Overtime is Dribbble’s audio companion where we talk to Dribbble members about their background, process, and shots.
In this interview, Dan talks with illustrator and designer Justin Mezzell. Dan and Justin discuss how he got started in design, the importance of asking for help, and prioritizing what you spend time on. Justin shares his design tools of choice and why he prefers Sketch over Photoshop these days.
Dan also asks Justin about a few of his Dribbble shots. He shares the stories behind “Board de Dash” and “Super Magical Funtime,” pictured above. Justin also talks about what it’s like working at Code School.
Links Mentioned in Overtime
- Justin Mezzell
- Justin on Dribbble
- Follow Justin on Twitter
- Follow Justin on Twitch
- How I Work with Color on Medium
- Code School
- Rogie King
- Monument Valley
Dan Cederholm: Hey, and welcome to Overtime, Dribbble’s audio companion. I am Dan Cederholm your host. This is episode 3 and we’re talking with Justin Mezzell today. It’s our third episode—it’s been a lot of fun putting this together, so far, so thank you to everyone that’s been listening. If you dig it, please rate us and review us on iTunes, and subscribe there.
If you’re new to the podcast, please check out our Courtside blog on dribbble.com. Subscribe to our Weekly Replay newsletter. It also gets published on the blog. That will give you up-to-the-week news, stories, and things that are happening around Dribbble, and cool things that we’ve found, cool people that we like on Dribbble, and all that kind of stuff.
Thanks again for listening, and enjoy this awesome episode with Justin, who will tell us about his background, like how he got started, his process. There’s some excellent parallels with his love of film and tabletop games and photography and how that all plays into how he creates his illustrations and designs. Enjoy this episode, and we’ll see you on the other end. Thanks.
Welcome to Overtime, Justin Mezzell.
Justin Mezzell: How’s it going?
Dan: Thanks for being here.
Justin: Thanks for having me.
Dan: It’s a real pleasure because like all of the other guests we’ve had here, which are only a couple, we are big fans. We are huge fans of you, giant fans actually, and rightfully so. Your work has been really inspirational to the community and to us on the Dribbble team, and it’s going to be great to talk to you, get to know you a bit more, and hear how you work, what you’re doing, and what you’re up to, and how it all came to be.
Justin: It largely came to be on Dribbble, to be honest, so this will be a fun one.
Dan: Great. By the way, folks, we’re not paying Justin to say that.
Justin: No, I’m not getting a cent. It’s all right.
Dan: We’re strictly big fans. We just want to get to know him more and hear more about him because the work is so good. I’m really excited about this. Why don’t we start with the quintessential and cliché where are you from, what’s your background, and then maybe have that lead into how did you get into what you’re doing today, like illustration and design.
Justin: Absolutely. I was originally born in southern California, in Huntington Beach. That was where I was until about seven-years old. Moved with a single mother and my brother, just kind of separated from our whole family. Don’t really know any of them. Made our way over to the east coast, where I grew up in a small town called Ft. Myers, Florida. That was basically my life.
Didn’t really have any aspirations as a younger kid for going into design. I didn’t know much about it, to be honest. We were always focused on those maths and sciences. Growing up with a single mother that was kind of the focus, like get academic, do your thing, and kind of see where that takes you.
I fell into illustration and design only after having some extra-curricular activities after school. At the time I was volunteering at a church to do graphics for them, and that was my first ever realization there were applications you could draw with. Mind you, I was working at a church with bootleg copies of these applications. That was really my first experience, wading into understanding wait a second. People do this for full-time work?
Dan: That’s an amazing realization, isn’t it?
Justin: It’s pretty encouraging.
Dan: This seems to be common with designers and folks we’ve talked to, and even myself. It never dawned on me as a kid that this is a thing that people do for work and to make a living. It was always sort of around me.
Justin: When I thought about it, it was like oh, I could do this like a struggling artist would do it, hoping my vision is one day realized, probably not making anything, and dying broke but maybe one day being remembered. It’s this romantic notion of kind of career. So to hear that it really was a stable, really interesting industry with a very rich history and a very active vocal community was a big realization for me.
