Plotting The Plotter: Kiel Johnson’s Takeover of The Adobe MAX Logo

Illustration & Drawing

Every year we reinvent Adobe MAX to capture the essence and focus and heart of the creative community; and every year, a handful of people from that same creative community breathe new life into the Adobe MAX logo.

Adobe Max logoThis year is no different. Except, this year, we asked the artists to come to us. To work in the basement studio of our San Francisco office. On a bare, mural-sized, dimensional version of the MAX logo. Visible from the first floor, everyone in the building could glimpse the projects in process and watch the work take shape.

Kiel Johnson recalls his desire to do a complete takeover of the MAX logo and how that effort turned into a process that was much more complicated than he’d intended:

How did you and Adobe “meet”?

I’ve always sort of wondered that myself. I have a feeling it was the stuff I did with TED (I traveled the world actually doing a workshop called Everyone’s An Architect that began as a sculpture). I made this giant city in my studio as a piece of art and it was shown around and a lot of people saw it.  Not long after, I got a call from TED asking me if I would display it at TEDActive 2012.

That’s when I had the idea for the Paper City workshop, where attendees could pitch in and help me continue to work on this giant city. It just turned into a big conversation and I started getting invited to all these TEDX conferences around the world. So I think that it was the press generated by that, that led to my The Crowd-Sourced Sentence workshop at Adobe MAX in 2013, and then… to this.

Applying an artistic style to a logo makes it part marketing message and part art project. How did that combination affect your piece?

To be honest, I wanted to completely take over the logo. I wanted to do whatever I could to make it a Kiel Johnson interpretation of MAX.

You’re a fine artist. And this is a design/art project. How did that melding of identities and skills and toolsets affect this project?

I just want to have a creative life. And get involved with creative projects. And push boundaries. And I wanted to stand out from the other artists. So I figured if everyone else was going to draw on the wall, then I’d go in a dimensional direction. That’s when I came up with the idea for The Plotter.

Tell us a bit about your concept.

The challenge of this giant wall… I mean, it wasn’t like I was designing a logo. They already had that. To be honest, what I wanted to do was camouflage the letters with two clashing patterns that would make it difficult to read.

But once I came up with the idea for the whole Plotter contraption, the 3D component, and the video, I stopped thinking about what I was going to do to the logo and instead just focused on the machine. So I’d say my concept was try to get out of doing something. But in a creative way. It was as if I was asked to draw on a wall, but I didn’t want to draw on a wall, so I created a machine to do the work for me.

Kiel Johnson Adobe Max logoKiel Johnson creating Adobe Max logo

Did you worry that maybe you’d bitten off more than you could chew?

Well, basically, I made a machine (The Plotter) to make it look like I wasn’t the one doing the work. Which made the job 500 times harder for me. I knew that movie magic would make it look like the machine I’d built was doing the drawing but basically what happened is that I’d move the carriage six inches, then I’d draw, then we’d photograph it, then I’d move the carriage, then I’d draw, then we’d photograph… until it was done. So, yes, I always think that I take on more than I can handle. But that’s the place I like to be. As cliché as it sounds I totally believe in pushing myself every time I do something; I don’t want to ever just phone it in.

When you’re working on such a large surface, do you sketch your concept loosely beforehand, or, more precisely, draw it to scale?

It all happens in my head first. Then I sketch that loosely on 19 x 24 sheets of paper. I feel, at this point in my life, like I’ve mastered the art of envisioning something in my head and spitting it out of my hand in a way that other people can understand. Of course, I always start light to make sure everything’s going to fit before going hard on the details.

The making of Adobe Max logo by Kiel JohnsonYour work is so analog that it probably wasn’t much of a stretch for you to work on wall of logo. Did this project progress any differently?

What I do is so paper and scissors and glue and drawing. That’s where everything starts. But I love bringing in technology to highlight the analog stuff.

How did you like the Adobe basement workspace?

I loved it. It was like being a zoo animal. We’d look up and there’d be a bunch of people looking down watching us. But since no one can ask questions, it’s really a silent box. It really seems like there should always be something going on in there.

It sounds like the project really stretched on. How long were you at Adobe?

For a solid work week. We (Theo Jemison, my camera guy was with me the whole time and I couldn’t have done it without him) started on a Monday and we left on a Saturday at 2:30am. Everyday we’d show up around 10:00am and work until 1:00am the following morning.

Music/background noise when you’re working? Yes or no?

I’m a huge fan of music while I work. I cannot work in silence. To be honest, though, I also watch movies. I just like to hear people talking. Or to see movement other than myself.

I know you’ve led workshops at Adobe MAX. Are you participating again this year?

I’m not. Well, I haven’t been asked. Yet. But I could totally throw something together last-minute if they wanted me to.

Finish this sentence: Inspiration always seems to strike…

while I’m working on something else. So many good ideas seem to come when I’m working on bad ideas.

Kiel’s week-long project in two minutes

Kiel Johnson’s visual vocabulary… in Adobe Inspire’s 5 & 3/4 Questions.

Illustration & Drawing

Posted on 09-30-2015

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