Jon Johnson of BRFC Designs on Screen Printing, Business Building and Etsy

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What is your story? Who is Jon Johnson?
When I was young, I was fascinated by road signs and how meaning was conveyed on them with symbols. I loved learning about their purpose, and in hindsight, that curiosity is likely where my love of design began; on road trips with my dad as a kid. Today, I am a screen-printer and graphic designer in KW. My wife and I have a dog named Finnegan and life is pretty good.

What is your earliest memory of creating something?
Drawing shoes (throwback to the old Jordans), and playing with legos and blocks. It’s funny because I can’t draw… but yeah the legos and blocks make sense because even today I am always thinking about how to put things together in shapes. I mean, I make a living, making things out of squares.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-26-08-pmWhen did that love of design spark your now full-time career?
I have always loved how things work, but there was a time I began to get really into blogs. Specifically, there was a blog by Aaron Draplin, a designer from Portland that I love. He was blogging daily, posting photos of old design stuff. I was fascinated by the things he was sharing and loved it. It was at that point I more seriously realized I liked design and wanted to dive more into that world.

Where did you begin?
Well, funny enough, Marc (points to Marc, the owner behind the counter of the Princess Cafe just metres away) who was the best man at my wedding… (laughs). Years ago, Marc started up a zine called CTRPLLR and I helped him with the cut and paste layout for it. A zine is a self made grassroots publication. CTRPLLR was open source, with submissions from the community, and a bunch of us would come together to put it together. It was a series of events starting with this project that revealed my path. Working on the zine, I realized I loved the process, designing, layout and seeing how things looked on paper.
At the same time, I also got involved at the Princess Theatre as a projectionist. Parker Hewes, their film guide designer was leaving. So I figured, I can learn computers and stuff quickly, so I convinced my boss there that I could do that, and I started doing the layout of their film guide.
In addition… I was also cleaning at the Starlight (I know… so glamourous), but I got to know Jon Kutt who did all of their posters. He and I got on well and before he left to go work at Quarry, he recommended me to do the Starlight’s posters as his replacement. Now let me clarify, I knew I liked design- but I went to school as a double degree in English and Film Studies at Laurier. So I took on that job, with an eye for design, but didn’t yet know how to make these things. I was lucky enough to get that gig, so I had to work quickly to learn. Having that role forced me to learn the skill I ultimately wanted to have.
So yeah, I ended up working for two amazing businesses in town that I loved and with awesome people.

So you are a self taught artist in that respect?
Oh yes, (laughs). Everything I do, I taught myself in one way or another.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-28-49-pmWhat kind of resources did you use to teach yourself?
Well there are a ton of resources for us nowadays with all of the digital resources. But at the very beginning when I was working on the zine I was interested in printing, and I bought zines about screen printing to learn. I’ve also tried things like skillshare, but it kind of bored me after a while and I would skip through to the end. When I started doing screen printing, I would read about it and watch all kinds of videos. I could watch stuff on screen printing for hours because it fascinates and excites me. Like I will watch other artists videos and skip through all the things I already know, then go test it myself. But yeah there is a ton out there to learn the processes for anyone who is interested.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-27-03-pmLet’s talk screen printing: how did you get into that?
Originally I was interested in doing screen printing for the zine that Marc and I were working on. For my first screen prints, I started by stretching fabric with some holes in it over an embroidery hoop, then I would use mod podge in the areas that I didn’t want to print and then I would print with that.
After that I was inspired to get into it “in a real way”. So I bought the Zines I could find that talked about screen printing. There was even a zine with a comic strip that taught readers how to screen print. It was awesome! From there I continued diving into that world to learn more and get better at it.

For those of us who don’t know, what goes into screen printing?
It is super simple, but tricky. Basically, it’s a process of printing using stencils, but instead of having them cut out of paper or something, they’re blocked out of a screen, that holds the whole thing together so you don’t have those stencil cut lines. It is all done one colour at a time.

Every screen can only be one colour. So if you have a design with four colours, for example. you would need to make a stencil of each colour in the shape or design you want, then do it one screen at a time.

Doing screen printing on t-shirts versus paper is also much different. With print you take your stack of sheets, and you do all 50 of one colour- print that out, wait for them to dry. Then you do the next colour, usually going lightest to darkest. Making sure each colour lines up right when you go to set up for the next colour is tricky. With t-shirts, to do multiple colours you use a press that kind of looks like an octopus, with different arms holding different screens for different colours. You line up all of the colours at once, stick your shirt down, and then print the colours in succession without moving the shirt. If you move the shirt, you’ll never get it back in the same spot for the next colour.

To those who ask for advice on screen printing…
People say to me all the time, “Screen printing is so cool, how do you do it? I have always wanted to get into that!” I am happy that people are coming to me as a reference to get into screen printing, but admittedly, I kinda think to myself. “If you REALLY wanted to get into it, then you would have already.” The best way to learn something and get better at it, is to do it again and again and again. Just simply do it. That is what working on zines taught me. Because with zines, they do not get created unless you create them, so in that sense you just get shit done- do it and get it out the door. You just do stuff. So that is what I say to those looking to get into it. Just start or as I like to say, ‘stop, stopping’.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-26-42-pmAdvice: “Stop, Stopping…” (because I have been there)
When I first got into screen printing, I experimented with t-shirts and I did that for a while. What people might not know is that I stopped for many years. Because it was hard. I screwed up a bunch of times and it discouraged me, so I got away from it. But this is why I tell people now; just do it, and prepare to screw up a lot of times- but keep going! If this is what you want to do, of course. Screen printing is what I wanted to do, so I found my way back to it. But it doesn’t come without some mistakes and hardships along the way, trust me.

