Who is Jon Johnson?

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I first met Jon Johnson three years ago in a dark garage.

Our mutual friend Matthew Reynolds threw this great party where you could try out a bunch of his awesome letterpress gear in his garage/print shop while the gigantic Heidelberg press whirred away. I was photographing (or course) a print block of the Budds logo and Jon said that was one of his favourites out of Matthew’s extensive collection of vintage typefaces and logos. Introductions, what-do-you-do’s and high-fives then I headed out to review the photos to see if I got anything good out of my wide-open 50mm lens in all that inky darkness.

Fast forward to spring 2012.  I saw an invite fly by for a gig Jon organized at The Princess. Designer Aaron Draplin was coming in to talk shop, having just spoken at a conference in Toronto. Matthew assured me this was a big deal in the context of the design world. I love it when somebody thinks something up and actually does it, so with ticket and camera in hand I checked it out. Full house, big success and a very relieved Jon Johnson.

Meanwhile, I had been seeing more and more of Jon’s very distinct design work around town on gig posters, restaurant logos, t-shirts, and banners. You know how it works: when you look, you see. And I was an immediate fan of his work.

Jon and I reconnected last month, while eating pancakes and listening to Sunday morning metal at Marc Lecompte’s Heavy Breakfast. I reckoned it was time to profile Jon on makebright.

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I stopped by Jon’s house to chat last week. It is a special privilege to visit a maker’s workshop. Although their output is often very public, the place and process of creation is typically quite private.

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Here’s a banner that Jon not only designed, but also screen printed himself. That kind of maker-fu is right up my alley. And the positivity in the message reflects Jon’s chilled-out-glass-half-full optimistic nature.

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The baseline:
Jon Johnson
creative engine and proprietor of Bearface Design (BRFC)
33 years old
born in Kitchener and a lifelong resident (save for two early years in Brantford)
KCI for high school
Laurier for Honours English in Film Studies degree
Jenna is his partner
Finnegan is their 2 year old (canine)

DW: Jon, are people knitting it together, that a bunch of this work they see on the street in various forms is coming from you?

JJ: I work in a vacuum…I work in my living room. I make stuff that I think looks cool. And then it goes out there and I [wonder] do people know it’s all the same person? It took even me a long time when I first got into design to think about designers. To think, ‘Oh, this is really cool album artwork’ and then to say, ‘Oh, somebody made this’ and to start tracking who made it. It was actually Chip Kidd, who is a book cover designer. I said ‘Ok this is a Chip Kidd cover and I can tell and I would look for them. I have a collection of books because they’re Chip Kidd covers.

I always feel like that guy who is in the background who nobody knows who I am. And even when somebody meets me at an art market as BRFC, that doesn’t mean they’re going to know I’m also the guy that does posters for whoever I’m doing posters.

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DW: One thing I try to get across with makebright is all this doesn’t happen by accident, that there are people working and making stuff happen. These posters appear and if you’re aware enough, if you’re engaged and you’re visually aware, you start to connect the dots. You see the esthetic and the similarities in the work and now that I know you, I ask “Hey did you make that?”

JJ: I loved that in your Heavy Breakfast post where you were talking about Marc [Lecompte] where you say the way things get done is people just do them. Marc and I have worked together for a long time. We used to make this zine called CTRPLLR. I met Marc in 2005 when I finished university. He was starting to make this zine and friends were like ‘Oh you guys should talk to each other’. And we made a zine with a bunch of other people like Tony Salomone. The first issue I think was actually printed on some [workplace] printers, after hours. There was a mishap with ink and Tony’s socks got ruined. I wasn’t there for that one. It was an open-submission zine. And Marc’s always been someone who just does stuff, which is awesome to be around.

Even when I brought [Aaron] Draplin to town, it was like Draplin was going to be talking in Toronto and I really wanted to see him, but it was like $500 to go to the conference he was at and I only wanted to see one person. So I sent him an email and said ‘Do you want to come here?’ and the best and scariest email I ever got was when he wrote back that he was super-excited and said yes. And then I thought ‘ok now I have to make this happen.’ Which worked out. There were a lot of people there. And I’ve talked with people since then who are like oh I wish I had known when that happened.

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DW: Those are the kinds of active participation acts in the creative ecosystem that are really compelling to me. Where you say ‘I have no idea how to do this, I’m just going to do it anyway’’.’ I want it selfishly and it’s probably something others will want as well.

