Episode 17: Jon Contino
In episode 17, Dan chats with Jon Contino. Jon is a very talented branding consultant, creative director and a monster of a design force, creating custom lettering and illustrations for brands like ESPN, Nike, Stephen King, Flip Skateboards, Jack Daniels, and more. He also produces his own clothing and goods, JC NYC.
This episode is brought to you by Freshbooks. The working world has changed. With the growth of the internet, there’s never been more opportunities for the self-employed. To meet this need, FreshBooks is excited to announce the launch of an all new version of their cloud accounting software!
FreshBooks is offering a 30 day, unrestricted free trial to Overtime listeners. To claim it, just go to freshbooks.com/overtime and enter OVERTIME in the “How Did You Hear About Us?” section.
In this episode, we discuss Jon’s process and his background, his new custom lettering workshop, the challenges of balancing design life with family life, how New York has influenced his designs, and more.
Links Mentioned in Overtime:
- Jon Contino
- Jon Contino NYC
- Jon Contino on Dribbble
- Jon Contino on Twitter
- Jon’s Lettering Workshop: The Complete Guide to Custom Lettering
- Leatherhead Sports
- Lemon Ball Baseball
- The Book of Life Project
- The Book of Life “El Skeleto” font design
Jon: Especially these days, everybody wants to be known for something. The only way that works is if you really care about what you’re doing. I think a lot of people forget that’s step one to being known for something.
Dan: Hello. Welcome to Overtime. This is Dribbble’s official podcast, and I’m Dan Cederholm your host. This is Episode 17, and today we’re talking with Jon Contino. Jon is a talented very talented branding consultant, creative director. Designs apparel, hand letters like no one else. Really excited to talk to Jon. He’s quite in demand these days. He was kind enough to take some time to talk to us today, and talk about all he does, his process and background and whatnot. Thanks to Jon for being on.
This week’s episode is brought you by FreshBooks. I know there’s a lot of freelancers out there listening and there’s a lot of freelancers in the Dribbble community. As a freelancer you’re juggling all sorts of different things: paperwork, invoicing, accounting. That’s where FreshBooks comes in. They’ve just launched an all-new version of their cloud accounting software. I think you’re going to love it.
It’s been redesigned from the ground up, and custom built for exactly the way you work. Get ready for the simplest way to be more productive, organized, and most importantly, get paid quickly. The all-new FreshBooks is not only ridiculously easy to use, it’s also packed full of powerful features like create and send professional-looking invoices in less than 30 seconds. Set up online payments with just a couple of clicks and get paid up to four days faster. See when your client has seen your invoice and put an end to the guessing games.
FreshBooks is offering a 30-day unrestricted free trial to our listeners here. To claim it, just go to freshbooks.com/overtime and enter “overtime” in the “How did you hear about us?” section. Thank you so much to FreshBooks for sponsoring. I know it’ll be useful for a lot of you out there.
Without further ado, let’s chat now with Jon Contino.
Dan: Welcome to Overtime, Jon Contino.
Jon: Hey, man. Thanks for having me.
Dan: Thanks for being on here. Every episode we’ve done, I’ve been like “I’m a big fan.” People are probably like oh, come on. Honestly, that is true.
Jon: This guy is a fan of everything. He loves everything.
Dan: I love people and their work. I get to talk to them, which is my favorite thing in the world. You’re no exception, by any means. I’ve been following your stuff for a long time. Watched you rise to superstardom here. I’m really thankful for you taking the time today to talk to us.
Jon: You know me. I’ve always loved what you’ve done for years and years. You’re one of those guys that’s doing something but I appreciate it. It seems like you care about what you go. I feel like a lot of people don’t really communicate that.
Dan: I hear you. Authenticity is hard to judge sometimes in this business.
Jon: Yeah, it is. Everyone—especially these days too, everyone wants to be known for something. But the only way that works is if you really care about what you’re doing. I think a lot of people forget that’s step one to being known for something.
Dan: Totally, care about what you’re doing. Heck yes, if your heart’s not in it, then forget it. I could tell with your work your heart’s in every line of it. I think that’s one of the reasons why you’re so successful and why people gravitate towards it.
