Jordan Metcalf is a graphic designer whose practice centres on custom lettering – a passion he discovered before the explosion of the lettering trend, putting him on the ground floor of an emerging design movement. Since his early days, experimentation has been a thread that runs through everything he creates and it is one of the things that continues to characterise his work and approach. Another is his unwillingness to “buy into blind nostalgia” and you’ll find that, although his pieces do reference old design aesthetics at times, they look and feel as though they have been made now. “I like for there to be some element or methodology that is modern, and recognises and embraces a modern world,” Jordan explained in an interview last year.
In this edition of archives for Graphic Design Month we’re given a chronological look-back at his career so far throughout which the learnings have been many: people are more than happy for you to be your own cover band so you need to push yourself and clients in new directions, attention to craft and detail almost always trumps extraneous decoration and, perhaps most notably, start by making the work you want people to pay you to make.
Typographic experiments (2006 – 2009)
I graduated from college in late 2005 and during these years worked at several local design studios. While I enjoyed the commercial work I was doing and learnt a tremendous amount about the business of design and dealing with clients, I still found more satisfaction in the work I did after hours.
I found myself drawing and painting characters, and creating digital lettering experiments a lot. The internet wasn’t what it is today and I was exposed to very little ‘lettering’ work which was something that was just starting to regain traction in the design world internationally. This meant my experimentation wasn’t really informed by any trends or artists specifically and was a fun and free space for play. I think this lucky space for authentic experimentation so early on was key in being able to build the foundation of a career based on diverse and often experimental work.
Nike (2009 – 2010)
Shortly after going freelance in 2009, I set up a Behance portfolio account mainly populated with my experimental pieces. It was another case of fortuitous timing, as it was fairly early on in the site’s life, and I was lucky enough to get recognised and have projects featured a few times. After a couple of smaller briefs, my work got spotted by the design team at Nike in the US, and I received several commissions to do a broad range of experimental graphic explorations, tee-shirt verbiage designs, and logo work. This was an amazing opportunity for international exposure and paid experimentation. I was a young designer with very little commercial lettering experience working from his apartment in Cape Town and Nike was a massive international client so it was definitely a ‘fake it till you make it’ situation of not letting on just how little real experience I had at that point. Being thrown into the deep end this early on was incredibly valuable long-term. This work also opened up the world to me to some degree. Having the swoosh in your portfolio carries a weight that very few other brands seem to, and I think it helped other international clients put their trust in me.
ESPN, X-Games (2010)
As well as lettering work, I had spent a lot of time in the past doing character illustration. Mostly terrified, grumpy or sarcastic characters that got turned into stickers, cut-outs and greeting cards. Based on this illustration work and my lettering stuff, I was contacted by ESPN to do a massive toolkit for the youth segment of the X-Games. The project needed to be completed in a month and almost killed me. I had never had to personally handle a project of this scale before, especially without the safety net of a studio to back me up if things went south. This selection represents about 30% of the total work they needed which included multiple full colour action scenes, dozens of extra stand-alone characters, patterns, logotypes, and illustration and type hits. Despite the crazy stress that came along with it, I really enjoyed this project and it taught me many valuable lessons, mostly that I didn’t really want to be a character illustrator.
Design as Art (2011 – 2012)
I was at one point exhibiting paintings and drawings in lots of exhibitions, locally and abroad, including a Pictoplasma exhibition in Paris, a 3 man show in Chicago and a solo show in Johannesburg. As I started to drift away from painting and illustration in around 2011/12 however I began to get more into the idea of design as art; experimenting with new production methods and graphics styles outside of the constraints of client demands or briefs. Some of this feels a little boring now as there is so much of it out there at this point, but this sort of experimental production led work is something I’ve found invaluable. Over the last few years I have collaborated with Daniel Ting Chong on several successful exhibitions that focus on a more design and production based art approach.
Popular Mechanics (2012)
I do a lot of editorial design and illustration work and I’m pretty sure that Popular Mechanics is largely responsible for that. It was the first magazine cover I did, and although the vintage style was a conceptual decision meant to tie into the magazine’s historical origins, it fitted perfectly into the emerging zeitgeist of nostalgic design obsession, which meant I got dozens of jobs asking me to create vintage styled covers, specifically for Best of or Anniversary issues. I did a couple of them, until I realised the inescapable trap of making work that is ‘on trend’ and becoming the guy who does a certain thing in a certain style. What followed this project is a constant reminder of the underlying truth of any illustration work; that you need to be the one pushing yourself and clients in new directions. People are more than happy for you to be your own cover band.
Beautiful Things (2012)
I always try to have a little fun with any brief, to experiment with a new idea or technique that’s often completely left field of the brief. Mostly because I think people want what they’ve already seen, and the only way of changing that is by showing them something they haven’t. A lot of the time these ideas end up on the cutting room floor, so I often take something small and experimental that I find intriguing and expand on it or use it for a personal piece. This piece started as a treatment direction for a Nike event branding, but was rejected ultimately. I then used the technique I’d discovered to make a print for a show, with a phrase that I guess played off the rejection origin. I have since used and expanded on this technique in multiple different directions and it has become an incredibly valuable asset to me. It’s also ended up being the key reference in work I’ve gotten from Wired Magazine and Ad Age. The lesson is to not abandon good ideas to the edges of an illustrator art-board just because one art director doesn’t like it and to make the work you want people to pay you to make.
Best of Boston Toolkit (2012)
This was one of those projects initially briefed to follow the aesthetic of the Popular Mechanics cover, and a lesson in stubbornness. It was a toolkit for Boston Magazine to celebrate the Best of Boston in various categories. It ran throughout the magazine and included a contents page, a DPS and various sub-section headers. Although the client really liked the Popular Mechanics work at first, I pretty much refused to even draft up an option along those lines and instead showed them ideas I felt were better suited to the project and they completely got on board. It ended up being a hugely successful design for them, and probably one of my most recognised pieces of work.
Teaching Tolerance (2013)
This was a design for the annual donor appreciation card for The Southern Poverty Law Center. They were a great client with great art direction, and although I tried to get clever and do something super modern and probably unsuitable at first, we ended up doing this. It’s probably the only piece of commercial work I’ve done that people have asked me if they could buy as a print too.
Variety Magazine (2014)
This was a noir inspired feature opener for Variety Magazine done in early 2014. Although the lettering itself is intentionally imperfect and slightly naive, it’s still one of the pieces I feel most proud of. It’s not a huge project or anything, but took a combination of so many techniques I’ve learned over the years, as well as some I discovered while doing this to create successfully. I still feel good that I managed to illustrate that film in illustrator and give fairly convincing depth and texture to the wood without specifically photographing it. It feels trivial to say that but it’s often these small personal victories that make this such a fulfilling job to have.
Fortune Magazine: 40 under 40 (2014)
Most of my more recent work is still in production and can’t be shown so I’ll end off with this. Fortune asked me to create a treatment for their 40 under 40 feature. I created this ’40 U 40’ lock-up and layered on some texture and grading effects to give is a sense of prestige and authority. I think what I like about this piece is the simplicity of communication. It’s so easy to get caught up in feeling like more is more sometimes, but I think experience has taught me that, more often than not, attention to craft and detail trumps extraneous decoration.
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