Wade Jeffree: Open and exposed in NYC

Published:  April 17, 2014
Bonnie Abbott

Wade Jeffree is an Australian-born, “metal-loving vegan” living in New York City, working as a graphic designer at Sagmeister & Walsh. Desperate to travel, Jeffree headed out of Australia after he graduated, settling in the infamous city. Here, Jeffree finds inspiration in the people around him, he investigates his environment, which in turn fosters his passion for projects that are socially and culturally focused.

Why did you decide to move to New York so early in your career?

During my final year at university I, like many other young Australians, wanted to head overseas. I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go, but I believed that a change in scenery would yield positive results.

At that point I was still unsure of where I wanted to head, so I compiled a list of studios from around the world and determined the relative pros and cons of each, factoring in the locations among other things. The options that were most promising were London and  New York. I had become aware of the J1 Visa (knowing that the rate of acceptance was very high) and a New York summer seemed like too good of a thing to pass up! I received my visa, scheduled a road trip from the West coast to the East and went from there, knowing I would be in New York as of March 2012, ready to see what would happen.

Jeffree’s work for the 2012 Next Wave festival, with Steve Lees, John Wilson and Dale Bordin.

Jeffree’s work for the 2012 Next Wave festival, with Steve Lees, John Wilson and Dale Bordin.

How did you get the job at Sagmeister & Walsh?

Prior to leaving Australia I sent emails to a few studios in New York to inform them that I would be there in March. I had interviews and offers from some great studios, but ultimately I decided that I wanted to take a step away from a design job for a short time to do something that would give me a more flexible schedule, so I ended up working for Nike Running. When I speak to Australians who have moved over here for design jobs, a similar story keeps surfacing—they wish they had explored more of the city before taking on their respective jobs. I feel reassured that I made the right decision. After being there for 3 months, James Kape (a good friend and fellow Australian designer who I met here in NYC) had an inquiry from Jess Walsh regarding a position at the studio. He was unable to partake as he was working at Wolff Ollins, so the nice chap passed my details forward and bam! Funnily enough he was also the person who had informed me of the process of getting a J1.

The Sagmesiter & Walsh studio is under the observation of a 24-hour studio webcam, broadcast on their website’s landing page.

Many a thing had fallen into my hands and I entered the NYC design world at Sagmeister & Walsh (S&W). One day I was working in retail and having a good time figuring out the city and the next I was meeting Stefan and Jess for a quick 15 minute interview. A week later I was sitting in a chair under a temperamental webcam, looking out a window with a perfect view of the Empire State building, and getting naked for a website launch.

Ironically, only a year and a half earlier I had sat across a table from Stefan at an agIdeas workshop. It was almost surreal that it had all happened, as I have since changed my VISA and never looked back.

The team at Sagmeister & Walsh. Jeffree far left. Photo: sagmeisterwalsh.com

The team at Sagmeister & Walsh. Photo: sagmeisterwalsh.com

What makes it different to the other studios you have worked for?

Honesty, kindness, freedom and generosity.

How do these differences play out in the studio work?

If you do not understand people, you do not understand design.

I want to pursue design with a personal/human approach. We are a small studio and we work on some big, big projects. We need to have these said qualities, as they are intrinsic to us getting things done. It makes us close, it makes us blunt, but it also makes people accept that we are being truthful, so it’s coming from the right place.

These large projects mean significant hours. But this takes aster aside as we are selective with which clients we work with. As Stefan says, “We want the product or service to be worthwhile, i.e., have a reason to exist. The project should come with a reasonable timeline and budget. We want to work with kind people.” Being selective with clients means creative freedom and a huge creative fullment/payoff when delivered.

Jeffree’s design work for ‘Abstract’, Columbia University’s annual publication for the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Art direction: Stefan Sagmesiter

Jeffree’s design work for ‘Abstract’, Columbia University’s annual publication for the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Art direction: Stefan Sagmesiter

Up until working at the studio I had worked with a few of my own personal clients and had responsibilities within other studios. However, none of those experiences were anywhere near that of S&W. Stefan and Jess bestow a level of trust with everyone within the studio that provides a ‘get shit done’ mentality. The projects are ownable, open and satisfying. Everyone in the studio is responsible for the studio, spanning from Stefan to the current interns. As the Aristotle guy said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Never before have I had the opportunity to work with clients who are as open as ours. What kind of client allows you to create a game show!

The openness within the studio translates into strong relationships with clients. With trust comes the potential to push your personal flavour into each and every project.

Yes, the studio is known for nudity—I often forget we even did it. The moment when my family discovered the photo on the internet was definitely a highlight—they probably began to question what type of work I was even doing here!

More so than the nude shoots, having fun is key. We are in the position to create! It’s a special thing—I love what I do—and it allows me to have fun and be inspired with my life outside of the studio. This single idea allows me to pour my passion into it, sometimes uncontrollably. We’ve all had those nights stirring over a thought for a project. To have fun and always be willing to take a step back and laugh is definitely important for myself, as I believe it allows my thoughts to become liberal.

If you find people who are in love with what they do and are passionate about it, positive results will follow.

Some of the most beautiful things come out of silliness or things generally considered as nonsense. From the fart joke or the hand written sign at your local deli, there is beauty and creative insight to take from everything.

What is it like being a graphic designer in NYC? Is it quite competitive? 

As you can imagine, competition, motivation and passion levels are all very high—it is New York after all. Everyone is highly motivated and skilled, all here from somewhere else and trying to make something of it. The enthusiasm and energy created through this passion and motivation is infectious—you want to work, and you want to always be pushing. Stay on your toes or get left behind.

