Bottoms up! John Larigakis on art directing and his Guinness-like style
John Larigakis is an art director, designer, animator, and illustrator based in Vancouver, BC. He also seems to like a good beer, judging by the booze brands on his portfolio.
When asked what kind of beer his art style would be if turned into a fine ale, John remarks "probably a stout, specifically a Guinness. I use a lot of smooth black lines, and I love the contrast of black and white in compositions."
Away from the hops and hipster trough, John has also art directed video commercials and ad campaigns, including award-winning works for Volkswagen. Find out how John juggles this outlet among his other talents in our interview with the very creative Canadian.
What's been keeping you busy lately John?
A good variety of creative projects have been keeping me busy, from personal illustrations, to package design, to art prints, to greeting cards.
I created a very literal illustration titled Going Bananas that was inspired by how I was feeling during the pandemic at the time. It got passed around organically and a friend had told me that it made it to the front page of the /Art Subreddit. Because of this, I was inspired to start selling prints.
I also did a cold brew coffee package design that incorporated a number of conceptual illustrations and made clever use of the bottle cap. This was a fun opportunity to show how playful illustration style can complement a modern package design. I love trying to find a concept for everything, even a bottle cap.
I'm a constant snacker, I'm always hungry, and I love food. Inspired by this, I created a detailed illustration and art print titled Hungrytown. It incorporates all of the silly inanimate food characters that I love to draw in one landscape. It has a number of Easter eggs hidden in the scene, like the New York Flatiron building turned into a pie, two cookies playing ping pong with one of their chocolate chips, and a banana tripping an egg character on the sidewalk.
Finally, I launched a line of 'punny' illustrated holiday greeting cards, a few of which touch on staying safe during the holidays in a playful, lighthearted way. Since people were stuck at home over the holidays this year, I sent out as many cards as possible to spread some joy and restore a bit of human connection.
Please tell us about your career. I wonder what came first: illustration, design or art direction?
I went to the IDEA School of Design at Capilano University where I developed a design, illustration, and art direction skillset. The common thread through my work has always revolved around conceptual ideas and finding unexpected twists. I continue to work in all three areas and I love the variety of challenges.
How do you work between these three fields?
They are definitely different, but a commonality between them is that they all start with an idea and a very rough pencil sketch. I approach all jobs the same way - I iterate as many rough concepts as possible, sometimes on my own, and other times with another creative. Taking a break after a day of brainstorming is also important as that's often when the fully formed ideas click unexpectedly - in the shower, while walking, or while doing something unrelated. The strongest ideas give me a bit of a jolt or spark feeling so I usually write those ones down. Then the next day I review with fresh eyes and they are either complete nonsense, or the idea still feels strong enough to pursue further.
Would you recommend fellow creators to get into art direction? If so what tips would you give and how can they start?
If you like problem-solving and coming up with ideas, then you'll probably like art direction. If you like the idea of crafting those ideas and bringing them to life with a variety of techniques from photography, to animation, to illustration, then absolutely.
I would say to begin, start making spec work. Pick a product you like or have some insights on, and practice creating some unique ad concepts. Look at some of the great work in advertising annuals like The One Show, Cannes Lions, Communication Arts, and get inspired by the great work being done around the world. Start sharing your spec work with other people for feedback, refine and make it better. Then start seeing who made the kind of work that inspires you, and find out how you can get into those agencies or studios, even as an intern to start.
Which projects of yours are you really proud of?
Snack Time is a cartoon series I that co-created with my copywritng partner, Neil Shapiro. It's definitely one of the highlights of my career. It was an opportunity to illustrate my own characters, write scripts and scenarios, and bring animation to life with a lot of freedom to explore my style and sense of humour. We created 85 episodes in total and they can all be viewed on YouTube.
The Plastic Wave illustration I did a couple of years ago was something I created for no other reason than to motivate myself to cut down on my own plastic use. After posting it on Instagram as a New Year's resolution post, I was surprised to see how many places it was shared around online, from individuals to environmentally conscious brands, to ocean conservation organizations.
I'm also quite proud of the silliest of all of my illustrations: Stop Thinking Start Drinking.
It was originally illustrated for a small Thursday beer night that a group of fellow creatives in Vancouver were attending, and I volunteered to illustrate it. I had a very busy work week leading up to it and I wanted to do something that spoke to the feeling of finally turning your brain off and enjoying a few beers. After I posted it online, I started seeing it everywhere. A number of people even tattooed it on themselves, and unofficial versions of it have been recreated in bars around the world.
What amazing places and experiences has your career led you to so far?
In 2014, I won a trip to the Cannes Lions Festival after getting first place in The National Advertising Awards, a Canadian ad competition. It was very exciting as a young Art Director to suddenly fly to the South of France and mingle with all of the top agency folks in the world.
While working at DDB in 2015, I got the chance to do a work exchange where a fellow copywriter and I switched places with an art director and copywriter from the DDB Copenhagen office in Denmark. That was an incredible experience. We got to work and live for a few weeks in a city with more bikes than cars, every local product in every store beautifully designed with a clean minimal aesthetic, amazing food, and a Mikkeller Bar with about 30 of the best craft beers on tap. The trip was very inspiring and definitely had an influence on my design moving forward.
You have a great knack for drawing characters. How do you approach character design?
I spent a lot of time as a kid watching re-runs of '90s cartoons like classic episodes of The Simpsons (seasons 1-10 specifically), King of the Hill, Futurama, among others. A lot of that classical frame-by-frame animation style is ingrained somewhere in the back of my mind, and I remember all of the moments and scenes that made me laugh. I think that has had some influence on my style and my approach to character design.
Process-wise, I always use a pencil and paper when starting character designs. This allows the drawings to flow more freely and without much judgment. I re-draw faces and characters several times until I start narrowing down the features that I like. Happy accidents begin to happen, which starts to bring charm and funny details to the characters. Then I move onto the iPad and start tightening up the linework. I try to stay as true as I can to the pencil sketch to maintain some of the whimsical nature of it, as I believe that's where a lot of the charm comes from.
Please suggest an interesting question I can ask the next creative we interview!
What TV shows did you watch as a kid? And do you think that has had any influence on your creative work or your creative style?
Thank you, John! Follow John Larigakis on Instagram.