Along with being the Creative Director at (mt) Media Temple, founder of the Arlo Jacob Candle Company, designer of numerous concert posters, and organizer of CreativeMornings/Los Angeles, Jon Setzen is a husband and father of two.
A man of many hats, Jon Setzen has lived in three countries and multiple cities before calling Silverlake, California home. He lectures on design and branding, as well as co-hosts a spectacular podcast called The Build Up.
CreativeMornings: Where did you start?
Jon: I was a huge music fan as a kid. When I was about 11, I got a copy of “The Queen is Dead” by The Smiths and it changed my life. I loved all the Smiths covers. I always really liked Jazz covers and wanted to create album covers.
When I went to college, I ended up working at the radio station at the University of Oregon and was a music director there. I started making lots of posters and was fortunate to meet a guy in the dorms in 1994, who taught me html. I’ve been making websites since then. That’s kind of how I started.
It was a childhood love of music, a fortunate meeting with a geek from Santa Cruz, and then I ended up working at the San Francisco Chronicle Online. I was a designer there in the late nineties.
CM: What was the first thing you made that you where proud of?
Jon: I was proud of some of my drawings as a kid, but as the first really great thing was the website for the San Francisco Chronicle (1999). Just to know that I had made something that literally hundreds of thousands of people were using and benefiting from daily was really great, and I was also happy that in the time of all that dot-com-craziness in San Francisco, I had stuck to my guns and gone to work at the newspaper. I’m a huge fan of newspapers and journalism and I was really glad that I made something people where using and wasn’t just trying to sell bull sh*t, basically.
CM: What kind of work do you do now?
Jon: I would call myself a designer. I’ve worked as a creative director for the last ten years, but I still, in its purest form, love design work. I used to make rock posters when I lived in New York.
Jon: I made hundreds of rock posters, but I also did a lot of client work for places like Target and Sony Music. Now I have a really good opportunity working at Media Temple, a place I’ve been a customer at for a long time, and a really, really respected a brand. They were looking for a creative director, so I came to work at Media Temple where I’ve been for a little over a year and a half now.
I have a couple other side projects that I make to stay creative, but for the most part I’m working on a big redesign of Media Temple.
Some of Jon’s rock posters.
CM: What are some of your side projects?
Jon: The one that’s probably most interesting is called the “The Arlo Jacob Candle Company.” My grandfather used to blend pipe tobacco like seventy years ago in what’s now called Zimbabwe.
He is an incredibly huge inspiration to me. I always knew him as a photographer and a book-binder. He had a dark room that he built in his house and he used to have a book binding studio. I grew up in those spaces.
I just would remember the smell of this pipe, every time I would smell a pipe anywhere. There was a guy who lived across the way from me that would smoke a pipe and I loved that smell. For at least ten years, I was like, “Someone should make a candle that smells like a pipe.”
About two years ago, I started doing some research. There are lots of tobacco candles out there and I bought about a dozen of them but they all kind of smelled like vanilla or sandlewood, nothing like that pipe.
So my grandpa gave me the recipe; He’s like 97 now and lives in Vancouver, Canada. He gave me the recipe that he used for the pipe tobacco and I went in to a candle factory and they told me what I had to do to make a candle. We had this custom scent made that, when I smelled it, I teared up because I immediately went back to that place, sitting on this stool in his book-binding studio, watching gold-leafed pages. It was kind of amazing.
I just went through the process of making these candles and developing this brand. My kids names are Arlo and Jack, so that’s where the name comes from. I have this one pipe candle, that I’ve sold quite a bunch of, and am doing some interesting collaborations. That’s really all I have time for right now on top of organizing CreativeMornings/Los Angeles, a full-time job, two kids, but I love it.
Photo by Brad Swonetz.
I’m always getting pulled in to various things with friends, but that’s my main side project right now. I also do some freelance graphic design work, posters and collateral for the UCLA Department of Art school, which is something I really enjoy. I love making posters, doing print work, so that gives me the ability to do that.
CM: You did the posters when you were in New York, and you’re doing the candles while you’re in L.A. How has working in those two cities inspired what you do? Or the side projects you’ve taken on?
Jon: Well in New York, it’s funny, because I moved there right after 9/11, and there wasn’t a lot of work. I was young, and needed to get my name out there. So I went to a handful of nonprofits in Brooklyn near where I was living that I thought had really sh*tty collateral and bad signage, and I volunteered my services. I was like “I just moved here, I think you guys are a cool organization, can I redo all your letterhead and business cards, etc.? Can I make a poster for you guys?”
