JON HARGREAVES: DESIGNING FOR HUMANITY

On a sunny morning in Norfolk, Virginia, designer Jon Hargreaves welcomed us in to his home for a chat. We were eager to learn more about him after catching glimpses of his work, and entering his home was like stepping into an Architectural Digest story. A welcoming pot of freshly brewed pour over was front and center when we arrived. He poured a cup and we settled in to our conversation.

We spoke about his work as a designer, and learned about the values and principles that make design impactful. Jon’s insight is distinctly refined and his ambitions are meaningful. Check out our conversation below.

LD: Thanks again for having us. Could you introduce yourself and share a bit about your background? 

JH: Absolutely. I’m Jon Hargreaves. I’m originally from the Akron, Ohio area, but I’ve been living here in Virginia for 10+ years now. I’m a self-taught designer working in all kinds of different design disciplines; web design, branding design, product design, and more recently trying to break into some industrial design. 

LD: Is ‘Designer’ your professional title then?

JH: I tend to go by ‘Design Generalist’ at this point.

LD: If you were to use three words to describe yourself professionally, what would they be? 

JH: Passionate, intentional, and simple. 

LD: The ‘simple’ part is interesting, especially in the context of design. Can you elaborate on that part? 

JH: I think the most important value a designer should be able to hone in on is maintaining simplicity in their work. The whole point of design is to be able to communicate clearly with visual content. Like the calendar back here by Massimo Vignelli, it’s an extremely simple piece with a simple concept; and the map he did above me of the New York subway in 1972 takes an extremely complex problem and makes it as simple as possible. It’s been broken down into only a few key elements that are essential for people who use the subway to know exactly where they’re at.

LD: We’ve seen digital art take over design spaces. Do you feel like the popularity of digital art takes away from traditional design mediums, like the Massimo Vignelli calendar and subway map? 

JH. Yeah, I absolutely do think so. In this tech driven design industry the world is more focused on producing volume over quality and value. The focus is on like ‘how fast can something get shipped out.’ It’s to the point where a lot of digital art, or illustration, or just design in general is copied from other people based on the current trend. The meaning of the design becomes lost in translation a bit. 

JH: To compare digital art culture to traditional art culture, we can think of it this way: I could make an NFT collection, launch it, go viral over night, and make potentially millions of dollars off of it. But back in the day, Vincent Van Gogh’s work was only discovered years after he died. He went undiscovered his entire lifetime but had some of the most iconic work that’s ever been made; and now, like everything else, it’s easily accessible. It’s just a matter of sorting through the bad art trying to find the good art over time. 

LD: So would you say there are less opportunities for Van Goghs to exist in the digital landscape because of that need to produce? 

JH: The need to produce, and the lack of attention to quality and value. 

LD: We’ve also noticed you’ve been quite active on Twitter this year, sharing thoughts related to our conversation right now. Is there a strategy behind the Twitter presence? 

JH: Twitter is an interesting platform for me because I can use it as a place to vent, as a mood board, for inspiration for others, I can boost my own projects on there—there’s just a lot of different things I can do with it. My intention is to build my own personal brand and actually utilize a platform to do that.

JH: I’ve been kind of silent about my work for a while. Now I want to put as much as I possibly can out into the world, including my philosophy for design, with the hopes that it creates discussion around what we should actually be focusing on in the design industry. Like, is it friendly to the environment? Is it actually solving a problem or is it just putting a bandaid on something? Really just trying to be more analytical of what we’re creating through my own thoughts and the things that I share. 

LD: How do you apply your design philosophy in your work process?

JH: As far as design process or philosophy goes for me, everything that I do and work on requires research. You have to understand a problem before you can solve it. If I’m designing an interface like Airbnb, I’m going to try and find everything that looks like and works like Airbnb, compile that, and try to conceptualize something that works as well or better for the user base. Then it’s just a matter of getting a simple design built, testing that out, and getting feedback on it. Then the final process is to strip back as much as possible and cut out any of the bullsh*t. 

LD: Do you have a favorite medium to work in?

JH: I love working in Adobe Illustrator. I think that that’s an underemphasized tool. Illustrator has an incredibly powerful vector tool set for building anything, from a logo to even interface designs. It’s just insanely powerful. Kind of complex to get into, but that’s by far my favorite thing to work in. 

LD: Outside of your work environment, what mediums do you find particularly good design in?

