JON KEY WILL MAKE YOU FEEL LAZY: THE AMERICAN MULTIDISCIPLINARY, AWARDWINNING ARTIST AND DESIGNER TALKS DIY ZINES, ARTISTIC ACTIVISM, AND HOW TO BUILD BETTER RELATIONSHIPS WITH CLIENTS
Jon Key is an art director, designer and writer. He is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design where he received a bachelors of fine art in Graphic Design. He creates work centred on heritage, identity and culture. Jon is a co-founder of Artists Against Police Violence, a platform to showcase art that addresses police brutality and injustice. He is also a co-founder and the design director of Codify Art, a Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist collective whose mission is to create, produce and showcase work that foregrounds the voices of people of colour, including women and queer people. See more at www.jonkey.co
As a kid, Jon Key knew two things: he wanted to live in New York and he wanted to be his own boss. He grew up in Seale, Alabama, a “super, super small town.” He was into art, particularly the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, whose expressive, cubist work chronicled the lives of AfricanAmericans. Key was “a computer kid.” His mom gave him a HTML book as a gift when he was young and he saw it as a new language, a way of talking to a computer.
Key is perhaps best known for his artistic activism. The American artist and graphic designer created We Are Bullet Proof prints and hoodies in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. His Artists Against Police Violence project offered free hi-res posters to communities protesting against police murders of black people.
Key graduated from Rhode Island School of Design and worked at Grey Advertising in New York City. With typography designer Wael Morcos, he now runs Brooklyn design studio Morcos Key, which focuses on visual identities and print and digital systems for arts and cultural institutions. Clients include Penguin Random House, Bloomberg, Yale University School of Art and several theatre companies. He’s taught at Parsons, Maryland Institute College of Art, the American University in Beirut and is currently the Frank Stanton Chair in Graphic Design at Cooper Union.
You work in so many disciplines. What ties it all together?
My work centres around four things: blackness, queerness, family and southernness, but not exclusively. And that’s sometimes with artwork, sometimes with graphic design. I made two books in college and both dealt with my heritage, my future, my identity. That’s where I got that language from. I had one book that was focused on my own narrative, my own personal narrative, and then another photography book that asked other people questions. I wanted to hear their stories.
We Are Bulletproof was a sensation. Why did you start that project?
I think when I did that project, I was afraid. I literally wanted to make a project for myself. I didn’t expect it to blow up or anything like that. It just made me feel better, and other people really responded to it. That’s why I think it is important to make messages like that. You don’t know what other people are going through. You don’t know what other people are also experiencing. Sometimes your experiences with other people are actually the same. Creating that type of frame, or creating these spaces, or creating an object that people can wear and feel like they’re part of something that’s greater than themselves, that’s vital.
How did that lead into the Artists Against Police Violence project?
That happened in response to the Black Lives Matter movement at the very beginning, when Eric Garner was killed, when Trayvon Martin was killed. There’s a list of all these young, black men that were unarmed, killed by the police. I think it’s a very scary time to be a black person, to be a queer person in America. We wanted to create a platform that advocated and showed stories of strength, reinforcing how artists and designers have historically always led the way of these movements, making sure that they weren’t going to let this pass onto their generation or the next.
What does the project entail?
We did workshops all over the country. Every poster submitted was used for protests, used for marches. They all had to be hi-res so they could be downloaded free and encourage people to use them. I think that’s why we started it. We
wanted to make sure people’s voices were heard, and make sure there was a space for this art and design presence to be in this movement. I think it made it clearer for so many people, like how they should think or feel or believe or fight. They were like, ‘oh, I don’t know what this is about. I don’t know what the Black Lives Matter movement is.’ This is what it is, and it’s sometimes easier to tell someone the story through images than actually sitting down with them reading an article, or you telling them, or watching the news. It’s just like pure images.
How has the project affected you on a personal level?
Artists Against Police Violence, it’s no longer a thing. Partially because we did that work for such a long time and I think being a person who is a protester, a person who is out in the streets or always dealing with this really heavy content, it eventually takes its toll and it’s very devastating. You have to have a break, for yourself, for your mental health, for your self-care. If you want to talk about this work, or if you want to be in these movements, or if you want to advocate for these types of issues that are sometimes really sad to deal with, you need a break. You have to take a break, and that’s okay because you’re better for it, because you also have to have a moment to grieve. You have to have a moment to go through the process of healing in yourself. Constantly fighting is extremely hard.