So I was making a lot of posters and these guys at this bar called Southpaw that doesn’t exist anymore in Park Slope—it was kind of the first rock venue back before Park Slope turned into what it is now—they hit me up and I think it was the Jungle Brothers playing. Or maybe Mogwai. One of them. They said they needed a poster, so that got me on this path of making posters. I was just doing that all the time and loved it, and was fortunate enough to get to show the posters at a bunch of different places.
Music was my life when I was in New York. I was still writing a music column and I was going to lots of shows, so that was great about New York, and it influenced my want to be involved in music. Probably the greatest project I ever worked on was getting to spend almost a year in the studio with Alicia Keys when she made her second album.
Jon: I took photos and videos and documented that whole process, which was amazing. She’s such an incredible person
Los Angeles is really an interesting place because people outside of it hate Los Angeles. I feel like L.A. is really one of the most interesting places I’ve ever lived. It’s a phenomenal city, unlike anywhere else. I feel like there’s so much going on here right now that it may be the most interesting place in America.
I love New York. I’ve missed New York every single day since I’ve left and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about it, but I think L.A. has just this kind of different sense of freedom; there’s more space. There’s something about the light here that makes you want to be creative and I can’t put my finger on it. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve been.
I feel in LA, there’s a big big push to create physical products and that was definitely a part of the influence of doing this candle thing. I’m really inspired by the idea of making a physical product and I think L.A. did that. It’s a city that people move to and want to make stuff. They want to contribute and be part of what’s going on here. I think it shows when I look back at this past year’s CreativeMorning speakers—I’ve had really strong programing and it’s really representative of what’s happening here.
Photo by Ryan Morgan.
CM: What do you think it is that spurs everyone to want to create physical products in Los Angeles?
Jon: I think this city has a bad rap of being an awful city where everyone just cares about money and it’s totally not that. You can say whatever you want about the movie industry, but they put out some really rad stuff. There’s a lot of creative people here and there are some really gross people here, but there are really gross people everywhere.
I think there is a big movement happening in downtown Los Angeles. Everything feels very considered here when a new place goes in somewhere, there’s a lot of thought into the windows, what are in the windows, what the signage looks like, and what kind of bag are you walk out of the store with.
I grew up in Northern California and it was engrained in me to hate Los Angeles. If you ever told me I was going to live in Los Angeles twenty years ago, I would have thought no way in a million years. But, I’ve really enjoyed living here more than I ever enjoyed living in San Francisco. Maybe L.A. is not a really good place to visit, but it’s a really good place to live. You can take your own approach to everything here.
CM: Who are a few people who have helped you along the way?
Jon: Definitely Tina. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her for years now and I’ve always been inspired by her “I’m going to do this” attitude. I think there are a lot of people out there who I don’t know, but whose work I think is really inspiring. You know, the people creating the tools we use. I think it’s interesting that people are really trying to solve all of these ‘problems’ that we have and I don’t know if they are really problems.
Jon: I don’t really know if adding filters to photos is solving a problem, but it’s creating a fun tool. I do think my grandpa, he was an extremely inspiring guy. I think my wife, Mindy, she’s a painter. I’m really inspired by her and she has totally helped me. When I was making posters she said, “People like these posters. They tear them down after the shows, you should sell them!” She has really pushed me when I say silly stuff like.
I was thinking about making a candle, she’s like do it, you can do it. She had my back when we moved to L.A. and left N.Y. and I’m lucky to have her. I think my folks also are really inspiring. They moved to two countries, from South Africa to Canada to the US and we started over every time. I think that gave me good work ethic. But I think I’m totally inspired by music I listen to and hard work. And I love Saul Bass.
CM: What are three things you believe in right now?
Jon: Three things I believe in right now, let’s see. I believe in taking chances. I believe that tomorrow is a new day. As sh*tty as one day can be you get to wake up the next day, hopefully, and you get to try again. And I believe in collaboration. Collaboration a lot of time is negotiation, too. I feel like I collaborate with my children, collaborate with friends on work, collaborate with the community on CreativeMornings; It’s way more interesting when you do stuff with other people. I started doing a podcast called The Build Up with my buddy, Bobby Solomon (who runs The Fox is Black) and it’s been something unexpected and fun. We just drink some beers, talk about design, music, and whatever—and laugh a lot. That’s a fun collaboration.