JJ: The stuff that I make starts out as ‘I want this’. My Live to Read shirt was totally just ‘I want this shirt, small on the front, big on the back and that’s how I’m going to make it.’ And people really liked it, so now I have the shirt that I wanted and now I’m also putting out one that works.

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DW: Tell me about the shift from Film Studies at Laurier to design work.

JJ: I started doing CTRPLLR with Marc and we were doing cut and paste layout stuff which is awesome and fun. And I got into Aaron Draplin’s stuff and following his blog which he was updating like crazy and it was full of links to cool stuff. And he was always posting photos, and I realized I like cool old stuff, but I never put together the designer factor. Somewhere in all of that, I put together the idea of cut and paste layout was layout, and I understood how layout worked, and the stuff that I liked was all designed by somebody at some point in time, and that there were guys like Draplin who were really into that and using that as an influence. And I knew how computers worked fairly well, and learned how software worked fairly easily, so I was like ‘Where does this all go? How does this all fit together?’ and then the person who was doing the film guide layout at the Princess was leaving and I had already been working at The Princess as a projectionist and I talked to John the owner and I had been there for a year at the time. I said I think I can do it. I learned how to do the film guide layout. And then at the same time, I was also cleaning The Starlight and the Jane Bond. Nice job for extra cash and hanging out with Jon Kutt and just as he was leaving there to go work for Quarry and he told Josh and Bernard that I could probably do their layout and posters, that I just learned to do really simply, and the next thing I knew I was being asked to design ads for The Starlight. Ok, I can totally do that. So it was all a lot of bluffing and saying I could do things that I had no idea how to do, but I understood what I liked and where it all came from and then everything sort of quickly got rammed together. This comes from being in the same town for 33 years and getting to know different people. I started working at The Princess because I knew a guy there. Then I was hanging around the Jane Bond all the time and fell into cleaning. I just kind of fall into stuff. The total fake-it-til-you-make-it. Yeah I can do it, and then you go out and do it.

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DW: When did you think this could be a business?

JJ: I don’t even know. I just keep doing it. If I keep working hard, I can open up more time to freelance and less time for one specific job and I just keep doing that. I keep shaving off time at The Princess which is my bill-paying job and the adding more time to other stuff. The whole idea in the first place was that if I worked less, I could screen print more, but then I started picking up more freelance stuff so it was like I be working less and doing more design work, and still no extra time for screen printing, but now people pay me sometimes to screen print for them, and that’s awesome.

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DW: Do you ever have to make decisions to choose jobs that will generate more cash than others?

JJ: Not yet, I haven’t had enough stuff. Everything comes in at a fairly ideal pace, where I get done a job and then something else wanders in. I don’t really try to get jobs. The only jobs I’ve ever tried for are with breweries because I want to work with beer.

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DW: What’s your approach to design?

JJ: My approach to design, if a person comes to me with an idea or half idea I start with that. Working on a concert poster is completely free-form, so whatever general idea comes up for me with that band. That’s what I pursue. What I normally do is start looking around for inspiration…I go gather inspiration from different spots and make up a big mess of images that I like the feel of and start distilling it down. I really like bold stuff, clean lines. I’m not too into distressed stuff. I love other people’s distressed stuff, I just can’t do it very well, so I kind of avoid it. It’s really processor heavy on the computer…I love the idea with logos of things that look good really big and really small. Obviously it’s all client-driven, though, so there’s only so far I can go in saying this is how it should be…the whole thing [with clients] is kind of a conversation, to take your half idea of what you want but you’re not entirely sure yet and then figuring out what you want and giving it back to you. I want to make the thing that you want, but you didn’t know you wanted it.


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DW: I gather from your work and our conversations that you’re a real student of the art of design, that you’re following the work of a number of designers like Draplin, hoovering up the appealing work, and as it sticks in your lint filter, that forms or informs the Jon Johnson approach.

