Tina: Describe your path to what you’re doing now.
I went to college at the University of Oregon, and I was really interested in photojournalism because I had always wanted to be a photographer. My grandfather was a photographer; that was his hobby that he did all the time. When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with him in the darkroom, and I loved that process. Every time I take a photo, I can still hear him saying, “Hold that camera steady!” (laughing) He was also a bookbinder. I will always remember his attention to precision and craft, which I loved. He was a huge creative influence on me, and I miss being able to chat with him.
I left the Bay Area to go to school in Oregon because it was close enough to California, but still far enough away that my parents would have to jump on a plane to come see me. The University of Oregon had a good photojournalism school, but I took two classes there and hated it. I thought the journalism school was nonsense. And I was pissed that I didn’t get credit for working at the radio station because I was in the journalism school, but I would’ve gotten credit for working at the newspaper. I thought the school was being unfair to the radio people. (laughing) I switched my focus to international studies, which means nothing, and art history, which is of little to no value, except for when I go to a museum and can remember something about Tintoretto.
Anyway, I was the music director at KWVA in Eugene, Oregon, with 500 watts of power. When I started working at the station, I was also making posters. Before that, I had always made zines because I was a huge Smiths fan in junior high; I was into that whole Manchester music scene. I’d go to Kinko’s and make zines, which I loved doing. I carried that through to the radio station, where I made t-shirts, posters, and zines.
I think my path has been littered with meeting awesome people at just the right time. I’m a huge English soccer fan and grew up going to pubs with my dad in Toronto, beginning when I was six, and then the Bay Area later on. One day in college, I was sitting in the dorms, and I saw this kid wearing a Manchester United shirt—I was wearing one, too! It was 1994 and that was very unusual back then. We started talking; his name was Clint and he was really cool. I met a friend of his named Scott Nelson, who was a fabulous guy, a cyber-punk-hippie from Santa Cruz. Scott ran an ISP out of his parents’ garage, but he operated it from Oregon. He taught me how to write HTML, and I was so taken by this amazing publishing tool. I remember typing my first line of code, and it said, “Hello, world. My name is Jon Setzen, and this is my website,” in that big serif font. After that, my studies started going downhill because I was so into the radio station and HTML.
I’ll flash forward a bit to the end of school. Doing posters and zines while at the radio station had turned into making a website for the station. I really liked coding and design, but never thought about having a job doing it. After school, I returned to San Francisco to look for work. I had always wanted to work at a newspaper, and I got a job at The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. It was 1998 and, randomly, they were really into AOL. One of the things I did there was manage the Jewish singles, which primarily consisted of men and women in their 60s, who lived in Florida and wanted to meet. It was exciting and weird.
From there, I transitioned into working at the San Francisco Chronicle. The day I started there, the two other designers on staff left to create a startup. I was 23 and in charge of design for the interactive side, and I loved it. There was something about working for the newspaper. I loved the idea that thousands of people were going to look at my work and get something out of it every day. It was great being in that newsroom environment; I liked the fast pace.
While I was in San Francisco, I started doing a lot of freelance work on the side. I slowly realized I didn’t want to live there anymore. I thought about living in London where I have a lot of family—
And soccer—er, football.
And pubs! (laughing) My best friend was in New York. His girlfriend was going to be in Paris for school for the year and he told me I should come to New York. I was supposed to go to New York on September 13, 2001. I had an interview at a design studio, which was actually called Ground Zero.
Yeah, crazy! That obviously didn’t happen, but I had already quit my job. I moved to New York a couple days before Thanksgiving in 2001. I told myself, “Oh, I’m such a good designer that I’ll just get a bunch of work.” Seven months later, I had almost no work, and I had started doing free work for nonprofits.
I was living in Brooklyn and would walk around and talk with nonprofits that had terrible signage and collateral. I’d ask to redesign it all for free with credit for the work. I did that for three or four nonprofits and it really started to pick up, but then I got to the point where I didn’t have any money. I went onto Craigslist and took a job moving furniture in Queens. I was the worst furniture mover in the history of furniture movers. I hit that low point and didn’t know what I was going to do, so I convinced my landlord to let me make a website for him in exchange for three months of rent.