Jon: I feel like I’m a little “in your face” about a lot of things, for lack of a better word. The day I decided I was just going to be myself was simultaneously the scariest day in the world and also the most relaxing. I’m just going to do what I do, and hopefully it works. Otherwise I have to figure something else out.
Dan: Was that a moment not so long ago?
Jon: This goes back maybe nine or ten years. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve always had a bit of a voice I knew I had. People would tell me I did and say, “Oh, this is your style.” I knew that I did things a bit differently. I couldn’t work clean. Everything had to be super dirty and messing, just because this is how I am.
I would fight it a lot because you’ve got to pay the bills. You’ve got to try to make a business out of this, otherwise, it’s a hobby. I was working for ten years already before I realized it. I think a lot of people look for their style immediately. Everybody does, really. You kind of have to come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t happen overnight. You have to really figure out where you belong. And then exploit it.
Dan: That’s right on. I can relate that to just getting older and wiser. The older you get—hey, this is who I am. You probably become less conscientious about what that means to other people.
Jon: I feel like I’ve always been this way, but even as a kid, you’ve still got to think about what other people think about you. At this point in my life, I’m married with a kid. I don’t really care what anybody thinks about me. I really don’t.
Dan: I love it. Ditto here. I think having kids definitely puts things in perspective there.
Jon: It does. The funniest thing is I live and die design. I do. I always have, but I remember the day I was in the hospital and my wife was ready to give birth. Probably the only time in my entire life where I was like I don’t care if I ever design anything ever again. I could feel my whole being shift focus in that exact moment. And then it comes back.
Dan: It comes back slowly.
Jon: Things level off after a while. You’re like all right; time to go back to normal life.
Dan: You’re right. I had the similar moment. It’s true; it’s like what matters most.
Dan: Your priorities shift, and that kind of affects your—has it affected your work since then or your style?
Jon: I think if anything it’s made me care less about my style. At this point, I really don’t care what I’m doing. I just have to get out what’s in my head. That’s just how I try to go about it. It’s so funny too because I’m also super concerned about being able to pay the bills and make sure that everyone eats.
Dan: That’s important.
Jon: You think you’d get more conservative at that point, but I’m just letting it fly.
Dan: That’s cool. It’s true, that’s pressure. You’re independent. Jon Contino is—there’s a bunch of stuff we could talk about because you’ve got all these different brand lines going. It’s seriously impressive. It’s you, right?
Jon: We could get into the dirt of this stuff, because this is what people always want to ask but never do, or maybe don’t want an answer. The past decade I’ve been very busy because number one, I got very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. That’s first and foremost. I’ve been doing hand lettering for so long. No one ever wanted it from me. I tried to push illustration. No one ever wanted it from me.
I happened to be doing the right thing at the right time. I rode that wave. It gave me the platform to go back and do the things I always wanted to do, to get involved with branding, with direction, with producing things. And having a bigger voice in terms of creating.
Like a lot of people, 2016 was not very kind to me. A lot of my big projects I had lined up, I was going to be very busy in 2016 and a lot of them sat on the shelf the entire year. We dealt with some family stuff.
We dealt with all the things that came along with just the world dealing with politics and the economy and stuff. By the end of the year or the beginning of this year I was like now is the time for me to actually make that change. It’s something I’ve been talking about for the past five years.
This is the year where we decided. I have a couple of business managers and a few people I work with. We decided to turn this into a real deal: branding firm, design consultancy, agency type of things. I can only be one person for so long until I’m shot. This is the year where we take it to the next level and start we’ve been doing it for a few years but it’s hard to share the fact that you’re working with a big team when I’m still such a control freak. This is the year where I start to share a lot of the stuff we’ve done in the past couple of years. And show that this is going to be a much bigger business than people I think understand it to me.
Dan: This is cool. From the outside, I assume you never sleep and that you’re just working hard.
Jon: You’d be right.
Dan: It’s the amount of output you’ve had is incredible. As you’re adding new folks to work with, do you find it hard to let go of certain things?
