Keep your daydream
Keep Your Daydream
“That’s what this business is about: doing the best creative work you can, and it’s a privilege to do the work”
A conversation with John Kenney
Phoenix Design Week 2022 Community Winner at Phoenix Design Week
Small Space, Big Taste cookbook
Julia: Hi John, congratulations on winning Best of Community for your design of the cookbook Small Space, Big Taste.
Isn’t it kind of a designer’s dream to do book design? It’s clear that you had a great time with this project. The visual voice you gave to this RV travel blogger makes this already-cool cookbook even more engaging. Tell me how you landed this gig, and tell me how you were able to bring the blogger’s personality into your design.
“My lifelong goal has been to travel to 50 countries by age 50”
John: Some say you gravitate towards clients with a similar mindset. My lifelong goal has been to travel to 50 countries by the time I am 50. At the same time I was actualizing this goal over the years, I did a lot of design work for one Mark Leach, a business consultant. At one point Mark and his wife Trisha decided to take the kids in an RV and travel full time. Trisha started a podcast for their journey and the Keep Your Daydream platform was born. So this project grew organically out of a love for travel and design.
Ambassadors of RV travel
They really found their niche with this project: the full-time traveling RV profile includes the weekend warrior, the retiree, the full-time traveler, and families—suddenly Mark and Trisha became the ambassadors of the RV community. People look at them almost as celebrities. Every year Keep Your Daydream launches a “Summer to Remember” pre-sale on merchandise to fans.
That’s how you got to the cookbook?
Yes, that brings us to the cookbook. Trisha wanted to create a cookbook based on RV living that would go beyond the default hot dogs and hamburgers cooked around the campground fire—and also highlight flavors of different places. My goal was to bring Trisha’s fun and bubbly personality to the design of the cookbook. I created custom graphics for each section to set a different visual tone for each, yet with a consistent feel throughout the book.
Teach and reach
I understand you are teaching at Grand Canyon University, and you were able to share this project with your students. Tell me about this experience. Were there any surprising moments during this presentation? What were some of the students’ reactions?
“You should see the light bulbs go off in their brains and faces when they really start to see the principles of design and usage and can articulate it.”
I was teaching at the same time and it was really fun to have my class do an assessment of the work: “So we talked about asymmetrical balance; can you see that happening in these layouts?”—for example. Headlines, callouts, and all order of hierarchy; set a limit to three fonts, color theory, etc….” You should see the light bulbs go off in their brains and faces when they really start to see the principles of design and usage and can articulate it. It really works well in drawing out the more timid students. This cookbook was so fun to design, and I hired one of my students to help me with production.
What got you into teaching?
I started by accepting an adjunct role at Grand Canyon University and really enjoyed it. I wanted another class and signed up for that. Then COVID hit and the teaching really helped supplement my income—which was handy given that I lost a number of clients to COVID. At one point a position opened up and Sheila Schumacher, Director of Digital Design Programs College of Arts and Media at GCU said, “Just go for it.”
“It’s really just so much fun, to be honest.”
It’s just really so much fun, to be honest. I would say teaching is similar to being an art director. I run my classes like an ad agency. I really stress the process, and help them develop their skills, make them get good at time management, etc.
Sometimes I jump in and do the projects myself, right alongside them. I do 48 thumbnails for one assignment and try to inspire them to really get into the process. I wear more hats this way, but it’s fun! I try to tell them out loud and also by example that, “You can do great work, you can put your mind to it, you can follow the design process, listen and take in the instruction, then put it into your obsession.”
Can you tell me about a case study?
I chose one of my clients, a golf company, and involved my students in the process. We did a lateral mind map for exploration, and then sketched. They brought visual decisions to those discoveries, such as, for example, an image of a crown, the colors purple, green, black…. Then I showed them my sketches for the client and they were so excited to see that hey, yes, we are all thinking along the same lines here….
“It’s incredible to see students do great work in their second year of college.”
It was another experience quite like the revelation they had recognizing the design principles in the page layout design of the cookbook: they got to see a real project. They got to understand and picture themselves doing that project themselves, solving that design problem. Young students can be really timid—and I think especially design students.
That must be so rewarding. It’s like what we discussed at Phoenix Design Week, about Professor Thomas Detrie from the design program at ASU in the 80s, who always told students “It’s okay to use what you know.” (I think I still have one of those Derwent Grafik pencils he gave to us on graduation***)
They so enjoyed the validation of knowing they were arriving at decisions that are professional. And it really propels them to do great work! It’s incredible to see students do great work in their second year of college.
You have so much great work on the Blade Creative website. Your love for the art and craft of graphic design really shows in the thoughtfulness, visual execution and sheer variety of exploration I can see in your work. It must be satisfying to have succeeded in retaining clients over the changing landscape of the design industry. What keeps you going?
Overserve your clients
I have won and retained clients by overserving them—by doing whatever I can to build and nurture those relationships. I never turn down work. I just believe that when they say jump you jump. That has kept me successful.
I was fortunate to work with some really great art directors at Ideas Collide and Blind Society. They really motivated me to do my best work and solve the problem. I became someone who was ready, when the client says jump, I’m ready to jump. Because again—it’s just fun.
“I tell my students being a creative professional is supposed to be fun.”
I’ve never really been a designer that anyone knows about. I like to be a creative partner. Marketing people have shared my name and I’ve been that go-to person that is almost like an in-house design department.
My students want to freelance, and I warn them that you need your skills and your client relationships and networks first. Don’t forget, also, that you need to pay the bills whether or not you have work. You have to have a good book and you have to work hard. That’s what this business is about: doing the best creative work you can, and it’s a privilege to do the work.
Using the magic hours
Mental health is intertwined with your work and as a creative professional you must take care of yourself. That is why you MUST have fun. Lately I’ve been getting up in the wee hours to do creative projects like collage and spray paint and all sorts of analog fun. I love design. I wake up every day ready to create.
“Teaching and travel feed my soul. And they both originate in a love for design.”
Being self-employed is so good for travel. I’ve been able to take the kids and do six weeks in Berlin, for example. Seeing what design looks like in Berlin and the amazing urban art scene there…we want to go back as soon as possible.
I’m pretty happy to continue on the path of teaching. I’m getting a portfolio together and am going to work on my MFA to open up more doors with teaching. I’d like to someday get the family to Italy to live and work—it’s a great hub to jump to other places.
Did you reach your goal?
Yes! I turned 50 in May, after getting to my 50th country in April.
Stay tuned for Professor Kenney and Blade Creative, hailing from Rome in 2025…or Florence…or Venice….
***I found that pencil, although the “It’s okay” part has been whittled off:
Each year the rallying cry “Show us your best!” is heard throughout our desert land, and creatives from near and far submit their latest work. This past October, we captured the year’s efforts of Arizona designers in a virtual showcase during Phoenix Design Week 2022. Our annual “Best Of” design showcase is unlike traditional shows: there are no judges or juries—in a “people’s choice” vote, attendees vote for their favorite projects each day during Phoenix Design Week. The entry that receives the most votes earns Best Of accolades for the designer, along with a pass to the next year’s event, and a feature article (like this one).
This year, we were back in person with the exhibition, and tried a new voting process. We wanted to offer the opportunity for conference attendees to vote like we used to do—in person, reviewing physical as well as digital submissions—and we announced that at the conclusion of the PHXDW Keep it Real conference (Steffan Stewart). At the same time we wanted to open up a second round of online voting to the community—and announced that winner (John Kenney) at Creative Mornings, the closing event of PHXDW 2022.