What’s the working relationship like between you and Wael?
I feel I am an art director. The way I think about graphic design is about the whole design process. Wael is better at the details. He’s a type designer, so he’s very good with making sure that curve is perfect and that spacing is right. I’m more like, ‘Is this a story that we need to be telling? Is this how we should be sharing it? What are the images, what are the colours?’
How to you attract clients?
We don’t really reach out, to be honest. A lot of our clients come via word of mouth, recommendations through other clients. We’re really active in the arts and culture communities, and we go to a lot of gallery shows. We’re both artistdesigners, we’re in the community, we meet people, the people who are in charge or running the institutions. And so, that’s the New York hustle: making friends with the people, and then hoping they respect you enough to slowly let you in the door. It’s really easy, I think, when you know what you like to do and what you are passionate about.
What sort of projects are ideal?
We like to do arts and cultural things. To me, that is always our favourite. So that can be a museum, an artist, a gallery, a theater show. And we get to help them figure out what they need, and it’s not a dictation or, ‘we don’t want a logo. It’s going to be like this,’ and then goodbye. We don’t really like to take projects on like that. We’re supposed to help you figure this out. And sometimes, clients come in to us like, ‘oh, we want a website!’ And we’re like, ‘You really need a magazine.’
How do you build relationships with clients?
By letting the client be the expert in what they’re talking about, but just helping them find their voice, helping them craft it and helping them become more specific. We like to come in as a collaborator. We like to come in as someone on the ground floor, not someone that you’re putting off into a corner, just to make your logo come to life that you had in your head. That’s not really how we work.
What kind of clients do you avoid?
There hasn’t been a client so far that we’ve been like, ‘oh I would never want to work with you.’ There are projects that are maybe too small for us to take, but we’d always discuss it at least. If I have a very triggering
reaction to it or if I don’t want to work with you, then I definitely want to talk and discover why. I think as designers, we should be able to work on all kinds of projects. We do some projects that don’t pay us, for example, so we have to make sure the other projects definitely pay us!
How vital is writing to your work?
I make my students write everything out before they design anything. I want to know why they are making it, I want to know their motivations and I want to know what they’re thinking about. It’s extremely important because I think half of design is being able to make something really beautiful. The other half is being able to talk about it really well. That’s important.
What exactly has changed since you were a student?
There’s a video of how to do literally everything online now. If you don’t know how to do this thing and its a program, you can find a video and it will take you step by step through it. I think that’s a huge advantage. We had some in my day, but now they’re super specific, well shot and clear.
How did you get into zines?
Zines are really amazing because they’re cheap and supposed to be. I think that’s the purpose of a zine, right? It’s black and white, it’s photo, you can do it with a photocopier. I like that spirit. It’s not about something that’s a precious object. It’s more about the content that you fill it with, and that’s why it’s a really cool form. It takes out the fluff and gets to the content. I didn’t spend any money making my zine. I got them all printed at my friend’s job. He had fancy photocopiers and I was like, ‘Can you print this for me? ’ I like that spirit .
Do you think it’s something that designers should be doing more of?
Yes, that’s why I make my students do it. Honestly, I think most designers are unwilling because a lot of them are like, ‘oh, if I want to make a book, or I want to do something, it’s going to be super expensive, or it’s going to take me forever.’ Zine-making really does allow you just to do it, and there are not that many barriers. Do you have access to a printer? Yeah? Go for it!
Is it important to reflect on why you’re doing something ?
I find that not everyone thinks about that when you’re making work, but to me, I want to know why I’m making something. I want to know what the reason is. I want to know if it’s a personal conviction, if it’s a personal belief that I have, or why the client is doing it. Why does the client want this to happen? I mean obviously there are projects that are just beautiful. I don’t have to know what it’s about and I just love it. Often times, if I see a project that’s really beautiful but there’s no reasoning behind it, I’m less convinced. I’m a formalist. I like formal beauty.