Jordan Metcalf: Know When To Say No

Uninfluenced by the noise, Jordan brings a fresh perspective to typography.

Is it just us or are these months flying by faster than Big Red at the Kentucky Derby? That whole thing about time flies while you’re having fun has been so true since the start of the year, because every month we’ve been featuring our most talented ADC Members and newcomers who’ve joined our community. Be sure to stay tuned for what’s coming up next, and see if your craft will be showcased for a chance to get featured. If you’re still not a member but what to become one, you can find all the info about signing up here. With the help of our friends at Monotype , we’d like to present our next typographer/letterer, Jordan Metcalf.

Based in Cape Town South Africa, Jordan was unlike many designers we’ve spoken to thus far. Retrospectively, his lack of exposure to design from an early age may very well be a benefit. While most designers tell us they toyed around with Photoshop, trolled design blogs and the like, Jordan had to rely on his immediate surroundings, TV and films as a creative source. Years later, he currently runs his own studio out of a collective studio space in Woodstock specializing in custom lettering and design projects & artwork. He’s worked with international clients and agencies and exhibited extensively within South Africa and abroad. He also holds a prestigious ADC Young Guns from the class of 2013. Peep the gallery to see some of his best work and read our Q&A below!

Jordan Metcalf
Cape Town, South Africa



Tell us how your got here.

I’ve lived in Cape Town, South Africa for most of my life. Like a lot of kids coming up in the pre 2000’s, I didn’t grow up with the Internet, especially as it exists today. I had very little exposure to things aside from movies, TV, and my immediate surroundings. This was especially true in a place like South Africa where technology would always roll out a couple of years after it did in Europe or the US. Although I was artistic growing up, I didn’t really know about graphic design as a career and definitely wasn’t trawling through design blogs or playing with hacked versions of Photoshop at 16. After taking a year off from school, I went to a career counselor who suggested I look into design. The description sounded like a decent compromise between being an ‘artist’ and having a little more financial security. I decided to go for it. It may have started out as a somewhat fickle decision, but once I got into studying I took it really seriously and kind of fell in love with it. This was doubly true for typography which tied in so closely with reading, which was another thing I’ve always loved to do. I worked for a few different studios after graduating, doing print, web and motion graphic direction. At the same time, I organically fell into experimenting with custom drawn type stuff. It was the really early days of the current custom lettering movement and wasn’t something I had much exposure to. This means that it was a really free and uninfluenced area for me to play in, in the early stages of an emerging scene. Once I went freelance, I committed to myself only to put this experimental stuff online, forgoing three years of commercial work for 2 or 3 word digital doodles. Luckily, the gamble paid off and I managed to get clients like Nike and ESPN fairly early in my freelance career.

What is the creative scene in Cape Town like?

There is an incredible creative energy in Cape Town and South Africa in general. However, it’s also dichotomous in that the amount of talented people is almost inversely proportional to the money and opportunities that are available locally. I’ve travelled quite a bit and have yet to find anywhere else that somehow balances the sheer number of driven, talented people with an equal lack of resources and opportunity than Cape Town does. I think that deficit has make people work really hard to fight for limited local creative real estate, which has in turn, nurtured a strangely saturated community of internationally successful local designers and illustrators who have found opportunity and recognition abroad.

Can you tell us about a project you’ve worked on that you are most proud of?

Pride is always a balance of ego and value. For me, there are these kind of crazy moments of pride, like being commissioned to do a cover for National Geographic recently, that are these milestone bucket list opportunities for monolithic brands that I never would have imagined would come when I was starting out. The clients you can tell your parents about that make them sort of understand what it is you do. I feel great about them partly because I feel they reflect something about what I’ve managed to achieve. As much as I enjoy the work, I know it’s also an ego thing. I like to think that I’m adding value to them but I’m also aware that those clients have the resources and reach to easily hire a thousand other people who would do a great job too.

