John LaCroix is one of the many people who I never knew back in the day, but whose name always came up in conversation. He’s probably best known for playing guitar in Ten Yard Fight and Unrestrained, but I’ve always been a big fan of his work behind the scenes as the brains behind magazines like Extent, While You Were Sleeping and Swindle. He was also one of the first hardcore kids to become a legit “creative professional” outside of the music/ skateboarding/ etc world, with a very impressive resume as a Creative Director where he’s worked with clients like Samsung, NASCAR, Apple, and ESPN– check out his portfolio for more details.
He’s one of the best examples of what I’m trying to document here on PRMBA: people who used the skills that they learned from DIY culture as the foundation for a successful, inspiring career as a creative professional. Very stoked to talk with John!
Give us your life story in a few sentences: who are you, what is/was your involvement in punk/HC/DIY culture and what is your “real job”?
I’m just a dude from Massachusetts who was lucky enough to get into skateboarding, music, and art when I was young kid (late 80’s / early 90’s). I came from a pretty destitute environment so in order to thrive, or even just survive the way I grew up, I had to learn to hustle and be resourceful.
I’ve never been the kind of person that fits into any kind of “normal” category, so when I first got into skateboarding, it helped me build confidence and self-reliance while also teaching me to be proud of my own individuality. Skateboarding was also how I got into a lot of music. I used to see band names on those old Sessions t-shirt ads in the back of Thrasher. That’s where I saw Bad Brains and Youth Of Today, and of course, in old videos I first heard Black Flag, Descendents, Pailhead, McRad, Firehose, etc.
A lot of the same cues I was getting from skateboarding was also in the lyrics of the music but it wasn’t until I started going to shows and meeting other kids that the idea of doing-it-yourself clicked with me. I guess when I wanted to go skating, I just found other skaters and hung around until they let me try it. Then I did whatever I could to get my own board. Same kind of thing with music… I wanted to see shows so I just went and hung around.
First I was going to local shows, then taking the train into the city, then traveling all over the east coast and beyond. I’m not the kind of person who is happy as a spectator to any activity so it wasn’t long before I started playing in bands and making a zine. My first bands were pretty crappy so if I wanted to play, I had to book the shows. So I first started doing shows to benefit building a skatepark nearby and that blew up really quick.
Issue 7 of John’s zine Extent– really slick design for a fanzine from 1996
In high school, we had a pretty legit graphic arts department so taking classes there, I learned more about designing and printing t-shirts, flyers, zines… I even made Youth Of Today note pads… so I just made the most of my resources there. By the time I was finishing up high school, I hit a stride with a zine I was publishing called EXTENT. By then I was starting to figure out the business side. I was selling ads, budgeting costs, writing, taking a lot of photos at shows, and getting friends to help me with content. I was setting up pretty big shows in Boston so I had a great place to distribute the zines and find lots of help to get the word out.
Ten Yard Fight documentary featuring some primo footage of young John
In college, I started a few bands, my most popular band was Ten Yard Fight but I also played for a tiny bit in Reach The Sky and even for a summer in Slapshot. In Extent zine I put out a free cd with a couple issues and included my band in there as well as some of the earliest exposure for bands like Hot Water Music and it just all blew up from there. I didn’t think about it consciously at first but there’s all this stuff that you need tie together… business, marketing, distribution, content, communication… so to me that’s the start of a thought process that lead me onto my career.
While I was doing all that scene stuff in college I was double majoring in Photography and Graphic Design. The year Ten Yard Fight started, I was also working full time at Polaroid assisting the top dude in charge of global marketing and the entire brand identity. I’m pretty sure I got that job because of the zine and all the stuff I was doing. My boss let me work flex time so I could get everything done. Back then, I never slept. I guess I thought I was going to be a designer but at every job I had, I always tried to get involved in the bigger picture probably because I realized I wasn’t the best designer, photographer, or illustrator that I knew. Over time I just hustled like crazy. If I was working full time, I was also doing side work.
WYWS had pictures of graffiti, almost-naked girls, and interviews with hardcore bands– pretty much everything I cared about when I was 20 years old. Needless to say, it was one of my favorite things in the world.
