First Thing I Ever Designed: Jon Burgerman's album artwork for Charles Webster's Born on the 24th of July, 2001.

You can trace the ancestors of the characters drawn by cartoon wiz Jon Burgerman back to the artwork he created in 2001, when he graduated with a degree in fine art from Nottingham Trent University. His now instantly recognizable doodle aesthetic, which often makes use of quick lines and involves no prior sketching, steadily emerged during Burgerman’s early years creating album artwork for the UK electronic scene. We might even consider the light, rough illustrations of playful characters lost deep in thought, with windows for faces and bodies locked in a trance, as the great-grandparents of the florid, vibrant cartoon characters Burgerman has become so well known for.

Now based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Burgerman performs, speaks, and teaches internationally (in fact, he’ll be one of our speakers at our very first AIGA Eye on Design Conference this October), and he’s collaborated with brands like Sony, Pepsi, MTV, and Nike. Today, the illustrator tells us the story behind his first important collaboration: the album artwork for Charles Webster’s Born on the 24th of July.

“I had a part-time job during university for a company misleadingly named Graffiti Art, which I thought sounded like an amazing place to work. It very quickly changed its name, and suddenly it was a bag and packaging company. I was the only designer there, which was great, because it meant no one knew how long it took to design something and I could get away with a lot.

“I was an art student so hadn’t ever used a Mac before. I didn’t know what QuarkXPress was, and I would use the internet at the library in Nottingham to download tutorials and print off instructions. Then I’d try to remember the shortcuts so that it looked like I knew what I was doing. I had a little drawer in my desk where I kept all my printouts, then when someone asked me to do something that I didn’t know how to do, I’d act natural and sneak a peek in the drawer.

“I learned quickly and got quite good at using the computer, but the job was very boring. When I finished university I ended up staying there, though. In the building where I worked, on the floor below us, there was this graphic design company called Cubic. It was just two or three guys, and they were really nice. I would often peek my head in to say ‘Hello.’ Sometimes we’d get lunch together.

“One day, there was a knock on the door. It was the graphic designers from downstairs and they said, ‘Can we speak to Jon?’ It was very unusual… No one ever came into the office to speak to me.

“They said they were doing an album cover for one of their clients and it wasn’t really going anywhere. They were running out of time, and they knew that I painted and drew. I of course said yes when they asked me to pitch in ideas.

“The album was by Charles Webster, whose name I didn’t know, but whose music I did. He’d been recording under different names at the time, and this was the first album that he recorded under his own name. In house music circles he’s quite a big deal, a very well known and respected artist. It was really cool to get the opportunity. I listened to the album, Born on the 24th of July, and liked it a lot.

“I just came up with some ideas and doodled some things, then took them to Cubic the next day. It was a very simple process: the guys there just picked one. I probably drew the sketches Wednesday night and came back into the office on Saturday to paint the album cover on a bit of canvas. The image was a horizon with a small boy wearing a bear or monkey onesie in the front. There’s a kind of wistfulness to the character, and the image is bright orange with a slightly darker orange below. It’s difficult to place where this character might be. Is it a sunrise, or a nuclear apocalypse? Why’s this guy in such a burnt orange world?

“I kept it loose. Cubic told me to keep the brush marks and the pencil lines. Even though the music is predominantly electronic, it has a very organic, analog feeling to it, so a loose hand made sense.

“It was photographed, and then a month or two later, it was in music stores and it was reviewed in The Guardian. Lots of places printed the artwork, and the album had my name and website details in the booklet. I was very, very excited and thought, ‘This is it.’ I had done it, cracked it, game over for employment.

“I thought lots of stuff would happen immediately because everyone would be blown away by my incredible feat. Sadly, nothing much happened at all. I had to go back to work on Monday.

“The record really struck a chord with people in that scene, though. After it was released, I got to do a lot of record sleeves for small labels, which was great. Charles released a remix album that I also did the artwork for.

Jon Burgerman’s album artwork for Charles Webster’s Born on the 24th of July remix album.

“Years later I met Charles in New York. He’s also from Nottingham, and I found out that when I painted the album cover, unbeknownst to me, he was my neighbor. We got talking and he told me that he’d been in touch with the artist Burial, who I’m a big fan of. Burial’s second album is called Untrue, and Burial was a big fan of Charles’ album. He liked it so much. When you put the album artwork that I created for Charles next to Untrue, you can see that there is a little correlation… A little wink. It too features a horizontal divide and a downcast figure wearing a hood on the right hand side.”

Burial, Untrue album artwork.