Justin Mezzell: Designer of Abstract Worlds
Justin Mezzell is a designer from Orlando, Florida who uses music and research to craft the worlds in his artwork. This interview showcases some of his work and explores his inspiration, design process, and future plans.
Interview with Justin Mezzell
1. How did you get started in Graphic Design and Digital Art?
My brother and I have actually both been involved with illustration and classical art growing up. There wasn’t really a time we weren’t working towards creating some fantastic world for a fictitious video game or epic narrative. I think those yearnings stayed with me well into my adulthood. My first real design gig was working with Relevant Magazine in the fall of my Junior year. That was really the catalyst into making a career out of it.
2. Where do you get your inspiration? Are there any designers who you follow?
Most of my inspiration takes root in music or literature. I’ve never taken an art class before and didn’t major in design in college so I’m actually fairly ignorant when it comes to the historic design world. I know what I love when I see it, but I typically don’t know who crafted it. Obviously, the modern greats like Mark Weaver have had a profound impact on myself but even on a good day, I certainly can’t name-drop, that’s for sure. I do, however, have an avid love of fiction. I’d say most of my personal work is created out of a sense of wanting to tell a story.
3. What software do you use and how do you use them in your artwork?
Most pieces are split between Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign but the majority of the workflow and ideation happens in Photoshop. I’d say that consumes around 90% of the buildout. Illustrator is used as a fairly auxiliary form of design for more of the graphic narratives unless I’m working in abstraction. InDesign handles all the typesetting and layout needs.
4. What are the most important tools and techniques you use in Photoshop?
I’m not always the most efficient designer when it comes to the duration of the task. I’ll always favor doing the shading and lighting by hand rather than rely on any filters or effects. There’s a lot more flexibility you get when you don’t use any presets and then you can account for every line and shadow on the canvas. I work with an array of blending modes and will typically never use any brush other a soft one.
5. Give a brief overview of your workflow. Where do you start and how do you get to the final product?
The beginning of my work on graphic narratives almost always starts with music. Song is one of the most powerful forms of emotion for me and a specific song that can move me into a concept is the point of inception. I craft worlds using a specific soundtrack for each. Clint Mansell is always on repeat with lots of Murcof, Autechre, Richard Skelton, or anything else I can get my hands on. Story is built on the back of music and serves as the framing architecture for the experience. There’s a lot of time spent purely researching about the world I want to craft. For my most recent work, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about Jules Verne; the way he worked, lived—really, his worldview on life. From that point, the buildout process is tedious. Because I don’t do much photography myself, images I use are rigorous photocomposites that require a lot of nurturing and doctoring to get the desired effect. It’s not unlikely for me to composite 6 or 7 different terrains on one canvas. All of these are styled in texture, composition, lighting and perspective. Once a piece is at a place I can move on to the next one, I’ll leave it in that current state until I get further into the narrative and typically wind up opening that file again to change something that progresses the narrative in context with the story more effectively. A large part of the design process for myself is also infusing organic materials into my pieces. Microbial structures, fibers and space are just a few of the elements I use to create a sense of universal familiarity.
6. Where do you see yourself in the future?
I’m working on a new narrative right now called Aeturnus. It’s an ode of sorts to Jules Verne as a man who existed in a time outside of time. A dreamer who created worlds of fiction that traversed land, air, space, and sea long before some of that was even practically possible. He’s credited as the father of science fiction and as such, I owe him a lot of inspiration. The future will, hopefully, be filled with passionately pursuing narrative design—pushing each series to be the best it can possibly be and creating stories that stay with the user. I’d love to work in a more multidisciplinary environment in future works. There’s a lot that the audience can’t fully experience from just the images in the story. My time is currently split with work on my graphic narratives and with Quantic Fox developing new media for the mobile and touch platforms. I’d consider it a great honor to continue working in both fields.
7. For those who are inspired by your work, what tips or recommendations would you give them?
Don’t be afraid to just do something that seems beyond your means. When I started making these series, I didn’t think anyone would ever really see them. I didn’t even know how they would be received if they were seen by others. Learn to let go of the feelings that block you from trying to create a world of your own—regardless of how nerdy, flawed or unappreciated it might be. Inspiration is everywhere. It’s found in the beauty, brokenness and even the mundane moments of everyday life. Challenge yourself in your design. Do new things that are likely going to fail the first time. Do it again. And again. You’ll get better. Just don’t ever stop being a student.