During all of that, I reconnected with Jennifer Fowler, a woman who I new from college radio. She was working at a company called J Records, which was a subsidiary of Arista. Clive Davis had started J Records and their main artist was Alicia Keys. Jennifer needed someone to do banner ads and landing pages and splash sites for her. I said, “I’m your man!” I got that contract and had it for the next 11 years.
Then I met another woman, Tsilli Pines, who had also worked for the Jewish Bulletin, but moved to New York. We totally hit it off. She was one of the most influential people I’ve had in my life. I’m still friends with her, and she now runs CreativeMornings/Portland as well as Design Week Portland. She’s an amazingly, talented, radical person.
After all of that, things picked back up and I ran my own studio, Standard Motion, for 10 years. I had a space in DUMBO, which is how I met Tina Roth Eisenberg.
I was doing good work for cool clients, and I started doing contract work for some larger agencies. About half of the work involved designing for photographers and photo agencies. I had also done work with Alicia Keys, which was my favorite; I spent almost a year with her in the studio, documenting the making of her second album.
Then I had a kid. I was tired of waiting to get paid by clients, and I had an opportunity to work with some folks who were creating a startup agency in LA. They wanted to do a lot of the work in Buenos Aires, and I had worked with a lot of people in South America and Europe. I started working for that agency and really loved them. I was finally ready to leave New York and have a full-time job, so my family and I moved out here to LA.
I loved the people I was working with, but after a while, I started to hate the hours. I also didn’t like working for marketing departments at big companies that didn’t care about their products—they only cared about themselves moving up the ladder. That was my perception anyway. Media Temple hit me up, and I’ve now been here for almost three years. I’m in charge of the creative here as well as UX.
“My grandfather was a photographer…When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with him in the darkroom, and I loved that process. Every time I take a photo, I can still hear him saying, ‘Hold that camera steady!’”
What a story! You mentioned Toronto and the Bay Area. Where did you grow up, and was creativity part of your childhood?
I was actually born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but we left in 1977 when I was about two. We moved to Toronto, where I lived until I was nine. Then we moved the Bay Area, where my parents still are.
As far as creativity, I already mentioned my grandfather, who was great. My mom had done a lot of sculpture. My sister and I drew often as kids because we flew often. We’d go to South Africa with our parents or I’d go visit my grandparents in Vancouver for the summer. Now, my kids sit with iPads on the plane, but I didn’t have that. Instead, my mom had these cool craft books for us to do on the plane.
Even though I liked to draw, I think the main part of creativity for me was imagination and make-believe. I used to love wearing costumes, which my older son now does. I spent hours playing soccer in our driveway in Toronto, pretending I was playing for Manchester United in the FA Cup Final. It was that kind of stuff from childhood that, in a weird way, gave me confidence to experiment and try new things. While I was never a good artist, I think I have a lot of good ideas, which stems back to using my imagination.
You said you were born in South Africa. Are your parents from there or did they travel for work?
No, I am fifth-generation South African. My mom was also born in Johannesburg; my dad was from Cape Town. My grandma is English, but the rest of my family is South African. They were Jews who left Russia way back when because Jews were being persecuted. They fled, and a lot of people went to England and Africa. My parents were strongly anti-apartheid and didn’t want to raise a family in South Africa. They were trying and trying to leave, and we finally did when I was two.
Did you have an “Aha!” moment when you knew that design was something you were really interested in?
It’s weird because I still feel like I don’t know what I truly want to do, but I do know what it feels like when I do something that I want to do, if that makes sense. I want to work for the joy of what the work is, which I feel like I’m doing now. When I left advertising, I never wanted to put myself in the position of having that kind of work stress again. I don’t have that stress at Media Temple; it’s not because the job isn’t hard. But I’ve shifted to doing design for service as opposed to design for selling stuff. I guess my “Aha!” moment was leaving advertising. Now, I want to do work that helps small businesses, like when I had my studio and did work for sole proprietors. I get to do that here at Media Temple. I design and create things that hopefully make the lives of our customers—who I believe are the top of the creative class—easier and better.
