Graphic Design: An Interview with Jordan Versluis

Artwork depicting skeleton in a spacesuit in black and white. Black Mountain IV band poster.

For anyone looking for some top-notch graphic design, let me introduce you to Jordan Versluis. Based in St. Catharines, Canada, Jordan’s work clearly demonstrates his keen eye for detail across a body of work that ranges from logo design and branding to band t-shirts and album artwork.

Jordan’s demonstrated skillset emphasizes symmetry and composition across most of his artwork, and while he usually takes a minimalist approach to his designs, the results are spectacular.

I had a chance to chat with Jordan about his artwork and how he built a successful freelance business as a graphic designer, and he generously offers plenty of takeaway advice for anyone trying to make an income leveraging their creative talents.

Me: Hey Jordan, how you doing my man? Thanks for joining me today.

Jordan: Hi Mitch, thanks for having me.

We talked a little bit before connecting here, so I guess we can just jump right into the questions. That being said, for the sake of those who don’t know you or your work yet, let’s pretend and assume that nobody’s heard of you yet…  can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Jordan Versluis
Jordan Versluis

*Laughing* That’s probably a safe assumption, but yeah sure.

I’m the creative director at a web design and development firm in the Niagara region, specifically St. Catharines, Ontario, and I also have a pretty steady freelance gig going where I work with clients such as yourself, musicians, artists, and small businesses.

How did you get into art & design? How long have you been doing it?

I think my introduction to the creative world probably came around the time I was about 11 or 12 years old. I actually started that early because my cousin was running a Dragon Ball Z fan site, and I was pretty into the show at the time… you know like pretty much every normal 11 or 12-year-old boy *laughs*.  Anyways, he had me take over essentially managing the site because he thought he was getting too old and mature to watch the show any longer, at least to be associated with it online. So I took it over.

I eventually found that managing the creative aspects of that website became my obsession; updating the design, creating new iterations, coding, developing the graphics… all of those things.  Though I started to realize over time that I had wholly neglected actually updating the website other than the visual aspects.

Through that, I slowly started to gain a bit of notoriety online in that circle because of how well received my graphics and my website designs were… so I think that sort of lead into my first sale. When I was 12 years old, a woman from the United States mailed me a $20 bill to build her anime website for her. That was my first freelance gig.

Everything else came pretty organically after that thanks to my work and reputation in the anime world.  I mean, yeah, they were all just dorky little fan kids like me, and they wanted to have an excellent website to work with… but some people weren’t interested in learning that aspect of it, and I was. So I guess I ended up filling a bit of a niche.

So did you start doing web design before you were doing art then?

Yeah, the artwork came a long way down the road. I very much started in the digital world.

Initially, my interest was in digital design & development, and so I started working with websites. Over time I became a lot more graphically oriented. For example, I started creating little banners, badges, and advertisements for people. Before Facebook or Myspace existed, any venues through which you would network needed a specific set of dimensions, and so I worked within that landscape. Then the artwork element came just by me enjoying what I was doing and then trying to branch out my skills and explore what else could be done.

Eventually, I started exploring creating my own anime and graphics, and around that time, I breached out into the deviant art website. There, I became very familiar with some of the artists and with a lot of different styles of art. So for a while, I just played around with different styles, combining 3D modeling and photomanipulation and things like that – just crossing different mediums, and that was probably the beginning of my mixed media approach to design, which is what you can see nowadays in my artwork.

Like the stuff you did for my band once upon a time.

Yeah, the artwork I did for your band is very mixed media inspired. It was all done digitally, but it doesn’t look that way. I think my passion for that kind of work, or at least my skill in doing so, came about in those early days jumping between different platforms and seeing how they could combine their best features with one another.

Creekwater Junkies t-shirt design by Jordan Versluis depicting a day of the dead painted woman holding a snake and a dagger
T-shirt design Jordan did for my band Creekwater Junkies

It’s a really cool piece. It’s got some photorealism to it but then also some very artistic stuff. I think it’s a really unique design, so that’s awesome knowing how it came to be.

Now, I think you answered part of this next question, but how would you describe your particular work? Your style? Your niche and specialties to other people?

Like most artists would say, an artist’s style changes over time as he/she becomes more proficient in a particular skill and their interests change, or at least as the demand for what they’re doing changes.

