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Meet John Negus, graphic designer and artist whose retro-inspired illustrations draw influence from mid-century commercial design, Australian nostalgia and vintage travel posters. John's illustrations are sun-drenched and punchy, depicting a picture-perfect snapshot of iconic Melbourne scenes in a style typical of vintage advertising. John's technical execution is flawless, his 30 plus years as a graphic designer clearly coming to the fore in his attention to detail, clean line work and excellent use of colour, typography and composition.
John and his wife Judith are seasoned veterans of Melbourne's graphic design industry, establishing their studio in the early eighties and dealing primarily in commercial print-based design work. Redrocket Design began operation before the age of digital desktop publishing, so simple design and copywriting processes that we can execute in mere clicks today were then quite a manual and laborious process. The studio has remained cheerily afloat over the decades, consistently evolving and adapting in response to the rise of digital technologies.
Joined in their love of history and antiques, John and Judith have recently leaned into a more creative approach to their design business, expanding their commercial studio into an eclectic retail shop selling vintage collectables and self-designed contemporary wares.
John confessed to me he isn't much one for the spotlight, so read on as we get a rare behind the scenes peek into his wonderfully unique creative practise!
Tell us a bit about your creative and educational background. What made you decide to embark on a career in design?
I grew up in country Victoria and came from a creative family, my mother enjoyed amateur dramatics and craft work, my father was a carpenter and joiner, a teacher and a builder of boats. My sister became a Graphic Designer and is an excellent potter.
After high school, where my favourite subjects were Art, English and Geography, I was accepted into Swinburne to study Graphic Design. My sister having already studied there gave me an insight into design and what was involved. It was exciting for a quiet country boy to be with a group of talented creative people, new bohemian friends, a new world opened up with all sorts of possibilities.
The biggest change in our time with the studio has been the advent of computers, a massive shift in the amount of control a designer could have over the design process. Our first computer had a staggering 80 megabytes of power!- John Negus
I was impressed to learn that Redrocket Design has been in business as a graphic design studio for almost 30 years. Who are Redrocket Design, and how has the studio evolved over time?
Redrocket Design was started as a partnership with Judith Newton (who also studied at Swinburne) as Double Jay Graphic Design in 1984.
Having lived and worked in London for four years, working for a small printing and publishing company, we decided that we would try to set up a studio on returning to Melbourne. Initially to support us I returned to work for a newspaper company in Melbourne. We set up our studio in the front room and Judith made some cold calls, one of which produced for us a client who would remain with us for over 20 years.
The studio moved into commercial premises after about a year, the biggest expense at the time being a Reprographic dark room camera, essential for producing artwork for print reproduction. The studio remained small with two to three designers.
Design concept and art production was a more manual process before computers, rendering roughs, copy mark up, producing artwork by hand on a drawing board with pens, set squares and glue. Client liaison, coordinating photography, copywriting and printing were all part of being in the studio.
The biggest change in our time with the studio has been the advent of computers, a massive shift in the amount of control a designer could have over the design process. Our first computer had a staggering 80 megabytes of power! A mere blip of what is available today at the end of your fingertips. Typography, illustration, artwork all became easier.
The internet was the next quantum leap, although the initial internet dial up system was a pain, taking for ever to send even a small file anywhere.
What were the deciding factors in your decision to move into a more creative space with your design practice?
With the continual evolving nature of computers and the internet many parts of the traditional printing industry have disappeared. While good and bad for our business, creatively we felt there was an opportunity to move in a new direction as Redrocket Design.
Our studio is located in a small Victorian shop. Exploring our passion for antiques, collectables, illustration and design, the shop has expanded into a full retail adventure. Traditional antiques, art deco, pre-and post war, mid-century to modern are all periods we find interesting. It’s also exciting to develop a range of our own illustrated designs to complement the shop’s other old and new items.
What draws you to build your creative business around retro-inspired design and vintage objects? Does it stem purely from an aesthetic appreciation for mid-century design, or is there also a personal element of nostalgia involved?
I have always had an interest in the history of art and design as well as collecting antique and vintage items. Social history and how people have been influenced by advertising has always been of special interest, having worked early in my career in newspaper art departments I was able to experience first hand how advertising affected popular culture.
Travel posters and point of sale items have always been of special interest. Fine art and design applied to decoration to promote everyday objects. It’s interesting how society has changed since the industrial revolution, mass marketing and production bringing changes to ordinary people’s lives. Changing fashion, increased leisure time, travel, a greater appreciation of other cultures and a better understanding of how we should treat the environment are all affected by what we see and hear. The commercial artist has had an important place in the history of our everyday lives.
