Center Stage: Zac Jacobson

A new year, a new designer to take our “Center Stage.” For this month’s featured member, we chose designer superstar Zac Jacobson of Three-Headed Design. With his love of and success in typography, brand identity, packaging, and illustration, Zac has distinguished himself as a creative to watch.

Craft Beer Packaging and Branding

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and your work.

I was born and raised in Manitowoc, Wisconsin (No, I don’t know the Avery’s). I love to travel and experience new places, but I always love coming home to Milwaukee. I went to school for graphic design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD). Going there for school was the best investment I ever made and was an overall great experience for me. While in school, I interned as a graphic designer in the Creative Services department at Harley-Davidson Corporate Headquarters for a year where I learned the workflow` of the real world. From there, I worked at a few design and ad agencies doing design and art direction. In December 2017, I broke out on my own and started a design company with two other guys called Three-Headed Design.

My work, much like everyone else, has evolved over the years and probably even more so, this past year. As a kid, I was obsessed with skateboarding and snowboarding and especially the deck graphics in magazines and catalogs. I was fascinated with skateboarders that were also artists, like Ed Templeton and Kris Markovich and loved how artistic the Volcom brand was and how it used art to set itself apart from other brands. I think my sense of illustrative design came from that part of my life. I was constantly observing typography and illustration in skateboarding magazines before I even knew what graphic design was. It sort of molded my brain in a sense, I guess.

Sketchbook Illustration

What was it that made you want to pursue a career in graphic design? Did you ever want to give up and do something else?

My dad was a carpenter when I was growing up and I always followed him around on his job sites, helping out when I could. I really liked to draw but I never thought I was any good. My dad showed me some architect’s plans and said that I could make a career out of drawing if I really wanted to. He always told me he wanted me to get a good job that didn’t require physical labor because he had put his body through so much working construction. So, that was it. I told myself I would be an architect when I grew up. But then that changed my sophomore year of high school when I started using an Apple and Photoshop in my “multimedia” class. I loved manipulating images to create artwork just like the skate decks I saw in magazines. I made dumb little videos with my friends (Jackass era) and always did the DVD artwork for them, which I really enjoyed. A recruiter for the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design came into the classroom and told us the stuff we loved doing in class is what we could do for a living. Mind. Freaking. Blown. That’s when I knew I wanted to pursue a career in graphic design. I remember being extremely excited about my future for the first time that day. From then on, that’s all I ever wanted to do. I never looked back or questioned my career.

Modus Skateboard Bearing Type

How would you set yourself apart from other designers? What about your works make it “Zac Jacobson designs?”

I never really felt like I had a “style” until about a year ago. I sat down for a couple of beers with a fellow creative and chatted about design and our careers. I told him that I wished I had a style and he looked at me and said, “You for sure have a style.” Coming from a guy with a killer look and an amazing slew of work, I think I needed to hear that. It made me pull back and look at my work from an outsider’s point of view in a way. That seemed like a pivotal moment for me. So, to answer the question, I’m still learning what sets me apart stylistically, but I feel like I’m headed on the right track. I like to remind myself to have fun and get a little weird sometimes, but always have reasoning or meaning behind what I’m doing. What’s tough for me is that I enjoy working in a few different styles, so it’s not exactly easy to distinguish my work. I think for me, I tend to always try something new with every project I work on. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty and creating my own textures to use in my work or draw out some elements by hand. I tend to never use a font for logos and either start some type from scratch or manipulate an existing font. It’s hard to let a logo go out into the real world without touching every aspect of it.

InchXInch Illustration

What designers or creative minds influenced you growing up? Has this changed over the recent years?

Growing up, I was really inspired by the artists who were designing skate decks and a lot of people who were in Juxtapoz Magazine. Jeremy Fish was one of my favorite artists and still is to this day. The combination of things that are hardly ever combined together in the real world always interested me. I think his work really helped me to let loose and use my imagination. Don Pendleton has an amazing portfolio with Alien Workshop with a very distinct style. Some others include Shepard Fairey, Alex Pardee, Kris Markovich, Ed Templeton, and Michael Sieben. I guess more artists than designers influenced me, which is interesting now that I think about it.

