The longer I chat with artist and designer John Christian Rose, the happier I feel for him and his success, and the more I feel my own age. When I was 15, I was busying myself sneaking into pubs or watching boys skateboarding with the intensity that only overly hormonal, angry suburban teen Nirvana fans can muster. Rose was creating tour visuals for Flying Lotus.
Now in the penultimate year of his four year degree at Cooper Union, Rose, who’s originally from Austin, TX, has already clocked up clients including Ty Segall, Brooklyn music venue Good Room, Vice, and the aforementioned FlyLo; as well as internships at branding studio Gander, and with Bráulio Amado at his studio, B.A.D. Rose’s path into graphic design is an interesting one—forged, as with many creatives, through things that he didn’t know were defined as “graphic design” at the time. He was largely homeschooled by his “very sweet” mom, and was given a pretty free rein when it came to education (“we didn’t really do basic math and things,” he says). He did, however, become a prolific video-maker, creating YouTube films from the age of around ten using footage of his friends shot on his parents’ camcorder. “I would always be the ones editing them,” he says. “Then we started to think, ‘What if we could use special effects?’”
That curiosity led him to learn After Effects, and before long he became obsessed with making Call of Duty videos. It turns out he’s not the only graphic designer who started out like that. In our interview, Rose reels off an impressive list of others who effectively learned their craft through the game, including people who now work for studios like Wieden + Kennedy.
“When you teach yourself, you start doing things in a weird way with these little tricks that don’t make a lot of sense to other people.”
Through Call of Duty, Rose wound up learning Photoshop with online tutorials (apparently designing your team’s logo in the game is a big thing), but he eventually realized that “Call of Duty videos were taking over my life.” But the experience also taught him that it was possible to learn at least the basic software skills of graphic design yourself. “Even just a few years ago you had to go to school to learn the things that today you can learn through some 12-year-old kid in Russian YouTube videos,” he says. “But I probably picked up a lot of bad habits—when you teach yourself, you start doing things in a weird way with these little tricks that don’t make a lot of sense to other people.” As such, when he found himself in a formal design education environment and suddenly having to learn programs like Illustrator and InDesign “the right way,” it was a challenge at first, but something he now relishes.
The teaching approach at Cooper Union allows students to mostly choose their own coursework each semester, which means Rose has had the chance to dabble in subjects as far-reaching as architecture and engineering alongside his core design practice. The school also saw him make his first foray into drawing. Rose has cerebral palsy, which prevented him from drawing as a kid. “I hated that my hand twitches whenever I tried to draw,” he says. “But in the second semester, we were introduced to mark making on a page in any way you want, and shown that anything can be a ‘drawing,’ be that a moment or a photograph. The concept comes first.”
Even before school, Rose could never confine himself to just one thing. He played drums as a kid, but when he broke his arm in a skating accident he moved into making electronic music, which he still does today. His other big break, as it were, came along in a roundabout way through this combined love of music and visuals. Having followed artist Mike Winkelmann—better known as Beeple—and his Everydays project, in which he posted a Cinema4D-created artwork everyday, he began working in a similar way by posting a new artwork on his Tumblr daily, and following his favorite artists’ visual teams on Twitter. His work was picked up by FlyLo’s visual directors on Twitter, and he found himself, at 15, creating visuals for his 2014 tour. “It was a really weird experience doing client work for the first time,” says Rose.
His confidence in his graphic design abilities was bolstered in a similarly DIY way thanks to Ty Segall. As a big fan of the artist, he was excited to see he’d be playing his hometown of Austin, and took it upon himself to create a pro-bono poster for the show venue. It ended up being used. “That was the first time I felt validated in graphic design,” says Rose. “From then, I stuck with that. I thought, ‘I can’t keep switching,’ and just began emailing my favorite designers all the time like a bratty 16-year-old.”
“I’m just a huge fanboy of everybody: I like being a fan rather than doing any ‘networking’ stuff.”
His advice to young designers starting out who want to take a similar path—as in, one in which they focus on making work for people they already adore—is to do pretty much the same, all the while admitting a certain queasiness at his earnest approach. “I’d just reach out being like ‘I need some spiritual guidance!’ I was so annoying.” He would make a poster specifically for the designers he was contacting, which included Eric Hu and Hassan Rahim, so they “had to reply,” or at least he hoped. “I called them my ‘thank you posters’… ”
Now, he often DMs people on Instagram; the day before we speak, he had reached out to a stylist he digs in Japan simply saying he loves his work and wants to collaborate with him. “I’m just a huge fanboy of everybody: I like being a fan rather than doing any ‘networking’ stuff.”
As a student, Rose recognizes that he has the advantage of not yet having to rely on client work for his bread and butter. But his ability from a bafflingly young age to get the work he wants has also made him reconsider the historical wisdom that design work has to stem from a brief or specific direction. “I was just doing a lot of things—music, motion design, and graphic design all blends into one for me—so instead of having a different approach for each medium, the way I work is to think, ‘How about if this poster looks like the sound of the music?’” says Rose. “You have to be self initiated and just make random stuff—that’s a big factor.”