Dan: That’s awesome. You started designing stuff for your church and what was next for you in terms of you grew up in Florida. Was that an inspiration at all to you in terms of what your environment was there?
Justin: Yeah, growing up with a single mother she was a workhorse. She took that on, and made it work for us. My brother and I played with a lot of Legos. We were imaginative kids. We didn’t really go out too much because there wasn’t really an opportunity considering we couldn’t drive at the time. But we got really into tabletop games.
We didn’t actually get to buy any because we couldn’t afford to buy any, but we were really interested and we had some friends we knew that were really into it. And so we started building our own. We would draw out maps, and we had a monster manual with every creature in it. We had three volumes of these monster manuals.
We’re talking these are books full of sketches of every creature from multiple angles, with hit points, attach values, special attacks. We created a system. You rolled the di you moved on. We had always been inundated with creation of some sort. For us it was very much in that world-building environment that was totally open to us. It was tactile at the time. That was where we started getting really interested in what we could draw and what we could do. From there it transformed into doodling everywhere from classes in my notebooks, on desks, maybe on some walls, on some tests if I finished early. Anywhere I could really do it.
We went to a school that was a center for the arts but my brother and I both weren’t actually involved in the art side of things. I was in the theatrical side. That’s what I was really interested in. Even as a young kid, I was pretty sure what I really wanted to do was be an actor. So much so that we would go to those mall interviews and hey, could you do modeling and acting? I got some great head shots of me in a jean jacket.
Dan: Oh, okay, we’re going to have to have you send some.
Justin: I’m not sure if I can find those but I’ll look. I’ll definitely look. They plucked my eyebrows for it. I’ll never forget that.
Dan: That’s amazing. If we can get ahold of one that would be super.
Justin: I’ll try to find it.
Dan: That’s really interesting, especially the tabletop games. Tabletop games, when you said that I thought at first like Centipede, where it’s a cocktail table.
Justin: I’m talking about Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer 40,000 stuff.
Dan: Yes, awesome, and you were creating your own game though instead of using Dungeons and Dragons.
Justin: It’s a little cheaper to do it that way.
Dan: That’s pretty impressive. Obviously there’s a massive amount of creativity that can go into that. I can see that progression there. You got into doodling and drawing and drawing on anything you could get your hands on. That obviously was a passion too. Did you have any training in design in school?
Justin: No, I never went to art classes or anything, except when you’re young you have the occasional art class. But by the time that I went to college I’d kind of figured out I probably wasn’t going to be an actor and I probably wasn’t going to be a model. Because we had done all this world building, what I was really interested in was writing. I really want to write books and write stories.
At the time, it was kind of transitioning itself to be maybe in the film universe. I was kind of interested in writing screenplays, creating stories, and maybe making a novel first and seeing where it could go. That was where my creativity was invested at the time.
Going into college, I actually was going to major in philosophy and world religions, was the double major I was really interested in. Just because I thought it would give me an interesting, broad perspective of the world as well as every religion has these tales as old as time that transcends cultures, and it all ends up being very similar. So I thought that was the greatest storytelling of all.
That was kind of where I started. Once I was sure film was definitely what I want to be doing, I transitioned over to cinema studies at the University of Central Florida. I still remember, I was in a class and we were talking to our professor about what film was like. She was talking about how she was in Hollywood for six years, and we were like oh, was it incredible. And she was like yeah, it was really amazing. I remember the conversation what did you get to do? And she was like I was honestly a waitress for six years and then came back here.
For me it was like it can happen but it’s a shot. You take a chance for something like that. At that time, I’d been dabbling in my continual bootlegged version of Photoshop on my computer. I was sort of messing around, and transitioned over to doing something very much like okay, at least I know I can get a job in theory which is marketing, is where I transitioned from there.
For me it was like even if it doesn’t work out a business degree is a business degree. I’ll do something with it, in theory. At the time, I was still doing graphics for a church in the area. There was a connection there with a magazine that was local to Orlando, called Relevant Magazine. And I got to know someone there who was like oh, why don’t you apply to our internship position as a designer. You obviously do some stuff here. Maybe you’d be interested.
