Justin Skeesuck's Design Journey

Justin Skeesuck enjoyed a prolific career as a graphic designer until a progressive neuromuscular disease finally robbed him of the use of his arms and legs. Never one to dwell on the struggles of life, he pursued adventure despite living life from a wheelchair. His world travels with his wife and children have done nothing but fuel his desire to experience other cultures. When Justin discovered the Camino de Santiago, he knew he had to attempt the 500-mile ancient pilgrimage across northern Spain by wheelchair, but he knew he couldn’t do it alone.

Justin asked his lifelong best friend, Patrick Gray, his thoughts about the journey, and the story of their new book, I’ll Push You, came to life. Together, they share their stories of their struggles in life, challenging people around the world to creatively look at their limitations differently; as something to overcome. Gray spoke with Skeesuck about how he got involved in design, the major obstacles he overcame through the arc of his career and as his disease progressed, and why his Design Journey spanned not only studios, but mountains.


Patrick Gray: Justin, you've been doing design pretty much your whole life, but there has to have been a point in time when you had questions about what you would do for a career. So, let's flashback to when you were a young child. How would you have answered the following question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Justin Skeesuck: I remember being asked that question at kindergarten graduation and my answer at the time was I wanted to be a church pastor. I remember, very clearly, the audience laughing hysterically, which was a sign that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a pastor. As a kid you toss around being a firefighter or doing other things. I didn't know what design was as a kid, certainly not as a career, but I would frequently draw in church. I'd draw pictures and doodle type and text. My brother also drew, but he would draw cartoons and landscapes. I was more focused on type, layout, and perspective. I don't know why. I think it's just one of those things I just had an interest in.

PG: You have always had a passion for design, even before you knew what it was. So, at what point did you discover your design career?

JS: I was first introduced to design during my sophomore year of high school when my brother, Ryan, was on the yearbook staff. He designed the cover and created some spot illustrations on the inside. I started to appreciate the way things were laid out on a page and how to make things balanced. When he left to go to college, somebody needed to fill in that spot so they asked me.

I was very involved in art in the high school scene, designing t-shirts for clubs and creating posters for basketball games and other events. When they asked me to be a part of the yearbook staff it was when the very first Apple—I think it was called the Apple II Macintosh—first came out and I was introduced to doing digital design with CorelDRAW and Photoshop. It might have been pre-Photoshop, but it was my first introduction to design work. I did that my junior and senior years of high school.

When I went to college, I didn't know that you could design for a career. I had absolutely zero idea that you could do that. During my freshman year at Point Loma Nazarene University, I went in as general ed., basically an undeclared major. I remember very clearly the conversation I had with my cousin, who was my roommate during my first two years. It was about a month into school and he said, “You know, you draw and you paint and you do all this stuff. Why don't you do graphic design as a major?” I asked, “What is that?” He said, “Yeah, you design logos and brochures for people and they pay you money for it!” and I thought, “Well, that sounds kind of cool!” That was the first time I realized I could use my art to have some sort of career.

As I got introduced to design, I was immediately hooked. I loved it and jumped in neck deep. I was a huge sponge in college, taking everything in and learning all I could about the different applications that could be used. I already had some experience with Photoshop, but I began using Illustrator and QuarkXPress, which was very popular at the time. I would take projects that people did, like Charles S. Anderson or CSA out of Minneapolis, and I would spend hours in the library’s computer lab just trying to figure out how he created his end product. I was one of those classic overachievers.

Skeesuck design pieces
Early design work by Justin Skeesuck.

PG: Thinking about how your design career has progressed, who are the designers who have influenced you from a design perspective?

JS: David Carson, in the early to mid 90's, was a huge influence because he broke the typographical barriers. CSA Design Co. was another one. I really loved Charles S. Anderson’s approach because the focus was kind of vintage 50's and 60's, an era I love. The great Italian designer Massimo Vignelli out of New York was one of my all-time favorites. I just love the way he saw life through design, not only in his print work, but also in architecture, building furniture, and other projects he did outside of the graphic design world. I really picked up a lot through his work. Another artist whom I really loved and who was pivotal in my design career was Arnaud Mercier out of Paris, France. He was a freelance designer and photographer for a long time when he started a design firm called Area 17. Unfortunately he passed away about 6 years ago. The way he used photography in his design work really opened my eyes to not being so computer-focused, but really looking at all angles around design. Whether a physical piece you can touch and feel, or an environment you walk into; everything can be influenced by design.

