Focus: Jacob Johnson Interview

Focus: Jacob Johnson Interview

Focus explores the creative talent within the climbing community.

Graphic designer Jacob Johnson found his career calling at the same time he discovered climbing—after a chance scheduling issue at high school meant he'd need to take up a sport to free time to study art courses. 

How did you get into graphic design? 

I was fortunate enough to have grown up in a pretty creative household. My father’s been a musician most of his life, and my mother's always worked in professions where she's been surrounded by different types of creatives too. It’s easy to understand how their experiences could allow them to be more open-minded about their son telling them that he wants to pursue a creative career path. 

Around the time I started high school, I kinda knew that I wasn’t destined to be a doctor or a lawyer. I generally had a hard time in math and science classes, but could hold my own in art and literature. I was exceptionally privileged to find myself in classes with teachers and professors that genuinely cared about their students and their work. It always seemed like these teachers had really strong, established identities. Like they really understood who they were, and their work was an extension of the confidence in their voice. As a generally shy person, I’ve always wanted that ability—to show others the way I see.

Interestingly enough, it was my passion for art that led me to climbing. I wanted to take all of the art courses available at my high school (studio art, photography and graphic design). But to free up that much time in my schedule, I’d have to take Phys. Ed. online— which meant I’d have to go to a pre-approved fitness facility and catalog the time I spent there. I noticed that the local climbing gym was one. I’ve been climbing non-stop ever since.

As you developed your art, how did you develop your graphic design style?

While I was studying graphic design at VCUarts, one of the most fascinating classes in the curriculum was actually the History of Graphic Design taught by designer and historian Jamie Mahoney. In that class, I was really impressed by the work of Modernists and Post-modernists alike. Intrinsically, at their core these two disciplines stand in conflict of one another, but I saw value in both their arguments and often try to explore the space between these two ideologies. To this day, I’m always asking myself how I can impose order over chaos without silencing the vital parts of the human experience.

How do you go about producing a piece from conception to the finished product?

Graphic designers might not be the first to admit it, but they’re fundamentally in the business of mind-control. I’m always trying to learn as much as possible about the target audience before I start a project. The more I can understand about who they are, their experiences, and the way they interpret and respond to information, the better my work can communicate, and more importantly, provoke. When I know who it is I’m designing for, in a way, the work tends to take shape on its own actually. Decisions of design are always calculated, concise and meaningful, so there’s no formula or prescription, really—but that’s what keeps it exciting and fresh. Every project is an opportunity to explore a new headspace for a unique audience. The creative process usually reflects that.

Some of your work seems deeply personal, such as Losin' My Literacy. How did that project come to fruition? Did you find it tougher to create a self reflective piece of work like that?

Losin’ My Literacy was a piece that I started shortly after having recently being diagnosed with Severe Adult Developing Dyslexia. I was really interested in making a publication that reframed this ‘disability’ as an ‘ability’ and celebrated typographic forms that were being virtually made up in my mind. At the time, I was trying to do everything I could to recognize when I was flipping or distorting characters and numerals. But there was a big part of me that coincidentally thought it was really interesting how such little psychological interference could result in such a drastic impact on the way I was processing and interacting with information. The goal was to make these experimental compositions that sort of felt like a computer glitching or an electronic signal failing through the use of colorful geometry mashed up against broken typographic elements—as well as to share some of the cognitive mishaps I noticed taking place in my head on a day-to-day basis. It kind of became this journal of mine; a place to document a devolution away from meaning into abstraction. 

Arches National Park poster as a part of Type Hike a collaborative typographic celebration of the National Park Service centennial (1916-2016)

Arches National Park poster as a part of Type Hike a collaborative typographic celebration of the National Park Service centennial (1916-2016)

With that said, work that revolves around experimentation like that is actually significantly easier for me. There’s typically a broader concept at play and it takes off a lot of the pressure of needing to reach some specific result in the end. I think the hardest part can almost be knowing when a composition is done and when it’s time to move on to the next page, or even the next project.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into graphic design?

Learn the rules. Then break them.

You can follow Jacob on instagram here.