I sent them an email. I was just thinking I don’t know if anything will really come of it and they emailed me back the next day. By the way, the profile I sent over was a DeviantArt profile. Oh, man. It was some good stuff. I had to delete that portfolio after somebody found it recently.
Dan: I was just going to ask is it still active.
Justin: No, it was brutal stuff.
Dan: We all have that brutal stuff in our past.
Justin: Absolutely, and I really don’t mind sharing it but with a bit of context. I sent that over and they basically said why don’t you come in next week. I did, expecting to have an interview but they were like all right, so you’re going to sit here, your hours are this to this. I was like oh, shit, all right. I guess we’ll figure out how this is going to work.
At the time, the only thing I’d ever worked with was my bootlegged copy of Photoshop. At the time it was 7, which is the one that was really bootleggable.
Dan: We won’t tell Adobe, by the way.
Justin: Yeah, you can censor that if you’d like. What was crazy about it was that from there all of these programs I learned existed in the creative suite. So I had a mentor named Jeremy who at the time was the creative director at Relevant. He was like let’s work on this, and let’s use Illustrator to do this. It was like what is Illustrator? How do I use it? I was a little over my head at the time.
Honestly, it was just falling into it, and as I started working on it and really understanding how layout works, and how type is paired, what makes something readable, and how to guide somebody through a story, there was that academic side of it that was more scientific, which made me really love it. I’ve always fancied myself as a writer, a storyteller. I really love it, but I also have an enormous passion for that more right-brained understanding how these mechanisms work, and how to guide somebody through an experience. That was really how it happened. From there I figured out I’m pretty into this. I could definitely stand to do this.
Dan: We’re certainly glad you stuck with it. There’s a lot of interesting things there to pull out. I think it’s interesting how design and art—visual design often comes out of these other I don’t want to call the failed attempts, but other activities that are creative that are maybe more difficult to make a living at. The same thing happened to me. I was into music, and all I wanted to do was play music. At some point you’re saying well like you said, you can take a shot at it but you’re not really guaranteed to make a living at it.
Justin: It’s also just a bigger financial investment for some of those industries. If I wanted to make a feature-length film, there’s a lot I have to do. Illustration really came around as a place to say I can construct a narrative using the free time I have at home this week, if I set aside a few hours a night to work on it. Really invest myself into it. I can tell a story. It just might not be the original way that I thought that I’d be telling it.
Dan: That’s an interesting way to look at it. I like that a lot. It’s the same thing, like I may not be able to make a hit album but I can sit in my bedroom and create something a lot of other people can enjoy. That’s the thing about the Web that I always loved.
Your self-taught in terms of your design experience there.
Justin: Yes, with some very kind mentoring available from friends and folks I’ve just asked along the way. Hey, how do you do this? Or I’d love to learn from you. I’ve sent a lot of emails out to people. Sometimes you hear back and sometimes you don’t. I just thought about it and what’s the worst that can happen. They don’t respond. All right, I’ll keep going.
Dan: That’s really good advice. Don’t be afraid to ask folks for help. Oftentimes they’re willing to help and they want to help. They were in the same position years ago.
Justin: You wouldn’t think that, and at the end of the say some people won’t. Some peoples’ lives just don’t allow for it. I have gotten an email back I don’t even remember who it was from, but it was like listen, this is a really cool thing. I’d love the opportunity but at the same time I know my bandwidth. To be honest, it’s just not there now. All I can really do is wish you all the best and keep going.
I’ve had other ones, like Rogie King is a great example of somebody I saw his interview in The Great Discontent at the time, and I really admired how he built things. I just figured I’ll shoot him an email and ask him what he’s got available. He responded. What’s great is that relationship turned into me as a mentee working with Rogie, having conversations, learning from his techniques, learning from his advice of what it’s been like as he transitioned from Web to more illustration. That went from a mentee/mentor relationship to now two friends who work shoulder to shoulder, and can share our experiences of life, but also illustration.
Dan: That’s super cool. We love Rogie. I think everyone does.
Justin: He’s a good one.
Dan: Everyone should, anyway. Super guy and super talented. We’ve got to have him on here next, actually.
