basel during their summer workshops. Nothing beats hearing your teacher tell you that you’re in Emil Ruder’s old classroom.
I first met Jon while working with him in Kansas City. Jon is a great guy (even if he IS a Mizzou fan…), and I learned a lot about social media and online editorial outreach during the projects we collaborated on. But beyond working together, Jon would periodically bring photographs up to the design area or post them to Facebook, and I would always find myself in love with what he had to share. A couple weeks ago, I posted about the launch of his photoblog, Challenge and Catharsis.
How did you get interested in photography and what made you decide to start Challenge and Catharsis?
I’ve always been interested in photography, dating back to when I was a kid. My dad had — well, still has — an old Canon 35mm SLR and I remember being thrilled on the rare occasion he’d let me use it. But by and large, I was relegated to my Vivitar 110 film camera (which is still floating around my place somewhere…) Over the years, I graduated to disposable cameras, then to point and shoots, but regardless of the tool, I was always snapping pictures of something. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I actually started thinking about photography in a more serious manner, but at the end of the day, this is still just fun for me. People have called me the A-word (artist) and the P-word (photographer), and I always cringe a bit when I hear that. I just consider myself a dude who likes to take pictures! But I’m beyond flattered and humbled at the response they’ve gotten. I’m really happy people seem to like them.
I started Challenge and Catharsis as a way to keep myself honest. As I mentioned in the about section, I discovered that taking pictures gave me a perfect blend of mental stimulation and relaxation, so I wanted to stay in practice and keep my hobby going. That still holds true. But the deeper I dive into this, I’m hoping my blog will help me meet new people (photography enthusiasts and otherwise), learn more about photography and ideally, continue to improve.
Your day job involves working with bloggers at a public relations firm: how do you think this affects how you have approached your own blog?
Working with bloggers is probably the BEST part of my job. It’s been great getting to know many of them and I’ve made some friends along the way. Probably the main thing I’ve been able to carry over is the importance of community. Most of the bloggers I work with are moms, and the strength of their community is awe-inspiring. I’m still a newbie to the online photography community, so I’m just starting to meet people. Though our (I guess I can say “our” now, huh? 🙂 ) community may not be quite as tight-knit as moms’ online community, none of us exist in a vacuum. I think we can all learn from, enjoy and support each other’s work.
In a couple of your posts, you have hinted at nerdy tendencies. What’s your favorite way to geek out?
Oh, I’m a total nerd. Might not pick up on that when you first meet me, but yeah, I’m a geek to the fullest. Honestly, I think most people have a sizable amount of geek in them, but are too afraid to admit it. Let it out! It’s fun being a geek! 🙂 Anyway, I think my favorite way to geek out is probably doing a deep dive into my DVD sets of 80s cartoons (The Real Ghostbusters, He-Man, Inspector Gadget, Count Duckula, etc.) and re-living my childhood one episode at a time. Oh, and of course, heavy doses of sci-fiÂ fantasy and anime flicks are ALWAYS welcome. Encouraged, in fact.
It’s obvious from your work that you love Kansas City: what has been your favorite part of the city to photograph so far?
I love shooting in KC’s jazz nightclubs. I think a lot of my photos tend to be fairly “contrasty” and dark anyway, and you really can’t beat the mood lighting in a place like the Phoenix or the Blue Room. The low light makes it challenging (and most of my shots get deleted at the end of the night), but for those 20 or so I keep, it’s great being able to “feel” the music and the mood through the shot. Plus, it gives me a chance to follow in the footsteps of my photographic hero – Mr. Herman Leonard. He is and will probably always be my favorite photographer, and his work depicting the jazz clubs and icons of yesteryear is simply mesmerizing.
For those of us who love your work, are there any plans to sell your prints?
Absolutely! I’ve got tons more in the vault, so if you ever have any inquiries, please send me a note at jbgray07 [at] gmail.com.
All images © Jon Gray
The Summer Interview Series continues this week with Mig Reyes, a designer and self-proclaimed cookie eater from Chicago. He’s now two years out of college, and has already worked at some amazing design studios such as Rule29 and Segura, Inc. After a stint at an ad agency, he realized that just wasn’t for him. Now he has found a home “within the confines of awesome,” creating for the web at the best t-shirt company in the worldâ€”Threadless.
Humble Pied is such a great resource for students and young professionals…but…why Pie? With you being such a cookie man, why not, say, Smart Cookie?
I’m definitely into cookies, but Humble Pied wasn’t so much a kitschy name as it is an actual reference to a slang term for humility. As young designers, it’s easy to caught up in our early successes and build an ego. To eat the humble pie is to be taught humility, something I think every growing designer needs to practice more. With Humble Pied, I wanted to curate and archive bits of honest advice that will ultimately help inspire and nurture fledgling creative types.
The Show and Tell Show is a great (free!) program for Chicago designers. Everyone has a favorite show and tell experience as a kid: what’s yours?