That being said, mostly, I would describe my style as being influenced by older hardcore DIY. A lot of that particular aesthetic comes from old hardcore posters and marketing, you know, like the ones in the 1970’s and 80’s hardcore scene in New York. They all had this cut and paste photocopier kind of vibe… where textured elements came from having a piece of photography that was photocopied hundreds and hundreds of times in succession. It all worked to create a gritty, low detail, low-fi kind of look, which was very much the aesthetic of the time, and very much the mentality within punk and hardcore music as well. That’s what really solidified my approach to the way that I treat my designs, which are mostly influenced by black metal and later hardcore art.

I can definitely see some of that in several pieces of your work.

For sure. If you look at some of the original black metal artists and their art (or I guess maybe the 2nd wave of black metal … I’m not sure, it’s a convoluted history), you’ll see what I mean. Dark Throne’s Transylvanian Hunger is a prime example; covers like that one where the art is just two-tone, white and black, very dark, very low-fi… it can be very ambiguous in its nature or its subject matter. Sometimes it takes a second glace to figure out what’s going on because essentially everything is represented or lost in either black or white.

So I’d say the music scene is a part of your design style then.

Yeah, and this is something I think that you can relate to because you’ve been in bands before and played shows. When I used to play in some local bands – just your typical crappy hardcore bands and pop-punk bands – when got into that world, it’s what really introduced the music-oriented side of my graphic design work.

Being in bands, I was introduced to a lot of musicians who eventually saw that I was capable of doing some digital design and so it led to me trying out my hand at band album covers, band logos, and t-shirts. That developed the aesthetic that eventually I became known for – that DIY kind of hardcore style, that black metal kind of look.

Any specific influences then? Any artists to compare to?

I think a lot of people in the past have likened my style to Jacob Bannon’s from the band Converge. He’s an incredible artist, and while his style has changed significantly over the years, my favorite of his work is what he’s created for other bands. A lot of bands signed to the Death Wish label get artwork from him, and I really like the work that he’s done for groups like As I Lay Dying, Trap Them, or Rise and Fall. Of course, I also like the work he’s done for Converge itself.

I definitely get a lot of my influence from him – I’m not going to deny that. But you know, I guess that’s a compliment to some artists.

So how does your creative process work? How does it differ between your own stuff versus when a client contacts you for work?

It really depends on what their idea is, to be honest. Very early in my days of freelancing, it was tough for me to tell who a good client would be, a good client meaning someone who would be fun to work for or someone with whom I feel we would produce a good outcome together.

You’re not always going to make something that you’re completely happy with, and that’s something that I think most freelancers – as artists – struggle with on a day-to-day, client-to-client, or commission-to-commission basis. You want to ask yourself, “how do I make sure that I’m happy with the product I’m putting out,” but there’s always going to be some concession or some giving up of your own standards. Sometimes the things that you want to do or want to have input on in the project are trumped by whatever the client wants to do. I’ve gotten a lot better at determining from the onset what type of client is going to adhere to the way that I want to work, or at least adhere to my specifications for a good working relationship, and ultimately that’s conducive to a good project.

When creating for myself, I tend to just look at other artists or sources of inspiration. Often there are pieces that I will see, and I will think “here’s how I might do that piece” or “I really like what this person did here,” so then I might mess around with a style they’ve used. I’m very honest in that a lot of my creations are actually not that creative originally… I see a difference between being creative and skilled.

For example, when I’m challenged with a specific piece of subject matter or a request, that’s when I’m really able to step up… but if you were to plop me on a chair and say “come up with something brilliant,” it’s probably not going to happen. I’m more of a skilled individual than the type of artist who will come up with beautiful things on the fly.

So in that regard, I think that when I work with clients, it’s actually a lot easier for me to provide solutions to what they’re asking for because I’m not tasked to come up with the concept myself; a lot of clients come to me with one.

Again I think a good example of that is the artwork that you and I worked on together. You had a rough idea of what you were looking for, and so I took that idea and interpreted it in a way that I knew it would work solely based on the medium you would be producing it. In that case, it was going to be on a t-shirt or print, so I worked on the project with that in mind.

I think the main difference is that when I’m actually tasked with a specific request, I’m able to approach the artwork in a way that’s like solving a problem, and I’m much better at approaching things that way than by coming up with something on the whim. There have been occasions where I’ve been inspired to create something out of thin air, but it’s just been very few and far between.

I really, really liked that artwork, and I’ll admit I was bummed when things went south with my band’s reunion. There was some stuff going on with the group, and ultimately, we didn’t end up using it in a t-shirt capacity like we had intended, and I was like, “dammit, I really wanted one of those.”

Yeah, me too. I always try to get a copy of the work that I do from different clients.