How and why do you challenge yourself?
Pushing the envelope is part of the process and I am still going through that now. Currently, I am screen printing posters on paper. Doing this on paper is a lot harder because the margin for error increases. I am learning a lot about paper and inks and the processes that go into it, as a result. You screw up a lot, inevitably, and it is hard for me because I want the final product to be perfect. I do struggle with it at times, and my wife always asks me, why do you keep doing this if it makes you feel this way. And I just say to her, it’s hard but I have to keep going. It is the next step and I have to keep moving forward and pushing myself. Otherwise, I would grow bored and stagnant and this is just the next step for me. It is all about challenging yourself.

Why? Do I want to print the same shirt over and over again? Well, yes I do because it is how I make my living, but I can’t just stay in that spot and create the same thing over and over again. I need and want to challenge myself. I subsidize a lot of the work I am doing by printing for other people as I am learning and perfecting a new technique. That allows me to keep growing, developing, but keeps me accountable. Clients keep me accountable to being better in that sense. Because without that deadline, I likely wouldn’t push myself to follow through with learning new things for the fun of it. I want to get better, I know what motivates me and keeps me accountable, so I make sure to set up the work that way.

I am not an artist. I am a problem solver.
I am not someone who I consider to be creative the way some other people are… I am not an artist who paints to paint, or draws for the joy of it. I am not talented in that sense. I am making things to make a living.

My motivation?
Two things: Admittedly, one is money. Making money to put food in my belly and a roof over my head. The second is solving problems. I enjoy solving problems and that has always motivated me. So in that sense, I think of myself as a commercial artist. I need to be solving a problem. Whether that is a problem that exists or a problem that I find/ make (*like how to make a beer shirt that everyone loves and that supports all craft beer in ontario).

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-25-02-pmAnything you are into right now?
Yes! Screen printed posters and enamel pins! I love them. It is tough because they’re kind of niche around here in a lot of ways still… but if I had the money I would love to open a shop that specifically sold those things, and other things I think are cool, so we could help educate people about the quality and coolness factor of them. I am making sales on my enamel pins on my etsy shop in the States predominantly, so it will be exciting to see when that trend picks up in Canada or in our community for that matter. That’s not to say that people here aren’t into it at all, just not as into it as I see in online communities.


How does feedback help or hinder your work?
My wife is my biggest fan and harshest critic. So naturally, I put all my work through her first. She will give it to me straight. Sometimes I don’t like hearing it, and I don’t respond well at first, but feedback is SO key and beneficial to creating your best work.
Even when I get feedback from certain people, it can be hard and I need to calm down before I respond to people. But I really love getting that feedback because it keeps me sharp and makes me better.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-24-26-pmWhat is the best part of what you do?
Hands down, it is when I see other people getting joy out of my work. Wearing it, supporting it, tagging me on Instagram. You know how people can tag you in pics? Well I get tagged there and hardly any of the pictures even have me in it… but it’s of the stuff I’ve made and how it is bringing something to their life and that brings me the MOST joy. I love that tab and seeing how people are interacting with Bearface.
My favourite aspect of doing the work would be zoning out while screenprinting, doing a bunch of manual work. We don’t get to do a lot of that in our digital world. So I love putting on a podcast, and getting into a zone, just pulling my squeegee over the screen over and over again, making prints.

Do you have any rituals or routines while working?
Putting on music or Podcasts while making shirts/ screen printing.
Music is more enjoyable to me when I am doing that manual work- but I also love Podcasts because that is time where I can be productive and learn something while I do that work.
I’m happier doing it while listening to music… but I feel better using that time to learn via Podcasts.

Any favourite podcasts you want to share?

  • Adventures In Design
  • 99% Invisible
  • Vergecast

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-29-37-pmAnyone that inspires you?
Branko Vranic- giant moon back there….. Branko
Jay Ryan- Chicago (fav illustrator)… I have so many of his posters. I have SO MANY of them in my basement and no room for them.
My dog Finn…
Finnigan @Finn.agram (he is the cutest, go follow him). He can go from svelt to fluffy depending on his haircut, which is pretty awesome. It’s like you can have two different dogs.

On Creativity and Inspiration…
I believe the key to making things is inspiration.
Pulling in all the things you (or your clients) are inspired by, and then filtering that through your own creative lens. That is your creativity.

You put things through your own creative filter, and give it your own feel. I love the idea that you can take all of the things that inspire you in, then use your creative filter to narrow it down and refine it to make a final product with your creativity.
I love when clients send me a bunch of stuff that inspires them. Even if they don’t necessarily know why they like it. And then it is my job to distill it.
Sometimes it is just as helpful to hear someone say I don’t like ALL of these things, because that will help me to create what they DO want. I love that honesty and openness.

Upcoming events, happenings we can share…
Etsy Waterloo Region Event–  RIM Park
2001 University Ave. E.
Waterloo, Ontario
June 10th, 10am-5pm