When we first saw the cover of the New York Times celebrating 50 Years of Pride a few months ago, we just had to do some digging to find out who was behind it. Turns out, the artist who designed the cover is Juan Carlos Pagan, an award-winning designer and typographer (of course). In 2013, Pagan made the top ten in Adweek’s Talent 100. That same year, Pagan also won the prestigious Young Guns award by the Art Directors Club.
You might not be familiar with Pagan’s name, but you’re definitely familiar with his work. He’s the designer behind some of the most recognized logos out there, such as Pinterest‘s and Ciroc‘s. Among his long list of A-list clients are also Nike, Disney, and Google.
We chatted with Pagan about how he got his start in the industry, his creative process, his favourite project, and so much more. Read on to find out!
How did you get started in this business? Looking back, would you do anything differently?
I attended Parsons School of Design for my undergraduate studies. During my sophomore year, I registered as a communication design major and I took my first few typography courses. This had a profound impact on me. I quickly shifted my studies to focus on graphic design and typography from then on. I also took a few advertising courses and ended up interning at FCB and Ogilvy during my junior and senior year.
While completing the final semester of my senior year, I went to an exhibition at the Art Directors Club here in NYC and met the late great Kurt Haiman. We chatted for a bit and I quickly realized that the exhibition was of the work from his company. The now-defunct G2 Branding & Design. I gave him my card and he invited me to show him my portfolio. Little did he know I didn’t have a comprehensive portfolio at the time. So I did what any college student would do in this situation. I stayed up for almost a week straight drinking coffee and feverishly designing, building, and producing a portfolio. Luckily, it all paid off.
Kurt offered me a job when I graduated. Kurt was a brilliant man and mentor. I learned so much from just watching him. After three-plus years at G2, I decided to pursue my postgraduate studies in typeface design at the Cooper Union. Around that same time, I was offered a position to help start a new creative team over at MTV called MTV Scratch.
Can you describe your creative process? Where do you start? What do you usually have on or around you?
My creative process is manic. I doodle, sketch, play with shapes, jump on the computer, and listen to music in a frenzy that doesn’t really make much sense.
I try to let my mind go to weird places.
I start making loose connections which tend to grow into strong connections, and I build off of that. I usually have a few things around me: a note pad for sketching, markers everywhere, music blaring, and a steaming cup of coffee at my desk. Once I have a few decent ideas, I try to get them ironed out digitally as quickly as possible to see if they’re worth pursuing further. That cycle continues in a blurry loop until I either land on something interesting or I pass out.
You seem to always be on the pulse. How do you keep constantly innovating? Where do you look for inspiration these days?
I honestly give very little thought to what’s going on in the design or art world.
I just make things that I feel I need to make.
I’m sure I’m somehow influenced by “movements” or people to some degree. But whenever I notice my work feeling like it’s a part of a larger thing, or if the work feels like someone else’s, I quickly drop it and move on to something new.
What do you do to get out of a creative slump?
I just keep working. I keep making things even if it sucks, even if at the moment I hate everything.
Eventually, if I make enough stuff, something interesting normally presents itself, and I’ll see it as long as I’m paying attention.
Are there any artists, designers, or illustrators that you are loving at the moment?
All of the artists on the Sunday Afternoon roster.
You have worked with really big brands and publications. What is the one project you’re most proud of?
I’m proud of all the projects that I’ve had the pleasure of working on. I’ve learned something from each of them. Most recently, I was asked to design the cover art for the New York Times for the 50 Years of Pride milestone.
A half-century ago, the police and patrons clashed at a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village NYC. That clash helped spark a movement that continues to this day. The cover was designed to commemorate that pivotal moment in history. The issue was released on Sunday, June 23, 2019, to honour and pay tribute to this event. I then turned the cover into a limited edition of 50 signed and numbered 24” x 36” art prints. The money raised from the sale of these prints will be donated to The Center.
This was my first NYT cover and I was humbled and overwhelmed to be asked. Here is how the project came out.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
First piece of advice: Don’t follow in anyone else’s footsteps. You’ll quickly realize that no one really knows what they’re doing. And if they say they do, they’re lying. Also, as corny as this sounds, everyone’s path is and should be different. Embrace your journey.
Second piece of advice: Take care of your body and mind. Go for walks, bike rides, jogs, meditate, do yoga. Drink lots of clean filtered water, and eat healthy foods that nourish and keep you in good form. Express gratitude whenever possible, and treat yourself well. It is very very very important.
Third piece of advice: Make a lot of work. I mean a ton of work. Design and make art every single day.
What does the future of design look like to you? What changes do you foresee in the near future that will affect your work?
I don’t know. I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that question. Things are changing so fast it’s difficult to say. I find it almost futile to even dwell over.
All I’ll try to do is continue making work that I want to see in the world.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
I’ve adopted a new working routine as of late. Nowadays I wake up around 8:00 AM. I have a cup of coffee and catch up on emails from home. I enjoy working from my home studio during the early hours of the day. Once I’m caught up, I jump on my bicycle and head downtown to the Sunday Afternoon office in SoHo. Once I arrive at the office, I check in with the team on projects we have going on, and I review work. If I’m lucky, I’ll only have one or two meetings. Then I can sit down and start really working and designing. I’m usually out of the office around 7:00 PM. I bike to the gym, then home to quickly eat dinner, and treat myself to a glass of wine before bed. I hit the sheets around 12 a.m.
Check out Juan Carlos Pagan’s website for some serious doses of inspiration.