JOSEPH ALESSIO'S WORK
STRIVES FOR A COMPLETE
Here at WNW HQ, we love seeing new work from WNW Member Joseph Alessio. His tactile designs, defying the constant shift toward digitalization, are both comforting and revitalizing. In our interview below, Joseph tells us about his creative background, the differences in the creatives scenes of his hometown Detroit and his current home San Francisco, and why he's in no rush to fully define his style. "I do consider myself a young designer, though, and I think I'll develop a more defined style as I continue to grow creatively. Hopefully in 40 years I'll be that 60-something designer who's still pushing the kids and coming up with fresh ideas."
Joseph also riffs on the role of tangibility in his work: "Combining language and imagery is absolutely compelling—language, a collection of sounds that carry conceptual meaning, and then distilling those concepts into visuals—and when we craft those visual representations with tactile media, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Even if it's just a digital image of the composition, it evokes the experiences associated with those textures, scents, and objects, simultaneous with the verbal message—a complete sensory experience."
Tell us a little bit about your creative background. Who is Joseph Alessio and how did he get here?
Hey there! I'm a lettering artist and designer from the Midwest, recently transplanted to the SF Bay Area via Denver. I stumbled into doing lettering as a teen, as a hack-y way to make calligraphic compositions using a pencil instead of the proper tools; and when I discovered that lettering was actually a design discipline, a few years later while working at a tiny web dev shop in suburban Detroit, I was sold. Since I've had no traditional education, it's been an interesting path, and I'm constantly learning from any source that I can, and I think that's influenced my very eclectic personality and creative direction. I've been working as a lettering artist since 2012, balancing that with musical and other design interests. I'm a very hands-on person, and I love to get my hands dirty; so I do a lot of tactile and dimensional work and short-form stop motion using a broad variety of media, pairing the experiential aspect of familiar, tangible materials with the beauty of language rendered visually.
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all of your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?
I'm not sure I deal in a signature style, at least at this point in my career. I think I have definite tendencies—most of what I do is type- or lettering-based, and I generally try to find a playful or interesting take on the letterforms and materials, usually using tactile media or animation—but I actively avoid being... typecast (sorry not sorry). Some days you want to make things that are fun and playful, and other days you want serious concepts; it depends on the project. I'm not sure if this is damaging from a career standpoint—it seems the most successful careers usually hinge on endless variations of one general design style—but it's definitely more fulfilling from a creative standpoint. I do consider myself a young designer, though, and I think I'll develop a more defined style as I continue to grow creatively. Hopefully in 40 years I'll be that 60-something designer who's still pushing the kids and coming up with fresh ideas.
What does the idea of tangibility mean to you? Is your work a rejection of everything being digitized these days, or do you more just like the idea of combining language and imagery in compelling ways?
The more digitally-driven our world becomes, the more we need to hark back to the tactile and human. The digital is of course an integral part of our lives, even part of the process behind any of my tactile pieces; but it can't replace the tangible. Combining language and imagery is absolutely compelling—language, a collection of sounds that carry conceptual meaning, and then distilling those concepts into visuals—and when we craft those visual representations with tactile media, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Even if it's just a digital image of the composition, it evokes the experiences associated with those textures, scents, and objects, simultaneous with the verbal message—a complete sensory experience.
Which of your projects are you proudest of and why?
To date my favorite project is a self-initiated one, my "Tools of the Trade" series. It was incredibly time-intensive—I'm always drawn to things that take much longer than I have to spend on them, ha! Thankfully it was time well-spent, as the final product was really tight. Most people who create tactile lettering come from a styling or illustrative background, whereas I bring a lot of typographic study to the project; and I think that shows in this project in terms of composition and letterform quality. It's always a struggle to get materials to conform to make great letterforms, and you usually have to accept and embrace the limitations of each material as you work with it, but the tools made for a malleable, if tricky, medium. It's a great show-off series, although I still haven't successfully pitched the concept of tool type for an ad campaign yet!
What’s the creative scene like in your hometown of Detroit? How does it differ from your new base in San Francisco?
Detroit's a fascinating city. There's so much history there, creatively, but mostly remembered for industrial design or music. The industries that have driven the Michigan economy in the past century have created a blue-collar, Rust Belt grittiness in the culture, and I think that's why you see a lot of hard-working, no-nonsense creatives emerge from the region. SF has a few different cultures I think—the historically counter-cultural city, the recent but louder tech culture, the varying cultural personalities seeping in from all the corners of the Bay Area. It creates a fascinating milieu and it's hard to define, but it's a much more laid back, playful and colorful vibe than the more industrial Detroit or the dusty Denver, where I spent a year between my hometown and the west coast.