The shop definitely promotes the feeling of nostalgia in people, for example many people relate to the Milk Bar poster, fond memories of treats from the local shop, once a fixture of most neighbourhoods, or they are certain of its location. Young people too are fascinated by things which are now not commonly used – typewriters, film cameras and even common household tools, once indispensable in the home. We gain great pleasure in sourcing our curated collection and seeing other's enjoyment in what we find.
Talk us through your creative process when creating a new illustration – how do you plan out each of your unique pieces? Do you render your art digitally from start to finish, or do you incorporate traditional mediums into your process?
Ideas seem to pop up from anywhere, the middle of the night seems a very fruitful time. Illustrations may evolve from an object, a reference to something which is disappearing or no longer exists. I particularly admire the style of Vintage French and World Travel posters, so they influence what I am trying to achieve.
Inspiration for the Trams poster came from the street in front of the shop, the current 57 tram stops outside our door. The poster includes a vintage 57 tram turning the corner from Union Road Ascot Vale into Maribyrnong Road with the current buildings in the background.
After the idea, and rough pen sketch, reference is always a starting point for an illustration, either photographing a location or an object. Research is sometimes required to find material to help create a story. I then move the ideas into illustrator to develop the artwork. I like that you are able to layer ideas and pieces of the artwork. Even when an illustration is finished I like to put it away for a while and then come back to review it with fresh eyes.
What does a typical workday look like at Redrocket Design?
The Redrocket workday can include a wide variety of tasks. Because we are a retail antique, vintage and contemporary wares shop we are continually looking to source stock which needs to be processed and made ready for sale. This can include some furniture refurbishment and creating shop fittings, to preparing items. We prefer our vintage goods to be as original as possible, each dent, scratch and blemish shows its history. Planning how the shop windows look is exciting because it gives us a chance to put together items to create a story. We receive positive comments about the window displays, people look forward to seeing what’s new. We try to change the windows on a regular basis, sometimes it’s necessary because of the sale of items. Depending on what we have in stock the windows may reflect a period such as mid-century or another period.
A day may include designing and preparing artwork for our own range of cards, tea towels, brooches and posters. We try to source local suppliers for this range. Tea towels are printed in Brunswick, our laser cut brooches are hand finished in house, and we frame posters ourselves as required and of course these are printed by the fabulous Image Science.
As a seasoned graphic designer and considering your fairly recent transition to artist/illustrator, how do you personally define the difference between art and design?
I have always felt design is something which we are influenced by in our everyday lives. Daily most things we do have an element of design. Nature is huge part of art and design, providing inspiration in all its natural forms. All our senses are included, sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Art is integral to design allowing us to experience emotion. As we all are individuals a different emotion occurs from the same experience. Art as well as design means different things to different people.
In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your creative business, and how have you navigated these changes?
Our retail business has been unable to trade except for click and collect. Social media has been important to let people know that we are still doing the things which we enjoy, that we are still working creatively to produce new works and find items to share. It’s inspiring to see how businesses have adapted to operating during these uncertain times, developing creative ways to continue business, remaining positive during a pretty tough time. I feel lucky that I have been able to continue to develop ideas and be creative.
What is the best way for interested customers to purchase your wonderful range of vintage inspired prints?
At present prints can be viewed on Instagram or Facebook and ordered by messaging us. Alternatively, you can visit our shop Redrocket Design at 103 Maribyrnong Road Ascot Vale, 0418 581 518.
You’ve mentioned to me earlier that Redrocket Design has always been in a constant state of evolution. How do you hope to see Redrocket evolve over the next few years?
I see what we are doing now as the beginning of a new direction where we are showing more of our own creative works. The feedback we are receiving so far is very positive, we hope our shop and works give people as much pleasure and enjoyment as we are having. There is always something exciting happening just around the corner.
To keep up with the latest news and shop trading hours, follow Redrocket on Facebook, or on Instagram at @redrocketdesign. To purchase one of their prints, just send them a message through their Instagram or Facebook, or to peruse their full selection of wares, visit their shop at 103 Maribyrnong Road in Ascot Vale.
- David R, Univerity of Queensland Library -
Thank you so much—the scanner profile is beautiful! My eyes immediately said yes, but my head said check the target values. For once, I should have just trusted my eyes—the values are as spot on as you can get.