March 6th, 2009

I’m Demo. How Your Work Becomes You (And Yes, You Look Smashing!)

By Justin Fines

That first printed piece is special. Like the first time you smush face with the neighbor in braces behind the garage; it’s messy, it’s confusing, mistakes are made… it’s AWESOME.

Some back-story: in 1997 I was going to art school in Detroit and was generally bored as hell with it. Well, the first two years were fantastic, actually; I truly loved learning to draw, and my instructors were mostly cool guys with lots of funny anecdotes of dubious veracity. I had a job taking tickets at the local movie theater, I had clove cigarettes, I had no idea how I was going to survive outside of school… but I was 19, so what the hell? Around this time I lost all momentum in my schoolwork. I realized I was losing interest because I couldn’t see myself following the design and illustration world’s established path: learn the foundation design precepts; do an internship; interview for a position; climb your way up. I thought the first two ‘foundation’ years at art school were beneficial, but doing basic design assignments did nothing for me. I wanted to skip GO. I wanted printed work, I wanted my own studio, and I wanted it right away.

This urge happened to coincide with my discovery of the Detroit electronic music scene. Detroit techno was at the height of its popularity. There were parties every week and I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever come across. Every time I bought a new record it was a mini life-changing event. And the best part was that art and design were a huge part of the experience! From rave flyers to record sleeves, the music and design flowed together and swept me along in their current. It struck me that all of the great images I saw at parties and in record stores weren’t created by someone at an agency with a boss and a title, they were made by people who LOVED the music they designed the sleeves for and who LOVED going to the parties they created flyers for. Some worked in small groups and some did their own thing. They actually lived every aspect of their art. And these were young designers. Some had gone to school, some never did, and I wanted desperately to be one of them.

So, when I overheard that one of the top local flyer designers was leaving Detroit, I nervously approached the party promoter he worked with and offered to take over. He asked to see my portfolio, and I lied to him to cover up for the fact that I had never designed a single thing outside of school and had used Photoshop for a sum total of 3 hours. Thankfully, he needed a flyer so quickly that he didn’t have time to question me and just handed me the gig (unpaid, of course). Over the next two nights, working feverishly on a friend’s Mac, I crafted my masterpiece… There were Lego spacemen, there was lots of Eurostile, and there were bubbles! SPACE BUBBLES! God, was I excited.

When the printer got the file, he called the promoter because he thought there was something wrong with it. That’s how BAD this design was – the printer actually thought there was a disk error! I found myself sheepishly insisting this was exactly the way I had planned it. Those space bubbles and techno trimmings were there because I meant them to be there, dammit! When the flyers arrived from the printer, I was elated. Never mind the fact that they had a mysterious half-inch white border (my fault) and the colors had shifted from a sky blue to a sea green (I had provided the file in RGB format, natch), to me this was a thing of beauty, a beauty of my own creation! I practically wet my two-size-too-large khakis.

But there was another feeling that I hadn’t anticipated: the joy I experienced in watching my work distributed. Whether they were handed out at a party or placed among hundreds of others at record stores, my flyers were part of the scene. The idea that I could pour my heart into these ephemeral printed moments and that other people could share and appreciate them was addictive to me. And now I could synthesize the things I loved (art, music, Detroit) with my talent to create a thing which could, in turn, inspire and inform others.

Now, ten years after that first flyer, with many moves and countless projects under my belt, I am still excited when my design fulfills more than just an academic or monetary purpose. The work that excites me most participates in a commerce of ideas, memories, emotions, messages, and meanings — design that reveal the hands of the designer and radiates with their excitement for the work.

As was the custom with rave flyers in those days, I had quickly added a moniker to the bottom of mine: DEMO. Needing something succinct and having no idea what was going to come of this design thing, I figured ‘demo’ stood for ‘trying it out.’ And, although that first piece isn’t much to brag about, I am happy to say that all the work I have done is still undoubtedly and truly Me.

Demo was founded by designer Justin Fines in 1997. Born out of the love of his hometown of Detroit and it’s music, Demo began by churning out flyers and ephemera for the then thriving Detroit electronic music scene. Nine years, three cities, and countless projects later, Fines has found a home for Demo in New York City. In his work, the golden tint of suburban childhood nostalgia blends with the influence of the hulking abandoned factories and mansions of the Motor City. This combination creates a graphic language that balances between hope and cynicism. Fines’ work has been featured in publications worldwide, and recent projects include an animation for Nickelodeon, an artist series skateboard for Zoo York, and a series of designs for the Truth Campaign.

This essay first appeared in Never Sleep, a book written by Andre Andreev and G. Dan Covert, published by de.MO. Summary: There is a major disconnect between the life of a design student and the transition to being a design professional. To demystify the transition, we share the failures, successes, and surprises during our years in college and progression into the field: the creative process, monetary problems, internships, interviews, mistakes, and personal relationships.