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Ways We Work

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Jon Johnson

Freelance Designer & Screen Printer

Jon Johnson is a freelance designer and screen printer from Kitchener-Waterloo. I can't honestly remember where I first met Jon. Our design community in Kitchener-Waterloo is rather small when compared to those in neighbouring cities, but Jon has done an especially good job of making himself and his work known here. Despite his own admission of being rather introverted, he's always present and engaged in local design happenings. What caught my attention about Jon is his serious dedication to learning his craft, be it graphic design or screen printing. He has this honest approach to everything he does and I knew his story would be an interesting one.

Tell me about what you do?

I am Jon Johnson, I’m also Bearface Design and BRFC. I refer to myself as a small-time screen printer and graphic designer. That’s basically the jist of it.

Bearface Design is a freelance graphic design company and in that I do anything people will let me [laughs]. Logos, ad work etc. I have regular clients like the Princess Cinemas, Queen Street Yoga and the Centre in the Square. Then I work for other people, including some breweries, which I really like to do and would like to do more of, more beer work, always.

BRFC is the screen printing side of what I do, which is mostly products that I design and print. I also do custom screen printing for people sometimes. BRFC sells wholesale to shops, as well as selling stuff myself on Etsy or at craft shows.

I’m curious which of those ends up being the most lucrative?

With screen printing it started out that I would make products, go to a craft show, sell stuff, take all that money, buy more blank stuff, print stuff and then sell it. So for a long time I was just recycling money. It started as a hobby that paid for itself and now I view it more as my second job and I wouldn’t mind if it became my first job.

If I had more wholesalers, I feel like BRFC has the potential to be the most lucrative. The only wholesalers I have are the ones that have come to me, which is amazing. So if I actually started looking for more wholesalers it could become a bigger thing.

For example, I designed this one shirt with the slogan "Drink Beer From Here" on it. I haven’t tracked how many of that shirt I've printed, but it's only been a year and I know I've printed a lot of them. The nice thing about screenprinting is that, for example, I made that design fairly quickly, and then I put it on a shirt, and I can keep selling that shirt with that design. It’s basically making me money in the background all of the time and it took maybe 2 hours to create. So in the end that’ll end up making this small pile of money, where if I work two hours for somebody else I’m making like $100 once.

So the screen printing business has the potential to be the money maker, in that you do a small amount of work for yourself and you don’t get paid at first but in the long run, you can make more money by selling that item multiple times, versus only selling yourself once.

How did you end up getting into design in the first place?

I went to Wilfred Laurier University and I have a double honours degree in English and Film Studies - which is not design related at all. Shortly after University I started working at the Princess Cinema and while working there I met my friend Marc Lecompte who now owns the Princess Cafe. At the time he was about to start making a zine and asked if I wanted to be involved in that and so was like “yes, I would love to keep writing, 'cause I’m really into writing, 'cause I have a degree in English!” Then I got really involved in making the zine with him and part of making it was doing cut and paste layout and that’s when I realized that I liked the interplay of words and images on a page. As much as it was a really crude way of doing that, that’s how I realized I liked layout.

Somewhere around the same time I was also really into reading blogs, this was 2005 or 2006 and you could still use Google Reader to get them all for you. I’ve lost track of like every blog since Google Reader went away. I found Aaron Draplin and his blog which was amazing and he would post everyday with lots of stuff about different dudes who were making cool stuff and also he’d also be out junkin’ and looking at antique stuff and it was reading his blog that made me realize that I’ve always liked design, I just didn’t know it. I’ve always liked maps, I’ve always liked neat old labels, I’ve always liked road signs. Like going on trips with my Dad as a kid was always exciting because we’d get the map out and look at where we were going to go, and I would look at road signs on the way and ask him what they meant because as a kid you can see the two symbols on a sign but you don’t necessarily know what they mean when they’re combined. So I got really into what symbols meant but didn’t realize that was design until I started paying attention to Draplin and realized that I liked design and then I realized that he was friends with a lot of cool people that were making cool stuff too so I started following other people like Matt Stevens. I sort of just started living a design based life.