CM: That’s very true. What’s the last thing you made for work? You spoke a little bit about the website redesign?
Jon: We have this really phenomenal website redesign for Media Temple that we’re finishing up. That’s all I can say right now. I’ve been a Media Temple customer for a long time and, when I started here, I took a look at the brand and felt the website was not representative of the brand I knew, which is a very human brand. I said this before I worked here, I say it now, and I’m sure I’ll say it after I leave one day, but Media Temple’s customer support is the best in any industry anywhere. It’s the best because it’s real people. Most companies you call there, you call for support, and you talk to a salesperson. Here, the people you talk to are photographers, they’re designers, they're in bands, they're like our clientele.
The one thing that we've been working on is probably the best thing I've worked on in awhile. It's a video series called Made on mt. That was the thing I started to try and turn the lens of focus from Media Temple and to our clients because we have the most amazing clients around. Just really creative, interesting people. We have everything from Swerve, a little bike apparel company, to a site like the Noun Project, and the Narragansett Brewery. We got some really nice distinctions, a bunch of awards and mentions, the coolest thing is we didn’t put much budget behind it. I have a really talented video producer that I worked with and we were in the same category for a Webby’s honorable mention with Google and American Express, all these places. It was good company for us. That is a really good project.
CM: What type of advice would you give someone just graduating college and starting off on their creative career?
Jon: Focus on one thing you want to be really good at. I see that a lot with young designers. I was totally that person when I was 25, where on my website I was a designer, a photographer, an illustrator, I could do five things and I was pretty bad at three of them. I see that with a lot of young people. They try and do everything. I think being really good at one thing is important.
Not that you shouldn’t do it all, but when you try and get hired as a full time employee or a contractor, they’re not looking for someone who can do everything. They are looking for someone to fill a void, so it’s important to have that focus. The other thing that always worked well for me is whatever work you put out there is the kind of work that you’re going to attract. If you want to make photographer sites, your portfolio should be full of photographer sites. It’s good to know that whatever you put on your site is what you’re going to get. Lastly, I would say is that I always felt that at the end of the day if you’re doing design work, it’s a great honor to get to do that because its a really fun thing.
You’re helping people, you’re solving problems, so you have to take it seriously. Especially living in a city like New York or L.A., or places that are expensive. It’s okay to take on some work that isn’t your dream job because it pays well and you don’t have to put it in your book. Even a project that may not seem the coolest thing in the World could be fun and, sometimes, the dream projects can be a nightmare. It’s good to be able to pick up on what some red flags could be. That’s a whole other interview.
CM: What excites you about the future of design for you and the work you’ll be doing?
Jon: I always feel like I’ve spent a lot of time in advertising, a lot of time selling stuff and some of the stuff I worked on was really cool. I got to work with Kartell which was a really fun project, but at the end of the day, I’m excited by the idea of working somewhere or creating something that benefits someone.
Some signage Jon created for the Brooklyn bar Franklin Park.
At Media Temple, one of the things we’re really working on is creating tools and processes for our customers who are designers and developers that make their work flow easier. We understand how they think, we do a lot of research, we talk to a lot of people, and we are those people. I’m excited about being more involved in the research side of things because I really enjoy that and ideally working places or creating something that is making someones life better and easier.
Jon and Boba Fett.
CM: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Jon: I have breakfast with my kids every morning. My son, Jack, wears a different costume to the table almost every morning (see Boba Fett above). That’s pretty much the highlight of breakfast everyday. This morning I had a really, maybe stereotypical L.A. type breakfast.. I’m really into making juice.
CM: You are so L.A. right now.
Jon: But this morning I made this delicious juice with kale, beets, carrots, apples, ginger, lemon and celery.
Jon: And I had a hard boiled egg.
CM: That’s excellent.
Jon: And I’m not at all on a diet. Yesterday, in San Francisco, I had an enormous mozzarella, tomato and prosciutto sandwich for lunch and an absurd amount of chips and tacos for dinner.
But I just drink too much coffee and I find that having a juice in the morning makes me feel like I don’t need the coffee. Anyways so, that’s what I’ve had for breakfast.
CreativeMornings is a free, monthly breakfast lecture series for creative types.
If you're interested in starting a chapter in your city, check out our application.