That being said, the project Rosetta Roasterya branding and creative direction project for a boutique local coffee roasterythat I worked on along with another designer, my buddy Adam Hill, since they’ve started  years ago. There is so much that we’ve done over the years that the project isn’t even online because we’ve never gotten round to photographing and collating everything. But I feel a great sense of personal investment and pride in what we’ve done with them because it’s been a long term personal relationship that’s a great illustration of the value that consistent and considered design can bring to a business. That’s a case of knowing my work has added substantial value to someone else’s dream and that’s a different kind of pride.

Take us through your creative process. 

My creative process differs from job to job. It’s not a science and approaching everything the same way leads to predictable results. Exploration and experimenting with different styles and techniques is pretty central to my work so I actively avoid having a ‘paint-by-numbers’ method.

The entire creative process is really a dialog between you and your client and without genuine interest in giving them something that’s going to bring value to them, you’re wasting each other’s time.

In a few words, how would you describe your style?

I don’t really have a style. I get different kinds of satisfaction from different kinds of work and I like the idea of coming up with solutions that are appropriate for whatever job I am working on. If I’m honest I just get bored doing the same thing over and over. It’s personally and creatively stifling for me.

From software to soft skills, what are your must-have tools?

Must-have soft skills are empathy, confidence, communication and an ability to self-examine. The entire creative process is really a dialog between you and your client and without genuine interest in giving them something that’s going to bring value to them, you’re wasting each other’s time. You have to be empathetic to care about doing something right for the client and not just let your ego take over but confident enough to push back when necessary. Without good communication skills, that’s impossible. I think self-examination is key in allowing yourself to step outside of what’s easy and instantly gratifying, to try new things and sometimes mess up, but continuously learn and improve from experimentation. For software, I only use the standard Adobe products: Illustrator and Photoshop. I have been using Wacom products in one form or another for ages (I can barely use a mouse anymore). These says I switch between a Cintiq and an Intuos depending on whether I’m working at home or at the studio.

What typefaces do you love for practical use? For fun?

Whatever typeface works for the job.

For the type novice, any advice you can bestow?

Find an honest voice and use it. I see endless iterations of the same type of lettering all day, people trying to replicate the exact style of work that inspired them to get into type in the first place and it just seems pointless. Unless you’re bringing something new to the dialog, you’ll always be playing catch up with people who have a head start. Figure our what makes you want to do this what to do this, what your personal motivation for making creative work is and make manifesting that your central focus. Rather fail and improve at doing your own thing than succeed at doing someone else’s.

What are some challenges you have faced and overcome in making this a viable career?

Learning to say ‘no’ was pretty vital. It’s tough when you are starting out to do so, but building the confidence to say no to projects I wasn’t interested in or didn’t have the time to do really helped free me to work on the type of stuff I enjoy at a pace that didn’t ruin the rest of my life. The viability of any career rests largely upon it’s compatibility with your personal life. If all you do it work, it makes it very difficult to build and sustain interests and relationships outside of work. So it’s been a long term balancing act trying to reconcile my ambitions for my work with my desire to have a healthy and productive life outside of it.

Sky’s the limit: What is your dream client or collaboration?

The best jobs are the ones where trust and respect runs both ways. Any job can become a dream collaboration really. I want to work with anyone interested in doing honest and meaningful work.

Who in your orbit is producing work that you are loving right now?

There are too many to mention really but I’ll narrow it down. First, I am bitterly jealous of almost everything coming out of the Hugo & Marie camp. They represent the kind of work that is somehow incredibly unique and esoteric but still luxurious and crafted. My buddy Adam Garcia is an inspiration both in his work and how enthusiastically and openly he approaches the creative process. Listening to him speak about creating thinking makes me feel like a dummy pushing around a Wacom pen. Spencer Charles and Kelly Thorn are creating immaculate, considered work with a vintage grounding that kind of sets the bar for what so many other people are trying to do. I also enjoy Nim Ben-Reuven’s ability to simultaneously parody the inspirational script/hand lettering trend seen on every second Instagram feed, while completely perfecting it and doing beautiful work.