Creative mastermind John C Jay moves seamlessly across disciplines in an impossibly broad world of art and commerce, excelling at just about everything he touches, from photography to creative direction for music projects and urban revitalization. This penchant for evolution and reinvention is part of what drives him and keeps his ideas so remarkably fresh. One day he'll be hanging out with Chinese beat-box musicians in Shanghai; the next he's showing the Japanese architect Masamichi Katayama around Portland in a caravan of pedicabs. Somehow he fits perfectly into these worlds and countless others.
“Storytelling is what I've always done,” says Jay. “I feel like I've come full circle.”
That circle encompasses a career that began in 1980 in the menswear and home-furnishing departments of Bloomingdale's in New York. “I had nothing relevant in my portfolio to impress them,” he recalls of how he got his first big break, which he landed despite having no real experience in retail, fashion, advertising or marketing. He won them over with his passion, but through his talent and drive he moved up the ranks. During his 12 years at Bloomie's he eventually became executive vice president, director of marketing and creative services. In 1993 he took his brand expertise to Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, where he has led game-changing campaigns for Nike, established satellite offices in Tokyo (1998), Shanghai (2003) and Delhi (2007), and is currently partner and global executive creative director. He has even had the enviable job of consulting with LucasArts on the global marketing of two Star Wars prequels.
10 lessons for young designers:
1. Be authentic. The most powerful asset you have is your individuality, what makes you unique. It's time to stop listening to others on what you should do.
2. Work harder than anyone else and you will always benefit from the effort.
3. Get off the computer and connect with real people and culture. Life is visceral.
Jay thinks and acts locally as well as globally. With his wife, Janet, he runs Studio J, an independent creative consultancy located in Portland's Old Town/Chinatown, where they develop new lifestyle concepts, products and experiences, from residences to restaurants. One such development project is a floating home on the Columbia River inspired by the Minka style of Japanese rural architecture. Another is the James Beard Award-nominated restaurant Ping, of which Studio J is part owner. “Studio J is trying to bring a new vision and energy to the area,” says Jay. “My goal is to help shape a new creative corridor of this city based upon contemporary Asian creativity and culture. So, if successful, my next 'adventure' is the creative direction of a full city block in Chinatown.”
If it seems as though Jay is constantly working, then you have the right impression. He has an almost limitless passion for creating and delights in sharing his enthusiasm with others. For the last 15 years, he has hosted art salons with the sole purpose of bringing together artists of varied disciplines, from graphic design to painting to journalism. He credits Diane Von Furstenberg, whose now-legendary gatherings he attended in the 1980s in her then-expansive Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking the Metropolitan Museum in New York, with the perfection of the format. Of his desire to bring creative people together, he says, “It has nothing to do with making money… nothing to do with getting work. It's about being a conduit for culture and information.”
Jay thinks quite a bit about culture and information, and approaches branding with a prescience that has allowed him to anticipate trends and tell people exactly the stories they want to hear. For W+K Tokyo in 1999, Jay, tasked with creating new basketball mythologies in a post-Michael Jordan world, turned to Japanese hip-hop, a genre that was then finding its voice and beginning to embrace its own cultural relevance. Jay saw a chance to tell the compelling stories of three new athletes Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Jason “White Chocolate” Williams through the prism of that musical genre and lifestyle. The campaign included a limited-edition vinyl release called Player's Delight (a riff on “Rapper's Delight” by Sugarhill Gang) and gave rise to W+K Tokyo Lab, an audiovisual label. One of the most successful acts to be launched under Jay's creative direction has been the break-beat trio Hifana, now on its third album.
4. Constantly improve your craft. Make things with your hands. Innovation in thinking is not enough.
5. Travel as much as you can. It is a humbling and inspiring experience to learn just how much you don't know.
6. Being original is still king, especially in this tech-driven, group-grope world.
7. Try not to work for stupid people or you'll soon become one of them.
Not only does he know which story to tell, but Jay also has an uncanny ability of knowing how and when to tell it. His work for Nike at Wieden+Kennedy contributed to Advertising Age's naming the company “Marketer of the Year” in 1996. By 1997 Nike sales had swelled to $9.2 billion; at the same time Jay was cultivating an antiestablishment identity for the athletic brand with a campaign centered on street basketball and captured in an award-winning book, Soul of the Game.
One of the traits that make Jay unique in the advertising world is his genuine appreciation of the opportunities his success has created, perhaps because he didn't always have them. The first child of Chinese immigrants living in Columbus, Ohio, Jay grew up sharing one large backroom at his parents' business, a laundry. He picked up his first English words by watching car commercials on television. He would stand on a corner downtown watching traffic, “spotting the cars, matching their shapes to the commercials and practicing the 'sound' of their logo,” he says.
More than once, he got in trouble with his parents for drawing on their walls. Those early drawings often depicted the toys he wished he owned—robots, space guns, airplanes—and the Art Deco LeVeque Tower, then Columbus' tallest building. The prolific young artist even entered a drawing contest in the back of a comic book. “To my surprise, a contest representative came to the laundry to see my parents and praise my 'gift' as an artist,” Jay recalls. “He was simply a salesman, and my parents couldn't afford the lessons anyway. That was maybe the very first thought I had about being an artist. It was positive reinforcement of the most primal kind.”
All of it—the drawing, the early obsessions with cars, architecture and toy space guns—might have led him to a career in industrial design had Jay and his family known that such a path existed. It wasn't until he was a student at Ohio State University that a friend suggested he take a course in visual communications. Soon he was devouring European design magazines in the university library. “It was startlingly new,” says Jay, and he knew he was finally in his element. Although his new calling was initially a tough sell with his (eventually supportive) parents, Jay graduated from OSU in 1971 with a visual communications degree.
8. Instinct and intuition are all-powerful. Learn to trust them.
9. The Golden Rule actually works. Do good.
10. If all else fails, No. 2 is the greatest competitive advantage of any career.
Ever since then, he has been helping to reshape the world through design. He remains grateful to the friend at OSU who pointed him in the right direction, and to his mother and father, in whose names he recently established an art and design scholarship for students of Asian descent at his alma mater.
When asked about important lessons from design, he says, “We learn to have more empathy for other cultures and ideas. We learn that collaboration is a powerful way to solve problems.” Jay is continually actualizing those lessons in his work. In October 2009 Studio J organized an exhibition of contemporary Chinese design, “The Jelly Generation,” in the Old Town neighborhood. And in late 2009 he and hotelier Alex Calderwood co-edited and creative-directed an issue of Arkitip magazine celebrating, of all things, great collaborations.
How does he sustain all of this constant self-reinvention? “It's still fun. That's why I work so hard,” says Jay. “When work and play are inseparable, that's the goal. That's what we're all striving for.”