Dan: Let’s fast forward in terms of what you’re up to now. I think you might hold the record for the most teams on Dribbble being a part of the most teams on Dribbble.
Justin: We found somebody with three more than me.
Justin: I don’t remember who it was. There is somebody with like nine teams. I don’t have that throne.
Dan: How does that work with having a life as well? That’s crazy.
Justin: I think it’s one of those things where you can do a lot of things. At the end of the day you choose, you make your decisions, and you’re going to choose one thing over other things every day. It’s about prioritizing and figuring out what it looks like to invest that time. I think you’re never going to get more hours out of the day but at the same time you could be smarter about the time you do have.
When I first started I would set my alarm to wake up at 5 in the morning. I’d wake up, sit illustrating until I had to go to my day job at the time. It was a good two-and-a-half to three hours a day that I was investing in illustration. And it was all because I was new at it. I was really interested in it, and I had seen that Dribbble was a network that people were connecting and it was a really interesting time to be on there. It wasn’t quite as big at the time, and I just knew if I can at least just put out the work and take some time to do it, and practice and practice, it won’t always be a hit but at the same time hopefully somewhere I can find a sense of community with people.
At the time coming back into my experience, I really didn’t know a lot of designers. I wasn’t in college for it. While I worked at Relevant I knew some but after leaving that experience I really wasn’t connected anywhere with any designers. That was sort of my stab at trying to be known in a group of people, and to know other people too.
You have the time. It might mean you can’t watch an episode of Daredevil and you take those 30 minutes and draw something. If there’s anything you really want to do, you might need to cut an hour of sleep to get that kind of stuff done, and to make the best of it you can.
Dan: If it’s something you really want to do you’ve got to make the time for it. That’s great to hear that Dribbble was great during that time when it came out. I think you’re a good example of a lot of the folks from our perspective in building Dribbble and watching the community grow, people would pop up and upload things, and I would assume they’re 50-year-old seasoned veterans of design and illustration if I didn’t know of them beforehand.
I think you fall into that. For me personally, it was like wow, this is incredible work; who is this person. Where did they come from? How long have they been doing it, or how did they learn how to do this stuff? That’s been really cool to see happen and to watch the community evolve like that.
I want to get back to you mentioned Photoshop and it being a pirated copy. I admit I did the same thing in the day. It’s a little harder these days. What do you use for tools these days? Is it Photoshop, Illustrator?
Justin: It depends. I’d say most of my time is Illustrator. I’m in there a lot. Photoshop is mainly post-processing for me, so it’s just kind of like I’ll do color grading in there. If I’m going to do some heavy texture stuff that’s going to be handled in Photoshop. But for the most part it’s Illustrator. At my day job, which is at Code School, most of my time is Sketch. I’m a huge Sketch fan. I love you Adobe. But at the same time I really love Sketch right now.
Dan: That’s good to hear. What’s the main thing of Sketch that you’re like this is why I love it today, now?
Justin: It feels super lightweight, really native to Apple. Everything about it having vector, having export options at 2x is really so easy to pop that kind of stuff into InVision. I already have it in Retina but also be able to scale back when I need to. It’s a very lightweight, easy application that actually has a lot of power that is behind it. I’ve found it to be really intuitive. The hotkeys not being exactly what Photoshop’s were, it too a bit of adjusting, but I’ve changed a few of them and gotten used to that workspace. Now I really love it. Having multiple art boards in your document was also a game changer for iterative design.
Dan: It’s interesting. They’ve really captured what is it like to design in 2016.
Justin: I remember first using this and just being like this feels right. It feels like the right thing to be doing with it.
Dan: That’s great.
Justin: Some of those really quick controls like actually getting to toggle with border radius right in there immediately and it being super editable, and to go back. You set up styles you’re able to continue throughout the whole site, which you know you’re going to be pulling from anyways. It handled it all really well.
Dan: That’s great. Really handles the flow of not only illustration but user interface, design patterns.
Justin: To be fair, I still do illustrate in my home turf of Illustrator. I’ll bring it over into Sketch.
