Jeff Rogers is a designer, letterer, and maker of things who works out of his NYC studio. Whether hand-drawn, painted, digitally crafted, or sculpted, Jeff’s lettering style and technique is influenced by a variety of things: his Texas heritage, vintage type specimens, painted signage, music, and the great Fauvist painters. Jeff has had the pleasure of working with some amazing clients including The New York Times, Urban Outfitters, Nike, Google, Ace Hotel, and others. He has been featured in the Communication Arts and Type Directors Club typography annuals and various typography and lettering books.
Jeff feels lucky that he gets to do what he loves and doubly lucky to be married to his wife, who is also his muse.
Want an honest, forthcoming account of what it’s like to navigate your way through a career path? Ask Jeff. He wasn’t hesitant to divulge his story with us—or you. And it’s a good thing because he has the wisdom of a guy who’s lived a couple lives and it’s all here. We hope that you’ll resonate with Jeff’s adventures and if you’re not currently doing what you love, that you will let this be a challenge to you to do something about it—it’s never too late! Thank you, Jeff, for sharing about your path into design and illustration, talking honestly about self-doubt, reiterating the importance of feedback and community, and for having such a grateful attitude. We admire your work and even more, we value who you are and how you enrich our creative community.
Interview date: March 26, 2012
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Describe your path to becoming a designer and letterer.
I always joke around with these young designers in New York who are doing killer work that I’m on the slow track and they’re on the fast track. I feel like I’ve been moseying along, mostly because I’ve tried a bunch of different things while others have started school knowing what they wanted to do. I did not do that (laughing).
I started college as a music major playing drums and percussion. I got into that through playing snare drum in high school. It was always my dream to go to the University of North Texas, which has the best college drumline in the U.S. I passed the audition and played at UNT, but as that first semester went on, I was killing myself practicing. I loved playing in the drumline, but if you’re a music major, the realization is that you’re most likely going to be a band director or you’re going to be doing session work or tours that you might not really want to do, but do because you have to make a living.
I changed my mind and decided that I could always play the music I wanted to on the side, but my first love was art. Ever since I could hold a pencil, I was drawing. My grandmother was a really good landscape painter and did these southwestern landscapes in oil. She taught me how to paint when I was really young.
I decided to change my major to communication arts and I transferred to Abilene Christian University, which is about three hours west of Dallas. I finally settled on graphic design. In my junior year, I realized I had to learn the computer if I wanted to make a living (chuckling). I didn’t really know what graphic design was until then, but once I got into the program, I just fell in love with it. I still kept painting and took five semesters of it even though I didn’t have to. I just felt like I needed to keep doing it for some reason.
After graduation, I worked several different jobs in Dallas. When I moved to New York, I worked at SpotCo for three years with Gail Anderson and Drew Hodges. That was crazy. That first year I felt like I was about to die every day, but I learned so much. I didn’t know what was going on or how to do it. I questioned every decision I made. It was stressful, but I knew I was learning because Gail and the others would steer me in the right direction. Things were much more comfortable after that first year.
You have your own studio now. Did you go out on your own right after SpotCo?
Yeah. I left there last May . Gail and some other designers had left and things were changing. At that point, I felt like I knew what I was doing. I don’t like that feeling. I want to always feel like I’m a fish out of water—like I’m out of my element. I learned that at UNT walking through the halls of the practice rooms and listening to all the drummers practicing—I’d never heard anything like it. It expanded my thinking and made me realize that there’s so far to go. Going out on my own was always something I wanted to do even though it terrified me—that made me think I’d better do it. It took me a year to finally jump ship and do it because it was so scary, but it’s been amazing.
[Ryan] Do you do mainly lettering or is it a good mix between design and lettering?
I love doing the lettering stuff, which I put out there a lot, but right now I’m doing half and half. The lettering is fun, but doesn’t really pay the bills by itself. I have all these styles with lettering—I paint and do digital as well. I think that’s hard for people when they’re looking to hire someone; if you don’t have a very specific style, it’s sometimes hard for people to imagine what you would do with their project. At the same time, I don’t want to do just one thing. I don’t think I do just one thing, but maybe I have a warped view of what I do?
