What’s your background?
I was born and raised in Port of Spain, Trinidad, to middle class, public servant parents. I grew up in Woodbrook, a suburb of Port of Spain and a hub of Carnival activity and creativity. My early years were spent in my grandparents’ home in Baden-Powell Street with my uncles and aunts – on my father’s side – who would be charged with looking after and entertaining my brother and I as we held the prime position of sole grandchildren at the time.
My family was big on reading and felt that if you had nothing to do with yourself, then get a book and read something. The house was full of books and comics: P.G. Woodhouse, Lobsang Rampa, Asterix and Obelix, Tintin, Biggles, William, Billy Bunter, Sydney Sheldon, Jennings, Enid Blyton, Captain America and the Falcon, Superman, Heroes of the Dark Continent… I wanted to be a comic book artist.
My father and grandfather were both makers of things. My grandfather made Mas, (Carnival costumes), and objects out of coconut shells. He had an unholy obsession with making coconut sharks and Columbus’ ships: the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria. My dad drew, painted and made miniature battleships as well as dolls’ furniture and worlds. Yes, he created a whole miniature world beneath our home in Lange Park, Chaguanas. My wife, filmmaker Mariel Brown made a film about him. Smallman, the World My Father Made.
After O’levels, I moved to Toronto, did grade 13 and later a BA Geography at York University. On graduation I realised I had no immediate plans – or desire – to teach Geography or go on in the field, so after a little meltdown, and having fulfilled my parents’ desire for me to attain a university education, I promptly enrolled in George Brown College of Art, Science and Technology and studied Commercial Art, with the intention of going into advertising.
How did you get started in your field of expertise?
When I was a child I watched copious amounts of television. Bewitched was one of my favourite shows, not because of Samantha the Witch and the magic and all that other stuff, but because Darren – her husband – and his boss, Larry Tate, worked in advertising. They made it look so grand and easy. They’d be doing these presentations where they’d show illustrated layouts in marker and pencil, and they just seemed fantastic to me. I thought that was really cool and I wanted to be able to do that: make the cool layout, which made clients sit back and say, ‘Brilliant Larry, brilliant Darren… SOLD!’ So that was the start of design for me.
Studying Commercial Art at George Brown was a wonderful time. All my professors were artists/designers working in the field with active studios, and the campus was smack dab, downtown Toronto, in a hub of art galleries and studios. There was always something going on: Greg Hart cartoon film festivals, art shows, performances, Caribana. I was surrounded by exciting things and inspiration.
When I eventually returned to Trinidad in 1991, I got a job as the graphic designer for the National Aids Programme of Trinidad and Tobago. My boss at the time, Dr. Asha Kambon, was an inspiring person. She had been actively involved in the Black Power Movement in Trinidad, and was an activist, so in-between schooling me on black identity and national class struggles in Trinidad, I was designing ‘awareness communication material’ in the fight against AIDS.
Every communication was tailored specifically to its intended audiences. She made me aware of the seriousness and the power of design communication. We created activity newsletters for kids, glow in dark condoms, cardholders for pan men, and even a rap cassette.
After about a year of that, I went to work in an ad agency as a designer. In the early 90s, being a designer in an advertising agency wasn’t as sedentary as it is now. Technology has changed many things. Back then, you developed an idea, roughed it out on paper, did finished layouts in marker, presented them to the client, then did your finished artwork. You had to work with photographers, and typesetting houses and you worked your ideas straight up. I was in work by 6am, at a printer on the press by 7am, back in the office by 2pm, on a photo shoot waist deep in a cold river by 5pm, back inside by 7pm. Sometimes we’d work for over 24 hours on a presentation.
In my twenty-something year advertising career, I’ve been a graphic designer, art director, creative manager, assistant account executive and creative director. I’ve written copy, produced layouts, directed TV commercials, been a hand model and even voiced commercials.