Dan: That’s cool. You mentioned Code School. Tell us about how you got to Code School and what’s it like day to day there, working basically as an illustrator for an education platform. Would you say for mainly programming, coding, and that type of stuff?
Justin: It is really different. Most people don’t know that most of my day job I do day to day is UI and UX, which for me, it was a conscious decision. Before I came to Code School I was full-time freelance illustration. That was just one of those things I was really interested in. Kind of fell into. Had been doing it for about three years and doing it full-time. I really enjoyed the experience. It was a lot of fun to sort of create a visual language system. It’s really what companies were hiring me for, to come on board and hey, we don’t really have anything. Was wondering if you would be able to build an illustrative brand that you can create documentation behind, that if you ever got hit by a bus someone could pick up and do?
The first job I ever did that was that big was PayPal, was my first opportunity to really jump in and start creating a visual language system with all the documentation that’s included, all the rules of that universe. And for me, at the end of the day it’s world building, a really fun experience to be doing that. I had a lot of fun traveling back and forth.
We ended up having a kid near the end of that time which made traveling a bit more difficult, but also for me I started to feel more isolated in this experience of working home, alone, occasionally putting on pants, occasionally not. It was one of those experiences where the most conversation I had outside of my wife would be going to the gym and nodding at somebody I’ve seen before.
It started to feel really isolating. I’d already built a really great community, thanks to Dribbble, online. Had really great friendships. There was a freelancer’s network of us that would all talk through messages all day. That was great, but I really started to feel just a bit isolated in not having those personal one-on-one relationships, and really getting to talk with somebody face to face.
Code School came around. Jason VanLue hunted me down, and I remember we talked over a beer about me coming in, helping them out, and doing some work on some course design stuff. It was largely illustration. For me, that sounded fine to go in, but I wasn’t really true to my word at the time. I would go in for an hour, be there for a bit, and then kind of peace out, and go do my own work at home.
I remember a conversation I had with my wife where she was talking with me. She said, “There’s a difference in you that I see when you put on pants, and you go into an office, and you work there for a bit, and you get to be social. Then you come home. There’s a difference in you that feels rejuvenated and it feels like you’re really alive in that kind of moment.”
It also was great because for me I was able to get my work done there and then when I came home I could be present for my wife and my kid. I got a bit weird. Yeah, I ended up saying I’ll see how this goes, start going to the office more. I made the decision to go full-time with them a couple of years ago, after Envy Labs and Code School that were essentially the same company ended up splitting. From there, they wanted me to move into an art director position, which for me was a huge leap, just because at the time that I was working there I’d been doing a lot of visual design, not much UX involved at all. But also I guess when you’re an illustrator, you’re told the space that you’re providing a design for. It’s 800 x 1400 and we need this by this deadline; this is the experience.
So you do that work. You’d execute. You’d ship it out, but then the actual implementation of that work is out of your hands. So I knew I really had wanted to be a part of that holistic process of saying maybe this is the illustrative piece but also here’s how the design would work in it. Here’s how the layout that I see works. Here’s the type we want to pair with it. And so it was going back to a bit of what I used to do in the print world, which is creating these experiences that have beginnings, have ends, and guiding you through these sorts of things.
Dan: It’s like storytelling.
Justin: Yeah, it is. It’s concept to creation but then afterwards, once I give something what I don’t get to do in illustration is iteration. I don’t get to be there for how did it perform, what could we do to make it better. That’s really where UX has worked its way in with all the testing we’ve been doing over there.
But it also allowed me to return illustration to a labor of love, something that I got to do in the time I had available, to want to be excited about again.
Dan: You chose to want to do illustration at the time.
Justin: It was fresh again. All of a sudden it was me doing the jobs that I wanted to do, with the briefs that were really exciting and fascinating to me. And that’s honestly made a huge change in my life for how illustration works in my day to day.
Dan: Are you doing less illustration for Code School than you were before?