So I guess everything started as just a hobby, but what do you like most about graphic design as a job?

First of all, I’m fortunate that I’ve had the career path that I have… I’ve never wanted to do anything but what I do, and I’ve been lucky that most of my jobs have been somewhat conducive to my career now.

Everybody kind of starts working as a teen at their fast-food job or retail job, which I’ve absolutely done myself, but for my first big boy position, I did graphic design at a retailer here in Canada, and now I am where I am. I’ve got my day job at the design & development firm, where I mostly focus on brand design and development, working with small businesses to develop logos and necessary print collateral. Then I’ve also got my freelance gig.

It’s an interesting blend: I feel that the opportunities in my freelance career and in my professional career feed off one another, which is great… because there’s a lot of back and forth with my skill development. There are things I do in my day job that I know I wouldn’t be as good at if I wasn’t able to practice them daily in my freelance work and vice versa, so I’m able to draw from both sources and use those skills in my solutions for clients.

For starting out when you were only twelve years old, that’s a pretty good long gig to have been able to establish – very cool. What kind of projects are you working on right now, then?

Unfortunately, with the way that everything is in the world right now with COVID 19, things have slowed down for me on the freelance side of things. So, instead, I’ve been picking up a few older passion projects that I kind of just let fall by the wayside because I got bogged down with work or with other freelance projects.

Recently though, I just finished the branding package for a local bar that’s opening up that is owned by a friend of mine; that was an interesting project that I am very excited to launch in its full exposure. Right now, there’s just a couple of teasers on Facebook and Instagram, but it was a very thorough and comprehensive brand package that we designed together, and it really pushed me out of my comfort zone. It was a lot of hand illustration which I’m familiar with but not super proficient at – but it was just something that we agreed was necessary for the aesthetic that we were going for, for that particular brand. It ended up turning out really cool.

That’s awesome, I guess in one way all the extra time many of us have right now can still be useful – picking up old projects and such.

Okay, so this has probably my favorite question that I’ve put together in my makeshift attempt at being a journalist, but do you have any favorite or cool stories from your journey as an artist?

I think this kind of ties into what my favorite part about being able to do what I do is, but I think the coolest story that I could tell is the one that’s told any time I go to a place where I don’t know anybody, and I see them wearing a shirt that I’ve designed. Or whenever I’m out, and I see someone walking around downtown, and they’re carrying a bag from a record store that I branded, or when I see people posting on Instagram or social media with a bottle of beer for which I designed the label.

Seeing my work out in the world is flattering and satisfying, but also surreal. For me, working for some of the businesses that I have, with how much I admire them, it’s surreal to be able to do that and see the results in the real world. It just kind of makes me realize that “I did that” and that’s it’s out there and people are interacting with it and I think that that’s very cool.

Absolutely, and that’s a new story every single time you’re out in public and see it happen. That’s like the never-ending story, except with a different plot, and no crazy dragons, unless you draw dragons – I mean, I don’t know.

*Laughs*

Even going back to my band days – being in a small local show where many people in the audience were wearing shirts that I designed, or when bands that were playing had shirts that I created are their merch table –  that’s was really cool seeing that; it just felt so homegrown.

That’s really cool. I definitely have had my share of times being on stage in front of big crowds and just seeing t-shirts with my product on it – let alone one that I designed – it was awesome. So that’s got to be a really good feeling.

Yeah, it’s pretty satisfying.

Okay, so this last question is a good one too… it’s kind of the whole point of the Creative Wealth Project – but do you have any key takeaway advice for other people in the same line of work –  graphic design or artists – that you would give to anyone just starting out?

Absolutely.

I think that there’s a couple of points I could make, and we can break them down between artists and graphic designers, and then people who are trying to make a business out of what they do.

On that artistic side of things, I would say to always challenge yourself to create something difficult, and always push yourself to find the things you don’t like about your artwork. I read a great blog about this concept, and I won’t be able to articulate it as well as the author, but his message was about taste and why it makes your work disappoint you.

Essentially, as your taste gets better, you’re able to look back on older work and actually articulate what’s good and what’s bad about it. All artists go through phases where they’ve made a new piece, they’re excited about it, they put it out into the world, and whether or not it’s well-received, a few years go by… and then they look back at it and think “that’s just junk,” and they hate it.  

I’m sure that happens with music too, or any artistic medium really, but in the early stages of your development, you’re not exactly able to look at your work and understand “why don’t I like this?” or “why didn’t it work?”.

