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Graphic designer Garrett DeRossett on creating work through never-ending self-investigation

Garrett DeRossett is a multi-disciplinary designer currently residing in New York City. Drawing early influences from childhood books and album covers, DeRossett has developed an analogue style in meticulously blending photography and text to create expressive and emotional designs. A mostly self-taught artist and private school dropout, DeRossett’s finds inspiration through never-ending self-investigation.

Other Studios designed & developed by Mono Mono (Garrett DeRossett x Ian Williams)

What are your early influences and what got you interested in art/design?
The first recollection of being interested in what I would learn later was called “design” was through book covers. I read voraciously as a kid, plowing through multiple books a week – most of them with “Star Wars” in the title. I was always interested in drawing, and around age 13, when I started to take note of the typography on book and record covers, I started drawing my own for fake bands or books I wanted to write.

The process of actually designing something with a computer happened really innocuously, just through editing the HTML on my MySpace and Virb accounts. Through Virb I started to interact with designers and understand what the industry really was. I very quickly latched onto the work and music of Scott Hansen, Paul Tebbott, and Victor Huckabee, who is now a good friend of mine. I’d never realized that this combination of illustration, text, and photography had a name – and you could get paid to do it. Being on the Virb platform, sharing my (terrible) early work, and being exposed to all of these ideas was crucial in my teenaged years.

Did you go to art school?
I did not go to art school. In fact, I barely went to college at all. I briefly attended a small private school in Ohio, right outside of Columbus, where I enrolled in the design program. I dropped out after a semester and a half. This was largely due to some mental and physical health issues that probably would’ve killed me had I not corrected my course – but looking back, that program wasn’t right for me. The majority of my peers didn’t seem to be super motivated to do work other than what was assigned, and I was the exact opposite. The classes bored me, and they were easy to pass with minimum effort. I forced myself to do side projects – joining an unaffiliated student agency on campus doing some branding work, and a short stint making a poster every day. I felt like I was being lazy if I wasn’t actively working on work I was passionate about.

During my first and only Thanksgiving break attending college, I found a Craiglist ad for a web development intern in my hometown. I didn’t really know what web development was, but I knew an internship was required at some point during my four-year degree and figured it was a good opportunity. Obviously, they needed someone who could build websites, but the studio took me under their wing as a design intern and let me work remotely from Ohio. When I dropped out of school, I just showed up at the office that Monday and worked regular hours from that point on. I used paying jobs as my education, and when I felt like I needed to learn more, I sought out a new full-time position – across branding studios, magazines, ad agencies, and nonprofits. I still have that mentality.

What themes and concepts do you investigate in your work? That’s a tough question, because on the one hand, my work is entirely client-based. I don’t do a lot of self-initiated stuff anymore, just for lack of time. So the themes and concepts generally appear from the client – oftentimes some lyrical content or writing from a band, or something a brand wants to embody in their materials. On the other hand, I put a lot of myself into what I do. I struggle with a lot of anxiety, depression, and self-doubt in my day-to-day life. My mind races constantly, and I find that images flash through my brain at such a speed that I don’t get a full picture from any one idea.

I think if I had to narrow down what I explore visually, it’d be that –a sense of fractured emotion, a picture only half seen but fully experienced. I really feel my way through any given project: if it’s for a business client I help them pair their ethos with a set of branding materials that will resonate in someone’s gut. If it’s a band I try to shape their music into something you can study and gaze upon. But it all comes down to the emotion and the feeling you get when you look at the end result. My primary goal to help clients become successful in their chosen metric – song downloads, dollars, views, etc. – by creating a visual experience for their audience that makes them feel and think.

Your work seems to be a hybrid of analogue and digital art. What’s the process behind your designs?
I wish my process included more analogue techniques, because I think that makes it more honest. I tend to deal with a lot of photography that I pull from dark corners of the internet or from talented friends. The actual asset is rather unimportant; it’s really just a starting point. I sort of haphazardly click around from then on, adding more photos, text, drawings from my sketchbook, and start to see where it all comes together. My goal is to create a unique accident, and while the design process may take hours, these accidents will always happen in seconds. I’ll know it when I see it.

A lot of your side projects are collaborations with musicians. What was one of your favorite collaborations you’ve worked on recently and how it came about?
It’s hard to pick a favorite – I take on different music-related projects for totally different reasons that fulfill me in a variety of ways. For instance, I’m working with a band in Austin right now with one of the core deliverables being a website, and having that digital element in a larger project was important to me as a case study. I was fortunate to collaborate with a super talented illustrator named Andy Gregg for an album for a metal band, and the brutal imagery of the work we did together was the selling point for why I took it on. I do a poster every month for this recurring show in Kansas City because I wanted to challenge myself to making artwork that could follow a recognizable template but still be unique.