There is a never ending supply of talent here. I have the opportunity to meet new people with exceptional abilities quite often. This said motivation/talent creates a driving force and buzz I can definitely say I have not felt before. With a general starting time of 10am in the industry here, I have found that whilst it is helpful to sometimes work longer hours to get something, I have also realised the power of knowing where to stop. Be motivated, disciplined and have fucking fun and things will happen.

Jeffree worked with fellow designer Santiago Carrasquilla and art directors Jessica Walsh and Stefan Sagmeister on the 24 hour challenge to interpret Adobe’s MAX typography and Creative Cloud logo. The process was live streamed on a Times Square billboard. Photo: sagmeisterwalsh.com

In terms of design thinking, style and purpose, what kind of impact, if any, has NYC had on you?

An undoubtable, unbelievable impact. I wouldn’t be sitting in a chair at S&W if I had never jumped ship—and it (S&W) is the most obvious thing to have an impact on me, not only professionally, but personally.

It has allowed me to live in New York instead of visiting in New York. ‘Things’, whether they are personal experiences, personal insights, or inspiration come from the places you visit and the company you keep. My relocation here has influenced and inspired me in many a way Melbourne would not—the power of travel is immeasurable and the people I have met are going to be influential for years to come.

I now know what my professional success is defined by, and that my successes are based upon a set of parameters I have set myself. It has helped me to distinguish who I am professionally and personally.

Jeffree compiled images and text of his first experiences of his travels into a book, ‘Coming To America’

Jeffree compiled images and text of his first experiences of his travels into a book, ‘Coming To America’

Where else do you find inspiration or motivation to work?

People and the world outside the studio. The internet may show work that is great, powerful, inspiring and thought-provoking. But if you are not influenced from the ground level where you stand, then it is time to change something. We are instigators of creating how culture can work, so why not be aware of what is around you and be inspired by it?

Although I like to think that I am the motivated, ‘go-getter’ type, I’m human and sometimes I need a break to think and clear my head. I find it best to take a quick walk or bounce on the studio trampoline to really get my mind going. This stimuli, whether it is visually, sonically or multi-sensory does nothing but give you a quick, much needed kick up the ass. I’ll find a minute detail in something I may not have previously paid attention to, which will trigger my mind to wander and ultimately clear my head.

I particularly like to go grocery shopping—sifting through produce will put your mind on a new wave length. I can find myself looking at a pear for minutes just observing form. Being able to observe non-related items and experiences in a removed situation always helps.

In collaboration with Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu and hand painted by Coby Kennedy, a fierce Octopus and its tentacles form ‘Yes!’ on the walls of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway underpass.

‘Yes’ octopus mural in progress. Photo: sagmeisterwalsh.com

What is a project that you have worked on that really excited you?

It is one currently on a boat from China! Columbia University’s annual publication, Abstract—a 752-page publication with an accompanying digital platform used as a yearbook for the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. It is the largest project I have had thus far.

Also, a little personal project entitled Black Metal Modernist was a lot of fun. It is a self-published zine which flips the traditional aesthetics of Black Metal with Swiss typography and Graphic Design legends. Helvetica Bold was assigned to represent the selected Black Metal Bands and the aforementioned aesthetics in black metal to designers.

Jeffree’s ‘Black Metal Modernist’. Photo: wadejeffree.com

Jeffree’s ‘Black Metal Modernist’. Photo: wadejeffree.com

Illustration from Jeffree’s ‘Black Metal Modernist’ — ‘Paul Rand’

Do you keep an eye on what is happening in the design industry back in Australia?

I feel like the output of work from Australia is some of the highest in the world—both with individual designers and studios. When looking at design on the internet, I will usually head towards Australia. The amount of sought after Australians here is a testament to the thinking and skill set of design in Australia.

The launch of the new AGDA is exciting. I look forward to seeing where it goes in nourishing a very tight community.

Does the vegan philosophy influence your work in any way?

It affects everything I do, no matter where I am working, I would not do work for anyone I deem to be against what I believe in, both ethically and morally. I would sooner leave a job than to work on anything of such a kind that promotes or establishes something that is against my beliefs. As a Communication designer I believe that our profession allows for instant contribution to contemporary culture, with the ability to inform, inspire and give rise to social change—whether this is on an animal welfare, environmental, political or social influence.

‘Shift’ — a research project which sought to change the perception of sustainable housing. Findings were collated to form the research document. Designed in collaboration with John Wilson and Steven Lees.

Pages from ‘Shift’. Photo: wadejeffree.com

Pages from ‘Shift’. Photo: wadejeffree.com

Can you share any of your future plans with us?

For now I see myself staying in NYC for several years to come. It may sound generic, but there is an energy here that I have yet to feel anywhere else. So, moving forward I would ideally want to start working on a lot more projects that are socially and culture focused.

I have also found a partner in Leta Sobierajski, so plans of running away are out of the question.

Career-wise I have never been happier; I have found a studio which allows me to explore and pursue the possibilities of what design can be and do, and also helps me focus on how to make the experience of design a more personal one. It’s something I feel all too often left to the side. In addition, I do hope that one day I can master American imperial units and measurements.

[We asked Wade to answer some questions using one word, using the webcam in the Sagmeister & Walsh studio]

What do you miss most from home?
What tool (software or hardware) do you use the most?
Who is your dream client?
Do you have a favourite Pantone colour?
What does graphic design mean to you, in a word?


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