Steve A. Jones’ Design Journey

Steve A. Jones
Steve A. Jones
Born
1970, North York, Ontario
Location
Oakland, California
Born
1970, North York, Ontario
Location
Oakland, California
Steve A. Jones
Born
1970, North York, Ontario
Location
Oakland, California

Cultural transmission has many layers. From language to dress to mores, every generation passes along moments and memories to their offspring, mementos that mark what it means to be a member of that tribe. One of the things that Steve Jones remembers most about his childhood were the smells. “It was definitely Little Jamaica in the house,” says Jones, who was born in North York, Ontario, to immigrants from the Caribbean island. The fragrant aromas of Jamaican dishes would flood his senses—and still do now when he visits his mother's house just south of Oakland, California, to partake in the mountains of food. Oxtail, curry goat, rice and peas, escovitch and, of course, plantains—flavors that not only fueled Jones' adolescence but became part of the script of his design philosophy. “You didn't appreciate it growing up but it was something that was always there,” he says.

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Untitled (Birmingham/Get in touch with your masculine side), 1998. One of a series of posters, this uses a historical moment (Birmingham, Alabama, 1963) as a social commentary on the proliferation (attack) of alcohol advertising in minority communities. The ad/tagline is appropriated from a popular Jim Beam ad campaign from the ’90s. Designer: Steve Jones/plantain studios; Photographer: Charles Moore

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Untitled (#4235), 22 x 22 poster, 2006. Exhibited as part of the Virology Exhibit at LoBot Gallery, Oakland, CA. The poster is a graphic deconstruction, reconstruction and reinterpretation of a Chiquita plantain produce label. Designer: Steve Jones/plantain studios 

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Untitled (Burlap, Clothiers of Escaped Slaves since 1492), 1998. Poster in a series dealing with identity and representation. Burlap is a fictional company. The text on poster (taken from an actual slave narrative) reads: ...used his wits to escape from work and punishment, preserved his manhood in the quarters, feigned humility, identified with masters and worked industriously only when he was treated humanely, simulated deference, was hostilely submissive and occasionally obstinate, ungovernable and rebellious...Designer: Steve Jones. Image courtesy of Basil Jones.

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Logo for Harambee Kinship Center, 2007. Designer: Steve Jones/plantain studios

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Logo for the Latin American and Latino Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz, 2004. The logo encompasses the flavor and color of Latin/American countries. The tilde in the “A” is used as an iconic and unifying metaphor.Designer: Steve Jones/plantain studios

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Untitled (begin/end), 12 x 8 poster, 2005. The piece serves as a timeline and a record of the life of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton. Adopting the vernacular of the street map, the migratory and movement history of the BPP and Newton are mapped and layered under iconic dates and street addresses. Exhibited in Yerba Buena Center for the Art’s “Rank and File” (2006) show and Oaklandish Gallery’s “Movemeant” (2005) exhibition. Designer: Steve Jones/plantain studios 

Like many designers, Jones was attracted to images as a child. Raised by his mother, a schoolteacher, and his father, a financial planner, Jones was a big fan and collector of comics. He was weaned on the drawings of Marvel comics like the X-Men and Fantastic Four. In junior high school, he began drawing his own superheroes, often combining the superpowers of his favorite comic heroes into new characters. That pastiche approach predicted a later interest in the blend of styles found in graffiti. “Through high school I was thinking about being a dentist or something cheesy,” he says. “Because you figure that's what you should do.” But Jones' friends were trading their sketches during the day and sneaking out at night to hit abandoned train yards to throw up their pieces. Using the tag name “SABER”—not to be confused with the Los Angeles-based tagger of the same name—Jones found inspiration in places such as San Francisco's Psycho City, a collection of walls and buildings that had become a mecca for graffiti artists from around the world.

On the importance of design:

Jones' love of graffiti, however, was not openly accepted at the California College of the Arts (CCA), where he studied to become a professional designer. “The art school model was pretty traditional, and it was unanimous that graffiti was a bad art,” he remembers. Favorite street artists like Crayone were hardly recognized by his professors, which frustrated Jones. He was passionate about the graffiti that he and his friends were creating, and to have his new educational environment dismiss his interests was disappointing. In fact, for Jones the dismissal of graffiti artists was emblematic of a larger issue at art school: the rampant dismissal of artists of color.

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Untitled (Canvas, produced at fine plantations everywhere), 1998. One in a series of posters dealing with identity/politics and representation. Canvas is a fictional clothing company I created. The “company” deals with issues of identity and masculinity in popular (media) culture. The text on the poster (taken from an actual slave narrative) reads: run away last night, a negro wench, named claudette. whoever takes up said wench, and brings her to her said master, or secures her in any county, so that he may have her again, shall receive forty shillings reward, and reasonable charges. whoever entertains said wench, shall be prosecuted to the utmost rigor of the law.Designer: Steve Jones. Image courtesy of Claudette Tully. 