In 2012, I left advertising and began working on my own practice, focusing more on publication design with some identity work and my own parallel art career. This is when I got together with fellow designer/editor Melanie Archer, and my wife filmmaker/editor Mariel Brown, to design books for Robert and Christopher Publishers.
What challenges did you face/overcome in getting into the industry and achieving your ambitions?
I think that I have been one of the fortunate ones. Or maybe I’ve been too naïve to notice. I’ve always seized opportunities. I’ve had few challenges, if any, and a career trajectory that has remained full of opportunities and excitement. It’s all under my own steam in a society that doesn’t really value what graphic designers do. There is no professional design organisation like AIGA here. Equally, many people aren’t able to differentiate between the work of a graphic designer – to work with a client on sustained communication and problem-solving for design solutions and a graphic artist – to ‘hustle’ down an ad ‘quick quick’.
I always maintain a place where I can do the work I want to do – the work I have a passion for. This is the thinking that guided me earlier on when I worked at an advertising agency as the creative director of a department of 15: I encouraged the creative department to be more than just people who did the work of the day; I wanted us to become designers and creative people who could effect change, make things, and do things. A number of us came together in an informal collective, and we held exhibitions, created art shows (such as Erotic Art Week); we worked together on a web series, Indigroove, and of course we all worked as writers, editors, interviewers, or guest designers on the Draconian Switch Magazine. The aim was to always keep moving and to utilize our design and other creative talents in a rewarding and beneficial way.
My parallel art career also provided me an escape from the ‘despondency of advertising’ and gave me different opportunities. Over the last decade I’ve been fortunate enough to exhibit my work abroad, in New York, Miami, Jamaica, Paraguay etc. A number of the friendships, relationships and engagements made via my art have also led to design work. It’s kept design fresh for me.
Who and/or What are your greatest inspirations and influences?
Here at home my influences and inspiration came from designers and artists whose shoulders I came in on like Steve Ouditt, Eddie Bowen, Irenée Shaw, and Christopher Cozier. Cozier, particularly, has to be singled out, as his mentorship and friendship really opened up my mind to artistic possibilities and the need for ‘criticality, context and content’ while making work.
Then in the absence of a formal design organisation, the people I’ve worked with in my informal creative collective over the years have been inspirational: people like designers Marlon Darbeau, Melanie (hawkeye) Archer, columnist/copywriter Darryn Boodan, and copywriter/ dancer/ choreographer Dave Williams. The people who have always been in my corner and supported my work on many levels like artist/designer/educator Adele Todd, installation artist Dean Arlen, architect Sean Leonard, educator Marsha Pearce.
The people that see my work first, my three daughters Maya, Annissa and Emily. My daughter Annissa Marie, and my wife Mariel are both coherent and focused and are responsible for making sure that I am okay and my mind is straight. In the same role but further afield, my Bajan sister, artist Sheena Rose.
In the category of people who I have never met but whose work I admire and read about: Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh, Ray and Charles Eames, Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Paula Scher, David Carson, Jon Daniel, On Kawara, William Klein, So Lewitt, Magaret Calvert and Kerry James Marshall.
What is your best piece of work or the project you are most proud of?
I don’t think I have one ‘best piece’. I’m proud of a lot of the work I’ve done. Having said that, of the art catalogues I’ve designed, ‘Jamaican Routes’, ‘Rockstone and Bootheel’ and ‘50 Years of Studio Glass’. I really love the identity I developed for ‘Rockstone and Bootheel’ an exhibition of contemporary West Indian Art and the way it translated throughout all of the exhibition materials and wall signage. I love typography and I love big letters, and ‘sign and design’. ‘The Jamaican Routes’ catalogue allowed me the freedom to play typographically across the entire book and create a piece of work that reflected the bold personalities of the exhibition’s artists without overtaking their work.
‘50 Years of Studio Glass’ was a gem to work on, as it connected me to artists that work in glass in contemporary and unexpected ways. My design for the ‘Studio Glass’ catalogue involved layering text upon text with pasted abstract sea glass imagery – some of which I shot myself with a macro lens attached to my iPhone.
