DDQ&A: John Foster

December 6, 2011 | By Brent Almond | DESIGN STUFF

I can’t remember exactly when I met John Foster, but I believe it was (appropriately) at a baby shower for a fellow designer. I’ve always admired his work, being so saturated with whimsy, sarcasm, and color. Three of my favorite things! Plus he’s a bona fide design superstar, from right here in little ole’ Montgomery County! Be sure and check out his site as well as the ever-expanding library of his books. Can I please be John Foster when I grow up?

Q&A with designer dad John Foster

Tell me briefly about your design business: how long in business, what kinds of clients you have and/or work you specialize in.
I have a little studio in Rockville, MD just outside DC called Bad People Good Things, which I set up roughly three years ago. I have been designing for almost 20 years now. My work is based around entertainment, advocacy, and food and beverage. I work for Fortune 100 companies as well as mom and pop shops, cutting edge record labels, innovative publishers, national arts organizations and tiny start ups. They just have to have a good product/message and be good people. I also am a writer, with several books to my credit (New Masters of Poster Design: Volume Two is out any day now!) and weekly columns. Mixing my writing in with my design work has been the biggest thrill with my current set up. Turns out that I am really good at both disciplines.

Almost all of my work is external – meaning that it has to compel someone to buy a product, donate to a cause, fund a program, join in a movement, attend a performance, etc… so it is a testament to my ability to stay relevant and current visually as a communicator that I am so busy. No hiding for this guy.

How long have you been a dad? How many kids? Ages?
I am from a big Irish Catholic style family so I changed millions of diapers before ever having one to call my own – haha, but I just have one 10 year-old daughter, who more than keeps me busy.

How has fatherhood affected or influenced your work?
Fatherhood has affected everything about the WAY that I work, which in turn changes how I work and the final output. After plying my trade at places where family was embraced, but kept at a distance, an office where the owner had his wife and kids in and out at all hours, and a studio where people were forced out as soon as they made family a consideration and the owner told me they wouldn’t hire women anymore for fear that they would get pregnant, I really got a feel for what I desired in my professional life.

For me, personally, I wanted a kid friendly office, but not one where kids were there every day or into everything. So, my space is inviting and can occupy little ones for an hour or two, but I have really set things up so that it doesn’t happen often and I can spend as much time as is possible with my daughter, and still find time for my usual 12-14 hours of design/writing etc… each day.

That has meant working odd hours on a regular basis and really being focused when I am working – not to mention balancing a ton of schedules, both for the business and for my family. It has also meant having clients all over the world, where my availability to take a call from Bangkok or New Zealand at 10pm really comes in handy.

All of this (takes a breath) means that the kind of work I do is generally self-contained, like packaging, branding, event materials or books. It only depends on my availability and my abilities. So, in the end, fatherhood has made my work more focused and pure, coming from one vision and set of hands – ultimately a good thing for myself and my clients.

Have you ever designed anything for or related to your children? Birth announcement, party invitation, etc.?
Yes indeedy. I didn’t do a birth announcement. In a way, I was crippled by the expectations and exhausted from the process of having a child. I was also just changing jobs. The whole period was incredibly stressful. As things evened out, I was determined to make up for it by doing a One Year announcement. I designed it around ganging it onto another printed piece and I was left with a long accordion piece. I then proceeded to waaaaaay over design it – haha. So ridiculous in retrospect, but I was (and am) so crazy about this kid!!!

Daughter's one year announcement

People went nuts for it and I received a lot of offers to start a side business just doing these for wealthy families, but I couldn’t see designing it for anyone else. The piece snuck into some annuals, but I recall hearing the judges looking it over for a big design contest and remarking how it lacked any editing or restraint and was like a designer had just lost their mind. It gave me perspective to eavesdrop and I know they were spot on now. Silly Daddy.

Have you done any client work that’s related to children, education, or parenting?
Tons of my work has been kid-targeted or kid-friendly. Toys, food and beverage, signage and information systems, websites, on and on and on – stuff for the National Zoo, Honest Tea, Hasbro, Chronicle, The Nature Conservancy, Coke, University of Maryland, Warner Bros, International SPY Museum, Time-Life, Smithsonian, Americans For The Arts, National Children’s Museum, The U.S. Conference of Mayors, Reading Is Fundamental – as well as piles of kid-related collateral and events and programs.

I like to think that I can get into that mindset pretty quickly – haha!

Do you have any work that you feel was inspired by your kids or fatherhood, whether it’s directly related to children/parenting or not?
I have used my daughter’s work in tons of jobs, especially her paintings as texture. No matter how hard you try, you can never be as loose and uninhibited as a child painting. Now she is too old and jaded at 10, and tries too hard to get things “right.” Thank goodness I held on to all of the early “experiments!” So it inspires the look. I have also used her as a model in pieces when it was called for. One poster was directly inspired by her obsession with blowing bubbles when she was 3.

How has being a designer informed or influenced your role as a father?
I don’t know about that one. Being a designer is who I am 24 hours a day, and being a Dad is who I am 24 hours a day. They both inform everything I do.

Is there any particular child product whose design you really like?
I really love the look of Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends, and nothing made me happier than the return of the Roger Hargreave’s Mr. Men and Little Miss characters! Delightfully simple. For kids’ stuff I really dig high contrast and simplicity. No drop shadows or silhouettes and all that mid 90s crap that won’t seem to go away. I also love things that show a personal touch and are hand drawn. Smart and organic will win me over every time.

Any you can’t stand?
All of those over polished things that dominate Cartoon Network, as well as the hyper realistic movie animation. Very few have found the balance between cartoony and real. You watch Kung Fu Panda and think it’s not so bad and then they run the credits in old school flat art and you realize how far away they really are. What a tease that was. I also can’t stand the proliferation of grunge fonts on things like dolls and grocery store cereal packaging etc… Never has font use been so misguided (and it has been plenty misguided over the years.)

Anything else you’d like to add?
I think Phineas and Ferb is far and away the best-written program on television. Thank goodness I had a kid that was the right age when it debuted so it didn’t pass me by, like the bulk of popular culture not directed at the narrow range of entertainment options we can share. That would have been a crime of epic proportions. I would also like to thank culture at large for making cooking programs so popular so that I can enjoy an adult program with my kid without having to explain 12 colorful terms and why everyone in it was shot or molested afterwards.

I also think everyone should own every book I have ever written because it would validate me in that vapid “everyone owns every book you have ever written” way. My daughter still gets a huge kick out of pulling one off the shelf at a bookstore and seeing my ridiculous photo in the back.

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