Justin: Definitely. I’ve stepped back from doing courses at Code School, which is where I had started off. Now most of my day is in the product design side of things. Working with another UX designer who works with me, and then also I’ll art direct some of the courses and make sure our themes are going in good ways. And do some teaching over there to make sure that we’re kind of going in the direction we want to go for some of those courses. And then also helping out with a bit of marketing and design lifting. But for the most part I’d say my days are about 80% inundated in the product design side.
Dan: Very cool. Is there a physical office you go to?
Justin: Yes. We have one in downtown Orlando. It’s a difference.
Dan: That makes a big difference.
Dan: Freelancing on your own remote for a long time and then getting to experience in-person meetings is probably a big change.
Justin: It’s so great going to get coffee, and having somebody next to you, and just standing there going how was your weekend. What did you do? And having relationships that you’re invested in, that you’re a part of, and they’re a part of yours. It also makes the feedback and critique side of things so powerful to have somebody that’s invested in your life, that sees you do it every day, get to speak into that process, and talk to you maybe about some pain points or some placed you could improve. There’s a lot of weight behind that. I think it’s been a really awesome and humbling thing to have people that want to work with you.
Dan: Awesome. This is a good segue. I think we like to talk to folks on here about a couple of their shots on Dribbble and get more of the story behind it. I’ve chosen two shots I thought would be interesting to talk about. The first one is called Board de Dash. This was uploaded quite a while ago. This is 2013, almost three years ago. Yet still feels really fresh to me.
Dan: There’s a couple reasons I want to choose this one. Your use of colors is pretty incredible and has been throughout the time I’ve been following your work. This one in particular light and color and the way those work together. I was curious about this. I guess it was for Fortune Magazine, an illustration for them. Maybe you could share with us a bit of the process of how this came together?
Justin: Absolutely. For me, I’d say a lot of my work in illustration has sort of come from the backbone of where I originally worked, which is in layouts, and working in photo manipulation when I was at Relevant Magazine.
What a lot of that was, was we would get a bunch of principal photography to use from multiple shoots. We’re doing a story on one individual, so we’d have to figure out how can we make this story work to look like it’s all from one shoot.
For me that was kind of learning a bit more about cross-processing, and taking those colors and really grading them to make them sort of feel very similar tones. For me it was learning a lot about how tonal stuff works. What do certain moods look like, and being a voracious consumer of film, being a film student and also wanting to make films myself, that was somewhere that I was very passion about trying to figure out. A great example is you look at the Matrix at the time. It was this really green, cold, almost digital feel to it. It was really evocative of those old computer systems. And there’s this mood and it’s really pervasive of any shot you take from that movie. For me, photography kind of worked in a similar way. You would take it and sort of morph it. You could make really warm tones that make everything feel more cheery, and saturate certain colors, get those greens up, get those reds. You raise the reds too high it feels aged, which is another feel. You get those cold tones; it could feel dystopian. And that’s like Blade Runner stuff.
I grew up with all of these films and being huge fans of these visual languages that are created in film. So when it comes to Board de Dash, color has always been fascinating to me. I’ve always really loved what it looks like to create some really basic color palettes in Illustrator. Bring it over into Photoshop, and then just start grading it, depending on the feel that I wanted.
If I want it to feel vintage, or cold, or dark dystopian, there’s really easy tools in order to do that with curves, and levels, and selective color. I wrote a post on Medium that’s all about how I do that kind of color processing, just because it’s one of those things I think is a process. You just get used to it, and that’s what becomes your process.
It’s not the easiest or probably not the quickest, and honestly it’s not the most scientific. I don’t have a really great I don’t use the word analogous a lot when I talk about colors. That’s not how I talk about them. I just talk about the moods I experience with them.
Dan: That’s incredible. I love the connection of photography and film to color palettes. I think that’s brilliant. And it actually explains a bit more about how you’re able to get—I find your color palette range is big. There’s a lot of colors together. Yet they feel like they fit together and work together.
Dan: Just that bit of what you just said was like a really good nugget of advice. Now I’m going to be stealing that.
Justin: Absolutely do it. But for Board de Dash, I will say when it comes to light, it’s kind of the same place where I was also at the time because I wasn’t making film, I started doing photo manipulation narratives that I was just calling visual narratives. I made one in the day and it was called “Do You Remember When This World Was Ours?” And it was up on Behance. It ended up getting featured, which is one of the first times my work was out and about. But it’s all photo manipulation stuff.