Hoptinger Illustration

What do you find to be “the good, the bad, and the ugly” when it comes to design? What is your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?

The good: Seeing the things you designed get produced and pushed out into the real world is a great feeling. Connecting with clients and building those relationships is pretty great as well, especially when you’re on the same page.

The bad: When a client doesn’t respect your work and/or experience and all along just wanted a designer puppet to work the programs, while they tell you exactly what to do and where to place things even when it goes against best design practice. Luckily, we are at a point that we can tell those types of clients that the relationship just isn’t working and say adios.

The ugly: When a client decides it’s ok to change/tweak the logo you designed for them and you forgot to have them sign a contract. Remembering legal stuff/business stuff can be ugly. You live and you learn.

Modus Skateboard Bearing Packaging

What work or works are you most proud of and why? Did such designs come easier than others?

This is a tough question. If I had to choose, it would be the work I did for Gorilly Goods when I was at Boelter + Lincoln. They came to us after working with another agency and were unhappy with their branding and packaging. It wasn’t hitting the right target audience. After some branding research and exploration, I was able to design their entire responsive logo assets as well as art direct and design their packaging. What made it so special was one of the owners teared up in happiness/excitement when we first presented the work. That was truly one of the best moments for me in my career.

Spitfire Illustration

Describe your workflow in steps. Is there anything that would surprise us in how you get your work done?

When it comes to logo and branding, I usually start by making lists of words that have to do with the client. I do a little research online to see what’s been done before and what I should stay away from, especially things that have been overdone. From there I make little ugly thumbnail sketches of anything that comes to mind. I try to think about how I can combine things that make it specific to each brand. When I get some sketches down and I’m feeling good about what I’ve got, I bring it to the computer or iPad and get to work. I wouldn’t say anything is really surprising in my process. I do need coffee, otherwise I’m not very productive both physically and cognitively.

Craft Beer Packaging

When you’re not designing, what are you doing?

Probably hanging out with my wife, Kimberlee, and two dogs, Charlotte and Ellie. My wife and I frequently try out different restaurants and breweries around town. We’re currently fixing up our 1920’s bungalow and have remodeled two bathrooms in a year, just another way to bring design to life but with someone else’s input to consider. Our projects are usually interrupted by some trips we take, we like to travel to new places and it helps recharge my imagination and inspire me with different aesthetics. In the past few years I’ve gotten into motorcycling, which has been a great experience for me. It’s a good way to take my mind off of things and clear it up a bit. In the winter I love to go out snowboarding even if it’s just for a day somewhere here in Wisconsin.

The 4 Skateboard Company

Can you tell us about a current project you are working on and how it’s going?

Recently, I was asked to take over the creative for a motorcycle show here in Milwaukee and it’s been really great so far. It’s one of those projects I always thought would be awesome to work on but never thought I’d get the chance. I’ve been trying to deliver more than what was asked because the client tends to produce a lot of material for it including merchandise, etc. Plus, the client is really cool and open to a lot of weird ideas, so, it’s totally worth it. I know the extra stuff will get used in some way, shape or form. The direction he gave me before we started working together was to shoot for the 70’s and keep it weird. Probably the best direction to go off of in my opinion! The client recently asked me if I would work on another project, so I must be doing something right.

The 4 Skateboard Company

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I think personally, it’s always been work out more, drink less and eat healthier. I don’t think those goals will ever go away as much as I want them to at times. Creating a better work/life balance will always be a challenge for me, but it’s something I need to work on all the time. It’s tough when you love what you do.

Professionally, I want to keep progressing my skill set. I want to try new styles and evolve current ones. The hope with Three-Headed Design is to keep it small but grow to a point that people have heard about us and want to work with us. We’re still pretty new as a business but have a long-combined experience in design and advertising. Now that I’ve had a taste of working on my own terms, I never want to work for a boss again. That goal will never go away.

TMNT Illustratioin

To see more of Zac’s work, check out Three-Headed Design’s logo collection uploaded to the Lounge here.

You can also see his work by visiting his website here.

Stay tuned next month, as we feature another LogoLounge member.

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