What do you see as the biggest perks and challenges of the freelance lifestyle?
The benefits and drawbacks differ from person to person, since everyone flourishes in different environments. For me, as an introvert, I work well on my own, and value the flexibility of freelancing. Creativity suffers when there isn't room to think, and I like to feel like I have that space to invest in ideas. On the other hand, all of those ideas have to be funded out-of-pocket, since a freelancer doesn't have the resources and gear afforded by a well-equipped creative department; and the stressors of running a one-person show—managing your own accounts, being your own marketing department, dealing with more complicated taxes, the lack of stability et al, can add up. At the end of the day, though, the flexibility and variety that freelancing can offer win out for me; maybe that will change at some point, but right now I feel like I could freelance long-term and be happy with it. I will say, though, I'm doing a short onsite contract with a major tech company as I write this, and those elaborate meals are way more exciting than whatever I put together when I'm working in my own studio...
Who and what are your biggest creative influences?
That's a hard question to answer! I love film, music, literature, and art as well as design, and I try to draw inspiration from as broad a sampling as possible—as much from Lynch's films and Lennon's songwriting as Lubalin's lettering or Lichtenstein's art. Typographically speaking, I'd say the people I look to most often for inspiration include older lettering artists such as Tom Carnase and Doyald Young; type designers or lettering artists who push limits like Ondrej Jób, Bart Vollebregt or Gareth Hague; designers doing really smart work like Kelli Anderson, Leta Sobieraski; people who do great environmental or tactile work, like SNASK, Craig Ward, Sean Freeman—I could list dozens of people in each of these categories but that's a great sampling to start with.
What advice can you offer to up-and-coming typographers and letterers? What will it take for them to succeed?
First, invest time and effort in learning the foundational knowledge of letter design. Second, don't do what you see everyone else doing. Third, don't give up, and recognize that both developing skills or finding success take time. I think the recent trend of interest in lettering has peaked and we'll be seeing it lose its prominence a bit. It'll be harder to gain visibility as a lettering artist, because it won't be such a popular search topic or an immediately referenced design solution; so you'll need to be persistent. But, it will be great for lettering in general, because it will weed out a lot of the poorly executed work that the design world is currently awash in, it'll create some space for trends to reset, and it'll allow the focus to shift back to making really fresh and original work.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I have a few things in the pipeline that will be a major undertaking, shifting to longer-form animation than I've currently produced and exploring bigger concepts than I've been able to play with so far. I'm also hoping to push larger scale work this year, in the form of dimensional installations and murals, large enough to let me get really creative with materials and textures and even work that will invite and allow public interaction. A lot of concepts in the works and good stuff that, if the stars align, will be a big step forward in terms of production and concept for me.
What do you do when Not Working?
Unfortunately many of my hobbies are also work-related—personal projects are always calling my name—but it's super important to enjoy life outside of that as well. I play a few instruments; that's another benefit of freelancing, actually—being able to take a midday break and turn up my amps without upsetting everyone because my neighbors are at work! I make a point to get outdoors every weekend—Muir Woods, Yosemite, Muir Beach, Point Reyes, so many incredible spots to explore around the Bay Area. Museums, reading about type or design (in a recreational way... I think), watching classic films, all that good stuff.
You’re a Working Not Working Super OG, and have been a member almost as long as we’ve existed. What does a community and tool like Working Not Working mean to you, your creativity, and your creative career?
It's been great to be on the platform, another way of getting my name out there; despite the fact that lettering and typographic image creation is pretty niche—fitting the working process of an illustrator more so than designer or art director—and therefore I'm not the most natural fit for the platform, I've still been able to make great connections and start conversations on WNW that I haven't elsewhere, because the talent pool is so high quality and well-curated. It's also been a great community to be a part of, going to to the networking events or parties that you host regularly, especially when in new cities where I don't know many people.
Who are some WNW Members whose work you admire and why?
I really love the work of Leta Sobierajski and Wade Jeffree—they have a huge body of work, very eclectic, and they bring a really punchy, quirky and fresh feel to everything they touch. Carly Ayres is a great one, I've worked with her briefly a couple of times; she's working with HAWRAF now and putting out great experimental, fun work. Nicole Licht has great stuff as well, I love the colors and tactility of her work. Kyle Read brings historical perspective and precision to lettering and type design projects, great work from him as well. Again I could probably list dozens of people here, but I've run out of searches on WNW! There's an immense amount of talent, and very high average level of awesomeness on this site.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for the great questions! Looking forward to sharing some of the projects I have coming up with you in the future.