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No Refill, 2003. We were one of several artist/studios invited to create artworks, based on our interpretation of a “bottle.” Our interpretation dealt with the issue of identity/assimilation in American culture. By imposing the iconic shape of the Coca-Cola bottle with those of popular Jamaican and Mexican soda bottles we attempted to highlight the transgressive lifestyle and politics of “hyphenated” Americans through the vernacular of pop drinks. Designer: Steve Jones/plantain studios 

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Silences in African History, book jacket, 2004. Designer: Steve Jones/plantain studios 

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Untitled (Superstar), 1998. The poster/book jacket is an advertisement for the fictional autobiography Superstar as written by Uncle Ben. It addresses one of the many “categories” of black males. The “uncle” is the perfect example of the contented “trained-by-whites Negro.” Designer: Steve Jones/plantain studios

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(w)here have all the elm trees (g)one?, 2003. The installation is esoteric in nature, but amongst the personal anecdotes are didactic facts about the socio-demographics of the Elmhurst district, the East Oakland neighborhood where I live. Exhibited in “Word: My Definition Is This” (2003) at the African American Historical and Cultural Society and City|Space’s “Urban Legends: The City in Maps” at Oaklandish Gallery (2004). Designer: Steve Jones/plantain studios 

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Untitled, 2006. Large scale installation commissioned by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) to highlight the curatorial strands that run through the 2006–2007 season. The design incorporated work from YBCA’s Young Artists at Work (YAAW) program and installed in the YBCA’s Room for Big Ideas (formerly the Resource Room). Designer: Steve Jones/plantain studios

As a student, Jones faced consistent discrimination. One of his projects that reflected his heritage—a self-portrait featuring a figurative bridge between Jamaica and his life in the States—was poorly received by his instructors. “That was the first time I had a teacher tell me that what I created was not a valid artistic expression. It was ironic that it was up to us to define who we were and someone else is saying, 'You have to change yourself because I don't understand you.'” In an art history class, a professor chose only to discuss “important” artists and disregarded the contributions of minorities and women. In another, a teacher showed an old German poster to laud its design aesthetic and typography, but when German-speaking students pointed out that the words on the poster were racially charged, the teacher merely shrugged. “I remember that could have been a teaching moment, but he thought racism is dead so it wasn't worth discussing,” says Jones.

Of course, not all of Jones' experiences were quite so negative. One professor pointed him towards the artwork of Robert Colescott and Adrian Piper, whose approaches to identity politics would inspire him. (Jones also cites Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Michael Ray Charles and Kerry James Marshall as sources of inspiration.)

On his first big break:

After graduation Jones began looking for work, and one project in particular opened his eyes to the influence of the African diaspora on design. After completing a design for a nightclub geared toward African Americans, he received some disappointing feedback. “I put all that design training to good use on the logo and my friend looked at it didn't know what it was,” Jones recalls. “I came out of art school, but if I can't communicate to folks that look like me, I was going to have a problem.”

Jones moved to Washington, D.C., and was hired as a designer for a magazine called YSB, which stood for Young Sisters and Brothers and was part of BET. Jones credits Lance Pettiford, YSB's art director, with giving him his first opportunity. In YSB's all-black art department, he thrived. “The work we were doing wasn't stereotypical. It wasn't just adinkra symbols and kente cloth. It was rewarding to do great work, and also be recognized by the Society of Publication Designers.”

It was at YSB that Jones started to question the idea of a black design aesthetic. “I don't think there's a singular black aesthetic, per se. I think of an aesthetic as a filter,” says Jones. “Growing up, reggae music was an example. There's a reggae version of every pop song, but I have yet to find that in African-American design.” Specifically, Jones doesn't believe that blackness can be codified in a rule set or script for designers to follow. “It's more than a language. African-American design evolved, for me, into issues of representation.”

Jones explored such issues of representation during his time at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he earned his master's degree with honors. One particular series blended the visual language of advertisements with provocative images of race and ethnicity. In one “ad,” the image used to promote Jim Beam was replaced with Charles Moore's iconic image of protesters being sprayed with water hoses during the 1963 Birmingham protests. “I wanted to deal with the issue of alcohol advertising in poor communities. I saw those billboards like an attack since you don't see malt liquor in rich neighborhoods.” Another of Jones' images took an old slavery poster and placed NBA players in it to juxtapose the sale of human beings in two different contexts. “I'm part of a generation, that is one or two generations removed from segregation and the days of black and white entrances,” he explains. “That gives us a little more objectivity to look at that stuff. It's not to say that we forget, but it's not part of our personal history.”

On why diversity in the profession matters:

Personal histories are important to Jones and taken into consideration in his professional work. In 1999 he started Plantain Studio, a multidisciplinary studio working in art, architecture and graphic design, along with fellow CCA graduate Nick D. Gomez. For his nonprofit work with Plantain he makes a point to include the client in the design process. “People in the underserved communities we do work for are usually never consulted. Design firms come in and say, 'You'll take what we give you.' There's a lack of research in what the communities are about.” For one project with the San Francisco mayor's office, Jones pushed for the design and organizing committee to include local leaders in design discussions. “They had to scramble to put that together.”

As an educator Jones is attempting to fill the gaps that he saw as an art school student. He teaches graphic design at San Francisco State University—where he began as a lecturer in 2000 and is now on a tenure track—and at CCA he teaches community arts classes, which emphasize service learning, civic engagement and issues of diversity. Sometimes Jones has had to modify his approach to broadening students' horizons. At CCA he put together a class on identity politics, but only two students signed up. With his classes at SF State, though, he incorporates a multicultural filter in many of his assignments, such as designing a fictional commemorative project for people like director Oscar Micheaux and writer Audre Lorde. Jones contends, “Nothing against the dead white guys, but you need to know something else outside of their work.”

We live in a produced and designed world. Design is like air, no one realizes how vital it is to our survival unless it's gone.
After college, I faced the usual “How do I get experience if no one hires me?” Working at YSB magazine I learned about deadlines, working with text, imagery, writers, editors, photographers/artists, production, everything! I still use those skills today.
Graphic design as it is now doesn't even come close to representing reality. Having more voices and representation at the table can only make design better.

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