Today I was working on some branding, a logo, and promo mailer for a photographer friend. He’s letting me do whatever I want. I love working with people like that. I’m also doing some book design and some identity stuff. I hardly ever show that work, so I don’t know why I keep getting asked to do it.
[Ryan] That’s why I was asking. I know you from your lettering work. To me, it’s really distinct—the colors and the style.
Cool. Yeah, I feel like it’s going to take me a long time to figure out who I am in the industry, I guess.
You talked about enjoying drawing when you were younger. Was creativity a part of your childhood?
Absolutely. It was 95% of my childhood.
It’s funny. I have an identical twin brother who is totally the opposite of me. He works out all the time and looks like he’s from the movie 300; he’s got a family and is going back to med school. I have a little brother who’s also super athletic and currently training for a triathlon. They inspire and astound me in different ways than someone who is creative does. What was I saying? I always end up talking about my brothers.
Oh, my point was that they were always doing athletic stuff and that worked for them. I played soccer for 11 years and I sucked the whole time. I never got any better. Competitive sports made sense for them; for me, it didn’t. Music and making things was what came most naturally for me. Those were things I got better at the more I did.
My dad is an incredible drawer and we used to draw together from the newspaper comics. I remember one day when we were drawing and he looked over at mine and said, “Wow, yours looks better.” That made me want to keep going because I was actually getting better.
All through school, if there was a chance to build something for an extra credit project, I did it. Everyone seemed to be pleased with it, so I kept doing it. “Creative”—that word was thrown around a lot at me. And then there was, “Did you draw this freehand?” I don’t know how else I would have drawn it?
You touched on this a little, but was there an “aha” moment when you knew that design was what you wanted to do?
Yeah. It was when I was at UNT. As a percussion major, I had to take all these extraneous classes like tympani and mallets and snare drum. The mallets were always a struggle for me. I faked it through high school, but when I got to college, it was terrible. I would literally hide in the practice room when they closed the building so that I could practice all night. I remember a time that I did that for three nights in a row. On the first night, I had driven my car and parked by the practice building, which was a faculty lot during the day. One of my friends asked, “Is your car parked behind the practice building?” I was so out of it that I totally forgot my car was there—it had three parking tickets on it.
All of that and I couldn’t get any higher than a “C” in that class. I always suspected that the teacher hated me because I was a snare drummer and didn’t care about marimba. It was when I was leaving one of those classes that I decided I was wasting my time. I changed my major to communication arts. I had always known I was going to do music and art in some fashion, even though I didn’t know how it would play out. Changing my major was the clear answer at that moment.
[Ryan] Do you still play music?
Yeah. Absolutely. Even after I changed my major, I continued to take music classes throughout college and play in all sorts of bands. I don’t get to play as much as I would like too, but I play when I can. I have a small drum set here and the rest of my drums are back in Texas. Playing releases a similar creative energy as design or painting but it’s way more exhilarating. If I’m not playing with a band, I try to at least get in the practice room pretty regularly to play along with James Brown, Medeski Martin and Wood, Soulive and the like.
“I’m happy that I am where I am right now and that I put all those hours into music. I learned valuable things about craft and tenacity and creativity.”
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I feel like I burden myself with that question sometimes, especially when I’m hanging out with all these amazing people here in New York. I think, “If I only would have gotten an internship…” I never did that. I graduated college and then went on tour with a band for a year. Then I came back and got a job.
I had this drum set teacher, Henry Oxdale, who grew up playing bebop and swing in clubs and strip joints. He was wise beyond reason and could just whale on the drums. We were practicing one day and I got down on myself and said, “I should know this already. I should have learned it in high school.”
He yelled at me and said, “No! Don’t ever say that. That will not help you at all. What’s done is done. Look forward, know what you have to do, and just do it.”
I’m happy that I am where I am right now and that I put all those hours into music. I learned valuable things about craft and tenacity and creativity.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
My grandmother, Evelyn, immediately comes to mind. She passed away ten years ago from cancer, which is crazy because she was so healthy. She influenced me in art and life because she was 100% positive and looked at every situation through that lens. That’s a lesson that translates to art and life.
