Focus explores the creative talent within the climbing community.
American graphic designer Joe Letchford's work and climbing go hand in hand. His progress in climbing helped develop his interest in design. After undertaking a Master Of Fine Arts, the West Virginian developed a collage-based style that has led him to a move to San Francisco and work at Google.
How did you first get into graphic design?
Interestingly enough I was introduced to graphic design thanks to my best friend Jacob Johnson, someone you have interviewed before. He and I grew up together, lived together while in college, and continue to climb together. Jacob and I went to the same school but instead of getting a design education I studied anthropology. Anthropology wasn't really my idea; I had every intention to get into the art school at VCU but I wasn't a "well rounded artist". That didn't stop me from noodling around and fumbling my way into becoming a designer though. I was just so inspired by all the art students, I thought their experiences were fascinating so I just sort learned from the side lines. Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing—or what I wanted to do—graphic design had just enough structure and promise to be something I could be good at—eventually.
How did you go from those initial explorations to developing your style?
My initial explorations were sort of just me trying my hardest to create imagery, I wasn't necessarily to concerned about type or how it could be the focal point. What I did focus on when I was first starting out was mostly—for lack of better words—hipster nature art garbage. That was mostly due to Tumblr and also having just found my love for climbing. As I progressed in climbing, I also progressed in design. Both go hand in hand and inform each other regularly.
The methods I used to create imagery then have made their way back into my work now. It took getting an MFA to snap me into realizing that I had a style and a reason for making work the way I do. I don't have much of an eye for photography so my image making is a haphazard collage like process. It's the only way I know how to make something unique or original. I mostly just destroy a lot of photography and put it on top of each other.
Your MFA obviously has an impact on you. What drew you to it and how has it shaped your work?
My MFA really allowed me the time to experiment with my work and get a great amount of critical feedback. It pushed me into an understanding about myself that ultimately manifested into my design sensibility and outlook on personal work. I probably wouldn't think the way I do now, or approach work the way I do now, if I hadn't gone and pursued that.
Out of my own naivety and feelings of being an imposter, I felt that going and getting this degree was the only way to be considered a designer. I would look at designers that were really ahead of the curve—knowing they went to school for design—and feel that there was a well of knowledge that I was missing out on. I probably wasn't ready for grad school, honestly, but I was passionate about some kind of progression and tapping into that well.
It was definitely a good experience.
When it comes to your work now, how do you approach a piece and what is your process from concept to the completion?
Each problem has its own unique solution so there isn't a catch all answer, but i'll attempt a thoughtful answer.
If the piece is personal, I usually approach the problem with how the final outcome should feel. For example, for the album cover (Delivert), the ask was vague, so I approached the visuals from how their song felt to me. The image making system is still the same as I explained earlier. But I tend to choose imagery that relates to both the client and myself. I like to create somewhat of a narrative within the work that weaves myself and the client together.
For non-personal work, I tend to look at how the problem could be solved in a way that isn't the obvious answer or the easiest solution. Sometimes, that isn't the most marketable, but I like to think it pushes the needle a little further towards what's possible. In fact, recently one of my directors told me point blank to 'keep making shit that no one wants to see'. It really validated how I pursue design, and how I try to contribute.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to follow a similar path?
If you make work that you think will make you popular, or try and create work that you think people will like, it will ultimately leave you questioning who you really are creatively. Make work that reflects your upbringing, your loves, and your surroundings. Doing so will leave you with a sense of pride in your work while also representing something that is inherently unique to you. A lot of people start off mimicking what they like and aspire to be, and I think that's okay; it's a way to learn what works and doesn't work for you. But as you grow, don't just appropriate ideas or steal work verbatim. There is a difference between influence and theft.
You can follow Joe on Instagram here