PG: In any career, you have individuals that influence your direction, but you also have mentors who have coached you in life. Tell us a bit about the people who have mentored you.

JS: In my design career specifically, one of my mentors was my former employer, Ron Miriello, from Miriello Grafico in San Diego. I worked with him for almost six years. He was an amazing influence on me because he continued that thread of looking outside the walls of design. He was always looking at the way things are crafted by hand and really pushed me through some creative dry seasons. He mentored me to keep at it and look at different ways to be a better designer through “non-computer” avenues. Whether it was painting, photography, or making something with my hands, he always encouraged me to seek other creative outlets.

At one of the first design firms I worked at, Alden Design in San Diego, the head designer, Junior Fangon, took me under his wing. Early on in my design career, he taught me best practices, how to prepare files correctly, and how to do press checks. One of the most valuable things Junior taught me was how to let others do what they do best.

On a personal level, Dr. Jim Johnson from my alma mater, Point Loma Nazarene University, has had a profound influence on me. Though I never had him as a professor, he also took me under his wing and even to this day he's still a mentor. A man who provides insight on a personal level; he helps me live better and be better.

PG: So, your design career is in full swing and you've worked on a wide variety of projects. Thinking back, can you point back to one project that feels like your first big break? What is the first job where you thought, “Yes! This is what design is about!”

JS: When you're starting off in a design career, you're on a very short leash. Employers don't just give the top projects to people right out of the gate. One of the first big projects that I got to work on was a pro golf tour campaign for one of the major golf tour stops, the PGA, through San Diego. They gave the reigns to me—I got to pitch everything and work with the client throughout the entire process. I learned a lot about the process and how to effectively communicate not only creative direction, but also how to listen and be responsive to the client’s needs and wishes. That was the beginning of some of the more established projects that I got to work on.

Skeesuck Gray take on the Camino de Santiago
Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray as they take on the 500-mile pilgrimage known as the “Camino de Santiago” in Spain.

PG: What are some of the lessons that we, in general, can learn from design?

Justin Skeesuck: I believe design is a way of living, not a career. Meaning it's not just a job that I do. It’s a part of who I am. As I've lived life with a progressive neuromuscular disease, I have had to figure out how to navigate through that.

I see design as a part of who I am. I can take design fundamentals and apply them to my life—creativity helps me navigate through challenges I might face, either on a professional level or on a personal level. It’s more of a way of being, a way of living than it’s something that you just do for a paycheck.

“I believe design is a way of living, not a career. Meaning it's not just a job that I do. It’s a part of who I am. As I've lived life with a progressive neuromuscular disease, I have had to figure out how to navigate through that.”

PG: What are three major obstacles you've faced throughout your design career?

JS: One of the first obstacles I had to get through was proving my value and my worth to my employer. I couldn’t be complacent and just do only the work that was handed to me. When you're young and starting off with just doing production-based work or edits for a brochure or whatever, it’s not really exciting. I had to prove to my employers that I could play ball with them. That’s a tough thing to do with seasoned and talented designers, but I had to show them what I could bring to the table. So I was always going above and beyond the work that was given to me. If I had a particular assignment, I would design three or four more things that weren't a part of my particular assignment. I would do this on my own time and share with them for input. Slowly but surely I would be more assertive in conversations and made sure that I wasn’t just sitting in the corner.

The second challenge was a design rut that I was in for about a year and a half. I mentioned this earlier, but I was working at a very established design firm in San Diego called Miriello Grafico and I found myself in a creative hole. It felt like everything I did was the same and I didn't feel excited about anything that I did on a creative level. When I was talking with my boss, Ron, he was the one who really pushed me to start looking outside the box. I started looking at the other ways that could fuel my creativity. Specific ways that may not be graphic design. Ron introduced me to photography using vintage cameras. I fell in love with it and would just go explore. I started taking photos of anything and everything, just seeing what happens.