Then all of this comes around in two weird ways. The person who was doing the layout for the printed film guide at the Princess, that person was leaving and I thought: "I learn things on computers well, and I’m really into design right now.” So I convinced my boss at the Princess to let me do layout and I did. Shortly after that I was cleaning the Starlight Social Club and the Jane Bond restaurant, which is not a fun job, and Jon Kutt who was doing all of their design work had an office there where he’d make their posters and stuff and so I would just go hang out and talk to him about design and he’d tell me about cool stuff he’d seen and I’d tell him about cool stuff I’d seen. Then he got another job and he talked to the owner and he said: “well Jon can probably do what I’m doing!” So then I started doing posters and ads for the Starlight. In both cases, I just sort of talked myself into a job. I thought I had a good eye for this stuff but I had no idea how to do the technical stuff, so I had to teach myself the actual way to do it. That’s how I got into design.

What would you say are the challenges you face regularly in your work?

The biggest challenge is just me. For example, I can’t draw, that’s a challenge. I find ways around it but if I could draw, things would be better. I keep wanting to try stuff with a tablet and teach myself how to draw on a tablet and then working on getting into different styles that way because so much of my stuff is very straight vector-based. There are people who don’t always want that, but at the same time there keeps being people who want what I do, so does it matter really that I don’t know how to draw? It’s a problem if I wanted to get into certain things but if people keep asking me to do things that I can do then everything sort of works out.

Then just time, time is a big challenge. I realized that when I started working from home and when we got the dog, I started taking a lunch. I used to just work through lunch but I started taking a lunch so I could hang out this guy (his dog Finnegan) and take him for a walk. Now I drive my wife to work every day and pick her up every day so basically I started breaking down my day and found there was around 6 hours to do real work.

The maximum amount of time that I can work during regular working hours is 6 hours and I actually have to focus 100% if I want to work those full 6 hours and that’s hard. I often also work at night on random stuff, sometimes for an hour or sometimes most of the night. When you realize how little time there actually is for straight work in a day, it’s really weird.

I’ve never worked in an office but I know there’s a lot of chatting amongst people and I have to imagine that takes up a lot of time. How much time do people actually have to work during the day?

What are the tools you use on a regular basis?

1) Field Notes - I'm a to-do list guy, a bad drawer, and a note taker. I love Field Notes' design sensibilities (it was started by Aaron Draplin after all), and the size is perfect to carry everywhere. I use Field Notes every day to keep my life in general in order, to draw rough concept sketches for my projects, and to write down things to remember.

2) Instagram - Instagram is by far my favourite social media app. I use it to share/promote my own work, and to be inspired by other people's work. As a visual person, both in work and in what I'm inspired by, it's the best place for me.

3) Adobe Illustrator - I taught myself how to design and illustrate by teaching myself how to break things down into their component parts, and then build those parts back together to get a coherent whole - kind of Ed Emberley style. I find that Illustrator is the most effective way to do that for me.

4) Photo Emulsion - Photo emulsion is an amazing liquid that I use in screen printing. It's viscous, and you use it to coat screens. When it dries, it is light sensitive, and water soluble. When you put a film positive on top of it and expose it to light, the unexposed parts harden and become non-water soluble, allowing you to wash out the covered parts, leaving you with a stencil in your screen that you use to print. There are other ways to create screen stencils, but this is the only way I know, and is the easiest way to take an image from a computer and make it into a stencil. Without photo emulsion, I wouldn't be able to screenprint, so it's a pretty important tool for me!

5) Squeegee - Screen printers use special squeegees (as in, not the kind you use on your window) to pull ink across their screens, forcing ink down through the stencil and onto their substrate. They are vital in the process, and are an icon of the practice.

How important do you find it to keep up with trends?

I feel like it’s important to know what’s going on but not necessarily to do it. I like to be aware of what other people are doing, but at the same time when a new trend becomes the thing, everybody’s still doing their own thing even if they do a version of that trend, they’re still probably doing something else and there’s still a market for different things. Not everybody wants a hand-lettered, beautiful thing. Even if they do then some people within that want something Mary Kate McDevitt style which is way rougher and kind of folksy. Some people want house industry style, super clean vector type and the trend goes back in forth between those two and everywhere in the middle all the time.

