With clients like Nike, Adidas, The New York Times and The Washington Post among a plethora of other big names, along with awards from TDC, Jordan Metcalf is a big name in typographic illustration. Jordan works out of a co-work space in Cape Town, South Africa before which he worked in web, motion and graphic design.
Thanks for having me. Other than being married and having a cat you have it mostly covered.
I never really expected or intended for Illustrated lettering to become such a primary focus for my work and in many ways it happened while I wasn’t looking. Type based illustration wasn’t enough of an identifiable specialisation when I started doing it for me to have been able to cognitively pursued it as such. It was a case of being at the right place at the right time largely, and getting interested in something that at the same time was starting to gain momentum as an emerging design trend. So my early personal experimental lettering work got me a few projects with Nike which had a certain visibility and got me more jobs along the same line which eventually developed into a career. The more you do of something, the more opportunities and offers you get to do the same thing, until it somewhat defines your body of work. It’s an important fact to be aware of, and one of the main reasons I try to keep my work diverse and interesting for myself.
Like every designer I have collected images of things I like over the years and I have quite a few books about signage and applied typography and design which I love. But I try to keep design referencing to a minimum. I find it has the most value for me in small doses. For instance if I’m doing something that has a more nostalgic feel to it, it’s best for me to have only a fairly vague idea of what exact style of ornamentation or typography would be most historically appropriate because it means that I am inevitably passing it through some sort of internal filter that changes, modernises and personalises it. If you’re too aware of how something was successfully done when it was first created, it’s harder to consciously take steps away from it that don’t feel like you’re doing an injustice to the source material, so you end up creating iterations on what’s already been done.
Punching the clock and getting to work.
Design is a service industry and as such it’s a constant negotiation with people who have an investment and say in your creative process. My biggest learning curve has come from lots of micro interactions and negotiations that have taught me the subtleties of when to fight, and when to acquiesce. With that has come an understanding of the value of the offering I bring to the table and the confidence to see the client/supplier relationship as symbiotic and equally weighted. Charging accurately is something a lot of people struggle with and can be the enemy of a sustainable career and the struggling artist cliché loses it’s veneer once adult responsibilities start stacking up.I got tired early on of hearing about great opportunities, the promise of future work and my personal favourite ‘portfolio projects’ with no budgets from agencies and clients where the offering presented none of those things. When you keep your eyes open, you realise how opportunistic and exploitative the creative industry can be, you become wise to the idea that fair and collaborative partnerships are almost always better than ones based on unfair one-sided compromises. Doing the low budget, fun job should be the choice you make because you personally find intrinsic value to the work, not because someone is trying to shift the scales of the bargain in their favour. My way of dealing with that was learning to happily say ‘No’ early on. A lot of people struggle to say no, but it’s the most liberating thing you can do sometimes. If frees you up to take on work you want based on some combination of interest and budget, and to focus on quality rather than pushing out tons of work to make ends meet.
For me it’s more of a philosophical question of identifying why you want to get into it, and this applies to any specific creative work. It’s important to ask yourself what you hope to achieve with it and what you hope to contribute to it. It might seem a little ridiculous to ask that from someone just starting out, but I think there is an importance to the philosophy of why we are motivated to make the things we make. And it’s easier to succeed in finding your voice and forgiving your failures when you have a better understanding of what you’re after. It doesn’t have to be too deep or world changing, it could be an infatuation with craft and detail, an interest in concept over execution, an innate compulsion toward fun and spontaneity, or wanting to visually contribute to social or political dialogues. All are valid motivations. But focusing on understanding what motivates you beyond what you find beautiful, or figuring out the root of why certain things are appealing to you in the first place is much more important in progressing your career and developing a voice than learning a technical skill or looking at a great design blog.
There is definitely more red tape with bigger companies. Every designer who’s ever dealt with a large publishing company or agency cringes at the thought of having to complete vendor set-up forms. But largely I think there is a mirror effect with big and small clients where the pros and cons balance one another. Big clients can afford to take risks, but sometimes their history and visibility means they’re more precious about their brand guidelines, so creative scope can actually often be constrained. Smaller companies can be more open to new ideas, but sometimes can’t afford to take the risks or produce things at a level that you’d like. Big clients often have larger budgets, but your work can be somewhat ephemeral in the larger scheme of things, whereas smaller clients provide more opportunities for long term relationship building and value adding. It’s almost always about the specific job rather than the size or prestige of the client.
Aside from actually paying for them, my advice, and I guess this relates to single use type treatments or logos mainly, is never buy a font for use in something that would look better if it was custom drawn. Lots of very decorative typefaces are like that, and using them can actually look a little cheap and expedient, and the better ones have a recognisability that becomes
a further liability once they become ubiquitous. I’d say there is still a nice space for semi-decorative supporting typefaces though; ones that can add enough detail and nuance to smaller pieces of type that allow you to focus your main efforts where they’re most effective, without being shouty or cheesy.
You can find my work on my site: www.jordan-metcalf.com, follow me on Instagram @jordan_metcalf or twitter @jordanmetcalf