Learning how to do HTML was also a big “Aha!” moment for me because it was so fun, and it was so immediate.
Also, around 2002 or 2003, I understood the importance of delegation for the first time. I always want to be a designer, but I enjoy the delegation process and the collaborative aspect of things.
I have an intern, and the moment I got one, I thought, “Why did I wait so long?” It’s awesome!
Yeah, and it gives you a moment of reflection. You realize that maybe the way you’ve been doing things isn’t the only way to do them.
Definitely. Have you had any mentors along the way?
My friend, Tsilli, who I already mentioned, was definitely a mentor. When stuff would get bad at work or I was in a tough place, I’d call her. She was an amazing sounding board. When you’re self-employed and serving as designer and creative director, and only the client sees your work, you can get stuck in tunnel vision. It’s important to have another set of eyes. Tsilli is one of those people who gives me really critical feedback, doesn’t pull punches, and we can still be friends. I need that.
Knowing Tina Roth Eisenberg has been amazing. She’s a wonderfully warm, inclusive person who has no ego. Seeing the way she starts stuff and her infectious, loving nature has made me stop and think about people I’ve worked with in the past and the kind of person I want to be at work. I want to be inclusive and kind.
Creatively, my wife, Mindy, is an amazing painter. She’s more talented than I will ever be. Just being with her and seeing the way she looks at the world has helped form so many creative decisions that I’ve made over the years. I’m thankful every day that our paths crossed.
So, there have been three very strong, powerful women in the mentoring space for me.
Yeah! Has there been a point when you’ve taken a big risk to move forward?
Definitely. I had a really good job in San Francisco. I loved working at the newspaper and was making good money considering how young I was. To leave that and go to New York right after 9/11 was a big risk, but I needed to do something to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself.
A lot of the stuff I did in New York, like the door-to-door design salesman pitching, was a risk because I’m introverted. I’m getting better, though.
Oh, there’s one other chance encounter I should mention. When I was looking for work in New York, I walked into this new bar in Park Slope called Southpaw. I used to DJ—not well—and I wanted to do a British indie night there. I met these guys named Mikey Palms and Matt Roff. They asked if I’d do some posters because they just booked a show with this band called Mogwai. This was before Twitter, and they needed something to put in the Village Voice to promote the show. Over the next few years, I ended up making 400 posters for them, and poster-making became a decent side business for a few years. Being able to sell design on my own terms was great.
Moving to LA was another risk, but it was easier because I had my family and a job.
What was it like moving from New York to LA?
I’ll say this. New York is the best place I’ve ever lived. My favorite city in the world is London, but New York is the best city in the world. I miss it daily. I don’t necessarily miss living there daily, but I miss the feeling I had in New York, which you just don’t get anywhere else.
My wife and I struggled with leaving New York. It was a very difficult decision for us. It was also difficult for me to decide I was going to work for someone else and not run my own business. I actually had panic attacks and some serious anxiety over it. Eventually, I decided I didn’t want to live in an apartment; I wanted a backyard, I wanted my kids to have a backyard, and I wanted some space. It was time. Maybe when I’m 60, my wife and I will move back to New York and live in an apartment with a doorman and an elevator, and we’ll send our dry cleaning out, and order food in.
It’s been great, though. I love living here. I do miss the East Coast: the intense greenery, spring in New York, the first snowfall of the year. But I hate the summers in New York more than anything.
Me too! It’s so hot.
The way to do it is to spend spring and fall in New York and winter and summer in LA.
I think the breaking point for us was when we had a kid. I was living in Park Slope, my studio was in DUMBO, and I’d go to Manhattan for meetings. We’d go out in Manhattan every few months. Other than that, there wasn’t a reason for me to go there; when I did go there, I’d eat at the same places because I didn’t know any of the new spots. I was basically a tourist.
“There’s nothing better than being [at CreativeMornings/LA] and seeing people who attended separately two years now collaborating on projects; I love connecting them. If that is something I have contributed to a little, it makes me happy.”
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?
