“Maybe it’s parenthood or a weird midlife crisis that’s come a bit too early, but I do feel a desire to change the way that I work with social media,” says Jean Jullien. “It’s been insanely generous to me, but I’m trying to find a way of being less active on it but still being able to communicate as much as I want. I’m not sure I’ve found the solution to that.”
By his own admissions, social media has been key to the France-born, east London-based illustrator, whose most publicly recognisable images (namely Peace for Paris) were disseminated through a flurry of Twitter sharing. He’s now left Twitter, focusing only on Instagram to showcase work and experimentation with his 550,000-odd followers. And while his style – his distinctive black brush linework, playfully drawn characters, and brightly hued simplicity – is constant throughout client work, personal projects and online snippets alike – he’s recently found that transitioning work created for digital viewing into the analogue world isn’t always comfortable. “I’m working with Hato Press to publish a few books of my work, some of which is from social media,” he explains. “I was starting to become quite bothered by the idea of printing work which had only existed digitally. I’ve always said I’m more interested in the idea of an image than the final product, but with a book there’s a certain sense of closing a page or a door, like ‘ok I have all these drawings here, now maybe I can move onto something else.’
“All in all, social media was becoming less a platform to display my work and in itself became a certain body of work. But I’m also very conscious of the fact that without it, it’s very difficult to communicate freely.”
A recent project that exists very much in the physical realm is Jean’s utterly gorgeous book, This is Not a Book, published by Phaidon in March. Jean’s imagery works in an almost sculptural rather than purely illustrative way, reimagining the board book format and making it as much as object as a picture book. It’s joyful, playful, and cheeky; and while marketed as being for toddlers aged between two and four-years-old, its creator insists it’s very much for everyone.
“I wanted to take the book as an object, and think about what defines a book from a design point of view,” says Jean. “It has a cover, and a back cover, and pages, and a red thread… we wanted to play with those elements.” The commission was part of Phaidon’s broader aims to create a contemporary roster of illustration-led children’s books as a counterpoint to republished works by the likes of Tomi Ungerer and Sempé. It’s a lineage that Jean Jullien makes a perfect addition too: like his French illustration forbears, his work manages to span playful, child-friendly forms with more politically minded pieces, and work in a similarly conceptual way.
“I’ve always looked up to people like Tomi Ungerer for their approach, which is to not be condescending for kids: they wanted to do books which were good full stop and also appealed to kids,” says Jean. “His approach to work meant he was doing political posters as well as commissions got things like huge advertising groups, newspapers and risqué erotic drawings as well as children’s books.
“He was doing everything with the same language, in the way someone like Paul Rand or Saul Bass would. It’s less about the work and more about the approach and the practise.”
“All in all, social media was becoming less a platform to display my work and in itself became a certain body of work. But I’m also very conscious of the fact that without it, it’s very difficult to communicate freely.”Jean Jullien
It’s very much a graphic designer’s, rather than an artist’s approach to making work: for Jean, everything comes back to the idea, and how well he can communicate that idea with as little confusion and visual fuss as possible. He studied graphic design at Central Saint Martin’s, and the principles he learnt are still held dear. “When I’m making work always think about it in terms of the question being asked, and thinking about how I’m going to answer those questions creatively,” says Jean.
“I always use a sketchbook and recycled paper and a Muji pen and a brush pen, and I always draw the same way whether it’s for me or a client, and that allows me to focus more on the idea than the treatment. But it also means I can bore myself. Sometimes I have these great moments of crisis, I know I can make that kind of work without surprising myself, and then I know I need to have a break, travel and work differently and get out of my comfort zone and produce something that’s challenging for me and for everyone else.”
So how does he manage to be so prolific? “It’s because what I do is quite simple, in all honesty! That’s the key,” Jean laughs. However, later this year he’s planning to slow things down a bit and inject a new approach to his work with a move to LA. He plans to spend six months there, working with his brother on a new animated series.
“It’s a very different adventure,” says Jean. “I really treasure working with my brother because of the pace I usually work at makes it very intense, but animation takes a long time. It’ll be nice with this next project to take a step back from a continuous stream of things and maybe work on longer projects. When we work together I think we both bring our own sensibility to the table.”
While Jean is clearly someone who values his private life, and struggles with the idea of opening himself, as well as his work up online, what’s lovely about chatting with him is an openness and a curiosity with the world and with others that shines through so beautifully in his work. His studio is something of an illustration supergroup, sharing a space with his brother Nico Jullien, Gwendel le Bec and Thibaud Herem. “They’re my best friends and it’s amazing – we couldn’t be luckier,” says Jean. “It’s great to bounce ideas off each other, or maybe you’re bummed out by something that happens in your work… you can always ask and because they’re your best friends, they can say if you’re overreacting or if something’s happened that’s genuinely shitty.” Seeing Jean’s work go from strength to strength and hearing about what sounds like a wealth of opportunities across the pond, we’re sure there’s not going to be too much to be bummed out about. With his sights set on Hollywood, things are looking very bright indeed; but we’re not sure his restless creative output is something that’ll be slowing down any time soon, whether he likes it or not.
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.