You might think that the designer of Dirty Girl, Total Bitch and Bad Ass would have burgundy spiked hair, multiple piercings and full-sleeve tattoos, and that she’d work from an East Village walk-up. Haley Johnson, however, is a self-described farm girl, a clean-cut, blond, blue-eyed Mid-westerner who works in an aluminum-sided house with a view of Minnehaha Creek.
The products she designs appeal to East Village girls, though, who buy them at Urban Outfitters. And to big-city girls and country girls, from teens to grandmas, who buy them at Nordstrom and at gift shops all around the country.
Johnson calls herself a graphic designer. But she’s much more than that. She’s an illustrator; all the drawings and photo-illustrations on the hundreds of packages she’s designed over the years are hers. She’s also a writer, brand developer, entrepreneur, provocateur.
One thing she is not is a self-promoter. Although she’s headed her own firm for fifteen years, Johnson doesn’t have a Web site or even a business card. Other than entering CA competitions—-in which she’s been represented for the past twenty years—she does no marketing. “I let my work do the talking,” she says. “I’ve helped businesses thrive and I find their sales to be a true measure of my success.” It’s working, because she’s busy all the time. Her few, longtime clients trust her to visually interpret their product concepts to the public—and to help them develop new ones.
“I create objects of desire,” she says.
The objects she’s designed have created so much desire they sometimes exceed her clients’ wildest dreams. “She’s a major business builder,” extols Mitch Nash, co-owner of BlueQ, the 40-person, Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based gift products company that’s been Johnson’s biggest client since 1998. “Our dream was to make a popular bar of soap,” Nash says of the company’s first venture into the personal-care market. “We sourced some really good soap bars and looked at a short list of designers. I’d been blown away by Haley’s packaging for Tropical Source candy bars, and sought her out. She created a quirky, entertaining package that resonates with a wide cross-section of consumers.” At its peak Dirty Girl did $1.5 million in sales. Since then, Johnson has designed and written copy for a dozen more product lines for BlueQ—each with bottles, tubes, kits, packets, sundry and amusing oddities. One of the newest lines, Queen, which bills itself as “pampering botanicals to command respect whilst touring the Kingdom,” features gold and black embossed panties packaged with a “tablet for writing royal decrees.”
Although much of Johnson’s work might be considered girly, and she herself characterizes it as “female-focused,” she’s known for her ability to express the essence of all kinds of brands. “Haley’s designs have been a huge part of our success,” says Scott Patterson, director of Peace Coffee, an organic, fair-trade brand. Johnson designed everything from the turtle-peace-sign logo to the coffee bags, mugs and delivery van. “She can do so many different styles. It’s not like it’s a one-trick shop,” Patterson says. He is especially proud of the company van: “The painted scene makes you feel like you’re in a coffee-growing region.” Melanee Megan, Peace’s marketing director, explains, “Haley has her own vision. There are no boxes or edges in her work. Everything is very fluid. Maybe it’s not easy to read immediately, but it’s art. The folk-art look sets us apart.”
Not surprisingly, art is what Johnson has been making since childhood. The daughter of grain farmers, she grew up in a family of six in Hector, Minnesota (pop. 1,000). She was always drawing and painting, and her parents, intrepid globe-trotters (once the harvest was in) came home with souvenirs that brought the world and curiosity about it to their 1,200-acre corner of the Midwest, where the nearest neighbor was a half-mile away.
Johnson graduated from Minnesota State University at Moorehead in 1986 with a BFA in art with graphic design concentration. Her first job was at Duffy Design, at a time when Duffy was on its upward trajectory toward national prominence. Designer Sharon Werner, who’d graduated from Moorehead the year before, was already working there, called and asked her to join. Charles S. Anderson was there, too, and he and Joe Duffy, Johnson recalls, were in tireless pursuit of getting clients. “Joe and Chuck were zig zagging across the country, making speeches,” she says. Johnson, like junior designers everywhere, stayed back in the shop and cranked out the work, often through the wee hours. When Anderson left to open his own studio in 1990, she went with him and stayed for two years.
“I kept my eyes open and tried to learn everything,” she says of those years, “but I’m an independent person and I needed more independence.” She founded her firm, Haley Johnson Design, “in a little space downtown” in 1992. “I wanted to do things my way, to have more power in the process, and to get the credit for the work.” Probably every designer in the world who’s been young and female can relate to this: the guys go out and do the selling and no one knows that you were the one who actually did the work. “It was really important to me to own what I do,” Johnson asserts.
She has accomplished this admirably by working out royalty arrangements with her key clients. “From the beginning I thought I deserved the same fees that the bigger firms got, but that wasn’t going to happen with smaller, newer clients. With the assistance of her husband, business manager and “life saver” Gerry D’Amour—they eloped the same year the business was started—she’s worked out deals in which her company shares in the success of the sales of the product.