What would be your dream job or project?
I would love to have the Ministry of Works and Transport give me a budget and the necessary time to design Trinidad and Tobago’s entire road sign system with my fellow designers Marlon Darbeau and Melanie Archer. And to be able to do so in an environment that is free of political interference. I’m a big fan of the design of transit and road system signage, and an even bigger fan of Margaret Calvert. This country has really poor signage at every level, from institutional come down, but the highway signage is the worst. You really have to just know how to go where you want to go in this country and if you aren’t from here, finding your way around could be murder. I’d love to be part of fixing this!
Please name some people in your field that you believe deserve credit or recognition, and why.
I admire the editorial work Melanie Archer has done. ‘Manikin: The Art and Architecture of Anthony C. Lewis’ and ‘Contemporary Caribbean Architecture’ are at the top of my list of ‘things I wish I had done, dammit!’. Melanie is precise and I love her attention to detail. I call her ‘hawkeye’, and have been lucky to have her design two of my exhibition foldout catalogues. Designer Marlon Darbeau and I have been friends since 2006, and fast became collaborators and peers. What Marlon has done in terms of getting all those sketches out of his books and into real life… just beautiful. The guy makes really sexy stuff that people drool over. He is constantly working on and re-imagining objects. Then there is designer/ artist/ photographer Nadia Huggins co-founder of the beautifully designed Caribbean art magazine ‘ARC’. Jeunanne Alkins, the creator of Everything Slight Pepper, I admire her drive and determination to keep making things happen from her brand of baby fashion to her Caribbean animated TV series for kids, Bim and Bam.
What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Make work. Make lots of work. Read everything you can, watch everything you can. Become involved. Always maintain a private practice, not so much for an extra income (if you don’t work for yourself already) but so that you can keep your mind straight and have the type of projects you really want and need to work on. Keep doing and doing and doing and doing. Keep learning new skills. Keep tooling up. Recognise that design is work. Work at it. Respect it. Be honest with your work. Develop your own personal equity and your own design vocabulary. Develop something that is you. Don’t be afraid to be you and assert your own thoughts on design. There are a lot of ‘them’ out there but only one ‘you’. Don’t listen to the pundits. In small societies which base success on fleeting indicators of privilege, and in the age of the social media critic, peripheral commentary can be distracting. Get a mentor. Build a squad, and set some real goals.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be marking my 50th year on this planet by presenting three new bodies of work in two exhibitions and a book of selected works from my exhibition, Finding Black. Then in August, I close up my studio and move to London with my lovely wife to do my MA Print at the Royal College of Art. Other than that just living this adventure called life…
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TRINIDAD CARNIVAL One of the Caribbean’s greatest and most renowned cultural events starts on 27 February 2017.
MALICK SIDIBÉ Somerset House, London. Til 26 February 2017. This is the first ever solo exhibition of the legendary Malian photographer’s work. Sidibé is celebrated for his black-and-white images chronicling the lives and culture of the Malian capital, Bamako, in the wake of the country’s independence in 1960.
The exhibition presents 45 original prints from the 1960s and 1970s based around the themes of: Tiep à Bamako / Nightlife in Bamako, Au Fleuve Niger / Beside the Niger River, Le Studio / The Studio.
FESTIMA February 2017. Dédougou, Burkina Faso. The week-long event draws costumed troupes from villages around Burkina Faso, as well as from neighboring West African countries such as Benin, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria, Togo, and Senegal. Each group is composed of musicians and elaborately masked dancers who know how to move to the beat.
BLACK COWBOY Studio Museum of Harlem, New York. Til 5 March 2017. The exhibition Black Cowboy is a contribution toward overcoming the historical omission of African-American communities with long histories of keeping and training horses, and toward demonstrating that their tradition is alive and well today.
If you have any forthcoming events that you would like to be considered for inclusion in this column, please do not hesitate to contact me by email at info at jon-daniel dot com.