At that same time I learned about Lomography through the work of Arnaud Mercier. Lomography is a photographic style for which you don’t even look through the viewfinder. You just point the camera at a specific angle or lay it on a counter or lay it on the floor and you just take a photo and just see how it comes out. Sometimes you get a lot of duds, but then you get some absolutely beautiful shots. Through experimenting with this type of photography I overcame my creative idle and started looking at design in a different way.

Finally, I had to get over was working with my disability. We haven't really talked about this yet, but I have a progressive neuromuscular disease called “Multifocal Acquired Motor Axonopathy” which is very similar to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). At this point in my design career the disease was getting much worse and I was getting older, it was becoming more and more of a challenge to stay active and to design just on a physical level. By now, I am in a wheelchair and late in my career where I had to stop designing professionally because I had lost most of the use of my hands. But I knew I had to keep moving forward and look at my physical limitations as a way to slow down, adjust and embrace what I’m grateful for in this life.

PG: With that last struggle in mind how do you navigate design from a physical standpoint?

JS: It’s definitely a challenge! From a physical standpoint I use Dragon Dictate, a voice dictation software to help me control my computer and help me navigate some of the programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and others. I also use a pen and a Wacom tablet to help me control the cursor. Though it takes me about five times as long as it should to get something done, I'm grateful for the opportunity to still do it. I wish the design software made it easier, but I guess I'll take what I can get.

Skeesuck and Gray take on the Camino de Santiago
Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray as they take on the 500-mile pilgrimage known as the “Camino de Santiago” in Spain.

PG: Do you feel that design is lacking diversity?

JS: From my point of view, I think design could be more inclusive when talking about disability. From my experience, it's kind of a second-tiered conversation, like an afterthought and I wish it could be a little bit more inclusive from that point of view.

PG: With your disability in mind, do you agree with being labeled a minority?

Justin Skeesuck: To be honest with you, I don't ever think about it that way. Technically, yes, but that’s not the way that I choose to live life as being “labeled as a minority.” I just love being creative, being the best person I can be and try to keep moving forward in the best way I know.

PG: Your answer is indicative of how you approach things in general. You don’t focus on what’s going to potentially hold you back. You just plod forward regardless of the challenges that life throws at you and that's an incredibly positive and inspiring thing for others to see.
So, we've kind of addressed this question to some degree, but going back again to Massimo and seeing life through design; how has design influenced you since you've had to give it up full time due to your disease?

JS: I'd probably say it's influenced me even more so than when I was working at a design firm or even when I was freelancing. I've had to learn how to continually find my way through life’s challenges, so creativity has become more of a way of life for me. I can tell you that when I fully embraced living life through design, the clouds parted and the opportunities seemed endless. It forced me to bring other people into my journey to live life with me.

Life has become more fulfilling and enjoyable. Not to say that it's always easy, but when I first cracked that door open and recognized that I couldn’t do this all on my own, I started allowing other people into augmenting me where I’m weak. I mean as my best friend, you've been there with me throughout all of this. And, for you, even though you don't have a design background, you have still been a part of my creative journey and helped me live creatively because you come along side of me and you help me in those times. Creativity is way more impactful now than it's ever been. And I wouldn't trade it for anything.

“Even though [Patrick doesn't] have a design background, he has still been a part of my creative journey and helped me live creatively. Creativity is way more impactful now than it's ever been. And I wouldn't trade it for anything.”

PG: In 2014, we embarked on a 500-mile pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. 500 miles in a manual wheelchair sounds crazy. How did you apply your design skills, the design mentality, to the Camino?

JS: This pilgrimage sounds crazy—I mean it's not even remotely in the design world. Right? But when I had to let go of my design career, I went through a period of trying to figure out what that looked like for me on a personal level. When I learned about this pilgrimage, I just knew it was something that I needed to do. And it’s 500 miles across Northern Spain; a country that isn’t exactly wheelchair accessible, not to mention mountains, trails, and rivers. We had many instances where we had to figure out what to do. We had to figure out how to get through certain sections or how to get through certain scenarios like getting me and my wheelchair into a bathroom that is really tiny. How do you do that? How do I get into a shower? How do I get in and out of buildings with a lot of steps? How do we get in and out of bed? All the basic things that an able-bodied person could easily do became puzzles to solve. We had to figure these things out together.