Jon: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I’m such a controlling maniac. Here’s the thing, the people that I keep adding are people that do stuff I can’t do. That’s the best thing. I’ve got web guys, film guys, photographers. The people I’m adding to the team at this point is not someone who I’m a very competitive person not someone I have to compete against.
It’s been really helpful, but I also know and have a few people lined up to start taking the reins on certain things.
Dan: That’s going to be tough.
Jon: I haven’t made that transition yet, but I’m planning it. It’s one of these days I’m going to take a step back. The amount of hours I work in a week, I don’t know if I’ll make it to 50 and still keep going.
Dan: You can’t scale yourself.
Jon: I’m getting tired now. It’s starting to catch up to me a bit. Maybe it’s because I’m a parent now too.
Dan: That has a lot to do with it. Sleep patterns are completely different.
Jon: The raw energy that you have to keep up with, it’s intense.
Dan: I feel you, big time. This is exciting, and it makes sense what you’re saying about this year you’re going to be expanding and doing more things. One of the things you’ve just launched is your workshop, hand-lettering workshop, which looks amazing. I want to take it myself. I can draw a bit, but hand lettering is something I’ve never been able to do well. Tell us about that. It looks like it was a lot of work just putting it together, and now it’s just kind of going. Tell us how it’s going and what the plan for the future is.
Jon: It was definitely a lot of work because one of the things I’ve done a few Skillshare classes in the past. One of the things they always asked me was to do a lettering workshop. I just never wanted to do that because my stuff has been ripped off a lot. I didn’t want to teach people how to rip me off.
It’s hard to communicate that too, because some people really just want to learn. It’s not that I don’t want to do it for them; it’s the people who have bad intentions or have no intention of taking it and running with it that I was nervous about.
Along the way, I always wanted to put things out there, and correct common mistakes that people would make, especially now that hand lettering has become such a thing. You see a lot of people mimicking other hand lettering they’re seeing. I come from a school of classic design. I love classic design. I started teaching it to myself in high school. I just got obsessed with design as a history.
I wanted to be a type designer for the longest time. But I didn’t have the patience to sit there, plot every single point, and get all those nuances down. But I studied typography for a long time in school and out of school. Every little minute detail of a serif or swash or line stroke is so embedded in my skull, so that when I am doing lettering, it’s based very heavily in classic typographical structures.
When I finally decided to pull the plug on this thing, and just be like I’m going to do it for real, but I’m going to do it on my own terms. It’s going to be a big thing. I wanted to design it the way a college course was designed. It’s not a workshop where you watch videos and draw. The majority of the class is me starting from cave-painting days, and literally talking about how the design of communication evolved, how different styles come from different places in the world and from different cultures, how things blended together.
We talk a lot about typographic fundamentals. I have some tricks in there that I had all the students spend over a week on, that seem very tedious, but it’s something I learned too. It helps a lot, a hell of a lot. I did a talk at my college, and it wasn’t like a big art school. It was local to where I grew up. And the teacher I had, this woman Dale Flashner, she taught it to me. I did a lecture there and mentioned it. Everyone looked over at her, and they were like oh, okay. She’s like see, it works.
Dan: They were all complaining about it to her. Now they’re not going to complain anymore.
Jon: No, and it helps a lot. I use it all the time with interns and students I work with and stuff. It works. So I go through that, and then I talk about different areas of lettering and I give assignments. I want people to run with it. I don’t want them to see how I do it. I want them to run with it and then we have a Slack channel set up where it’s a giant critiquing class, the whole thing. We have direct messaging set up so that if they don’t want to share with the class they can share with me directly.
Dan: Sounds fantastic.
Jon: It’s been working out really well. We’re only a couple weeks in, and you can already see a massive improvement in a lot of the students’ work. There’s a lot of working professionals in there too, and they’re like “Man, I forgot about this stuff.” It helps. And to be forced to sit and go through the fundamentals, and then use them to expand on it and try to make something interesting and unique without seeing the teacher do it first, so that there’s no prior influence, so that you can develop your own style. I want to help people be themselves. I don’t want to help them be more like me.
