Enter the eclectic and unique world of graphic designer Joel Fear
“I think image-making and design have their place within culture alongside and in support of art, but it has a different impetus and incentive structure,” Joel tells us.
- Joey Levenson
- 19 November 2021
Based out of New York City, New Zealand-born Joel Fear is a graphic designer with quite a unique background. “I grew up on a farm and so my daily exposure to graphic design was via machinery and sports equipment,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I was always attracted to motocross gear: the helmets, body armour, protective clothing, all the components and accoutrement was always so heavily branded.” It was the cacophony of “logos, colours, and materials signalling speed” that made Joel obsess over these garments, and want to learn more about how the textures, shapes, and patterns overlaid with each other. “I used to fill up pages in my notebook tracing over different logos from Transworld magazines and I would draw entire photo sequences frame by frame, making my own primitive sports magazines without any articles but full of fake advertisements,” he adds. But after “discovering Photoshop and the liquify effect in high school,” from then on, all Joel wanted to do was manipulate images, which naturally led him to design.
When first embarking on a career in graphic design in New Zealand, however, Joel found it difficult. “The New Zealand design scene that I was interested in was extremely competitive and I had no luck assimilating so I decided to save up and try New York instead,” he explains. “It was tough when I arrived because I had very little work to show and even less context to situate it in.” But, the added pressure of a temporary work visa upped the stakes – and fuelled Joel’s drive. “I sent a lot of embarrassing emails I can’t unsend, but in the end, a few key people took a chance on me.” Since then, Joel has been lucky enough to work for Calvin Klein, David Zwirner, Études Studio, and many more.
Most of all, Joel’s work is refreshingly eclectic and original. Everything feels contemporary and fresh, with compositions and typography that stretches the imagination. “Over the years patterns may have emerged as a result of working with the same tools and developing different techniques of image-making, but I like to think that every new project is a clean slate, and I wouldn’t want any particular style to prefigure it,” he explains to us. “Most of the art direction and image-based work I have done has been about repurposing existing material in different ways.” For Joel, the ultimate challenge (and reward) is to make something new out of what you can “readily access.” It’s why – even though he’s good at it – he strays from more traditional art direction methods. “I try to use a different technique each time, so although there is a common approach the outcomes don’t have a strong unified visual language.”
In addition to working with new techniques and styles, Joel is someone who places emphasis on building strong relationships with the people he’s designing for and with. “I like to take the time to try and understand not only what people tell you they want, but their own sensibility and attitude in and out of the wider context of the project,” he says. “This is the goal but not always the reality, thankfully I am lucky enough to often work with friends where there is a lot of understanding and trust, and we can challenge each other in productive ways.” Sometimes, however, a project comes along and Joel has nothing immediately appropriate to offer. “For me, this is a treacherous process because I am directly engaging with the uglier mechanics of aesthetic production,” he says. “Despite the sheer volume of designers and accessible resources that exist today, the sphere of influence over market-friendly novel aesthetics still feels quite small.” He’s a designer who’s aware that contemporaries in the scene will more than likely have “the same books on our coffee tables, the same images on our are.na boards, our explore pages aren’t that different, and we are all nudging the Overton window along whether we like it or not.” Joel doesn’t try to resist the “everything is a copy of everything” simulacra by claiming his work can exist outside of this framework. “Instead,” he tells us, “I do try to zoom out from time to time and challenge my own position within this structure.”
With recent brilliant projects in collaboration with Strelka Institute in Moscow, Likeminds camp in New York, design and technology parent company Garden 3D, and the Whitney Museum in New York City – we have no doubt that Joel’s eye for the craft of design is taking him places. “What I hope to do next is to continue to expand the sphere of possibility and capability so that there is enough variety to keep it interesting,” he tells us. “Whatever happens next I just hope it involves being around more people with interesting ideas.”
Joel Fear: Book Design (Copyright © Joel Feart, 2021)