The Designers: Pentagram’s John Sampson on custom lettering, student debt and working with his idols

Elliott Moody
0 min read

The Designers: Pentagram’s John Sampson on custom lettering, student debt and working with his idols

The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick. For the second interview in the series, we spoke to John Sampson, a senior designer working with Natasha Jen at Pentagram’s New York office.

EM Hi John. How are you?

JS Good. Cold!

EM Can you tell us about your background, and how that led to you becoming a senior designer at Pentagram?

JS I was born in California and raised all over the country in a military family. At age 12, I started designing video games and posting my work to forums to get feedback, calling myself a ‘studio’ and collaborating with people online while pretending to be like 28 and saying ‘we’ or ‘our studio’ etc – just faking the whole thing. I was homeschooled and when not making games, I was usually alone drawing elaborate cities in my room. I put those drawings and some game renders in a portfolio to apply for design schools and was accepted to VCUarts in 2013.

In college, my idols were designers like Hassan Rahim, Timothy Goodman, Natasha Jen and my professor Nicole Killian; people who, through being totally different in their approach, were putting their own expressions and points of view into their work. During my junior year, I emailed Timothy Goodman and landed my first real design gig, which started out as coding Tumblr themes and turned into assisting mural paintings and animations, then to co-illustrating books and magazine covers – he taught me everything.

In 2016 I graduated with over $100k of student debt and took the highest-paying offer I could get. As a student, I’d routinely see interviews with famous designers saying not to go for the money or sell out when you start etc. But the reality is that it’s ok to do as much as possible within your means without comparing yourself to people with lots of financial mobility. I spent my nights and weekends freelancing to make side cash or working on little personal projects to come up with a portfolio that I was excited about. I posted my new work and landed a job as a senior designer at DE-YAN, where I designed lettering, branding, and installations for Louis Vuitton, Brooke Candy, CharliXCX, Fendi and many clients in the fashion world.

After a year there, I was ready for a change. I wanted to lead projects, sell the work and learn about running a business. I sent an email to Natasha Jen at Pentagram asking to freelance, we met the next day and I was hired. It’s been six months since then, and between working across disciplines, presenting to clients and Natasha pushing the team to make the strongest most interesting work, I feel challenged and happy.

I spent my nights and weekends working on little personal projects to come up with a portfolio that I was excited about.

EM Do you think travelling around the country when you were young has influenced the way you think about design?

JS Definitely – each location had a different kind of beauty, culture and atmosphere and its own set of memories. Moving around all the time also means I have barely any sense of permanence, and being prepared for drastic changes is really important to my attitude as a designer.

EM Would you be able to share something you’ve learnt from Natasha at Pentagram?

JS Play the long game.

EM Has the way you work changed as you’ve grown into more senior roles?

JS Less check-ins and more self-direction. Some of my time is spent presenting to clients, hiring illustrators, or sourcing materials for projects rather than only designing. While it’s not expected, a lot of my free time is still spent researching or watching tutorials for things I think could really push current projects. I’m always ‘on’.

EM Can you tell us about a favourite project you’ve worked on at Pentagram?

JS Nothing too specific, but we are always creating and selling smart, beautiful work; even for real-estate or banking clients. They trust our tastes and we’ve been able to move forward with strong work in typically rigid industries.

EM Moving onto your personal work, can you tell us about the poster for Sundae School? It’s mesmerising!

JS Sundae school asked me to do a poster with the prompt ‘what do you do for your 4:20’ – instead of doing something smart I rendered a huge bong in cinema 4D. I’m sitting on lots more 3D work that I’m excited to roll out through 2020.

The Designers: Pentagram’s John Sampson on custom lettering, student debt and working with his idols

EM Looking forward to seeing that! Technology is moving fast and we’re seeing more and more mainstream graphic design that incorporates motion, 3D and augmented reality. How important do you think it is for a designer to be able to understand those things as we head into the next decade?

JS It’s important, but it’s also unimportant depending on what your strengths are. Generally, designers should keep up with current programmes, participate in some widely used platforms and develop a sense of rhythm and pace. But as someone who leaned hard into technical skills in college – knowing new software will not teach you to see.

EM It’s clear that custom lettering is an important part of your output. Why do you like to incorporate it into your work?

JS Lettering is like a sandbox for unspoken visual cues and expressing emotions. Sometimes I make a super-fast impulsive ‘thing’ to contain a feeling I have at the moment, and sometimes take it slower with more considerate iterations trying to discover new forms. In any case, the result is almost always better when I’m not worrying about a bad outcome.

EM How do you find time to start and maintain personal projects while working full-time?

JS Make sure what you’re doing after-hours is different from your day job and it will be much easier. When I do personal work, it doesn’t even feel like I’m designing as much as I’m scratching an itch. You have to really enjoy it and it has to be for you.

EM Do you see yourself starting a studio one day?

JS Yes :)

EM Thanks for taking the time to talk to us John.

Graphic Design

John Sampson