John C Jay’s 10 lessons for young designers

John C Jay
John C Jay
Born

Columbus, Ohio

Location
Portland, Oregon
Born

Columbus, Ohio

Location
Portland, Oregon
John C Jay
Born

Columbus, Ohio

Location
Portland, Oregon

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.”

Image

1990 was a booklet that expressed Bloomingdale’s evolving sense of style as a brand. It was the beginning of a new decade, and fashion was looking forward to the countdown to the end of a millennium. Model Linda Evangelista represented the modern woman. Creative director: John C Jay; Art director: John C Jay; Photographer: Steven Meisel; Client: Bloomingdale’s 

Image

Our goal was to make the shopping bag a symbol of Bloomingdale's sense of confidence and creative output. So we changed the art of the bag 3 to 4 times a year; each became an instant collector’s item. Creative director: John C Jay; Art directors/designers: John C Jay, Robert Valentine, Richard Hsu, David Au; Artists: (top rows, from left) Anne Fields, Anthony Russo, Susan Curtis, Mark Kostabi, Ettore Sottsass; (middle) Gene Greif; (bottom rows) Kazamasa Nagai, Tim Girvin, K. Kimura and K. Tejima, Neville Brody, Michael Graves, Per Arnoldi, Sigrido Martin Begue, Malcom Garrett; Client: Bloomingdale’s 

Image

For this promotion shot by Herb Ritts, we closed off the Forbidden City and invited the superstar cast of the Beijing Opera to dress and then perform for us. The Bloomingdale’s international promotion shoots have become legendary in the business. Creative director: John C Jay; Art director: John C Jay; Photographer: Herb Ritts; Client: Bloomingdale’s

Image

Bloomingdale's “The New Cool,” 1989: Each Bloomingdale’s campaign had a conceptual theme, a story to tell. Campaigns such as this, starring model Linda Evangelista, would appear first as single page ads in the New York Times, supported by an image brochure and in-store shop designs. Creative director: John C Jay; Art director: John C Jay; Photographer: Steven Meisel; Client: Bloomingdale’s 

Image

Bloomingdale's “Dangerous Liaisons,” 1989: When Bloomingdales was launching a new lingerie department, Intimacies, we worked with the producers of the highly acclaimed film Dangerous Liaisons to collaborate on a cross-promotion. Paris was a perfect backdrop. Creative director: John C Jay; Art director: John C Jay; Designer: John C Jay; Photographer: Deborah Turbeville; Client: Bloomingdale’s 

Image

Bloomingdale’s “Spain,” 1992: To celebrate the Olympics Bloomingdale’s mounted a massive design show filling the store from top to bottom with modern objects of Spain, capturing the subtle differences between the north and south, from Madrid to Barcelona, to inspire the American public. Creative director: John C Jay; Art director: John C Jay; Designer: John C Jay; Photographer: Michel Comte; Client: Bloomingdale’s

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.”

Image

Nike Japan “Flow,” 2003: A campaign to express a love for team play in basketball, “Flow” used music by Jurassic 5 and art by Rostarr, who created a seamless flow of players as a core graphic for all of our communications and designs including courts, balls and sneakers. Creative directors: John C Jay, Sumiko Sato; Art directors: John C Jay, +cruz; Designers: Rostarr, +cruz; Artist: Rostarr; Client: Nike Japan 

Image

Nike “NYC” campaign: (Top row) “Trash Talk” focused on NYC streetball culture’s verbal jousting. Used for fun and intimidation, these sayings were featured in TV spots and outdoor campaigns that appeared only in New York City, often near the city’s most famous courts. (Bottom row) “Lexicon” blew up words from basketball slang on outdoor boards, bus shelters and walls throughout the boroughs, to pay homage to the entire culture of “ball.” Agency: Wieden+Kennedy; Creative director: John C Jay; Art director: John C Jay; Designer: Imin Pao; Photographer: John Huet; Client: Nike 

Image

Nike “NYC” campaign: We created the mark “NYC” above the Nike swoosh and placed it throughout the city near streetball courts and left it up for weeks. Then it was photographed, and the images were used in posters and outdoor boards, to seem “inside” the city. Agency: Wieden+Kennedy; Creative director: John C Jay; Art director: John C Jay; Logo design: John C Jay, Petra Langhammer; Photographer: Stanley Bach; Client: Nike 

Image

Nike Japan “Not Skinny,” 2002: This swimwear campaign explored the questions: What makes a woman beautiful? What are the body shapes that are acceptable in our society? Creative directors: John C Jay, Sumiko Sato; Art director: Nagi Noda; Copywriter: Sumiko Sato; Photographer: Shoji Uchida; Client: Nike Japan 

Image

Arkitip Issue No. 0053X, 2009: Arkitip magazine has been a trailblazer in capturing the art and energy of urban subculture. Alex Calderwood of Ace Hotel Group and I guest-edited an issue that showed how collaboration is driving new creativity and relationships around the world between highly talented, but uniquely different disciplines. Editors: Alex Calderwood, John C Jay; Creative director: John C Jay; Art directors: John C Jay, Stephen Giem; Designer: Mao Kudo; Artists: Mao Kudo (X's), John Maeda and Becky Bermott (red art); Client: Studio J/Arkitip  

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.”

Image

“Jelly Generation” newspapers, 2009: Young Chinese artists were invited to take inspiration from the pages of a 1961 edition of the Oregon Journal. Each artist painted or drew over the news underneath, reinterpreting the history of this city and its people in their artwork.Creative director: John C Jay; Art directors: John C Jay, Stephen Giem, Dong Wei; Artists (clockwise from top): Driv, Dong Wei, Chen Hei, Vader; Client: Studio J

Image

“Jelly Generation,” 2009: An exhibit curated and funded by Studio J in Portland’s Old Town/Chinatown and featuring the work of more than 30 artists, designers, photographers and animators. Coined by a Shanghai curator, the Jelly Generation is the name for the colorful, post-’80s generation of China, children whose parents were a part of the Cultural Revolution.Creative director: John C Jay; Art directors: John C Jay, Stephen Giem; Copywriter: John C Jay; Photographer (top image): Chi Lei; Designers: Stephen Giem, Mao Kudo, Dong Wei

Image

Opened in 2009, Ping is a new Asian eatery with an old and authentic soul. Designed by Studio J, it is located in the heart of Portland’s Old Chinatown. Inspired in part by the Japanese concept of Izakaya, Ping was envisioned to be a place of nightly comfort where friends could gather. Designers: John C Jay and Janet Jay/Studio J; Lighting design: Yuri Kinoshita; Client: Ping Restaurant, Andy Ricker, Kurt Huffman, John C Jay, Janet Jay 

Image

An insert by Studio J placed in the Portland Mercury to support local store Floating World Comics in celebration of Portland Comic Book Month, April 2010. Creative director: John C Jay; Art director: John C Jay; Designers: John C Jay, Dong Wei; Artist: Dong Wei; Client: Studio J  

Image

Hifana, Fresh Push Breakin’, 2003: Third release on W+K Tokyo Lab. This is a separate company within Wieden+Kennedy and not related to any of our agency clients. Our goal was to be a conduit for great ideas and energy in Japan, develop our own independent music label utilizing our visual storytelling and design skills. Creative directors: John C Jay, Sumiko Sato; Art directors: KIMGYM, +cruz; Designers: +cruz, Shotaro Tomiyama, KIMGYM; Artist: Mahro Solobongnu-sensei; Client: W+K Tokyo Lab 

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.”

Tags Inspiration design educators students branding culture advertising Biography graphic design environmental design diversity Design Journeys international