Without a doubt, I was (probably still am) a huge Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan. I went home with a fairly good report card, so parents got me the Technodrome. My mind was blown: it was the coolest playset on the marketâ€”I had to show everyone. Fast forward to now: it was a huge honor to be a guest on Mike and Zach’s Show and Tell Show, sharing my early experiences with Threadless and a passion project I had in the works. Keep a look out, though. I may or may not be playing a role in The Show ‘n Tell Show now, and I hear there’s some exciting things planned for it!
Merge, AIGA Chicago Mentorship program, AIGA Social Media Liaison…I’m sensing a theme here. Share your thoughts on the importance of making connections and how social media is affecting our profession.
I credit most of my success in my career to the mentors and peers I’ve met along the way. That being said, I also disagree with the way people consider traditional “networking.” I once wrote about how I felt about it, and presented this idea at the HOW Conference. Simply put, networking is bullshit. I always sought to make friends and build relationships, not add contacts and swap business cards. Bevel-Emboss and Merge were events setup to help people meet people who are passionate. I’m involved in Dawn Hancock’s AIGA Mentorship program to pay my experiences forward.
For those of us that missed the HOW Conference this year, give us 3 things (either from your presentation or others) that everyone should know.
The general vibe I got from this year’s (really great) HOW Design Conference in Denver was that you need to capitalize on your passions and do what makes you happy now, not later. Mike Perry offered to everyone that you need to just “Make Stuff.” In my presentation, I touched on how inspiration is temporary, so when you have the itch to pursue a potentially great ideaâ€”do it! I could pitch to you this idea I have for a “place to store a bunch of video interviews,” or I could actually act on the idea and make something like Humble Pied. People talk about real projects and things that are tangible. A designer I met out there, Laura Sanders, also doodled some notes from my presentation.
You love to experiment with type: what are you working on now?
I’m actually still experimenting with bringing proper typography to the web. I relish moments when I can figure out hanging punctuation or small caps on the web. I also have a few experiments that I plan on turning into a series, like the illustrated Lego typography and the Google Maps typography.
All images Â© Mig Reyes
I’m so excited to be able to kick off the Summer Interview Series with Jesse Kuhn of RawToastDesign. I first met Jesse while I was still a student at Missouri State and have been avidly following his work ever since. Art director, illustrator, children’s education advocate and publisher, Jesse produces some awesome work in addition to promoting children’s literacy through science with his book series, The Quirkles. (and you Know that’s right up my alley!)
Give us some background information on The Quirkles. What gave you the idea for them? How did they go from being your senior practicum project to where they are today?
Hmmm, where to begin with The Quirkles 🙂 These little guys were my first major illustration project that actually stemmed from my final senior illustration practicum at Missouri State. In short, they are a 26 characters, one for each letter of the alphabet, that teach literacy skills through stories about science adventures with hands-on experiments for kids. Initially I did the character development for all 26 characters as my senior practicum project. After graduation, we discussed the serious potential in the marketplace for a series of childrenâ€™s books that tackled science at the pre-k, kindergarten, and first grade level. There wasn’t any material at the time that was addressing the science needs directly for that age group in a practical way. From there, the potential was made more concrete for this science/literacy series through some great feedback from a couple major publishing houses. A partnership was then formed between myself and the co-developers, Terri Johnson and Sherry Cook, and we struck out on our own as a start-up educational publishing company. So for the next two years, many many late nights, and about 1,463 cups of coffee I brought 832 pages of children’s books to life. Which are now the foundation of The Quirkles product line that can be seen today.
Honestly, it’s really been an amazing journey so far. I’ve learned so much through this beyond the traditional role of being an illustrator/designer. Starting with the logistics of building and running a company from scratch. I’ve also become well versed in the elementary education community, and have had the opportunity to meet with so many inspirational educators and speakers at conferences all over the country. Iâ€™m actually doing educational workshops of my own now with teachers involving the integration of technology and the arts in the classroom as an offshoot of all this. The whole experience has really made me appreciate the value of how important it is to work on projects that bring deep personal gratification into my life. I want to leave this world knowing that it’s a better place because of the contributions I’ve made and the people I’ve helped. So far, The Quirkles have given me a nice introduction to that.
You recently moved from St. Louis to NYC. How has living in New York the past few years affected your work?
New York has really been an incredible place for me, things happen so much faster here. I feel like I’ve accomplished so much over the past two and a half years. (I can’t believe it’s been that long already!) It has been fundamental for my creative career, as well as personal exploration and growth. The pulse of this city is like no other that I know of: so many resources, culture, mixes of societal class, and mountains of inspiration packed so densely onto one little island. It’s definitely not an inexpensive place to live either, which forced me to reevaluate my business plan and also helped me get off the couch for more work. I suppose when more work *equals* drawing more pictures, things could definitely be worse. I’m grateful every morning for the city I live in and the work I get to choose to do in it.
What advice do you have for aspiring illustrators that you wish someone had passed on to you?