I worked on an art and graff magazine called While You Were Sleeping with my friend Roger Gastman who was a roadie for Ten Yard Fight. Then we did a bunch of books together. The book releases always had gallery shows and parties. When I moved out to Cali, I got a job in the skateboarding industry at 411. They made skate and action sports videos so I was involved with creative stuff, marketing, etc. When I quit that company, I started freelancing for a lot of skate companies — that would eventually evolve into my own agency. http://knowngallery.com/blog/post/tag/while-you-were-sleeping/
Roger had an idea for a magazine called Swindle which we started with Shepard Fairey. Then I got head-hunted to be the Creative Director for the company that created the yellow first down line you see on TV when you watch the NFL. That’s where I became as much of an inventor as I was a designer. When I went in to interview for that, the dude I was replacing said, “I’m a subscriber to 411 and Swindle so I’m going to recommend you get the job.” That was that.
To wrap up a super long story… I moved on a couple more times — first to my own agency and art gallery in San Francisco, then to a large agency where I was a Group Creative Director for companies like Samsung and Apple. These days I’m a Creative Director for a company that focuses on marketing for education. What I do as a Creative Director differs every day. I come up with ideas and strategies, I write, I design, I draw sketches, I plan out experiences, I even write a lot of code. I honestly don’t think that I could do this job if I hadn’t had that been born of that DIY hardcore spirit.
Promo for the While You Were Sleeping DVD
What did you learn from your time in DIY culture that has helped you in a professional capacity?
That if you want to understand something, the best thing you can do is try it. That learning with purpose is the most effective way. So for example, you may want to learn how to record bands and be a producer (something I do for fun), so the best thing you can do is get a project and dive in. Write your own music and record it or find some friends to do it with. Set goals, give yourself a deadline. You can put in time and eventually get good at anything if you have passion for it. You have to want it and you need a reason other than just making money. In my job, I think I’m a lot more effective when I give feedback or direction to somebody on my team because I basically know what it takes to do their job. I’m not giving untested advice, I’m advising from personal experience. I can usually talk the talk and walk the walk but if not, I figure it out. Even if you’re the boss, you should always be learning.
The Explosion, “Here I Am.” Directed by John, as heard in Tony Hawk 2 and Burnout 3
On the flip side of that coin, are there any bad habits or bad ideas that you picked up that have held you back professionally?
YES. I have made mistake too many times of taking on too much or just by trying to do everything myself. For a short time I was directing music videos. My first video was a decent $75,000 budget to direct a video for The Explosion. Virgin Records hired a team of very successful directors and they just failed at capturing what the band was all about. After much kicking and screaming from the band and their management, Virgin allowed me the second chance at getting it done. So I hired a co-director (Wing Ko) and a sick Director of Photography (Yon Thomas) and an awesome editor (Chris Sims) as well as a huge production team. I had advisors and assistants and everything I needed. I looked at everything from the big picture perspective and didn’t try to learn each individual role in detail on the job.
This sounds counter to what I said about knowing every part but I was learning from those people how to execute a vision that I had documented well in a treatment (the plot and plan of the video) and storyboards. If you’re a good Creative Director in a situation like that, you know what you don’t know, you’ll pay attention, you’ll learn from and trust your team. I had never directed a music video at all, not even a little DIY one so I did the right thing by not trying to be the jerk of all trades.
On the flip side, a year or two later, I did a video for Samiam. This time the budget was $3,000. I used my own equipment in the studio that was meant for testing sports graphics and I simply bit off too much. I knew about green screen compositing but I had never shot for it. I made the mistake of lighting it and setting everything else up myself. I had friends helping me but they had never done it either. The footage wasn’t great then doing all the animation and effects myself was too much. It took me forever and it just wasn’t up to the quality I hoped for.
Honestly, I should have done something much simpler for that budget but that DIY attitude had me over-confident. I’ve had a couple personal projects go down in flames like that but I don’t do it in my job. I know better now! As a director, its not about being a master of every discipline, it’s just about understanding how it all fits together.
