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How embracing fear and horror can lead to great design

In an excerpt from his new book, Brand By Hand, designer Jon Contino reflects on the role fear plays in his creative process and branding: “We’re all going to die, so let’s do something awesome.”

As soon as you become a grown-up, you need to start making decisions about things. Should I rent this apartment even though it might be beyond my means? Am I ready to become a father? Is it appropriate to wear basketball shorts in public anymore? Some choices are easy and some are pretty tough, but it’s all on you.

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It was only a matter of time before the anxiety of all this crept into my life and started wreaking havoc. Life gets difficult at some point for everyone; you can’t get away with playing Lego with your little brother in your parents’ basement forever. It happens sooner than later for some, but we all end up dealing with it. Hell, I woke up in a panicked state this morning for absolutely no discernible reason. I honestly can’t articulate what I’m worried about, but I know it’s something, and it’s not making me happy. (And it’s definitely not making my wife happy either, because now she has to deal with my moody ass.) Maybe there’s some old, horrific fear still bouncing around in the back of my head without me even realizing.

“I’ve always loved the tangible manifestation of death as a character,” Contino writes. [Image: © 2018 Jon Contino/courtesy Abrams]

I can easily pinpoint key moments in my life that have been absolutely terrifying. Like, so terrifying you suddenly need to buy a new pair of pants. But here’s the thing: I’m still here and I’m talking about it, so clearly it wasn’t that bad.

Daniel Trocchio is a tattoo artist working in Brooklyn whose work I first saw over a decade ago. This guy has some absolutely killer stuff. There’s this one piece I discovered during a gallery show he was featured in that I became obsessed with. It was this super dark reaper image, and beneath it, Trocchio had lettered: “Nine-tenths of your life I’ll strangle from you, the last tenth will make you strong.” At the time, I was broke as hell, so there was no way I could afford to buy a print. The best I could do to remember the piece was sneakily shoot a crappy, pixelated photo of it with my flip-phone camera.

A few years later I was getting tattooed at a shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, called Three Kings when I happened to find out Trocchio worked there. I immediately ran downstairs to his station, asked him about the piece, and set up an appointment, and I got it permanently etched into my skin as soon as he was available. Much better than a flip-phone jpeg. Never has anything so perfectly fit the mantra I long ago learned to live by.

Past Lives, 2015. “A haunted goodnight” bandana from the book’s section on secret societies. [Image: © 2018 Jon Contino/courtesy Abrams]

On many occasions, I’ve sat down with business owners struggling to make decisions over the design treatment of their brand. In typical Jon Contino overly dramatic fashion, I like to say: “We’re all going to die, so let’s do something awesome.” I mean, I have no intent on harming the client, but at some point, Father Time is going to do his job and take us all out. I’ve seen what it looks like to be on the brink of death, and there’s no amount of copy revisions or new sketches that will change that. We all have a desire to build something, and I’ve made it my mission to help people explore that.

If you’ve ever decided to create, you know the work comes from deep down inside. It’s something you feel needs to be introduced to the universe for some reason. Maybe it’s the greatest thing ever or maybe it’s total garbage–but the minute we second-guess our ideas is the instant our gift of creativity dies. The moment we throw away hesitation and face our fears of failure and uncertainty, the real-life magic happens–innovation happens.

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The greatest ideas never come from a person in a comfortable emotional state. They come from torment and frustration and complete and total anxiety. You have to be completely irrational to summon the creativity you were born with.

[Image: © 2018 Jon Contino/courtesy Abrams]

Sometimes it’s hard to talk about this kind of thing because art and design aren’t life or death. There are so many atrocities happening every second in every corner of the world that making a creative decision feels pretty low on the ladder of global significance. And yet, for those of us lucky enough to be able to live safely and work toward making something, we still have fears every single day. We still have to face bad news or cope with shitty luck and have reasons we don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. But if you can embrace fear and welcome the hard decisions that come with it, then it can become the catalyst to greatness.

This is an excerpt from the new book Brand by Hand by Jon Contino, published by Abrams. You can buy a copy here.

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