New York native Jon Contino is at the forefront of today’s most influential designers. His unique stylistic approach blends old-world whimsy with a modern, minimalistic sensibility—a distinct personality that is often imitated. Contino’s dedicated efforts continue to blur boundaries and affect modern trends in all facets of the creative industry.
He has received numerous accolades for his fusion of old and new world aesthetics and continues to garner the attention of media outlets as well as large scale agencies and corporations such as Adweek, Coca-Cola, Ford, GQ, Leo Burnett, Nike and Ogilvy & Mather.
Jon resides in New York with his wife Erin and daughter Fiona where he operates a full-time studio and works as co-founder and creative director of menswear brand CXXVI Clothing Company.
Design Without a Face
Who have been your most influential mentors and why?
My parents and my grandparents have been the most influential people in my life, without a doubt. My mother and my grandmother (both fine artists) taught me illustration and calligraphy at a young age, my father (a carpenter) taught me woodworking, design and how to run a business, and my grandfather taught me about the more technical aspect of design and production from an engineer’s standpoint. I come from a long line of creative, intelligent and passionate people, so it was only natural that I’d look up to them and try to soak up as much as I could.
What has been inspiring you lately?
My wife and I recently had our first child come into our world, and in the last three months that she’s been with us, I honestly haven’t been able to find anything as amazing or inspiring.
What personal/pro-bono creative projects are you working on, if any?
I’m currently developing a new signature menswear brand. My current brand, CXXVI, is a very visual, graphics-heavy company. This one is going to focus more on beautifully constructed garments with a fine attention to every detail. Any sort of graphics will be minimal, but way more impactful than something you’d see on a T-shirt.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your work and what did you learn from it?
The biggest mistake in the span of my career was not letting myself actually be myself. I tried too hard to please everyone, but that left me unsatisfied and mediocre. The second I started taking control creatively, I felt it all fall into place. It all made sense, and my work got better.
What music or practice gets you into your creative zone?
I grew up playing in hardcore bands. I love metal. Anything aggressive usually gets my blood pumping and more focused on what I’m doing as opposed to what’s happening around me. Of course, a little Tears for Fears never hurt anyone either.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a designer?
If I wasn't a designer, I’d have to pick something related to design. But if we’re removing “art” as an option, then I'd either want to be a touring drummer or struggling to play professional baseball. As long as it’s not a desk job—I don't do well in suits I’m forced to wear.
Do you have creative pursuits other than graphic design?
I’d love to design and build furniture with my father down the road, when life is a little more mellow.
What’s your favorite quote on design?
I don't know if I ever had a favorite quote, but I subscribe to the Paul Rand school of thought where designers are meant to design, not come up with a thousand ideas and let the non-creatives tell you why you’re wrong.
Which designer (or firm), other than yours, do you most admire and why?
I can't say enough good things about Kimou Meyer and the team at Doubleday & Cartwright. The nicest guys with great ideas and the most condensed amount of talent I've ever seen. Every project that comes out of that studio is something I wish I had done.
What’s the biggest challenge facing designers right now?
The fact that new technologies and social networks are making it easier for people to get away with murder makes it hard for the people coming up doing really creative, unique work to shine. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a really great designer who’s not social-network-proficient have his/her work stolen by someone, and subsequently have their whole identity stolen without any sense of how to get it back. Design is becoming increasingly more faceless by the day, and a lot of these sneaky people are taking credit where it’s not deserved. The worst part is they have absolutely no problem doing so. In an industry like ours, we need to watch out for one another and make sure the cancers of the creative world don’t cause even greater problems. Of course, most of these people don’t have the ability to take it any further than common thievery, but it will raise a multitude of other issues down the line in terms of compensation, time management, and so on. Artistic people need to have a bigger voice for themselves and make sure we protect the only things we have to give.
What well-known identity is most desperately in need of a redesign?
My go-to answer for years was Verizon, since they had built a gradient into the logo and weren’t able to replicate it in any kind of store signage. The identities that drive me absolutely insane nowadays are all these new sports team rebrands. Super tech-heavy and detailed is not what I consider appropriate, especially in the case of baseball and football teams. I feel the sport should retain attention, not the amount of stripes and light bursts on the fourth alternate ‘away’ jersey.
What excites you about design/lettering right now?
As a whole, it’s great to see a return to handmade work. I was never too good at crisp, computer-based artwork, so I’m glad my people have finally risen from the ashes. The computer is a tool, not a crutch.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession?
A normal person’s day is 24 hours long. A new designer’s day is 48 and gets longer as you get older. Be prepared!
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career?
I wish I knew that people actually value your opinion as a designer. When I became a full-time professional designer, I always thought I had to just give people what they wanted in order to pay bills. I didn’t realize I had the ability to speak up and push good ideas through.