One very clear example was before our pilgrimage started, we were in Bayonne, France. We got to the hotel after 36 hours of no sleep and my wheelchair didn't fit into the elevator. It was 1:30 in the morning and we were both beat and just wanted to get to our room. We had no energy left whatsoever but we had to get upstairs somehow. While you were trying to break down the wheelchair to make it fit into the tiny elevator, I looked over and I saw this rickety, wheeled office chair sitting behind the desk. We used that chair to get me into the elevator. You had to drag me down the hallway to our room. Then we got to the room and opened the door and there was a step just inside the room. So, we had to figure out how to get through that and I remember we used yet another chair. Everything we faced, we approached as a puzzle to be solved. We knew what outcome we wanted and figured out how to get there. We found a way.

Sometimes you have to apply creativity to circumstances that are in front of you in order to navigate them. On the pilgrimage, we had to use creativity almost every day. Life is like that. Each relationship is a part of the equation used to try to figure out how we get through this together. That’s creativity at work.

“Sometimes you have to apply creativity to circumstances that are in front of you in order to navigate them. Each relationship is a part of the equation used to try to figure out how we get through this together. That’s creativity at work.”

PG: You did the Camino in a wheelchair. Pretty ridiculous undertaking when you think about it. What's your next adventure?

JS: The next major adventure that we're going through is our children's book. You wrote this amazing story about two friends where one's in a wheelchair. I'm really excited about it because it's been an opportunity for me to exercise a lot of creativity.

When you first wrote the book, a requirement for the illustrations of the book was a specific style. I did a series of watercolor paintings in college that were reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes… basically watercolor with pen and ink. You wanted the artwork to reflect that same style but I can’t draw anymore so we found Matt Waresak, a young kid out of Colorado, to do the pen and ink style. He was able to mirror the style of my original artwork pieces.

I was able to do the watercolor digitally with my voice and my pen and tablet that I talked about earlier. Even though this isn’t a wheeled adventure or something along that line, it’s still an adventure. The challenge of going through the book process, getting it done and out into the world is so much fun. I'm really excited for this book to come out. Just because you have a disability doesn't mean you give up on life, you can still move forward, you can still be creative, and you can still design. It may look different from how other people design, but you still can figure out a way. Life through design. I love that statement because if you embrace it, the world is at your fingertips.

“Just because you have a disability doesn't mean you give up on life, you can still move forward, you can still be creative, and you can still design. It may look different from how other people design, but you still can figure out a way.”


Timeline

  • 1975 Born in Ontario, Oregon
  • 1990 Showed the first signs of a progressive neuromuscular disease due to a car accident
  • 1997 BA in art with graphic design emphasis from Point Loma Nazarene University
  • 1997-1998 Started work as a freelance designer
  • 1998 Started as junior designer at AldenMC
  • 1999 Started as web designer at Lightspan Inc
  • 2000 Married; joined Miriello Grafico as a print/multimedia designer
  • 2003 Discovered lomography and started exploring photography
  • 2006-2010 Left Miriello Grafico and worked as a freelance designer for as long as possible, but the disease progressed and made design difficult
  • 2010 Lost the use of arms and hands and transitioned to voice dictation software to navigate the computer
  • 2014 Completed El Camino de Santiago across northern Spain, a mountain trail that converges at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in a wheelchair with his best friend, Patrick Gray, at the helm
  • 2017 Best-selling book and award-winning film, both titled I’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 Miles, Two Best Friends and One Wheelchair

Justin Skeesuck 150pxJustin Skeesuck enjoyed a prolific career as a graphic designer until a progressive neuromuscular disease finally robbed him of the use of his arms and legs. Leaving graphic design behind, Justin now speaks and writes words of hope, alongside Patrick. In 2017, their best-selling book and award-winning film, both titled I’ll Push You, were released and are changing lives across the globe. Justin lives in Eagle, Idaho enjoying fresh air and a simple life with his wife of 17 years, Kirstin, their three children–Jaden, Noah, and Lauren and his pug, Lucca.

Patrick Gray 150pxPatrick Gray worked in healthcare administration until he and Justin embarked on their Camino. A dream of writing for a career has been realized as the two now write and speak about their life lessons and the power of the human collective. Patrick lives in Eagle, Idaho with his wife of 20 years, and their three children–Cambria, Joshua, and Olivia.


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The 2018 Design Journeys series is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.