Totally. My grades were really bad during my first year of college, and my dad asked me, “Are you screwing around with that website nonsense?” I was. But as far as mentors go, I’m lucky to have had parents who are supportive and who work so hard. We’re double immigrants; my parents left South Africa and started over with nothing in Toronto; then they left Toronto and started with nothing in California. Seeing them work so hard and make sacrifices for my sister and I has been incredibly influential. I was always a terrible student, but a very good worker.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
I do, and I think that’s why I wanted to do CreativeMornings. When I was in New York, I went to CreativeMornings often. I loved being there and meeting people. I still think about some of the ones I went to, especially the Michael Beirut one, where he talked about clients. To see my friend Tina start that was amazing. When I moved to LA, I asked her if I could start a chapter out here. There weren’t any other chapters yet, although she had been doing the Zurich ones in the summer. She had been thinking about adding chapters, but wanted someone she knew to start it. I started the third chapter and now there are around 90 chapters.
I’m now the longest running host—it’ll be four years in October. I’ve done 50 events, and I still get so excited each month. There’s nothing better than being there and seeing people who attended separately two years now collaborating on projects; I love connecting them. If that is something I have contributed to a little, it makes me happy. I think the creative community can feel cliquey sometimes, but CreativeMornings feels like these two big open arms that pull everyone in. It’s essentially Tina, but in 90 cities.
I also feel like a big part of my job now is to build teams and mentor others. I have the best team I’ve ever had anywhere here at Media Temple. I love watching them grow and become more confident. That’s super important to me.
Are you creatively satisfied?
I am, but I’m constantly hungry. One of the reasons I wanted to be involved in CreativeMornings is because it talks about process. These days, so much of our experience with design is with platforms like Pinterest that only show the beautiful finished product laid out on a table with a coffee cup. I love when people talk about mistakes and the creative process.
Something cool about LA is that people want to make stuff here, and they want to collaborate, so I continue meeting people to start projects with. I’m trying to slow down a little bit.
Anything you’d like to explore that you’re not doing now?
I don’t know. I started a little candle company about two years ago because my grandpa used to blend pipe tobacco.
Brad told us about your candles. I think he has one?
(laughing) Yeah, I sent Brad a prototype. He was always interested in what was happening with that project in the lovely way that Brad helps to motivate people. I have always loved the smell of pipe tobacco. My grandpa didn’t smoke, but he would test the pipe tobacco, and I remember his studio having that smell when I was a kid. A couple years before he died, he told me what was in his recipe, and I took it in to a candle factory. Candle factories are crazy: you can bring them a branch and they’ll match it, and it’ll smell like your house when you were a kid.
That’s so cool.
Yeah. So I told the candle factory, “It’s these four smells,” and they made me a set of jars for each of the scents. I opened up and smelled one of the little jars, and I literally started tearing up because it felt like I was seven years old again. That’s how I started the candle company. I enjoyed that process, but the fulfillment is tough because I do it all myself once a week. But I want to grow that line because scent and fragrance are quite interesting.
For the past year, I’ve been working on another side business: it’s an ice cream company called Smile Frozen Goods. My pal Kevin, one of the founders of Boxed Water, had an idea to do something with ice cream. We shot it around for a while, and we did our first pop-up shop last weekend. He’s been the brains behind everything; I’ve just been doing the design. It’s been super fun working on the branding, but I want to be more involved with him. We have a little cart right now, but I’m hoping that Smile Frozen Goods grows to the point where we can have a physical location.
At some point, I would like to get back to running my own studio, but I’m happy to be here right now. My job at Media Temple affords me the ability to be a good dad. They have great benefits, and if I need to leave at 3:30pm to go to my kid’s soccer practice, they allow me to do that. That’s my number one priority.
“Something cool about LA is that people want to make stuff here, and they want to collaborate, so I continue meeting people to start projects with. I’m trying to slow down a little bit.”
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Take chances, pick something you’re good at, and focus. When I look at my older websites from 2005 or earlier, I was a photographer, designer, illustrator, and videographer, but I wasn’t particularly great at any of them. I see that lack of focus a lot of times when I do portfolio reviews for younger people at art schools, public speaking engagements, or workshops.