I took different pieces of photograph of different worlds, tried to make them feel dystopian, and really old, and then I would take pieces of origami that were folded a certain way, and start applying shading to them, and some texturing, metal texturing, so they felt like these metallic spaceships that had come down.
In my head, there was this whole story of these worlds of fiction that had existed a really long time ago. Once the book is done, and you close it, those worlds continue to live on but as we start forgetting the stories they age, and they crumble, until eventually the whole world is taken over and returned back to its original state. And it was something only I knew that was a part of it.
I created a visual language system that worked with it, of these really big monolithic abstract icons that were very weird and mystical. I just loved messing around with that stuff. That was a huge thing of color for me, of how do I do light bursts and how do I create these big, spanning blooms of light, and what does bloom lighting look like, and how does it work.
When it came to illustration, especially more geometric flat-based illustration, I just thought it would be really interesting to take the techniques I used for this really high fidelity stuff and bring it into that world, where there are really simple geometric elements, and how would those kinds of things blend, and how would you create a feeling of dimension or a feeling of this big this sun that’s larger than life, and warming up the world that maybe is a little cold on the edges, but this is bleeding into this whole world. Just that kind of stuff.
Dan: That’s super cool. As you’re explaining the visual language and origami and icons that only go with it, I’m thinking I think Justin is the Tolkien of graphic design.
Justin: That’s the nicest thing you could say. I don’t know if I agree, but it is really nice.
Dan: I do mean it as a high compliment. In terms of it’s not just putting shapes and colors on a canvas. It’s if there is a story behind it, even if there is just one static image for Fortune magazine. You can tell a story with just images. I think that’s fantastic.
Justin: It’s like you. Music is really an enormous part of that experience. Again, I’m not making films but I have soundtracks that automatically fulfill a certain mood I want to embody. And through the entire process that’s what I’m listening to.
Dan: It really is a holistic approach to that. I love it. Let’s go to the second shot I’ve chosen which is called Super Magical Funtime. This one’s more recent. Again, I chose it I think because of the colors. The palette is amazing. That’s hard. Something so simple—I don’t want to simply the work.
Justin: I agree with you.
Dan: The shapes are simple and geometric. The color palette is something I would have never thought up to use there. Especially with the rainbow with different colors. It’s also very flat. Some of your work in the past has been very textured and this is very flat, but to me has the same impact of the texture is still there, sort of, in the shading you’re using. I’d love to hear more about this one. It’s more mysterious, and maybe it was something you created for fun, or maybe not. I’m hoping you’re like well, it’s an art print that’s going to be for sale soon.
Justin: Now I have to remember exactly where it was used. It was in one of the talks I was giving is what it was created for. I had a talk I was doing, and it was at a AIGA event called “Resolutions,” which was all about what we want from the next year. Usually when I do a talk, my favorite part of the talk is setting up a brand new keynote with a whole bunch of new ways to write things. And I always create a new color palette.
I’m flicking through now my finder to see exactly what this one was. Oh, yeah, it was a slide that said, “If we see success as a static place, it can often feel like somewhere we haven’t been, and we maybe never will.”
Justin: For me, it was more about this idea of this sort of distant world that didn’t feel like home but felt like some place we want to be, someplace we crave. So in creating it, I wanted to create a sense of beauty. At the time, I’d been playing Monument Valley with my daughter, who loves that game.
Dan: Great game.
Justin: Beautiful game. And I’d been playing that, and it was a big source of inspiration. My daughter loves it, and she’s only three, so she doesn’t play it very well. She loves the shapes and how simple Ida is and clicking her around. But what I really love about that was the sense of wonder that comes from that experience. It’s a world that doesn’t look very familiar, especially if you live here in the West, there are these really interesting Persian, Eastern influences to it that really feel alien to where we live now.
