Oct 20 2010
D. Julian Smith is a graphic designer and a relative newcomer to the Levi’s® brand. Among his many responsibilities, designing graphics for T-shirts, the first of which we won't see till spring.
So how does Julian approach his work and make the end result “not just another graphic T?” Who better to expose his views than…Julian himself?
By the way, when I requested a picture to accompany this Q&A, he provided the one above. He clearly favors anonymity.
Unzipped: Okay, first question’s pretty basic: What makes a cool T-shirt graphic? What makes a bad one?
Julian: Cool is subjective - in my opinion a cool T is based on brand relevance, it depends on where it comes from and where it’s going. A bad T is a design that exploits current predictable pop culture art / design trends. I think a brand should represent its own original vision. I feel there is a loss of originality with all of collaborations going on today. With social transparency, comes the loss of mysticism. One brand aligning itself with another instantly categorizes their social doings. I would much rather see a brand expanding its vision thru its own lens rather than showing people who they are cool with. Again, its all opinion-based, no right or wrong here. Sometimes it’s not about the graphic, but more about the intent.
U: Where does your inspiration start?
J: Tuning in to my surroundings, friends' inspirations, having a good laugh, biking, surfing, music, really paying attention on what NOT to do, etc. At the end of the day, none of us really knows what we are doing. It’s all one big, unexpected, exploratory adventure. That is the greatest inspiration for me. Dad always stressed to me, “It’s all about the details.” I couldn’t agree more; it’s all about the details, thriving on the unexpected and taking risks.
U: Have your ever had a design that you believed to be both inspired and amazing, only to have it spiked? How do you handle that?
J: Yes, more times than not. Being a designer for any brand comes with key responsibilities, to name a few: time, budgets, consumer needs, briefs, etc. It’s more about answering a need rather than creating a graphic that just looks cool. There will always be a compromise in design, especially the bigger the company is. Getting shut down on a design is standard. You just have to go back to the drawing board.
U: What role does innovation play in your work?
J: A lot, even when designing a T-shirt. In addition to the graphic, we have to consider the wash, fabric, fit, and ink, all the way down to the thread color. We work closely with our vendors to utilize new printing techniques and sustainable fabrics to experimenting with recycled indigo runoff water for garment dying. I like the idea of using innovation to make something last longer, or be different. I don’t want to wear a T-shirt that looks vintage, but isn’t. I think the equity in a T-shirt is about the life it has had, otherwise, it’s a fake.
U: You could have the perfect design for a t-shirt, but you’re at the mercy of how it’s merchandised in the store. What would be the ideal setting?
J: Building out some sort of unexpected installation would be the best possible way to showcase the art / design that lives on the T’s. By doing this we will be able to communicate the seasonal message of the graphics line, so people can connect to our ideas, rather than to just the T shirt. We are working on it…
U: What kinds of statements do you want to make with Levi’s® graphics? Will they reflect our heritage? Are they modern and rebellious or artsy and abstract?
J: We are in a unique situation here;. As designers we have the opportunity tap into the rich archive to celebrate the brand’s heritage -- using the artwork that has been developed over the last 150 years as the catalyst to push the brand forward with new methods of design. Our goal is to push the brand graphically as much as we can, while staying true to our core messages of work wear, sustainability, pioneering and a having a strong seasonal concept. We are also working with the bottoms team to incorporate the graphics into their line as well.
U: Since you’re relatively new to the Levi’s® brand, we won’t see your first T-shirt until Spring 2011. Can you give us a hint of what to expect?
J: Most of our graphics were hand crafted with X-actos, tape, drawings, and a photocopier. In some of the T’s we wanted to create a “future heritage” look by using old ad’s from our archives in new ways. I don’t want to give too much away -- gotta have something to look forward to!
Image: Mordechai Rubinstein
Posted By: Cory Warren, Editor, LS&Co. Unzipped
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