Q&A: Amy Jo

Posted by Rob Walker on July 28, 2008
Posted Under: Artists,Buying In (the book),Q&A,The Designed Life


As I’ve mentioned before, the one indulgence I allowed myself in the promotion of Buying In was the decision to commission a few promotional posters. This was totally impractical, but for me it was a chance to work with some really great creators whose work I had silently admired from afar. One of those creators is Amy Jo, who I commissioned to make a poster for an event in Boston (see below). I was, obviously, thrilled with the results.

I have a bad memory for this sort of thing, so I don’t recall exactly where I first encountered her work. But what had struck me was her range as a designer, and of course how much I liked just looking at the images she came up with. Aside from posters for bands from the Black Keys to Joan Jett, she does pretty much any kind of design work you can think of. (Many of her screenprinted posters are for sale, as are some of her art prints, like the one above.) I also hoped I could get the Minneapolis-based Amy Jo to participate in Q&A here on Murketing.com. (Earlier: Q&A with F2 Design, which did the other Buying In poster I’ve commissioned so far.)

Happily, she agreed. Below, she talks about the positive effects of gigposters.com, when to turn down work, her Etsy store(s), the upside of having health insurance and paid-vacation time, and where to find musical inspiration when all else fails. Here goes:

Q: I guess that I’m assuming that a majority of your business comes from making rock posters. Has the rise of Gigposters.com and the onslaught of poster-makers of varying backgrounds promoting their work the net and so on been a problem, or has the Web been mostly a good thing?

A: That is exactly right on. The majority of what I do is rock posters, which draws in clients to inquire about other types of design work. More posters: festival posters, film posters, beer posters, and a book poster(!), just to name a few. I also design album/cd artwork, merchandise design, wedding invitations, wine labels, logos, business cards, etc. pretty much anything that needs to be designed, I can probably try do it.

Gigposters.com has been a huge boon to the recent rise of the poster. What’s great about gigposters is the core community… there are a ton of great (some even legendary) poster designers, a wealth of information, and great inspiration to draw from there. Some of my closest pals are people that I have met through gigposters.com, and I am lucky enough to get to travel around and enjoy their company at most of the Flatstock poster conventions.

Gigposters.com and other forums, can help teach and encourage up-and-comers. I was pretty nervous when I first posted my posters on gigposters.com six years ago. Fortunately, I received “Poster of the Week” the same week I initially posted my work, so from the start I felt extremely encouraged and inspired to do more work and to get better at what I was doing.

There are a lot more people doing posters right now than there were even just a few years ago. It seems like gigposters.com has grown beyond belief with it’s massive poster archive and the growing amount of designers who make them.

I think it can be a good and a bad thing depending on how you look at it. On one hand it’s great that so many people are thinking about design and working with a similar mindframe. And on the other hand, there are so many people thinking about design and working withing a similar mindframe, that it can seem very competitive and some people may feel forced to keep prices low in order to be able to compete with the up and comers who are just starting out and willing to work for free or very little.

There is a certain amount of “paying dues” in the poster community that every designer has to go through and in retrospect that is the most crucial time to be aware that you deserve to be paid for your work. It seems that artists can easily get stuck in the rut of wanting to find work so bad that they will just do it for free. Then word spreads and people take advantage of that, like hey this person will work for free, so you should work for free too.

There is probably always going to be someone who is going to say… “we have a very small (or no) budget, but this project will give you great exposure.” And at some point you just have to say, sorry, but exposure isn’t going to pay my rent. But you never know, there may be a time when that exposure does in fact lead to a really great paying job. So you just have to try to be smart about how you find work and which jobs you choose.

Apart from commission work, I see you have two, count em two, Etsy shops. What’s the difference between Miss Amy Jo and Who Made Who?

Miss Amy Jo is the home of my design portfolio and webstore. Six years ago when I registered my domain name, amyjo.com was already taken by a fan obsessed with Amy Jo Johnson (of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers fame) so I had to come up with something different. I like how hair stylists and people from the South always use the term Miss with a first name, so I went with that.

Who Made Who is the name of my storefront studio space in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Details in the end tag.) I share the space with Dale Flattum/TOOTH (www.ramenroyale.com) and Lonny Unitus (www.lonnyunitus.com). We opened in December of 2007, so I had to create a separate Etsy shop that sells items sold in our storefront. But to be honest, I really have a limited amount of time each day to spend online so my Etsy stores are a little bare compared to my actual storefront.

Are you able to make a living from this work? Is that a goal? Personally, I think you could raises your prices.

I think I have reached the point where I am able to make a living from it, but I still hang onto my part-time job for a guaranteed source of income. If I didn’t have that, I think I would just have to be more careful about stretching money out on the slower months. And this way if I decide I need to take a couple weeks off to go drink margaritas in Mexico or something, I might just do that.

There are some contemporary poster artists who have a fan base that collects every single poster regardless of what band name is on it, but I don’t think that is the majority rule by any means. It seems like a lot of people working in the poster community have a full or part-time job (usually in a design-related field) and work on posters as a side project. I have a completely unrelated part-time job that pays full health insurance, 401k, vacation time and a monthly salary, so I can rely on that to take care of all the expenses and responsibilities of being an adult, while still being able to get off work by noon and go work at my storefront studio for the rest of the day. It gets to be a lot of work, but it’s nice to always have that guaranteed source of income. I toy with the idea of quitting the part-time job, but I haven’t wanted to deal with having to set up my own health insurance and all that stuff. Plus I like getting a new pair of glasses for free every year and having clean teeth.

As far as raising my prices, if I did that then I wouldn’t be able to work with the people who I find really interesting. Bands that play small clubs don’t really have a budget for graphic design. So I try to keep my prices affordable without at the same time being completely unfair to myself.

You seem to be able to work in kind of a variety of styles. How do you decide what sort of approach to take — does it matter, for instance, when you’re doing work for a band that you love, as opposed to someone you’ve never heard of (like me!). Was there one artist you got to do work for that was a particularly exciting development? (I assume they come to you — do poster makers ever pitch bands?)

I guess I see myself as a designer who can adapt pretty well to what the client needs me to design, rather than as an artist who has a vision of something that needs to conform to the client. I started out working as a promoter booking shows and designed posters out of necessity as a means to advertise the shows. It was something I really enjoyed, so I decided to take some drawing classes and see what that was like. By the time I finished college, I had a degree in graphic design and at least 50 flyers under my belt. So maybe all that practice made me pretty flexible in terms of style.

When I finished college and moved to Minneapolis, I continued making posters with local bands and learned how to screenprint. Once I built up a good portfolio of screenprinted posters and launched missamyjo.com, people started contacting me for work, usually via e-mail. But yes, poster artists sometimes chase the bands they like. It’s really great when a band you like contacts you first, though.

I use the same approach with almost every band poster. I put on their album and listen to it obsessively until I come up with an idea. Usually it just starts with writing down a bunch of words and that somehow works itself into a concept or an image. If it’s a band I don’t know or don’t like as well, I try to come up with my own soundtrack that I think might fit. Or if all else fails, I put on some Led Zeppelin.

Murketing.com thanks Amy Jo. Check out her work at missamyjo.com or at her Etsy shop (link) or Who Made Who (link). The physical address of the Who Made Who storefront studio is 158 13th Avenue Northeast, Minneapolis. Store hours: Tuesday – Friday 3pm – 6pm | Saturday 12pm – 6pm.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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