John Foster is a Washington, DC-based designer and writer and the principal and superintendent of Bad People Good Things LLC. He specializes in illustration and music packaging, and is the author of seven books, including Paper and Ink Workshop and New Masters of Poster Design (Rockport), as well as a contributing author of Thou Shall Not Use Comic Sans (Quid/Peachpit) and The Essential Principles of Graphic Design (HOW). He writes online columns “Poster of the Week” and “Judging a Cover by Its Cover” and speaks internationally on design issues. Foster curates the University of Maryland’s poster collection, and his work has appeared in every major industry publication and is part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.
Love and Live What You Do
What personal or pro-bono creative projects are you working on, if any? The Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington recently dissolved quite suddenly, and I couldn’t stand the thought of the education outreach that was vital to the club simply washing away, so, along with several other former ADCMW board members, I formed the DC Creative Guild to pick up the torch. I am working on the annual student design competition, The Real Show, right now, so sharpen your pencils, kids!
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your work and what did you learn from it? Oh lordy lou, I have made a mistake or two… The biggest lesson I learned is to hire people who are amazing at something, and then let them do what they do best, whether that is making an illustration, designing a seemingly-boring response form, coding a site, printing on an aluminum can or writing a song.
What’s the biggest challenge facing designers right now? The Internet has changed so many things for creatives, but the most surprising side effect has been rampant stealing. I suppose there has always been a ton of “lifting” in design circles, but now everyone has ready access to nearly every image in the world. You also have kids who are learning their craft through emulation (which is okay) who are so hungry to be part of the online visual conversation that they are posting that imitative work as if it’s their own (not okay). It has made the lines between theft and appropriation seem blurry, when in fact they have never been more clear. Designers have to have the talent, skills and vision to sidestep the easy Google search for answers, even though it’s right there, all the time, like a naked woman made of beer and chocolate constantly walking through your house.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Do not be too precious about your work. Design is not art (though it can transcend into art for the viewer). It is not a selfish endeavor. We work in a service industry. If it doesn’t solve the client’s problem, it doesn’t matter how awesome it looks. That means that you not only have an obligation to be flexible in your problem solving, but you also have to find out what the real problem to be solved is. Sometimes, what a client really wants is a brochure with no purple in it, and you had better be equipped with the skills to find that out without getting your knickers in a bunch.
How has the publication of your books affected your work and career? Career impact is a funny thing to gauge. Spending so much of my time writing and curating inevitably means less time for design, so it probably has hurt my design career in some ways, but my career now really is a combination of writing, designing, music, curation and overall business smarts, so I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You are well-known as a lecturer. What do you enjoy about speaking engagements? In Mexico City, I got to see students’ passion for design and answer their challenging questions through a translator, while soldiers in crash helmets lined the walls of the gorgeous old auditorium, waiting for an earthquake. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was embraced by an extremely sweet (and terribly creative) collection of people, and then I had to hide in the basement of an airport to miss a tornado. These are things I will never forget.
What is the relationship between music and design, and why is it important to you? Music introduced me to design, and the two will always go hand-in-hand for me. I developed an intense connection to music when I was very young, and I stared for hours at record sleeves designed by Vaughan Oliver, dreaming that I could do that one day. Now I help sign bands along with doing packaging for Fire Records, which really is a dream job. I started out just doing design for the label, but we were constantly talking music and it grew into a major role with the company.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? I wish someone had braced me for the fact that at the highest level a lot of your work will never be seen. Some of the best work I have ever done was on re-designs for Full Throttle, Fanta and Sprite for Coke. But they either never made it out of focus groups, or tiny bits of the design were given to other designers to include in their solutions. No one will ever see that work, and that’s okay, but it is always a tough one to swallow.
What is your favorite thing about having your own firm? Because I have no problem with being reasonably available during all waking hours, I am able to build intense and productive relationships with clients all over the world, or have meetings in person here in town after a club show at two in the morning. I love and live what I do, so I am honest with myself that it doesn’t turn off. Why not make the most of it? I still carve out three hours a day to pick up my kid from school and help her with her homework, but I get to decide when the office is open, and that has truly surprised me in the impact it has had. Because I am willing to work smarter and be more flexible than my clients’ local options, I get the coolest projects.