Artist Interview: Derek Johnson

Graphic Designer Derek Johnson recently answered some questions regarding his creative process and having his work used commercially. Without further ado, our latest artist interview.


BOM: When did you start creating graphic designs? And was it always graphic work or did you start with more traditional mediums?

Johnson: I started getting into graphic design probably around 2002-2003. I had worked with CAD and VectorWorks in high school and when I went to college in 2000 for architecture at Wentworth Institute of Technology, I continued to be introduced to more Adobe products. When I enrolled in the Computer Graphic Design program at Mount Wachusett Community College, I bought Adobe Creative Suite 2 and that was my first graphic design software.

I have always had a pencil or marker in my hand. When I was young, I would take the covers of Sega Genesis games and draw them. In 7th grade, my English teacher caught me drawing Ken from Street Fighter II and it had this dope American flag in the background…never saw it again!


BOM: What kind of education do you have regarding designing?

Johnson: 75% self-taught over the years, and the last couple in college. I had a friend take CGD at both Fitchburg State and Mount Wachusett and he said don’t even waste your time or money at FSC – the course design and equipment were better at The Mount. Best advice I’ve ever had in the field.


BOM: What’s your process for making a design? How does that process change when you’re doing something for a company/client?

Johnson: Lots and lots of notes, lol. Post-its, quick photos, sketch apps on my phone – when I was growing up (and even through college) I had an “idea book” where I would write down my ideas. Everything would be circled back to when I had time to flush them out. For personal designs, I would say every 10 things I jotted down in one way or the other, four of them made no sense to me a week later. I don’t have enough free time to design everything I’ve written down but I enjoy the hell out of the process when I do.

The process barely changes for a client. The only real difference is we have agreed upon timelines, and my comps are cleaner because I don’t want them to deal with my crazy-ass notes.


BOM: What software do you use most often?

Johnson: Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop basically exclusively. And I’m still cranking these pieces on CS4.


BOM: What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome or challenges you face regularly?

Johnson: Like any good designer, finding work. The great thing about the explosion of the internet was that everyone who was creative now had a chance to show the world what they could do. The not so great thing was that EVERYONE now had a chance. Time & energy were expended early on after college graduation, but life took over so I basically have made it a side gig ever since. I think by understanding the concept of “niche work” it has helped a little, and since I don’t rely on graphic design for a steady paycheck, I’m free to pick and choose freelance jobs at my leisure.


BOM: What are some of the benefits to working as a graphic designer?

Johnson: I’ve been pretty lucky to be able to express myself in almost all mediums to some degree. I feel with a more traditional degree, you only get one shot to get it right. My natural talent has taken me only so far – I need “Ctrl + Z” in my life to take me to that next level, lol. Not many people have the ability to think of something and are able to create it. I’ve realized that and am most appreciative of that ability. It’s also great to have people come to you to solve problems. To have them say “Derek, I have an idea but I need your help.” I’m naturally a helper, so there’s a lot of pride in coming through for people.


BOM: What’s one of the more unusual pieces you’ve done – either for a client or for yourself?

Johnson: When I was working at a software company as a security manager, I was in my office during downtime. I was doing this mock-up for Burton (not solicited, just thought of snowboard ideas and used them as the name) and it was this weird gray-skinned alien baby that was coughing up the letters “B-U-R-T-O-N”. In order to research that idea, I Googled “weird looking infants” and a coworker walked in. Yeah, had a tough time explaining that one.


BOM: Where can people find your work? Both online and in person.

Johnson: Facebook, my portfolio at, Ignite Your Life Nutrition in Kingston, RI, Playmakers Bar & Grille in Waltham, MA, and in some old issues of North Shore, and Boston Magazines to name a few. Mostly Facebook.


BOM: What’s a piece of advice you’d give your younger self?

Johnson: Move to Boston, Chicago, New York, or LA if you are serious about this. Otherwise, enjoy the ride, don’t stress, and learn to spray paint.


BOM: Anything you’d like to add?

Johnson: Creative souls are fun to be around. I had no better time in college classes then being at The Mount around people who just wanted to make the world a more beautiful place, as much of a cliche as that may sound. I’m glad I never quit, and I will be doing graphic design in some form or fashion till the day I die.


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