JH: Right now I’ve been following a lot of funky vintage furniture accounts on Instagram. There’s a shop up in Brooklyn, New York called Home Union where I got this couch and the Boby trolley. They resell a lot of vintage modernist furniture. Stuff like that I really love. I’ve also been reading a lot of design literature recently, like these books I’ve got over here, they’re actually all design books. I’ve been reading some literature from Massimo Vignelli and Dieter Rams that has been extremely inspiring. Sprinkled on top of that too, Frank Ocean’s work has been really inspiring to me recently. He’s directing film, doing everything with Homer, and we allegedly have an album coming from him— a lot of really cool creative content from him. 

LD: I appreciate the breadth of appreciation from furniture, to literature, to music. So, what are your plans? 

JH: Right now I’m working at a company called QuickNode, they’re a a Web3 company focused on infrastructure and tooling for developers. Web3 focuses on the blockchain, which is essentially a public ledger of activity and transactions that happen in the Web3 space. For example, I can use QuickNode’s tools to track and access data like ‘someone just purchased 20 Bitcoin tokens’ or ‘someone just sold two Bored Ape NFTs for a massive profit.’

JH: It’s complex, it’s weird, but it’s also kind of fun to see the internet return to its original roots of being able to provide an open community to actually work together. 

LD: Do you intend to stay in this tech space? 

JH: For now yeah, I see it as a space that needs a lot of growth. I think design has a lot of space to grow it and develop it and make it as beautiful as it can be, and actually make it feel like it is the future of the internet.

JH: But on top of that, I’m starting a design studio with my co-worker and friend, Burak. We’re working on building assets for designers and developers with an emphasis on quality content that can be built with, like an icon library, components, and component patterns for building websites or apps.

LD: Can explain what components are exactly?

JH: Yeah so a component would be like a button, or a piece of text, or an image, and you combine those to create a pattern.

LD: Cool, so the intention of the company is to design those to be used by other companies?

JH: That’s right, as a package to either purchase the designs, or purchase the code. We want to design these assets and code them as libraries. But the icon library I’m making will be free for everybody. 

LD: Can you explain a little bit about why you wanted to do that or where the idea came from?

JH: Yeah, it goes back to simplicity. The industry has a lot of unnecessary content that is just redundant or used inefficiently. So Burak and I, the co-founders of Essential Design, we’re focused on building a more flexible design system for people to use by only providing them with— hence the name— ‘essential’ components, patterns, and icons. The things that they would actually need in building an interface. 

JH: After researching, we found that a lot of the people that are providing similar products are giving people a little bit of everything to pick from. Like a massive amount of content that is unfocused, different layouts for x and y pages or whatever. Just too much content for people to sort through and actually make sense of to use in their own products. So we want to figure out a way to make a more focused approach to that. 

JH: As far as other things outside of that go, I’m in talks right now about building a piece of furniture that I designed— I want to just do it as an experiment and see how it actually turns out and looks when I’m done with it. I know I mentioned a lot of things that I want to build on or improve, but I really, really love architecture.

JH: I want to see the quality of architecture that we saw in the Bauhausmovement come back. You look around and see new homes being built and they just aren’t what they could be. Like I said about everything else, they’re just kind of cheaply made to provide a lot of quantity. So in addition to all those things that I told you about earlier that I want to work on, I’d love to figure out how I can get into architecture.

JH: I think a great project to pursue would be redesigning the housing projects here in Norfolk. The reasoning behind that is another one of my main philosophies: good design shouldn’t be accessible only to the upper class or people who can afford it. Good design is for everyone. Redesigning the housing projects would be a big move to act on that vision. For example, we know that natural light does a lot for happiness, so having an open concept where natural light comes through the home, and making it a place that they are proud to live in, could be a big step towards improving the happiness of folks who aren’t able to live outside of the housing projects right now. I think building something something to bring good design to that community would be a massively impactful opportunity. 

LD: I can’t wait to see these come to life. Any thoughts to leave us with?

JH: Let’s see. I want to thank all of my friends and people in my community that have supported me, been beside me, and listened to me. I couldn’t have done anything that I’m doing right now without my friends, family, colleagues.

JH: My partner Abby, she is wonderful. She encourages me to do all of the work that I do and helps me with feedback. She gives me very solid, awesome feedback or critiques that I can work with and can bring to my team after I rework it. And she is absolutely wonderful with curating our current living space. Finding a house with her has been super fun, and challenging, but I’m excited to build that future space with her. 

JH: The last thing is if you’re learning design or want to become a designer, it can be done. I have no traditional training and just worked my way up. I worked hard to get there and learned as much as I could along the way. Just focus on keeping things as simple as possible. Learn from trends, but don’t let your process revolve around trends. That’s it. 

Interview Conducted by: Lexi Deverich, Imagery Captured by: Huey Melendez and William ‘Cortez’ Artis