Dan: It’s not learn how to letter like Jon Contino. It’s learn how to letter, and then figure out your own voice.
Jon: There’s plenty of people who are rookies and working professionals whose work I’ve seen through this, and I’m already like oh, that’s cool. That’s a cool way of thinking of it. It’s helping me too. I can see different ways about thinking about it.
Dan: It must be really satisfying to see your instruction helping people progress.
Jon: It’s so cool because a lot of the people in this class are doing such cool stuff. One of the things I’ve been doing too is I’ll give critiques but also grab their screenshots and pull them into Procreate on my iPad. I’ll mark them up and draw over them, and show them before and after how they can do this differently, where they can change this, or where they can change that. I want to make it as hands-on and real life as possible.
I’m sitting right next to you with a red pencil and marking on your stuff and saying fix this, fix that; this is cool, this is cool; push this further; scale back on this. I really want everyone to get a solid experience out of it.
Dan: A real critique. I assume it’s limited to a number of people because you’re dealing with them in person.
Jon: Yeah. We limited it. It’s still a couple of weeks in, and I know there’s a handful of people who weren’t able to start right away, so they’re going to jump in a bit later. The amount of people active is definitely a lot. I’m trying to give everyone the most attention possible. It’s a little tough but everyone is really understanding and generous with each other’s time, and respectful of each other’s time too. A lot of the people taking the class are also jumping in on critiques and kind of the public critique section. It’s really just a bit art class. It’s pretty cool.
Dan: That’s amazing. You’ve built your own college art class basically.
Jon: The idea being is I can start offering a lot more of these classes and re-offer them and build up a library, so essentially if someone wants to learn how to be a certain type of designer they can take all my classes and follow through. I would love to be able to offer that.
Dan: That would be great. If a few months from now when the class is over, I could go in and it wouldn’t be the same experience, obviously, but I could take the class that you’ve already given.
Jon: I think I’m going to try and run it again. The hard stuff is done. The videos are done. The material, the workbooks, all the references are done. It’s tough. At the end of the spring, entering summer, a lot of people are finishing up school, or they’re busy with work. I was thinking of offering it again at the end of summer when people kind of have a bit more free time. And opening up the channel again and sitting there, doing critiques, and helping out. We’ll see. If it goes well a second time, I’ll make it a consistent thing so people can take part in it and try to learn some stuff.
Dan: It’s amazing. Now I really want to take it. I told you I wanted to take it before, but now I really do. I’m looking at it now. Even the type you’ve created for the workshop itself is amazing. I really want to do this.
Jon: I figured if I was going to do a custom lettering class I probably should do a custom lettering.
Dan: There’s definite pressure there. You really have a distinct style, although you’ve been able to apply that to all sorts of different applications. Working with all sorts of different clients. The list is seriously impressive. Movies and beers and—I’m looking at your site now and it’s kind of incredible. Stephen King book cover, skateboards, everything. Yet your voice is there.
When I see it, I’m like oh, that’s Jon. Did that take a long time? We touched on it earlier, but where did the inspiration come from? I know you’re a New Yorker. Was there a lot of inspiration from New York City for that type of stuff, or for hand lettering?
Jon: Yeah. You’re just bombarded with it, especially in the outer neighborhoods of New York City, where there’s a lot of mom-and-pop shops and stuff. Especially getting into the pockets where China Town, Little Italy, all the places where immigrants came and settled. There’s not a lot of money there to begin with so everyone did a lot of stuff on their own, and built up these neighborhoods. Now they’re these amazing neighborhoods.
The cultural influence on everything, and the way people essentially cut corners to save money is such an inspiring aesthetic. Hand-painted signs because they couldn’t afford to do it any other way.
Dan: They couldn’t afford a neon sign or something. They would paint it. Wow.
Jon: Exactly. Those things to me no matter where I go, I still stop and stare too long, probably an uncomfortable amount of time. But it was such an inspiring thing. I grew up playing in hardcore bands and stuff, and a lot of my friends were graffiti heads. Being on the train, or going to clubs, there were tags everywhere. It was always letters. It was always interesting ways to draw letters. I’ve always been obsessed with that, my entire life.