I also believe that people need to have expectations. There is a strange outlook with this new generation—the millennials?—where there’s a sort of entitlement for success without having to work hard. I’ve had shitty jobs and internships: folding t-shirts at radio stations, working in a stock room at Nordstrom, delivering pizzas, and all of that. It’s important to have those shitty jobs so you understand when you actually find a good job.
And you still learn valuable skills through the shitty jobs, too, like how to negotiate and interact with customers. It might not be your dream job, but you’re still learning.
Yeah. It’s also good to learn what you don’t want to do.
It motivates you. If you work at a crappy job, it makes you think: “Ugh, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. I need to focus on something and figure out what I do want to do.”
I totally agree.
You’ve mentioned LA a lot. How does living there impact your work and creativity?
Whenever I’m interviewed or asked to give talks about creativity and LA, I usually say that there is something about the light in LA that just doesn’t exist in other places. I wake up early, and there’s something about the early morning light here that is so conducive to doing something creative.
I’ve spent so much time working on digital or interactive work that all I want to do here is work on physical products. There is an authentic community of people who fabricate here. For example, with the ice cream company I’m working on with Kevin, everything is made by hand. There isn’t that notion of LA outside of LA, though. It gets a bad rap as being a fake city. There is a great amount of drive, craft, and authenticity about so much that is happening here.
My friend, Hamish Robertson, is a great example of that. He’s constantly churning out beautiful prints and products from his studio, Vacation Days. I’ll see them pop up on people’s sites and Instagram feeds and think, “Where and how is he doing all of this!?” He and I talk a lot about Los Angeles being a big motivator for creative work.
My friend and photographer Laure Joliet is great at visually depicting how LA feels in her work. It’s casual but inspiring, and I truly feel like I want to be constantly making something here. I didn’t have that feeling after being in New York for a long time: it was too much about the rat race. There is a little more creative freedom in LA as opposed to New York, which Tina Roth Eisenberg is going to hate me for saying. (laughing)
“I’ve had shitty jobs and internships: folding t-shirts at radio stations, working in a stock room at Nordstrom, delivering pizzas, and all of that. It’s important to have those shitty jobs so you understand when you actually find a good job.”
Is it important to be a part of a creative community of people?
I want to be part of a creative community, but I’m not a big networker: I don’t like going to a lot of events—there is so much lip service. CreativeMornings is the ideal event for me: you show up at 8:30am, have coffee, talk to a few people, sit down for 20 minutes and hear a great talk, and then you leave. (laughing) For an introverted, reclusive weirdo like me, that is exactly what I like. However, I do feel like the creative community is where everything interesting in the world is happening, and I definitely want to be a part of that, even if it’s just as an onlooker. I feel honored to have a role in CreativeMornings here and help form a bit of a community.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake up very early, usually before 6am. I make breakfast for my kids, Jack and Arlo, who are seven and three. I hang out with them and then take Jack to school, unless I have CreativeMornings. I head to work and am usually there until 5pm or so. I’m in a lot of meetings, but I have a good time here—and I’m not just saying that. Afterwards, I come home and do kid stuff: dinner, baths, and, currently, playing a lot of Pokémon—which I don’t understand. (laughing) Most nights I do some personal work or stuff for Smile Frozen Goods. That’s about it for a typical day: kids, work, kids, and hanging out.
What music have you been listening to lately?
I commute in my car for over an hour each day, so I usually listen to the SiriusXMU station, which is amazing. Album-wise, I love Sharon Van Etten’s record, Are We There, and the new album from Kevin Drew, Darlings; he was the guy from Broken Social Scene.
Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of DJ Krush—he’s an old Japanese hip-hop guy. You know the website It’s Nice That? They put out Friday playlists, and I’ve been listening to all of them—they’re amazing. I love the band Godspeed, You! Black Emperor—do you know them?
I know the name, but I haven’t listened to them.
It’s post-rock(whatever)—it’s instrumental, and it’s fantastic. I was able to see them live a couple of years ago, and, for some reason, they have consistently been my go-to, late-night band to put on.