I also had an art teacher, Janine Truitt, in my junior year of high school. She was a really good teacher. One thing she always said if I felt like I made a mistake was, “Well, make it a happy mistake.” The point being to take the mistake and adapt it into the piece to make it better rather than have a certain expectation of how I was going to make something and only be open to that.
I use those two mentors’ ideas every day when I’m working.
For example, I have this old scanner I’ve used since high school. I would never clean the scanner bed because there were all these great little nicks and blobs that would show up in pieces and make them different from what I was expecting. If you look at a lot of my work, there’s a little smudge that looks like an “F”. You would never see it. I’d have to point it out, but it’s there.
I have some other people who I consider mentors for different reasons and they know why—Wade Griffith; Gail Anderson; Kevin Graham; and my amazing parents, Urban and Melissa. I’ve learned so much from so many people along the way and I am grateful for every lesson. I try to pass that on and help young designers whenever there is an opportunity because I know I’d still be designing proposal covers had it not been for some generous designers who gave me advice.
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
Yes. This happens to a lot of us designers. Maybe your first job was at a big corporation, like AT&T, and you were working in the proposal center making proposal covers for three years. Um…
Was that really your first job?
That was it. Man, they promoted me like crazy. By the end of those three years, I was in charge of twelve people in six different states. They basically made me write my own job description. I wasn’t really designing. The one thing that was really great about it was that since I was helping people with resources technically and conceptually, I was able to sit and do Lynda.com tutorials for days at a time. By the time I left, I knew these programs forward and backward. Looking back, I realize I learned a lot there. There’s value in every experience if you look for it.
The last two years I was there were just misery, though. I took a risk to leave that job and go to a small interactive studio to pursue the thing I really wanted to do. I wanted to be the best designer I could be and I knew that wasn’t going to happen where I was—I had to go somewhere else. The big risk was taking an enormous pay cut. My pay was chopped by $25,000. I didn’t know what I was going to do because I had just gotten married.
The small studio also took a huge risk with me. I had never even designed a website. I was there for nine months and learned that I don’t like designing websites. I also learned that it’s important to try things so that you know what you don’t want to do.
Did you move to New York after that? Was the move a big risk for you?
NY was a risk, but I don’t think it was as risky as the move to the small design studio. The first time you get laid off or take a big pay cut, it’s always the most traumatic. You think, “My life will end… wait, it’s not so bad.”
When I left the small design studio, I didn’t have a job lined up. I was out for six weeks looking for work before I got a job as an art director at a small print design studio. I mainly did art direction for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra account. I loved it because it was music and I got to go to the performances. I was there for seven or eight months before we moved to New York.
We moved to NY at the beginning of 2008. We drove up here and sent our stuff in a truck. A lot of it got lost or broken. Somebody once told me that three moves equals a fire. That sounds about right.
I landed the job at SpotCo six weeks after we got here. It blew my mind that I was able to work there. My good friend, Ryan Feerer, had Gail as a professor at SVA so he sent a note to her and set up a meeting. I went into SpotCo and somebody had literally given their two weeks notice the day before; Gail asked me if I could start monday.
You’ve had quite the journey. Do you have any insight or wisdom that you picked up along the way that you’d like to share with young designers out there?
Sure. Starting out in Texas as a young designer, I felt stuck and I didn’t know how to get out. The first mistake I made was feeling like all my work had to be perfect before I could show it to anyone. It created a downward spiral for me over the course of a year and a half until I became totally unmotivated and depressed. I realized I needed feedback. I thought, “Screw it. I’m calling the best art director in the city and asking if I can come in and get feedback.”
The first person I found was a guy named Todd Hart who worked at this place called Focus 2. I told him I needed some advice on my book. He invited me to come over the next day. He sat with me for an hour and a half and gave me feedback.
I called the next person and they also were willing to help. What I found in Texas—and even here—is that the design community is typically warm and welcoming and willing to help.
When I talked to people, I would also ask if there was anyone else they knew who I could contact for feedback. That worked too. I kept talking to people and kept working on my stuff until it got better. The one funny thing is that every person I talked to told me to work on my typography, but I didn’t even know what they meant. I was completely baffled because I didn’t learn much about typography in college. It’s funny because now I do a lot of lettering.