Not to mention, Manhattan is the corporate center of the entire world, so you’re getting the grittiest to the cleanest, all in the same place. There’s no difference between a giant graffiti piece on the side of the wall or a billboard. They occupy the same space. They get the same eye time. People look at them the same amount of time, so what’s the difference? There is none.
Dan: I love it. It’s true. What a mixture. And New York is unique in that way. It’s got both.
Jon: I grew up just outside of the city in Long Island, where it’s a bit more the neighborhood I grew up in is a lot of Italian families, Jewish families, Irish families where they started in Manhattan and then branched off into Brooklyn and Queens, and then finally Nassau County and Long Island. I kind of grew up in that. In that particular area, it wasn’t as deep in terms of the creativeness that goes into it, but my friends and I would spend so much time just in the city absorbing it, and learning how to be free.
Dan: You’re so close to the city.
Jon: Yeah. A few miles away, and you’re in. It’s a world of difference.
Dan: I felt the same way. I grew up in Vermont but then moved outside Boston when I was in high school. That was eye-opening for me. I’d just take a train in and be like whoa, it’s the city.
Jon: There’s something special about the northeast cities, New York, Boston, Philadelphia. These are amazing places.
Dan: I agree. I was going to go into baseball for a minute there. Maybe we shouldn’t. It’s cool now. I feel like the New York/Red Sox rivalry is certainly not what it was ten years ago. In fact, when Derek Jeter retired and Riviera retired, and all these players that I can’t say I hated but I hated that we had to play them at the time, but now I revere them as these amazing players. I’m so glad that I got to watch them so much because they were playing the Red Sox.
Jon: That time span of the Jeter, Mariano, and Ortiz and Manny Ramirez and Pedro that’s baseball. I hated those guys just as much too but you hate them because they’re so good. I got asked to do a farewell image for David Ortiz last year. It was on billboards and stuff.
Dan: How did I miss that? That’s amazing.
Jon: I’m not going to sit there and praise the guy.
Dan: That’s probably why.
Jon: He’s amazing. I’m not going to doubt that he’s amazing, but he killed me so many times. My design was a giant “Farewell”. You could take it how you want.
Dan: Him particularly, clutch hits in those series.
Jon: Absolute monster. That’s the type of player that kids can look at and be like in the backyard, bottom of the 9th, David Ortiz steps to the plate. It’s magic.
Dan: I agree. I think on the other end, Mariano Rivera, whenever he came to the mound it was like forget it.
Jon: Dashes all your hopes and dreams.
Dan: Yeah. Here we go. But it was a fun time.
Jon: It’s going to come back around. The Red Sox and Yankees both have a nice new crop of players. It’ll be interesting to see how that relationship develops. You don’t have to start me on Judge (ph.) and Sanchez. These guys are going to be new heroes.
Dan: You’re right, it’s a whole new crop. I hope the rivalry I want it to be good. That was so fun.
Jon: I used to love before 2004 when it was really at its peak, even going to I remember going to the Bronx Zoo and there was a guy walking by with a Red Sox jersey on. I just remember getting so heated. How dare you. You’re wearing a Red Sox Jersey to the Bronx Zoo? Are you serious? I’m going to throw you into the lion cage.
Dan: Right. I would never do that. That’s something you don’t do unless you want to get hurt, for sure. That’s crazy.
Jon: It’s so funny too because I had a meeting with a big company in Boston I’m going to be working with. Boston guys through and through, and you better believe I wore my Yankees hat there. They go “Some pair of balls wearing a Yankees hat.” I go “You know what? I wore this because if we can get past this, we can achieve anything.”
Dan: That’s a good test. Are we going to be able to work together through October?
Jon: I love it.
Dan: We were talking before about your work with Leather Head Sports, and did branding for them. I’m a big fan because I have a baseball mitt, an old-fashioned baseball, a football and all that stuff. That must have been fun because it’s like vintage sports. It’s right up your alley. How did you hook up with them?
Jon: When I used to run my clothing company C.X.X.V.I. with my friend Matt Gordon, we used to do all the trade shows all the time, three or four times a year. And they would always sit us next to Leatherhead. I guess we lined up. We became friends.