John and I agree: SABER is the GOAT graffiti writer
I personally feel like graffiti was incredibly helpful to me as a graphic designer. It helped me understand letterforms at a really fundamental level, taught me how to use color, and how to draw better than most designers can. What, if anything, did graffiti teach you as a designer?
I never seriously tried to be a graff writer just because I didn’t have the talent for it but I learned a lot by being around it. In some ways, I think the graff scene is a what-not-to-do as far as developing a community. I’m talking about the exclusivity, the unspoken rules, the beef, and all that but if we’re honest, the hardcore scene and skateboarding has those same issues, just less prominent and kind of hidden under the idealistic guise of “unity”. But I get it, graff writers build their scene how they want to so I respect that about it.
In terms of color, form, composition… graff has always been so far ahead and so many incredible people in advertising came from that world. My first real skateboard was a Santa Cruz Jeff Kendall graff letters graphic. I have the reissue above my desk. When I saw it in the store, I became obsessed. It was pink. I had yellow Gullwing trucks, clear grip, red OJII wheels… it became a form of expression for me – I wanted to extend the look and feel of that graphic and take it into the streets. I think the graphic even made me feel a certain way about skating. The urban landscape as a place to make art. So I love seeing graff everywhere. I appreciate throw ups, production pieces and even tags can have a lot of impact on me when I see them done in the right place and in the right way.
You’re taking a letter form and repeating it with similar style that has to be original, then you need to twist and tweak it as much as possible to keep it fresh without losing the style that people accept as yours. That’s basically branding and corporate identity right there. I think the old school way is to design a form that works for everything and use it constantly. These days it’s more about creating a form that lives and evolves. It needs to blend in and stand out at the same time… good graff does that.
The street art movement has also inspired me a lot because of the concepts behind it. For me, Ron English is the best but I also love NEWA, ESPO, WK Interact, Banksy, and Shepard. Their art makes you think and while I think traditional graff can do it too, it’s a different animal. Sometimes I think graff is more a type of protest or performance art because what goes into it is only partially represented in what you see on the wall. I think only writers who are out there understand it and just a few live up to to that ideal completely.
To me, SABER is the greatest living graff writer. That dude has to be the love child of Jackson Polluck and Jasper Johns.
The Berrics Canteen site, creative direction by John
You’ve worked in pretty much all parts of the graphic design world: in-house at various companies/publications, in the agency system, and as a solo operator. Can you compare and contrast them a bit, and where would you recommend a new designer try to start their career?
If you have a high threshold for burnout and thick enough skin to have your soul ripped out onto a white board and still want more, then you’ll do just fine in an agency. It’s not for everybody. I think the truth is that in upper levels of creative, you’re less hands-on. There’s a lot of other issues to deal with when you become the leader of a creative team. Budget, resourcing, politics, interacting with people, and selling your ideas are a bigger part of it. I personally love it all. I take every challenge as it comes to me.
The answer to hard problems is always creativity (or you could say innovation). Put that on my grave. You need to constantly evolve, so I also stand by dabbling. It’s not for everybody but if you’re interested in a lot of creative areas then you need to get into it all… see the connections between disciplines, mediums, platforms or whatever.
“If you have a high threshold for burnout and thick enough skin to have your soul ripped out onto a white board and still want more, then you’ll do just fine in an agency.”
So if you are good at taking photos, then shoot more but be sure to flip to that video mode and experience making moving photographs. How can you create a story with those elements? What about audio? What about motion graphics? What about branding and identity? How do you want people to experience your work as a whole?
Just do what you like, get great at it and be ready to go where ever the journey takes you. It’s hard to know exactly what you want to do as a youngster. If you don’t ever feel like veering off on another path right now, that’s fine. Just be the best damn “whatever” you can be. Regardless of whether you’re a specialist or generalist at heart, just put yourself on the spot. You’re not going to work for Nike on your first go but maybe there’s a skateshop down the road that needs a cool t-shirt graphic.
Go there, take on the challenge and do your best. No matter what happens, do that again. And again. And again. Just don’t quit and don’t make excuses.
Header photo: Sandra Martinez-Modesto