Designer’s block: A Q&A with Jon Contino

Categories Inspired Talks, Web Design

Brooklyn-based designer Jon Contino’s work can be found among various brands. But much of the freelancer’s creative energy is funneled into typography-centric menswear label, CXXVI Clothing Company, where he is the co-founder and creative director. He describes himself as an Alphastructaesthetitologist (say that five times fast).

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While specializing in hand-lettering and illustrations, much of Contino’s designs pay tribute to classic Americana, from nautical themes to reworked historical iconography. Other branding identities where you’ll recognize Contino’s handiwork: Brooklyn-based Silk Road Cycles, logo design and lettering for FX Network comedy series “Louis,” and in illustrations for American military supplier Alpha Industries.

Inspired Mag got to talking with Contino about his Land-of-the-Free-inspiration, the science behind apparel graphic design and how to effectively mix antique with modern aesthetics.

1. I bet you could write a series of books on apparel graphic design. What makes for good design, are there truisms, key elements or do’s and don’ts (clichés to avoid, etc.) you’ve found?

There’s definitely a science behind apparel graphic design. It’s something I didn’t really learn until a few years ago too. I’ve been doing it for so long, but to really know it is a completely different ball game. It’s all about understanding your canvas and utilizing the fabric as an element in your design. I wouldn’t really say there’s any right way to design for apparel, it’s all about the feel and the aesthetic, but if I had to complain about one thing, then it would have to be any design that’s off to the side or coming up from the bottom of a t-shirt. That was a bad trend and it needs to die already. Whoever’s holding onto it…please stop.

Jon Contino's workspace

2. Where did your Americana inspiration stem from?

I’ve always been a sucker for Americana. I really can’t remember a time when anything USA-based wasn’t a major part of my life. My favorite holiday is the 4th of July for crying out loud! The nautical stuff has always been pretty natural as well. I grew up just outside of Manhattan on Long Island right on the Atlantic Ocean. I spent a good portion of my life surrounded by water or nautical stuff in general, whether it was at the beach, on a boat, or in a cheesy neighborhood restaurant that had oars and anchors hanging on the wall that was run by an old sea captain or fisherman. It’s one of those things that has been drilled into my brain and has some kind of subconscious, yet major, influence on my style. The detailed historical work I’ve been doing lately is definitely the newest of my major influences though. In the past few years, I’ve really developed an appreciation for history, and the more I learn, the more I want to revisit it in some way. Going back to a time when the production of all things was so different is so fascinating to me. I try to incorporate that sense of magic into my work whenever I can.

3. When looking for inspiration and influence for your historical work, where do you turn (bookstores, museums, libraries, websites, stroll to park, etc.)?

Any place that I can find history, I use it as an influence. I have a great collection of old newspapers, books, journals, records, and so on, and they serve as a great resource for me. There’s plenty of times when that’s really not enough though and I take it outside my studio into places like antique stores, used book stores, or even museums like you said. There’s so much inspiration in the world, why stay inside and reference the same things over and over again when I can get out there and find an endless amount of ideas just waiting for me to discover them? I do try to take pictures of anything I see that could potentially help spawn an idea somewhere down the road though, so my collection is constantly growing and the need to keep going outside isn’t as great as it once was.

4. What was the last commissioned illustration/ design work you completed that you were really proud of and who was it for?

This was one of my smaller projects in recent memory, but I did a background image that I really loved for EXFM’s music service. It is an illustrated denim jacket covered with patches of fake death metal bands and typical metal-guy pins. It was a blast to revisit my high school days like this and I wish I could do a whole series based on this idea. Actually…maybe I will, haha.

5. Do you have any unique hobbies or collections that might surprise people?

I absolutely love playing Wiffle Ball. Like, more than anything else. It’s my favorite thing in the world and if there was an equivalent to Major League Baseball in Wiffle Ball form, I would drop everything and pitch for the New York Wiffle Yankees.

6. What item do you never leave home without?

My iPhone. Man, if 15 year old me heard that I needed a phone at my side at all times, I’d probably get a swift kick to the nuts. I’ll tell you though, this thing is unbelievable. The service may be absolute garbage (thanks AT&T), but the other things I use it for make my life so much easier. I literally have my entire life hooked up to this thing. It’s the best personal assistant I could have ever asked for.

7. Where would you like to travel that you’ve never been?

I need to go to Sicily one day. My family came to America from there in the early 20th century and I’ve never been able to get over to see what it’s like. I would love to take a trip to the Mediterranean and see just about everything over there though. It seems like such an amazing place.

8. How would you describe your home in Brooklyn, how is it designed/decorated?

It’s awesome! …but I have to thank my wife for that. She has a knack of combining antique with modern in such a way that it just feels great to be home. I’ve contributed a few things here and there, built some furniture, made some shelves, but the majority of the decoration is all her. We live in a really old building and we have a great collection of mid century furniture that is highlighted by some great antique pieces. Our stuff ranges from about 1860 to 1960 and somehow it really works in such a way that you’d never notice the time difference. Well, actually, the fact that I’m a giant nerd with a thousand flat screens all over the place probably ruins that whole vibe a little bit.

Jon Contino


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.