“She deserves it,” says BlueQ’s Nash. “Every package she develops is designed to do business, not just look good. That bottom-line thinking is artfully hidden in the beauty of what she makes.” Johnson gets her largest percentage from Jane Jenni, an independent giftware manufacturer based in St. Paul with whom she’s worked for fifteen years. The Jenni line has more than 80 icons—words and pictures that identify personalities from “mother hen” to “biker chick”—on collectible buttons, luggage tags and coasters. “The process of developing a line and bringing it to market takes research, capital, fresh ideas and lots of hard work,” explains Jenni. “I’ve seen lots of entrepreneurs at gift shows come and go. Without Haley’s designs, I would not have succeeded in an already over-crowded marketplace.”
To make all this happen, Johnson has developed her own working methodology. “Most of my clients allow me much freedom with few meetings,” she says. “I rely mostly on my instincts and try to keep my eyes open. I hope to be really good someday.”
Her clients, of course, think she is really good right now. And they’re willing to put up with a methodology they find as quirky as her work. “Once I give Haley an assignment, she disappears,” Nash muses. “She doesn’t answer the phone. She refuses to do anything she’s seen before. She gets lost in the riddle. Then when she knows what she wants to do, she burns the midnight oil, including occasionally renaming the product or rewriting the copy. She needs clients who stay in their offices late because she doesn’t hit her stride until six p.m. When she finds what will sell and surprise, she surfaces. So she makes me wait. I’ve learned to be OK with that. I can’t argue since she’s the hardest working person I know. And then everything just looks so damn cute—and easy.”
Easy is not the first word that comes to mind when you watch Johnson at work at her messy desk, applying decorative patterns to every surface of a package, occasionally looking up from the monitor to focus on the view: trees, a meadow, the creek. Then switching to explorations of bowls and vases for BlueQ’s up-coming foray into the household-object market.
The studio, a modest two-bedroom house, is not “designed” in the formal sense, but contains most everything needed for R&D based on references to historical and cultural styles: an impressive library, collections of vintage magazines, packages, textiles, wooden toys. The toy guns, bondage equipment and ropes might give one pause, until you remind yourself that this is, after all, the designer of Total Bitch soap, BlueQ’s current number-one product. “I like being provocative, a little bit subversive,” Johnson says.
Down the hall, Gerry D’Amour’s office contains what Johnson refers to as “all the business stuff.” It’s said that behind every great woman there’s a great man, and this man is good-looking, athletic, has a degree in management, is handy around the house and not above doing all the everyday tasks. “I negotiate the contracts and do the billing and all the things that go on into running an office,” he says, “so Haley can talk to the clients about design and not about money.”
Eschewing even a ten-minute commute downtown, they call home a Craftsman-style bungalow ten doors down the street from the studio. It’s surrounded by another of Johnson’s passions, lush perennial borders and vegetable gardens. There are no children or pets. You might say all those characters on the products are their offspring, including a lasso-wielding boss lady, a preacher promising to wash away your sins, a Jesus with a mirror on his chest and a dirty girl being transformed into a sweetly pink clean specimen of beauty.
If the Twin Cities have one of the country’s more eventful design communities, Johnson is not an active part of it. Not because she’s a recluse. Just because most of the time she’s at her desk burning that midnight oil. “I did not evolve into that type of socializing,” she admits, claiming she is trying to get better at it, starting to judge shows and give talks. Sharon Werner, who has also headed a notable Twin Cities design firm for fifteen years, recalls how Johnson earned the respect of her colleagues early on: “Everybody at Duffy would be sitting around brainstorming and chatting, and Haley was back at her desk working out her own ideas,” Werner says. “She didn’t need validation from anyone else. It was inspirational.”
Johnson continues to be inspirational. Her work will be worth watching as she moves into the next phase, which will include designing 3-D objects and teaming up with writers and illustrators on larger projects. Maybe she’ll even design a business card for herself. But what she wants to talk about most is how important it is to enjoy life outside of work. “Someone once told me to design my life, that was the best advice I ever got.” To her, that means everything beyond the office. “Having a beautiful view is designing my life,” she explains. “Having a commute that’s a walk down the block. Choosing not to work in a glass cube with a view of a brick wall. It’s being closer to nature. It’s eating home-grown vegetables. Breathing fresh air. Sleeping well. Playing well.” Mostly it means working with people she likes. “I sleep well because I don’t have too many clients or the wrong mix of clients,” she says. “Because I can work at a pace I’m comfortable with, I can excel at what I do. I love what I’m doing.” ca