For me, the idea of creating this idea of this world of success that feels almost angelic and otherworldly, it seemed natural that those sources of inspiration would work their way in. Again, when we talk about success, in my head, if I could imagine a place, this is what I see. It’s tranquil, beautiful, weird, and foreign, and unknown. But it’s someplace that I want to be and want to see. This city in the clouds, where everything is perfect and beautiful, even though it’s probably not, seemed like a really fun take on what that world could look like.
Dan: I think you nailed that for sure. I think that’s probably why I gravitate toward it too, and many other people on Dribbble. It is a place you want to go. I want to be in that. I want to walk up those stairs and go in the tower.
Justin: Me too.
Dan: That’s amazing.
Dan: Wonderful work. What’s up next for you in terms of where you want go with your career in illustration and design and all that?
Justin: Next? I’m never great at planning next.
Dan: I’m not either, if it’s any consolation.
Justin: I’m probably not going to be good at it this time either. I’d say for me I know that I want to be around people and that they are my greatest source of inspiration. It’s not even design conversations. It’s conversations over beer where we talk about what shows we currently like. Or you find somebody you have a shared interest, and you’re like what, you love ’80s movies? That’s my whole life.
Having those kinds of conversations and getting to work side by side with people, and continually making each other’s work better is definitely something I know has to be involved in the process. I’ve really loved being a part of getting to watch a product grow from the ground up, and being on the product design side of things has been really inspirational for me to be, especially on the user experience side, a place that I know nothing about. It’s really foreign, and testing, and getting qualitative and quantitative feedback.
All of that stuff is so fun for me to finally get my work in someone’s hands and it’s not completely subjective. Some of this stuff really is about crafting the best experience. I think that has also influenced my design work because so much of design is you can’t decouple them. Your interest in creating better user experience, your interest in creating better layouts is going to influence your illustrations. You’re going to understand what contrast looks like. You’re going to understand what spacing looks like, how to guide someone through an image in the same way it’s applied to a website. It might not look exactly the same, but I’ve yet to invest in a part of design and it not influence another part of it, and it not make me interested as to how it can work with these parts. You get into development and front-end, and maybe you’ll get into CSS animations, and then you can really step it up and see what that world looks like.
I think for me, my biggest commitment is to keep on being like a lifelong learner, and not ever get to the point where I’m so comfortable in my style that I’m ready to retire on it, and wait for the checks to come in. They probably won’t, and more importantly, I don’t think I’d be good being done.
Dan: I love it. I think that’s a perfect place to end. I think that’s really healthy, not thinking that you’re done. I know I keep that to myself too. It’s been really cool talking with you.
Thanks Justin, for being on here.
Justin: I really enjoyed it.
Dan: I think there’s so much I learned about how you approach your work, and just the connections with film and photography and color. It’s been really valuable and I really appreciate you taking the time with us today.
Justin: Absolutely, thanks for having me, seriously. I’m a huge fan of what you guys have done. From the beginning, it’s been awesome just to see you guys really care, and pour into it. That’s been the biggest thing to me.
We didn’t ask the question but I did fill out an answer, it’s like where does your work come from. It’s like Dribbble literally. I could run you through my entire inbox, my business inbox, and it is always “I saw your work on Dribbble.” It’s one of those it’s become such a huge part of all of our lives and it really is the experience is what you make of it. I think that’s been so cool.
Dan: Thanks so much. That’s amazing to hear. Again, to the audience, I did not pay Justin to say that.
Justin: No, not at all.
Dan: Keep up the great work. We’re going to be following it. Where can people find you online to keep track of what you’re up to?
Justin: I’m on Dribbble JustinMezzell. I’m on Twitter @JustinMezzell. I’m on Twitch @JustinMezzell where I’ve been streaming my process on Thursdays, 4pm. EST, which has been fun, humbling, and very awkward.
Dan: Everyone should check that out.
Justin: Honestly, I’m everywhere @JustinMezzell. That’s what I use for everything so if you type in any website /JustinMezzell, and if they allow users I’m probably on it. Hopefully it’s not too seedy, but I’m probably on there.
Dan: You are one of a kind, sir.
Dan: Thanks again, Justin. Thanks so much. Keep up the good work, and we’ll be watching.
Justin: Thanks so much. Appreciate it.