Founder/Creative Director of Product Etc, Jordan Stark is a pretty cool dude. He tells us about how he taught himself Photoshop by making fake drivers licenses for his high school buddies (note: not a criminal – but the potential is there – ha! ); his campaign to ‘Bring Back the Brown’ for the San Diego Padres; plus the shiny new conference he’s involved in – Design Forward!
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design? I have always enjoyed the personal challenge of drawing. First I wanted to draw comics like my brother, then I wanted to learn how to shade to make realistic renderings like another kid in the 2nd grade. By the time I was 8 or 9, I remember the hardest thing was to draw based on my own ideas or approach. I really wanted to create from scratch, or at least draw differently than the couple of other kids in my class who knew how to draw really well. Fast forward to the end of high school in 1999/2000, and I was teaching myself Photoshop to make a friend a fake driver’s license. True story! It wasn’t malicious and I never did finish it. For me, it was more about the challenge of duplicating a certain state’s poorly designed identification card. The good news is that shortly thereafter, I discovered and fell in love with the interactive and commercial aspects of graphic design. Before that happened, I had never considered that being an artist or designer was a “real career” unless you were maybe an architect. Within a year or two of graduating from high school, I moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the Graphic Design program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. So now I’m a paid artist and designer, and fortunately not a criminal producing forged identities… but I do suppose that there’s some overlap in there!
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened? My plan after graduating was to get my portfolio online and apply to my favorite design agencies. I was very idealistic, and a touch naive… Still am actually. In hindsight, I passed on some terrific opportunities because I wanted to pursue my own vision of the work I should be doing. So I became a freelancer, designed my friend Brendan Monroe’s first monograph, and started my first series of large paintings while building the first productetc.com portfolio. Eventually I was introduced to Michael Beirut at Pentagram NYC via email, which was a dream studio for me, and I mailed him my physical portfolio. By that time the economic crash was in full swing, and what little chance I had of being offered a dream job was even more unlikely. Michael gave me some advice which was to consider staying where I was and build in Southern California during that tumultuous time. Maybe 3 months after that, I moved back to San Diego from L.A., and launched Product Etc as a studio with my first partner in 2009. I was about 26 years old.
Any passion projects you would like to share? Two exciting projects. The latest is that I’ve been designated as the lead of the Partnership Committee for a non-profit organizing an annual series of events in San Diego called Design Forward. Design Forward is a movement and annual series of events focused on bridging designers across-disciplines, industry innovators, and civic leaders to explore the possibilities of human-centered design. What is often referred to as “design-thinking and doing.” The intention is to further ignite innovation and design in the San Diego region, and mark San Diego as a design hub. It’s only in its second year, so there’s a lot of ground work the team is still rolling out.
The second is a project I’ve been working on and off on since 2005. It’s a product based brand called “Westside Love.” It’s been on hiatus for a couple years, but I’m going reboot it this summer/fall. It started out as screen prints in 2005, then eventually grew into apparel and products that loosely revolve around good vibes and American west coast culture. I look at it as the west coast’s nod to Milton Glaser’s I LOVE NY. I really enjoy it, and at this point the symbol means a great deal to me. I’ve been receiving emails and phone calls to relaunch it, so I figured I should create products again sooner rather than later.
What have been some of your biggest disasters and how have you learnt from it?
A couple fires come to mind. There was a sizable identity project years back with a tech startup in Silicon Valley that had a communication breakdown. There were several changes to the point of contact, and the last contact and I were out of sync on project goals and expectations. I was growing frustrated with the lack of clarity regarding the product and company, which was making my job impossible. An email was written in frustration and sent to the client. That was the final nail in the coffin. The insight was that great relationships make great projects, identify and work to resolve red flags immediately, and never ever send an email when you’re frustrated or angry. Pick up the damn phone and have a real conversation. To connect with people in a meaningful way isn’t just the design deliverable, it’s an essential part of the whole process.
The other fire was when my first partner left the studio. There was a tremendous fear of failure during that time, and every cell in my body didn’t want to fail. I worked very hard to learn every aspect of the business front to back, and put new systems in place to better manage it. I reached out to a lot of people seeking advice, and I gained a lot of knowledge from their generosity. Also, my old business partner is a very gracious person and he helped me during the difficult transition with whatever I needed to keep going. I learned so much about the business, about myself, and about other people from this experience. I learned to have no fear, because the worst case scenario really isn’t too bad. I learned that people are generally pretty awesome, and meeting new people doesn’t have to be stuffy but can actually be a lot of fun. I learned that in life things often happen for good reason, and to carefully choose if, how, and when to resist.
What career advice would you give your 16yr old self?
Be patient. Be relaxed. Get started on your journey now, but pace yourself and enjoy the ride. Expect to make mistakes throughout your career, as long as you’re pushing yourself and the boundaries of your discipline and knowledge. Do realize you can have it easier if you stick to expectations, but that you’ll usually be creating the expected. So if you’re still up for it, fall with grace and always get back up quickly. If you don’t you’ll be your own worst enemy. If nothing deters you a ton of work will get done.
What has been your highlights since you started out?
Admission into Art Center was really special for me. Moving into our first studio in downtown San Diego was amazing. Seeing the first Westside Love tattoo appear on a musician’s neck in a “Too $hort” video was jaw-dropping. The video is outrageous, in typical “Too $hort” fashion, but it was exciting to see something that used to only exist on-screen now on someone’s skin who I never met. Shipping our first product internationally was awesome. Having the opportunity to work abroad, or being invited to speak and share is always a huge blessing. Being interviewed by Sports Illustrated for the “Bring Back the Brown” campaign we started, and now watching the San Diego Padres slowly make steps toward reintegrating the color brown back into their identity has been unreal. Actually just last weekend, an article I was interviewed for made the front page of the sports section in San Diego’s newspaper. Truly an honor to see a brand discussion and campaign you ignited on the front of your city’s Sunday Sports page. If that campaign helps the San Diego Padres change their colors back to brown, even if I don’t die a rich man I’ll die a happy man. Hah!