I think if I had to pick a favorite it would be the record packing for an NYC-based act called Andy Suzuki & the Method. It was really the first time I had a larger art direction role and brought together photography and concept into the equation. We tossed around a lot of ideas and eventually decided to light an hourglass on fire. This was symbolic of their career thus far and had some ties to how the band started. It was a ridiculous idea, but it worked, and I’m proud of what we did together.

Andy Suzuki & the Method

What’s in your forecast for 2017?
Right now, I’m really focusing on the work I’m doing with Bondfire Inc. It’s the studio model I always wanted to be a part of, and we’re doing really interesting work and helping businesses grow at the same time. Every day is a new challenge and opportunity to push myself and the work we do together.

On the side, I’m terribly excited about a project I’m about to start with a musician I’ve been a fan of for a decade. My buddy Ian and I are making it a goal to work on at least one project as Mono Mono this year as well. Finally, I’d like to slot in some more work with my wife who is a front-end developer – we have a print project that’s been on the backburner for awhile. It’ll deal with issues of mental health and explore storytelling from the perspective of those in creative fields.

I follow you on dribbble and I feel like you’re always working non-stop and churning out beautiful designs. How do you balance designing for work and designing for your own personal projects?
Well, first, that’s incredibly kind of you to say! It’s been much easier to separate the kind of work I do during the day and what happens on the nights and weekends these days at Bondfire. I spent a year working for the amazing organization charity: water, and the one downside was that I didn’t always get to have a hand in the full variety of work that I wanted. That just comes from being in any in-house department.

Making a conscious choice to jump to a studio doing more or less every type of work you can do was key. My anxiety tends to spring up when I feel like I’m not operating at my full potential, so when I would go entire months without doing a branding project, I worried that I wasn’t forging the new ground I wanted to be. By getting the opportunity to dive into fashion, retail, e-commerce, and tech during the day, it opens up my free time to focus on the (often music-related) stuff that feels more like art than design, the kind of projects that you have to feel out. I really feel like these projects are about exorcising the demons. I’d pay myself to do them, just for my own sanity – I’m extremely blessed that it’s the other way around.

What’s the story behind the studio, Mono Mono?
Mono Mono is a partnership between myself and my good friend Ian Williams. We met over the internet – on Dribbble, embarrassingly enough –– and over time realized we were a good fit as friends and business partners. The studio itself started because we found a funny domain name for super cheap and didn’t know what else to do with it but fill it with work. We later dropped that name, but the partnership lives on. Over the span of about a year, we’ve completed two pretty large scale projects – a retail site for a coffee roaster in Virginia and a portfolio for a design studio in Chicago –– and a branding pitch or two.

We also made the decision to take down our homepage the morning after our current president was elected with links to donate to various causes that are really going to need it over the next four years. Both Ian and I have a really strong desire to use our work for positive impact rather than just cool design, and with my background in nonprofit work and his heart for humanitarian causes we’re really always thinking about how we can create actionable content. I’d like to hope that’ll be the legacy of the studio, but for now we’re just a couple of dudes with a weird name.

What’s your advice for other aspiring designers?
Don’t be afraid. Seek out the work you want. Email the bands you love and the companies you give money to, and offer your skills. Do it for free, for awhile, if you have to. Unless you’re stupidly talented and in the right place at the right time, these opportunities won’t show up unless you ask for them.

Treat clients with respect. Be nice. And always put just a tiny bit of yourself into your work. It might be your sense of style, your ability to find a client’s voice, or just the way you handle yourself. People hire designers for a reason, and when they come to you it’s because you’ve got something different. Design is more than just dope grafix. Be a good person and good work will follow.

What are you currently listening to?
I’ve been super into J. Marco’s album Myth recently. I listen to a lot of bad 80’s rock/pop music, and this album feels like if Don Henley and Ryan Adams started a jam band.

Favorite album cover you’ve come across recently?
That’s so hard. I like album covers more than I like music, really. I really dig the imagery for Nothing Yet by Surf Curse. Something about that photograph is just so evocative. Can I list two? The entire package for Tom Odell’s Wrong Way was so beautiful. Fraser Muggeridge is an insane genius.

Favorite Instagram account of the moment?
I mostly follow animals – Dougie the Shih Tzu is consistently adorable.

One book and one film recommendation:
But What If We’re Wrong is Chuck Klosterman’s latest head scratcher of a book, and I highly recommend it. He infuses super innocuous topics with weird senses of mystery and importance.

I’m a horror movie nerd, and the one that sticks in my head a lot is Banshee Chapter. The plot revolves around secret numbers stations and government experiments, two things that are incredibly interesting. Oh, and monsters.

Follow along:
twitter.com/dadj3ans
instagram.com/garrettderossett
dribbble.com/gderossett

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