Create, create, create…then promote, promote, promote… and then promote some more.
Take a business class, you are essentially in business for yourself. If you want this to be successful and lucrative, there are some business fundamentals that you really need to have a solid grasp on. Or get yourself a rep so you don’t have to deal with it. I, for one, like the mix: it allows me to shift modes when I’m not feeling so *creative*. Also, I think being comfortable when talking about money actually makes you more confident about the value of your work and pricing your services correctly too.
Last, but not least, taxes. Just remember that (depending on where you live) about 1/3 of each of those checks you’re cashing has to go to good ol’ Uncle Sam. Don’t spend it all. I actually have a separate bank account for this. After I deposit a check I write one to my self for 1/3 of the amount and then go to my other bank and deposit that right away so I’m not tempted to spend it all 🙂
How has social media affected the way you approach the illustration industry? Do you feel it makes it easier for illustrators to find potential clients?
I think it makes it easier for potential clients to find you. Most people now, immediately go to the web, and begin researching visually. There are so many great illustrators out their who understand the value of self promotion. You have to be realistic and know that it’s very easy to be quickly forgotten in this industry. Rest assured, if you aren’t sending out samples, posting your work on the web through multiple streams, and active socially (physically and virtually), other illustrators who are just as good or better than you *are* doing this and will most likely get the gigs. Promote a little… get a little. Promote a lot and it certainly increases your chances of making more connections, being seen, and getting more work…especially in the beginning.
It’s also an awesome way to get to know your peers. I’ve connected with so many other illustrators online that I’ve formed friendships with and met in person now too. It’s a great way to share resources, insight, ask questions, and get feedback. I had a couple unique jobs come through that I had to bid on, and I wasn’t exactly sure how to price them out. So I sent a few messages via twitter to other illustrators that I respect and got feedback on whether or not my estimates were realistic.
So…(in closing) I think there are many advantages to social media, and if you ignore it, you’re just ignoring other potential opportunities and professional relationships. I’ll be completely transparent though, and note that I do look forward to the day that I can retire from all this to a remote “unplugged” tree house in the woods…hopefully those places still exist then.
I’ve seen you selling your art prints on the street in New York and at Chicago’s Renegade Craft Fair: where else can people buy your work and what festivals do you plan on attending this year?
I still remember the first time I sold my work and how awesome it felt knowing that someone really was going to hang it in their home. It has really been another great way to monetize existing illustration work and a way for The Republic of RTD to continue to expand. What started as a small little table over in Union Square down the street from my apartment has now grown to be a sizable part of my business offering archival quality limited edition prints of my illustrations. I now have several stores that carry my smaller sized prints and Iâ€™ve been licensing work too. Prints can be purchased on the website and some are available on shirts too over at Skreened.
Artists in New York City are very fortunate. Protected under the First Amendment of free speech, we are allowed to display and sell our work legally for free on the streets of the city as long as you comply with certain regulations. I’ve met and made a lot of connections through this and doing art markets/shows. It’s really a great way to move some business cards too. Fortunately/unfortunately I don’t make it out to the streets as much as I used to because work has been steady and also the competition has gotten steep for getting a spot over in Union Square (the recession had everyone and their brother out trying to sell something). I do try and make it to some of the bigger fairs and shows though. So far this spring RTD has done St. Louis with the CraftMafia, Philadelphia with ArtStar, and just did the big BUST Magazine Spring Craftacular and Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn. Also coming up this summer are Soulard Market Park Fair St. Louis, Renegade Craft Fair Los Angeles, and Renegade Craft Fair San Francisco this year. There are others that are currently being reviewed and applications are in the works for fall shows already too. Folks can checkout the store which lists the show schedule and gets updated as new ones are added.
I really have a great time doing these and wish I had time to do them full time. When you work alone in the studio the majority of the time it’s nice (and healthy) to get out and socialize with humans, and this gives me a nice dosage of that. 🙂
Also starting in June, 10% of all print sales will be going into a mini-grant fund for schools. The one thing that frustrates me the most with the educational community are the constant budget cuts and lack of funding for todayâ€™s youth. All to often this is the reason that children are unable to benefit from The Quirkles Science and Literacy book series. The requests for donations far outweigh what the company is able to fulfill. So initially, I will be personally awarding funding for full Quirkles book sets (including extras and the Teachers Guide) on a revolving basis and will hopefully then expand this into other funding eventually as well. Application details to be announced soon!
Everyone loves a contest, and you do one every month: details, please!
I give away a free signed 5×7 print of the winners choice each month and there is a grand prize drawing for one of my limited edition 16×20 prints at the end of the year as well. If you tweet it or post it to your blog or facebook (and send me the link) I’ll enter you twice for that month. Each month starts over, so people should enter every month if they want to be eligible for each monthly drawing. Only one entry during the year is needed for the grand prize drawing though. Blog shout outs will get you an extra entry for the grand prize too.
All images Â© RawToastDesign