As you develop skill and experience and, by extension, taste, I think, then you’re able to articulate and understand what works about different things or what doesn’t work about them. You’re able to apply those feedbacks and turn them into corrections for future projects.

So from the artistic side of things, I would say always look at your work with a hell of a lot of scrutiny, – beat yourself up for it – it may feel bad sometimes, but something positive will always come from it.

There’s an illustrator, Tom Froese, who said, “I wish you much discontent with your own work. Unless you’re constantly dissatisfied with where you’re at as an artist, you are not getting better”

 I like that. It’s very applicable to a lot of things I’d say.

To me, it really helps, and I still have a screenshot of that tweet on my phone because I go through – well, everybody goes through – those creative slumps. Sometimes you’ll look back on the body of your artwork or your portfolio, and you’ll just think “this is awful” or “why am I doing what I’m doing?”, or you’ll think any other thought or symptom of imposter syndrome – which I believe it’s called… and so for me, I still go back and look at that quote to realize and remind myself that I dislike the things I used to like because, hopefully, I’m getting better.

Dresscode apparel co. tag design by Jordan Versluis

As for things from a business standpoint, and this comes because I understand that business is an important facet of being a musician, or an artist, or a creative person looking to make an income from their skills… my advice is to learn how to manage relationships with people.

Having a successful freelance gig is not necessarily about how good you are – because there is such a thing as “good enough” for most types of clients. It’s actually really about managing people, managing relationships, and managing expectations, and then over-delivering on them.

I think I’ve gotten more traction (or my reputation has gained more traction) from my ability to deliver what I say when I say it’s going to be done, more so than the actual quality of my work. The quality of my work also has a good reputation, and so I’m extremely grateful for and lucky to have that, but the majority of feedback that I get is not only that the work is good, but that everything was exactly as the client expected it would be. That happens because I purposely set up and manage those expectations from the start.

So people management, client management, client expectations… those are huge aspects to the business- end of freelancing as an artist that will forward your career weight equal to or surpassing what your artistic talent or merit might be.

That is excellent advice, and it’s good that you brought that up and even separated the art and business tips… because my experience working as a musician was that a lot of people who are good musicians are terrible businessmen… and that a lot of good businessmen don’t know jack shit about music. So then you get this big conflict of interest, and I think that -, and this idea is the intention of the Creative Wealth Project – people should be open to draw from and learn from the wealth of other people’s knowledge. I think that to really be able to make a career out of your creative skill set, you need to know about marketing, you need to know about human relations, you need to know about management… all that stuff.

I think that’s a great point because marketing is another significant aspect to all of it.

Learn how to market yourself. I don’t necessarily mean to say you should absolutely know how to manipulate algorithms on Facebook and social media or that you should know how to write the most captivating Instagram post. I don’t do that stuff – I post my work on those platforms, and that’s about it – but understand what you’re good at and learn how to sell it in a quick pitch. To successfully make it in this business is so much more than just whether you’re talented or not as an artist.

I mean, look at some of the most successful bands going today. A lot of pop music, for example, it’s pure marketing. Look at some of these other bands that make what’s sort of a marketing and music crossover. For instance, I’m a huge fan of the band Ghost, and it’s not necessarily because I think that they’re the most brilliant songwriters. They have an extremely entertaining and marketable gimmick. Their business and marketing ethics, what they do, and how they do it, or whatever Tobias Forge does now – it’s a good chunk of why they are so successful.

Bands like Slipknot were actually devised in a board room by a dude who wanted to put together this pitch-perfect marketing package that included a specific number of members who would dress a certain way. That band was a tremendous idea that demonstrates how powerful marketing something like music as a product can be… so yeah, marketing is a huge and important aspect of this business, whether you like it or not.

I absolutely agree. I definitely wish I knew the things that I know now – the things I learned when I went to school for several years to study the business of entertainment – when I was actually performing professionally in a band, but I guess that’s kind of what it’s all about. You live, and you learn… and if you’re not learning, well, you’re probably not really advancing on anything.

Mistakes are important.

They sure are.

Well, I think that pretty much wraps things up for today. Once again, I want to say thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation, it’s been a blast and I absolutely think that you provided some really great insight and advice today and I can’t wait to share it.

No problem Mitch, it was fun. Glad I could help.

Thanks Jordan, let’s talk again soon.

For anyone in need of graphic design, I can personally attest that Jordan is speedy to respond and will absolutely come up with something great for whatever your project may need… so don’t be shy to contact him through one of the mediums listed below:

Website: www.jordanversluis.net

     

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