When working with clients it is good to know what people are looking for trend wise. If you came to me and said you wanted a logo and then we talked for a bit and I realized that what you’re actually talking about is a more hand-lettered style piece, I could pretty quickly say I’m probably not the guy to do that for you. If you know trends it’s much easier to figure out what people have seen on Pinterest and what they want to see in their own thing. Then you can decide if you can do that and try to sell yourself to them or that you can’t do that.

How do you manage email and other communications?

I’m really bad at that too? I’m happy now that I moved to Google Inbox from the standard Gmail because it’s great for organizing things better and keeping things at the top. I treat my Inbox as a to-do list and like things to float to the top that I need to work on or reply to immediately. I try to reply to emails really quickly. I’m basically constantly checking my email which is terrible.

I’ll be in the middle of working on an illustration and I’ll think “I wonder if I should check my email now!” Most of the time that’s a really bad call, because it interrupts my workflow. I also really appreciate the snooze function in Inbox, that helps with that kind of thing. If I do check my email too frequently and there’s an email I want to deal with but I’m in the middle of something else I can snooze it until after lunch or later.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I wake up around seven, and spend some time catching up on social media. Then I eat breakfast, and walk the dog. After dropping my wife off at work I come back home and hang out for a little bit. I usually start working around 9, starting with emails or going over my to-do list and figuring out what I need to do that day.

Then it’s 3 hours of something. Could be 6 different projects, or just one, or screen-printing.

At lunch I take the dog for a walk, which I usually try to make around a half an hour. It’s really nice to take a long walk because I have an excuse to do that, so why not?

In the afternoon I have a real bad lull where it’s hard for me to work, from like after lunch to about 2:30. There have definitely been times where I’m working and I feel myself dozing off [laughs]. I try to work through that and then pick up my wife and eat dinner.

Then in the evenings I’ll usually do some more work. I often have a weird amorphous evening of breaks and work and whatever needs doing and then walking the dog. Then I usually have a beer and a snack at 10 and then maybe work after that for a bit til about midnight.

Best career advice you've ever received?

I had a chance to go on the Adventures in Design podcast recently where I could ask the host, Mark Brickey, a question about making my business better. I was asking about my screen printing work and how I could make that part of the business grow faster, and he asked if I was selling my stuff online. I had been a couple of years ago on Etsy, but I found it kind of annoying because you can easily get overrun and lost in the marketplace there. Then I complained about shipping too. Basically, I had all of these excuses.

So Mark, and his guest for that episode, Sean Mort, basically called me a “lazy Canadian” and they kept telling me I was just making excuses and I should just do it. Afterwards they said “we hope we didn’t offend you or anything but seriously!” They were exactly right. What Mark pointed out was it wasn’t about being in the Etsy marketplace, it was about giving people who found me in other ways who wanted to buy one of my shirts the ability to do that. So I finally got some things back on my Etsy site, and now there’s an easy way for them to find and buy my stuff.

To summarize all of that, what I got out of it is the advice to stop stopping. Just stop it. Every time you think you should do something and you don’t - just stop stopping yourself from doing that thing. So, stop stopping, that’s the advice I took out of it.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it all worth it?

‘Cause I don’t know what else I would do. What makes it worth it is that it's awesome and why I do it is that it’s awesome. Design work is really cool to do. If you come to me and want me to design a logo for your project, that’s amazing. You come to me and say “here’s this thing that’s everything I’m doing and encapsulates me and what I want my life to be,” and you’re asking me to give that a face? Like that’s crazy, that I get to do that for people. When I’ve had the chance to design beer labels - I love beer, it’s one of my favourite things - then I get to drink beer that has labels that I made on them - that’s crazy! It’s so exciting and awesome to get to do stuff for people that they’re excited about and other people are excited about. It’s cool that I figured out that my brain works this way and that I get to do this. It’s extra exciting for me because I feel like it’s weird that I even ended up doing it.

Screen printing is awesome because when everything you do is digital, it’s extra cool to make it physical. And again it’s the people - when I see someone post a photo of their coffee table, and in the background I can see coaster that I made on it - that’s awesome. I also find screen printing really relaxing. So it’s nice if you’re the type of person that’s bad at relaxing, to have a job that feels relaxing.

Who would you want to see?