Paul Cunningham who started the company, we became friends. We would sit there in awe looking at his stuff, and be like oh, my God, this stuff is amazing. We became friends after a while. We did the popup flea in Manhattan together. You spend a lot of time with these people and you sit there and talk. There’s the crazy parts of the day, and the quiet parts of the day. That’s when you sit there and you’re like what are we doing to do. Let’s talk about something. We got along really well, and so I want to say maybe 2013 I reached out to Paul and said, “Paul, I love your stuff, but don’t take this the wrong way. I hate your logo.”
Dan: It didn’t do it justice.
Jon: I was like you have the coolest product in the world and it’s just like the logo sucks. He’s like “No, I totally get you. I want to refresh.” I was like “Please, let me redo it. If you like it, great. If you don’t, no hard feelings. I just want to because I love it so much.”
Dan: You approached him because you love the product so much.
Jon: I love it. I have so many of them too. He was like sure. We just were together so much, he was like “Oh, I love your stuff.” His wife bought a bunch of T-shirts for their kids. We would just buy each other’s stuff constantly. We did it, and it ended up working well. So since then, we’ve been working together on all sorts of things.
We have actually a meeting right after this where we’re going to be discussing creating a game specifically for the Lemon Ball, which is kind of like their flagship product.
Dan: I’m holding one in my hand right now. That’s crazy.
Jon: That’s the one. We’re going to try. We’re in the process. We’ve talked about it for a while but we’re going to try to design a pickup game. Somewhere in between whiffle ball and baseball.
Dan: It’ll be like baseball but a bit more casual.
Jon: Maybe you only need four or five people per team type of deal. We want to see if we can figure something out. The problem with the Leatherhead balls is they’re so beautiful. People just want to put them on shelves. They don’t want to play with them.
Dan: I know. It’s exactly true. But what’s cool is it’s softer. It’s not going to hurt you if you get hit with it. That’ll be fun to look forward to.
Jon: I’m sure it’s going to take a while. I grew up playing stickball and whiffle ball and baseball and softball and every version of baseball I could think of. They all have their different rules. And depending on who you play with, there’s different rules. We want to try to develop a template for a new game people can take and make their own.
Dan: That sounds great. You’re living the dream. You’re inventing sports now. What’s next for Jon Contino? To switch gears a bit, you’ve launched a brand, Jon Contino, so jc-nyc.com. This is goods made by you, designed by you. That’s sort of new.
Jon: We launched at the beginning of the year, and I have to get summer out. It’s been a crazy couple of months, and I have to wrap it up and get it going. Summer is going to be here and gone before I know it. We did C.X.X.V.I. and that kind of had an untimely end due to some unfortunate circumstances. Then a couple of years after that, I started Contino brand which was just me working with a lot of these manufacturers that I’ve worked with over the years, and very hands-on people.
My idea behind that was limited edition, super attention to detail, not just it was jackets, sweaters, and all these crazy products. Everything was so cool, and it was great working with everybody. It was amazing but it was so time consuming that I couldn’t keep up with it. I was finding dead stock this, and dead stock that, and these weird buttons, and all this crazy stuff. It took too much time.
I kind of did one release, and then that was it. Then the idea started getting floated around to do another T-shirt company. It’s not as labor intensive. It’s still a nice, fun, creative outlet. So I ran with it, and was like now more than ever I have something to say. A T-shirt is the best place to put it. It’s been a nice creative outlet.
Dan: I love that about T-shirts. I have far too many of them, and I will continue to buy them because of that. There’s something about them.
Jon: Especially the main inspiration behind the JC NYC brand now is like days of T-shirts past, when T-shirts still meant something. Late ’70s or early ’80s, when there were the dumbest most ridiculous phrases, and drawings on there, and I was like those are my favorite T-shirts. I had a T-shirt that got passed down from I don’t know who. It was one person to the next, and I used to wear it in high school. I don’t drink. I’ve never drank. I’m not a drinker. I don’t smoke. I never did drugs or anything, but the T-shirt says, “Don’t drink and drive because you might hit a bump and spill your drink.” I don’t condone any of those things, but I thought it was so funny. I loved it, and I would wear it to school constantly. Those days of T-shirts is what I’m trying to resurrect a bit.