I spend a lot of time editing, and I don’t want to listen to anything with words, so I like Explosions in the Sky. They did the theme song for Friday Night Lights.
Are they from Texas? I do like them. The music in that show is amazing.
I love that show.
I don’t have that much time for TV, although I do enjoy watching it. Friday Night Lights is one of those shows that I hope to sit down and watch.
What are your favorite TV shows and movies?
There’s a British one called Peep Show. You can watch all eight seasons on YouTube, even though you’re not supposed to. It’s the funniest show I’ve ever seen.
To be honest with you—and this is probably bad to admit—I don’t watch the news. Ever since the shooting incident in Connecticut with those kids happened, I totally stopped watching the news. I’m ignoring what’s happening in the world a little, which is bad, but it’s so depressing to me. When I watch something, I want to watch something funny. I love Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I’m a ridiculously big Seinfeld nerd. If I’m going to watch something at night, it’ll most likely be a Seinfeld rerun. I loved The Wire, and I love the Silicon Valley show.
Movie-wise, my favorite movie of all time, aside from Star Wars, is All the President’s Men. It’s one of my favorite books, and I love political thrillers. I also loved the Leon Gast documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle, When We Were Kings. I watch a lot of movies on planes now, so I don’t get to the theater a lot, unless it’s to see something like The Lego Movie. I also loved the movie Her. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen.
Do you have any favorite books?
All the President’s Men is great, but I was also into books about boxing for a while. Authors like Norman Mailer and Georgie Plimpton used to write amazing stories about boxing in the 60s and 70s. There was also a book called The Professional, by W.C. Hines, which is regarded as the best boxing novel ever written. It’s about a guy from New York City who is training for a title fight at Madison Square Garden, and the book takes you through the entire process. For anyone who hasn’t read it, though, know that the forward written by Elmore Leonard unfortunately reveals what happens at the end. Do not read the forward—it completely spoiled the book for me. The entire time I was reading it, I knew exactly what was going to happen in the fight at the end, which was such a bummer. But it’s still a fascinating book.
What is your favorite food?
Not to sound like a jerk, but it kind of depends on where I am. When I used to visit my aunts and uncle in London, I’d frequent a place called Curry Paradise, which had the best chicken tikka masala.
Here in LA, the food is outrageously good. I love sushi, and there is a place here called SUGARFISH, which is so phenomenally good. Growing up in San Francisco, my best friend’s dad was from Mexico City, so he would take us to the best taco places in the Mission.
And when I’m in New York, I love the pizza. Pizza in New York is similar to its bodegas: if you live on 3rd Street, you go to a pizza place on 3rd; if you live on 11th, you go somewhere near 11th. We used to live near Smiling Pizzeria, so we’d always go there. I know there is a great place in Bushwick called Roberta’s, but I like a good $1.50 slice. I remember speaking at a conference recently in Midtown, right in the middle of Times Square—it was brutal. I stopped at a shitty pizza place near Port Authority, the kind that sells big, dollar slices that you eat while standing on the street surrounded by garbage. It was the best: really greasy, cheesy pizza with a mini fountain Coke.
I would also add this to my list of favorite foods, because it is the best: anything my mom makes. It doesn’t matter what it is.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
That’s such a tough question. There are a couple things. I would like for someone who has worked for me to end up doing something amazing.
I’d like my kids or grandkids to be somewhere in the future—where bookstores still exist—and go into a store and find a book about design in the early 2000s with a page featuring my work. I’d hope that they’d buy that book, and that it would help them understand why I worked so much and how much I enjoyed what I did.
I would like to be remembered more for being a good person who helped others advance themselves as opposed to only being a guy who made things, but I am a guy who makes things. I hope there is some kind of legacy left by the work I’m doing, because it’s hard in the digital space: it all goes away.
“I would like to be remembered more for being a good person who helped others…as opposed to only being a guy who made things, but I am a guy who makes things. I hope there is some kind of legacy left by the work I’m doing, because it’s hard in the digital space: it all goes away.”