Designer’s Block: A Q&A With Justin Mezzell

Categories Inspired Talks

Digital artist Justin Mezzell thinks of himself much more as a storyteller. The goal of his images is to tell a graphical narrative—a comprehensive tale—in one frame. The now-creative director of design agency, Maven Creative in Orlando, Florida, has designed magazine layouts, album covers and infographics manifesting impossible worlds in dark illustrations and fantastic dreamscapes.

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While devoting much of his work to Christian lifestyle magazine Relevant, Mezzell has conquered impressive feature layouts and even designed the RelevantFM music player app. Currently, at Maven, he works with clients like Chicago Bulls shooting guard Kyle Korver, mission-driven apparel company Seer and indie rock band and TheSet, to name a few—All coming to the spirited Maven team with a story to tell.

InspiredMag got to talking with Mezzell about his eye for retro-futurism, his visual time traveling skills and who inspires him in the design community.

1.You do a lot of illustrations with steampunk elements and night skies full of stars, why are these reoccurring themes for you? What other specific themes do you find yourself drawn to?

I’ve always been really inspired by space—in the cosmos themselves as well as our interactions to try and understand them better. I’ve been attracted to this idea of telling stories in the only way I know how, which is in graphical narratives. Steampunk interests me as a motif in its ingenuity. It’s an art form that so appropriately encapsulates this idea of a “time outside of time.” Like retro-futurism in mid-century modern design, it seeks to capture the world of tomorrow with the tools and ingredients of today. Working in these kinds of realms have created an interesting window into distant worlds–be it on earth or somewhere far off this plane of existence.

2. How would you describe your illustration work to someone you just met at a party? What would you say you specialize in?

Like most designers, I’d say I would want to be a known for having an ability to communicate effectively. To be able to tell a story in a static frame is a huge goal of mine and I would like to be able to tell people that I work towards building an illustrative window into a larger picture. A lot of people have said that there is a vintage flair to my illustrative work. Most of that is picked up through studying styles of people that were a lot better informed and had an even more visionary frame to work in for their time. It all comes back to that concept of a “time outside of time”. But more to the question, can I say I do my best to make 2-dimensional geometry and reductionist form live and breathe as a functional (sometimes) narrative?

3. What designer/ illustrator would you say you admire but haven’t met? (With links to work that you particularly like)

The design community really is an incredible group of people. Though, if I had to pick someone to specifically want to have coffee with, I’d have to say it would be Scott Hill of Foundry Co. Everything I’ve seen from him is executed expertly whether in illustration or typography. But to be honest, it really comes down to more than just his skills as an artist. From all that I’ve read from him and by him, Scott just seems like an authentic guy that is truly kind and an inspiringly warm person. This latest read from him was totally captivating.


4. What are you currently working on now that you are particularly proud of? Could you tell us about it?

For a client project, I’ve been having to try and develop a style for illustrating people. It’s simultaneously been one of the more exciting and frustrating endeavors I’ve taken on. Most of my scenes are vacant so I think it would be an interesting dynamic to be able to work with organic life.

5. Where do you start when expanding design ideas? Do you keep Moleskines, dot-grid notebooks, bar napkins handy or go straight to Illustrator?

I almost always start concepts at the most inopportune times. It can be while in the midst of an unrelated conversation, in the middle of a church service, or out on a walk with my wife. I do my best to find something to scrawl concepts on as fast as possible or just type it into my phone. I used to be really good about keeping sketchbooks, but I think working in the digital medium too long took me away from working in that environment. It’s been a constant attempt these past few months to try and get back to it. Illustrator has gotten to be a fairly comfortable part of my workflow but I wanted to challenge myself to break free from the digital grid and hand illustrate to lose my affinity to strict geometrics and 45/90 degree angles. Lately, I’ve been using a Moleskine and a dot grid notebook.

6. Who are some designers that inspire you (with links to work you particularly like)?

Huge fan of Tymn Armstrong and the book “Treasure Island” that he and the crew at Space Dog Books put out. Kendrick Kidd is another designer that is constantly delivering fantastic design in a diverse array of works. Mark Weaver is always inspiring and seems like we share a fervid love of the cosmos and science fiction. Then there’s my good friend, Riley Cran, who is one of the most talented and nice guys I know. Always a constant source of inspiration and encouragement.

7. What artistic media are you dying to try but haven’t yet?

Without a doubt, I would love to move into the 3-dimensional motion space. I have an unabashed love of digital abstraction in short film and it would be so rad to be able to work in that world. It has huge potential in storytelling. What it all basically boils down to is a love affair with story. And design is really the only vessel I know how to do well–you don’t want to read my written narratives. I’ll spare all of you.

8. What’s your wackiest indulgence, sure to cheer you up?

I don’t know how wacky it is, but I really do love video games. I rarely get to play them on my current schedule, but if/when I do, I totally zone. It’s an amazingly immersive storytelling experience with the potential to bring you into an interactive world that can be touched and manipulated more tangibly than any other current field.

Justin Mezzell

John Lendman is the copywriter/ scribe of interactive web agency Doejo. Chicago-based Doejo is a creative hub of designers, developers and a bastion of ingenuity and imagination. The company has launched more than 300 web sites, marketing campaigns and applications since its founding in 2007. Follow us Twitter or check out our blog―if you can keep up.

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  • You do some great work, Justin! We truly enjoyed reading about your personal creative process. Here at Parisleaf we’re an environmentally conscious group of individuals all about creating stunning web and graphic design media that exceeds client expectations. We plant ten trees for every order. Our goal for 2012? Plant 25,000 trees! Check us out at and let us know what you think. Kudos for posting this article! Keep up the good work!