Dan: This makes sense. You’ve got “Mind your business” with a dead rat. That’s one of my favorites. And “No Brainer” and “No Winners, Only Survivors,” “The Worst of the Worst”. It’s awesome. I love it.
We’ve been talking about a lot of stuff. One of the projects I wanted to ask you about is you work with so many different clients. One of them is a project from a few years ago, The Book of Life, which is a movie I remember going to see. It’s funny because I saw the movie. My kids saw it. They loved it too. It’s an animated movie, but different vibe. I remember the lettering specifically, before I knew it was you. I was really impressed. The art direction of the whole thing was really nice. Then come to find out it’s you, and I think you have a shot on Dribbble for it. How did that come about? Is it more difficult working with a movie studio rather than a beer company or leather company?
Jon: No, the best thing about that project the art director on that project is Narry Rebus, and he called me up one day. I was driving down the Westside Highway to a meeting or something. I get a phone call from a 310 area code. I’m like oh, that’s LA. I want to answer LA. I pick up the phone, and he’s like “What’s up, dude. I work for 20th Century Fox. I have a movie that I think you might be a good fit for. Are you interested?”
I was like “Yeah! Definitely.” He’s like “Day of the dead theme. It’s animated.” I was like “Dude, enough. I’m in. You don’t have to sell me. I’m so in.” Then he’s like “It’s produced by Guillermo del Toro.” You don’t have to say any more.
They sent me all the material. They sent me the scripts, the concept art, and all this stuff. I learned about this guy who’s the creative force behind it, Jorge Gutierrez. This guy is a beast. They did not need me because this guy could have done what I did, and probably better. But when you’re creating, writing, designing, developing, overseeing, directing, a guy can only do so much.
Having that type of material as source material to work with was a piece of cake. Then you have a buy like Nary who is the coolest guy, the best to work with, so laid back, so open to ideas, so willing to push the envelope and break out of the mold. He’s also the guy that did the Deadpool campaign. He’s not scared to go out and do something different and try to break down some walls.
There was no trouble at all. I’ve worked with people who you would think would be the most laid-back, easygoing people in the world with the smallest budgets ever, and those are the people who are so uptight. This guy, we’re dealing with a multimillion-dollar project.
Dan: 20th Century Fox movie and he was great to work with.
Jon: How many millions of dollars go into producing it, advertising it, and all these things? So many people involved, and he pushed it, and was like “I want you to do what you do.” He would feed me some ideas, like take this and run with it, and what else have you got. I would throw ideas at him. It was just the two of us, really. Together, we put that whole thing together. It was amazing. I sat there and listened to Faith No More on loop.
Dan: That was the soundtrack.
Jon: That was the soundtrack. I kind of rediscovered Faith No More at that time. I had that one album, Angel Dust on loop.
Jon: That album was on loop the entire time. I worked on it for a year, and for some reason that album meshed really well with my working on it. It’s so weird how that happens.
Dan: That’s awesome insight. “Easy Like Sunday Morning” is on that one.
Jon: It is.
Dan: Great cover of that song. Now I have to go rediscover that one myself. It’s one of those I had on CD and now I don’t know where the CD is.
Jon: With a band like that, where they were kind of so ahead of their time, and you have a guy Mike Patton who was such a ridiculous vocalist, that whole album felt so creative to me, and felt like a different world of metal and heavy music. It kind of got me in that mindset of thinking a bit differently. It really resonated, and I was able to harness that and turn it into letters and illustrations and things like that.
Dan: That honestly helps with the project. You also created a font for this, right, “El Skeleto”.
Jon: That was fun too. Narry was like “We’ve got this font we’re using, but I think we can really do something better. I think we could do something different.” I was like “Done, let’s do it.” We sat down, and it’s all uppercase because it’s more of a display font. It’s got a bit of that Mexican heritage mixed with a bolder more modern type of typeface to it. It’s not as heritage as a lot of the stuff in the rest of the campaign and the movie. But it’s got a bit, so there’s contrast for marketing, but it’s still really easy to read, really simple to layout. All the production designers that have to work with it aren’t going to mess up any details that go into it, like the pure Mexican heritage that the movie is based on. Dan: It connects to the other work you did for it perfectly.