I met this one creative director, Paul Jerde. I asked him how to get a better job and he told me something that blew my mind. He said, “Just do what you want to do until somebody pays you to do it.” It didn’t compute at the time.
Then I was watching this video by Jim Coudal and he quoted a quote that basically says the reason we’re often so unhappy is because we’re living like the person we are before we reach our goals, rather than the person we’ll be when we reach our goals.
That, combined with “do what you want” totally blew my face off. I decided to go talk to some of my musician friends and offer doing gig posters for them for free. I started doing the kind of work that I wanted to do and that was the stuff that I brought up here and showed Gail to get the job at SpotCo.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do? Who has encouraged you the most along your creative path?
They are very supportive. I am very blessed to have the family that I do. My wife, Allison, has been the most supportive. She’s been there through all of my decisions and she’s never doubted—she’s always believed I could do it. It’s important to have that. Otherwise, I don’t think I could have done it. I don’t think I would be in NYC if not for her.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
I was always so inspired by learning about the history of fine artists. They were part of these little communities and their work was reflective of their time and who they were hanging out with. If I show up in an image feed with people I really admire, that’s when I feel like I’m part of something bigger. Being part of a community and embracing the idea of community within the industry is important to me.
Are you satisfied creatively?
I knew that was coming. I don’t know. I’m always trying to figure out what’s next. I try to walk bravely into the unknown and stretch my limits, but I’m in one of those places right now where I’m not satisfied. I was beating myself up a couple weeks ago. I think we all go through that, especially here in New York where you’re surrounded by all these people who are doing really great work. Being where I am, I have the freedom to experiment and I need to take advantage of that; I need to push myself. It’s when I am doing something new that I feel the most satisfaction.
I mentioned that I’ve done some branding and identity work. The first couple I did were painful and I wasn’t happy with the end product. I couldn’t get the client to understand what I was trying to do. By the end, I hated doing logos. But then I told myself that I just needed to do my job a little better and stop complaining. That’s what a designer does—solve those kind of problems. The reality of this business is figuring out how to do that while walking the client through the process to help them understand the decisions you’re making. You can’t just throw something at them and expect them to get it.
[Ryan] Do you have any thoughts on where you’ll be in the next 5 to 10 years?
I have no idea where I’ll be in 5 to 10 years. I hope I look back on the work I’m doing now and think it’s horrible. I hope that I’ve progressed. I do want to stay on my own, but I’m not sure what that will look like.
The thing unrelated to design is that I want to have a family. That would be amazing.
How does living in New York impact your creativity?
It’s the community stuff. When I get together with friends for coffee or lunch, I leave wanting to work all night. We might not even talk about design at all. Having that is a plus for me.
There are also so many opportunities here and it’s easy to make connections with people in this industry.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I usually stay up too late, which makes me sleep too late and then I feel bad for sleeping too late. Then, by the time I get ready for the day, it’s 11:30am. The days that I wake up by the time I want to are few and far between. I’m not a morning person.
I start by checking emails and then I get to client work. I usually try to squeeze in personal work as well. I’ll work into the evening and after that, I’ll hang out with Allison and watch Breaking Bad.
Current album on repeat?
Lately I’ve been listening to mixes on Spotify. I’ve been listening to Tallest Man on Earth. It’s very folky. I’ll mix that up with Neon Indian and the Drive soundtrack. The album I’ve played the most over the last few weeks is Radiohead’s King of Limbs. It helps me concentrate.
Your favorite movie?
I’ve got the stock answer for the movie: Shawshank Redemption.
Do you have a favorite book?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
I have to say Tex-Mex because I love it and you can’t get it up here.
That’s what Dana said. You guys should open a Tex-Mex place.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I’ve thought about this a little and I would have to say the same legacy my grandmother left, which is to inspire the people around me to love and to be positive and content. I hope I exude that sort of energy and lifestyle so that the people around me feel welcomed. I want to be content and happy to have the things I have and do the things I do. That’s maybe more important than the work I do.
“I want to be content and happy to have the things I have and do the things I do. That’s maybe more important than the work I do.”