DJ Stout is a sixth generation Texan, born in the small West Texas town of Alpine. His new book reflects on his long career of 35 years, including 17 years at Pentagram! We sit down to chat about making school papers as a kid, why Dallas is awesome, and why his gut reaction is a big decider on hiring you.
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design?
My father was in the military and we moved every year. I was always the new kid on the block. When I was about 8 or 9 years old I started making neighborhood newspapers and distributing them to the neighbors. My first publication was called The Weekly Laf. As I got older the newspapers got more sophisticated and when I’d land at a new school I’d start up a school paper if they didn’t have one. Each time I’d put together a staff of contributors. Being part of an editorial team all working together on a single enterprise was a great way for me to make new friends.
Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?
I majored in design communications at Texas Tech University in the late 70s, early 80s where I was later honored as a Distinguished Alumnus. I had two jobs in college that had nothing to do with graphic design. I worked as an electrician’s assistant in a house factory early in the morning and then I washed dishes at the dining hall during lunch time. Most of my design classes were in the evening and by the time those rolled around I was exhausted. Seems like I was always tired in college. When I graduated my plan was to work at a magazine in New York City but for a bunch of reasons I ended up in Dallas instead. It was one of the best things to ever happen to me.
What does a typical working day include for you right now?
I have been a Pentagram partner now going on 17 years. I am one of 21 partners of the famed international design firm and the principal of the Austin office. I employ 7 designers, an intern, and an office manager. And we have about 5 or 6 dogs at the office every day. Sometimes that gets a little crazy. We have anywhere from 30 to 40 projects going on at one time. Because of all the different projects in the house I function like a creative director. I circulate from design station to design station and ask the designers to show me what they are working on. Their projects are at various stages of development so I give them my feedback and suggestions on improving them.
What do you look for in a great portfolio?
When I look at a student portfolio I look to see if the graduate has a basic understanding of problem solving and conceptual thinking which I believe are the two most important qualities a designer needs to be succesful. If the portfolio is not perfectly crafted that’s fine. What I’m looking for is ideas. The portfolio needs to be well organized and tightly edited though so I get a sense that the young designer is levelheaded, process oriented and has the potential to communicate effectively and professionally with clients. At the end of the day however, what really counts is the gut reaction I feel when I first meet them. I want the office to be filled up with people I like and who enjoy each others company.
Any passion projects you would like to share?
I think it is important for designers, photographers and illustrators to have self-generated side projects in the works at all times. I believe that in addition to feeding the creative soul, passion projects always lead to discoveries and new opportunities. I have done a lot of pro-bono work to support causes I’m interested in like the Texas Book Festival and art/design events like Pecha Kucha, which is a creative speaking format imported from Tokyo. But I’ve also done side projects to support good causes in my community. I designed a book that featured portraits of homeless people in Austin that we gave away at an event we staged at my office. During the party we asked for donations in exchange for the books and all the money went to a local group that feeds the homeless.
What has been your highlights since you started out? I worked for Texas Monthly magazine for 13 years before I joined Pentagram as a partner and I’d have to say that the time I spent designing and art directing that first-rate regional publication was a highlight of my design career. That period between 1987 and 2000 was a golden era in traditional magazine publishing and I learned everything I know about editorial design, writing and storytelling from my experience there. Texas Monthly was, and still is like, my extended family. I wrote and designed a book called Variations on a Rectangle that was published by the University of Texas Press this last fall. That retrospective, which covers 30 years of my 35 year career as a designer, includes a lot of the work and some entertaining stories from my days at Texas Monthly.