Jon: It was cool to be able to design a compliment after going off the walls on everything else.
Jon: The best compliment I got on that whole project was Jorge reached out to me and said, “I can’t believe you’re not Mexican. You nailed it.”
Dan: You’re an honorary Mexican now.
Jon: Yeah. The only way you’re going to do it is if you get ingrained in the culture and understand it. If you’re doing it from the outside and trying to simulate the culture, you’re just going to embarrass yourself. It’s going to be like you don’t know what you’re doing. So I really wanted to learn it and really get into it, and make sure I was doing it justice. When he said that I was like “Oh, my God, thank you.” That’s so hard. He’s Mexican, and the whole thing is so overtly perfectly Mexican.
Dan: Culturally so rich in that world.
Jon: Every detail is so specific. I can’t come in and botch it. I can’t do that.
Dan: What was most helpful to get up to speed?
Jon: Just a lot of it was him and seeing his sketches, the drawings. In the concept art, there’s a lot of attention to detail on a lot of the decorative elements of Mexican culture. I was able to take that and start researching a bit more, and trace back to where that stuff comes from. Find more original artwork, original cultural notifiers of certain aspects of it, and go from that. After a while, you start to get the feeling of it, and then you can push it and take it into a different direction. That’s where it starts to gain more of its life as a unique being.
Dan: Totally. That’s cool. So many good insights there. I don’t want to take up your whole day because we could go on about this forever. At least I could. I’m learning so much. Again, this is one of the reasons I love doing this podcast is because I get to learn personally. Thank you for being on, first of all. Also, people can find you in a variety of ways, and we’ll link them up, but the hand-lettering course is going on. Probably happen again for people who might be interested in that?
Jon: Yeah, probably. I’ll definitely make some announcements probably late July or August maybe.
Dan: People can find you there. The Contino brand, which is jc-nyc.com.
Jon: We’re running out of domains.
Dan: It’s really hard. It’s going to get harder and harder. That’s why Dribbble has three B’s. It’s really the only reason at the beginning.
Jon: That’s amazing.
Dan: It was easier to get the domain name that way. That was available.
Jon: It’s amazing the fact is they make you settle on a name for something.
Dan: That’s totally true. There’s this sight called Domainr domai.nr. You type a word and it looks at all these weird [dot]YC, maybe there’s a [dot]YC domain.
Jon: I could have done that. I have a few [dot]NYCs. I had one and was going to do jc.nyc, but I was worried people weren’t going to know it was a domain name.
Dan: That’s a good point. That on a side of a bus doesn’t scream web address.
Jon: Okay, got it.
Dan: Why is there a period in between those?
Jon: Period goes at the end, guys.
Dan: This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s not a typographer. He doesn’t know about type and lettering.
Jon: If he can’t figure out a period, how’s he supposed to teach us anything about letters?
Dan: I’m not hiring this guy. Wonder what he’s doing?
Thanks again, Jon. Your work is incredible. Big fan. Keep up the great work.
Jon: Thank you. You’re way too kind.
Dan: It’s true, and I know you have a lot of fans out there, rightfully so. I think they’re going to enjoy hearing some insight from you. We’ll keep watching.
Jon: Yeah, man thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me on. It was really fun going over this stuff in detail. It’s fun to talk about all that stuff. Take a look behind the curtain and see what’s really happening. It’s always cool to do that, especially when you work for and by yourself for so long. I can only say so much to my wife before she tells me to stop.
Dan: That’s why I appreciate you going behind the curtain and giving us some great detail insight. It is really fun hearing about that, honestly.
Jon: That’s the part that’s the most interesting. Who cares about the work, really? How did you get there?
Dan: I agree. Keep up the good work.
Jon: Thank you, man. You keep up the good work as well.
Dan: I’ll try. Later.
Jon: Take care.