JJ: I gave a talk to the Wilfrid Laurier University Student Publications group this summer at a retreat. Bryn [Ossington] wanted me to talk about design and inspiration, and I didn’t even put this all together until I went to do it, and what I came to realize is what I really like in my work and in other people’s work, is when you have sort of an obsession and you use that as an inspiration and you filter it through your own creativity and then you output whatever. When I’m working on a project, I like to minimally obsess about it. Like if you want me to do something in a certain style, I go out and look at a bunch of stuff that fits that criteria. It could be something as broad as something camp related and looking at a bunch of pictures of tents or a bunch of blankets, and then the tag that’s on the tent or on the blanket, the first aid kits, all that cool stuff. Sometimes it’s a lifelong obsession, sometimes it’s a very minor obsession for a couple weeks, but I like to obsess on things and then filter that through.

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DW: Do you have a local community of practice in design?

JJ: Not really currently. I’ve been building more. I don’t really talk design with a lot of people. For a long time it’s just been me doing whatever and looking out at other people in other places. Recently through Instagram I met this guy Blake [Stevenson], Jetpacks and Rollerskates, is his name, and he does some cool stuff so we’ve been talking about stuff more and more. The company he works for, Boltmade, they had a designer meetup not too long ago, so I met a couple of other people there. And there’s another one coming up September 16 that seems like it will be cool. So I’m just now talking to people locally about it when I’ve always just been looking outwards at what people were doing elsewhere. For a long time, I’ve felt like nobody else in town was making stuff I liked. There were only a couple of people, like Jon Kutt has always done cool stuff.

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DW: Is there a mesh between business and community?

JJ: I feel lucky that the community wants me to design stuff for them. I feel lucky that I get to make signs that are up on posts in downtown Kitchener. I grew up in Kitchener, hanging out downtown, and now I get to do things that are up on light posts. That’s amazing. I’ve always loved KW and knew I wanted to stay here, and it’s nice to be embraced by KW, especially when I didn’t see people making stuff I liked and then I was asked to make stuff I like for the city, which is really cool.

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JJ: One of the things I talk about for Student Publications, it’s weird how I ended up doing what I’m doing, but I can trace it back to things I loved as a kid. Like I loved maps and road signs. So I can see that my love of simple design is very prevalent in a road sign. How do you make a message really simple and easy to read while you’re driving past it. There’s that as a foundation, and then this summer I got to do a layout for a map of bike routes. That’s crazy! I’ve always loved bikes, I’ve always loved maps, and I’ve always loved signs, and I got to make my own signs for a map for bikes. I feel like it’s awesome that I get to do that stuff. I would love anything that would help the community be more like I would like to see the community be. It’s great.

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JJ: Every time I look at it I wonder ‘How did I get to do this?’ I decided I wanted to design stuff and then taught myself how to do it and then people buy things that I make and people pay me to design stuff for them and I just do it because I think it’s cool. It’s great.

DW: Thanks very much, Jon.

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After chatting, Jon took me around the surprisingly small but efficient corners where he screen prints.  It was so cool to see so many samples of Jon’s work in one place as he pulled them out of drawers and off of shelves, giving me the nutshell story behind each.

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I think personal maker workshops are an externalization of the makers’ inner creative furnace and toolset. Jon’s space supports that notion as every where I looked I saw the wonderful crust of past jobs, works in progress, inspirational totems.

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Here’s an example that demonstrates Jon’s broader maker-fu. He built this custom rig for screen printing multiple beer cozies at once. You slide them on and pull the screen. It’s one thing to be skilled in a single domain, but I’ll count you among the maker’s makers when you are building and modifying your own tools like this.

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If you need good design talent with a broad headspace, deep skillset, and sweet esthetic then I strongly encourage you to reach to Jon. He’s right here in KW.

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Oh yes, a funny thing happened on the way to writing this all up. In the course of googling some background material I discovered my good friend Anna Beard had profiled Jon mere months ago on the ever-awesome Cord Community Edition. Read her stuff!

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Thanks a lot for opening your doors, Jon (here with the impossibly photogenic Finnegan). Looking forward to seeing more of your great work up and down King Street and beyond.


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5 Responses to Who is Jon Johnson?

  1. Matthew Reynoldd says:

    Great profile, Darin, of one of the hardest working dudes I know. Kudos to both of you.

  2. I want to say, “that’s my boy!”, with great pride. But to just say that might be to diminish a bit the reality of this talented, creative, funny, delightful man who is finding his place in the world with integrity and élan. So I’ll say, “Jon, you rock!”, with pride and joy! Oh, and, “that’s my son!” Dad

  3. Michelle Purchase says:

    I’m constantly inspired by Jon! Great interview.

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