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Please tell us about your background and how you got to where you are today. I studied graphic design and fine arts at the University of Barcelona, the Cooper Union in New York, and at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest. But, I’ve also worked as a supermarket stocker, a waiter and a clerk in a video store; I’ve set up rooms for conferences in hotels, given tours for senior citizens, worked as a radio announcer and as a DJ at weddings—and, of course, as a designer, illustrator and instructor. I guess the sum of all that and a few coincidences led me to where I am today, running my own design studio with a focus on editorial illustration and cultural communication.

How did you break into The New Yorker as an editorial illustrator? Like almost all the important things in life, it happened by chance. I used deflated balloons to design a piece on a quote from the comedian Louis CK: “Everything is amazing, and nobody is happy.” The balloons imparted a strange contrast of joy and sorrow to the work. The New Yorker was preparing a special anniversary issue, and they contacted me after seeing my balloon poster on a social media site. I was commissioned to work with balloons for some spot illustrations, but eventually the project evolved, and I ended up creating a collection of hats for Eustace Tilley, the famous New Yorker cover character. Like many of my important projects, it was born out of personal work.

Somehow, working with conceptual design is like flirting: if you’re not very handsome, strive to be interesting!

We’d love to hear in detail about a few of your favorite projects.  I’ll tell you about one of my last projects: the cover for the New York Times book review on the ten best books of 2015. Before this project, I had always wanted to work with diamonds for quite a while, and I happened to have one on my table. I love the way diamonds can distort images and make abstract patterns and how they make light, color and brightness behave. It wasn’t within my usual style of work, but I had diamonds on the brain, and I knew that someday I wanted to work them into something—I was just waiting for the right assignment. Then, the great New York Times art director Matt Dorfman commissioned me to design the cover of the “10 Best Books of 2015” issue, and it worked out. The first step—and absurdly, one of the most difficult ones—was to find nine other diamonds, so a friend and I scoured Barcelona in search of treasure for quite some time. Then, having procured nine other diamonds, I printed out the covers of every book highlighted in the issue, and tried to find spots where I could use diamonds to distort the images, but keep part of the book’s title legible. The final images evoked a kind of conceptual eroticism: obscuring the book’s meaning to viewers, but leaving them wanting to know more.

Your portfolio abounds with memorable images that use both illustration and photography. How has your style evolved, and how do you adapt it to different projects? I never like relying on style to solve things graphically; it’s somewhat suffocating. As designers, I often think of our work as being similar to that of a tailor’s: we should make a style specific to the project. And while I might subconsciously imprint each project with my own humor, values or sensibilities, that is not my end goal. I consider an image successful if it tickles people in their heads, eyes or stomachs. That can be a lot to ask of an image. I enjoy working with concept, though. Somehow, working with conceptual design is like flirting: if you’re not very handsome, strive to be interesting!

How can young designers today smartly showcase their work to art directors and editors?  It’s true that our generation has lived through many difficulties in work and economics, but in the field of design, there are always incredible new opportunities to show your work to anyone in the world for free, and instantaneously. I recommend that young designers knock on doors that might be interesting, and knock insistently—but with temperance, and don’t become a stalker. While it is important to be visible, everyone can find a way to do so. For some people, visibility means participating in competitions, appearing in publications and the like; for others, visibility comes through creating personal projects, and publishing them online. We can’t expect our phones to ring anymore, so above all, it’s important to be proactive. 

Javier Jaén studied graphic design and fine arts at the University of Barcelona, the Cooper Union in New York and the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest. Professionally, he focuses on editorial illustration, book covers and cultural communication. His visual language is playful and symbolic, and he looks for narrative scenarios and aesthetics in close context, related to everyday experiences. Jaén has worked for clients such as the New York TimesThe New YorkerThe Washington PostTIME, Harvard University, La VanguardiaEl País and UNESCO, and has been recognized by institutions such as Print magazine, the Society of Illustrators and Alliance Graphique Internationale. He has also taught at that Istituto Europeo di Design and IDEP in Barcelona, and frequently runs workshops and lectures; he has also participated in gallery exhibitions in New York, London, El Salvador, Tallinn, Rome and Barcelona. He has still not written a child, planted a book or given birth to a tree. Everything is waiting to be done. 
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