Computer Arts - - In Conversation - WORDS: Gary Evans

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.

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