Part Edward Gorey, another part Willy Wonka, Jordan Metcalf is hard to peg. At first glance his illustrations might seem gloomy, but there is an endearing innocence to much of his work; an undeniable tone that seems to evoke that strange feeling that washes over you the first time you truly see beyond the childhood glee and want only to return – but you’ve seen too much, and can never be the same. Jordan often mixes that somber tone with heartbreaking romantic/optimistic quips to powerful effect. It speaks volumes to his talent that he achieves such a result using so little, using minimalism and expressionism as tools rather gimmicks.
You seem to work a lot in black and white. Can you explain to our readers how you achieve excellent results with a limited color palette?
I have always loved the aesthetic of black and white which is the reason I started working with it early on, but the great by-product of that was that it largely removed colour as a consideration and therefore encouraged me to explore and really consider the rest of the design: tone, form, layout, texture and contrast. I think in the absence of colour and the impact that it can have, these aspects became all the more important.
While you are in the process of creating your designs, what are three rules do you always follow to maximize results?
I wouldn’t say I have any rules. I think if anything they would more be questions that I ask myself during the process
“Does this have impact?”
“Does it solve the client’s needs?”
“Does it have visual/emotional/intellectual value?”
and maybe most importantly “could it be better?”
What advice would you give to someone that is struggling to work with a limited color palette?
Focus of tone and maximise contrast. If you’re working with limited colours, a good idea is to overlay a black and white adjustment layer in Photoshop to see the tones of the colours. If the greyscale versions of colours are too similar, it means they tonally they are too similar which can make distinction difficult at a distance. Keep flicking this layer on and off to make sure that your using the colours you have in the best possible way regarding tonal value. I also always try to have at least one fairly dark colour and one very light colour in the palette to highlight and break areas. Contrast is always king, and lack of it can make designs seem a little washed out and apologetic.
All of your typography is created by hand, detailed and original – Can you take us on a journey through your creative process and explain how you create your typography?
Every piece has a different process. With my personal experiments, I try to be as free as possible, following through a visual idea to wherever it may lead without being overly critical of why I’m going about it a certain way. I try not to get too bogged down by conceptual execution but focus more on the craft and detail of the visual experiment, fleshing out a type style by turning it into saying or phrase. This I see as a completely free space to test ideas out and try new things.
Client work is far more focused on it’s experimentation. I am more analytical and pragmatic when conceptualising and executing it to make sure it answers the brief and provides value to a client. I’ll have a rough idea up front about what I think might work best, which I then expand on and comp up for the client to see. What I love about doing client work is how often you’re forced to push yourself further than you would have otherwise, and how often, through feedback and negotiation the work can become so much better.
Recently I have been focusing more on creating typography and production driven art pieces, which live somewhere between those two. These are tangible three-dimensional executions that exist somewhere between design and art and allow me to make conceptually specific work while also experimenting with new and interesting styles, materials and production methods.
You seem to work in different styles, how do you keep your work fresh and non-repetitive?
Mostly I think that development comes from clients and briefs and problems. I don’t think you can solve everything with the same visual ideas. So in many ways, it’s adapt or become redundant. I was at a point a while ago where 3 out of 4 jobs I was getting referenced the same examples of my work, which started to get a little boring and worrying. Most of the time I’d end up going “well that’s cool, but something like this might be better for these reasons.” Most of the time they got it and it made it a little easier to try new things and still get paid. Some jobs, like the Nike work, were dream jobs in that way because they were paying me to experiment. “Make three executions of this word in whatever style you want” is a good thing to read on a brief.
I also do quite a lot of art shows and try as much as I can to experiment and play which helps keep things fresh. Another big thing for me is that I don’t spend too much time on the internet trawling design blogs or looking at many design books. I think this gives me a little room to play without being too bogged down by constant comparison between my work and the work of others. It’s good to know what’s out there obviously, and I do to a large extent. But I don’t saturate myself with so much design that I feel forced to viciously defend some tiny stylistic niche to remain ‘original,’ I’d rather do what I think might be cool and hope that someone else hasn’t gotten there before me.
What tips can you share on making a name for yourself as an illustrator?
Get yourself and your name out there, network, get a website, participate in shows, send your work to magazines and blogs, but make sure you curate yourself. Not everything you do needs to go online or be Tweeted/Facebooked about. Fewer pieces of stronger work go much further than a huge portfolio where someone has to search to find the gems. Similarly putting up WIP shots or links every five minutes to every single thing you’ve ever worked on is probably just going to turn into white noise that people ignore, save sharing work for when you feel there is something to share about. If you’re struggling to get commercial jobs that you’re proud of then do personal work and put that up. You can spark off an entire career out of something you did at 2 am for fun.
Obviously, most importantly, work hard and be honest. You want to make a name for yourself; you don’t do that by consciously copying the hard work of others.
What advice can you give to someone aspiring to find a successful career in illustration and design?
Be self-critical, but not paralysingly so. Only show people stuff you’ve done that you’d be happy to do again. Be cognizant of where you are in your career; you’re not going to start life with an amazing client list and an extensive jaw dropping portfolio. Be aware that online portfolios are curated, not everything that person has done was an incredible project for a huge client with a massive budget. 15 projects over 5-10 years leave a lot of space for the unseen bland, bad or boring. Make the type of work you want to make more of. Enjoy what you do. Think a lot. Don’t spend all day watching Youtube clips. Always look for inspiration, but try to do so outside of illustration; look at architecture, furniture, plants, animals, cities, music, books, toys, movies, etc.
Below are several images Jordan sent to us to release with this interview from a recent show he attended – this project is a collaborative effort he completed with fellow designer Daniel Ting Chong.