Never Not a Punk Rock Show: CreativeMornings Host Jon Setzen Talks Shop with Use All Five

Jon Setzen is an LA-based designer, Creative Director of Bluebeam, and the host of CreativeMorning's Los Angeles Chapter. We talked to him about the early days of CreativeMornings, his design work, and the spirit of LA.

Jon Setzen Use All Five Interview 4

UA5: You’ve lived and worked in many different cities, what first brought you to LA and why did you stay here?

JS: I had been living in New York for close to a decade and I was running my own design studio called Standard Motion. I had a nice little studio space in DUMBO and was doing a wide range of interactive, graphic design, and branding work for local Brooklyn businesses, artists, as well as some Fortune 500 companies. I had started to do a good amount of work with larger advertising agencies and that started to become a big focus for me. There were three partners who used to run DNA Studio here in LA who were starting a new agency in LA. They had an idea where they wanted to do all the design and development work in Buenos Aires and, considering I had experience working with contractors all over the globe, I started working closely with them and became their Creative Director. I came back and forth between NYC and LA for over a year and finally moved out here. It took me a long time to feel like I actually lived here. In NYC, I felt at home and knew this was the place for me, within a few hours. LA took years, literally years. My second son was born here, I was pretty locked in with work and CreativeMornings was/is a big part of my life. So, LA slowly started to feel like home. It is, comparatively, a pretty easy place to live. The weather makes it easy. It’s great to be outside all the time. My kids have a good life here. I miss NYC daily, but I don’t really miss living there. I’ve since landed a dream job working in Pasadena at an incredible software company called Bluebeam. It’s so close to my house, Pasadena is lovely, and the company is full of talented, friendly, and driven people. I am really happy.

Just this past Friday I said to Levi Obery, my amazing Video Production team of one, “CreativeMornings, never not a punk rock show in someone’s basement,” as I gazed at the crazy wiring system he had rigged up to power our A/V for this past event.

UA5: How did you first get involved with Creative Mornings? What was it like in the early days and how has it changed?

JS: I first got involved with CreativeMornings as an attendee in NYC. My good friend and creative powerhouse, Tina Roth Eisenberg, started CreativeMornings and I used to go often in NYC. I know Tina from DUMBO. Everyone knew Tina. I used to joke she was the Den Mother of design in Brooklyn and this is before she thought-up, founded, and ran Studiomates. Her studio was at 10 Jay St., mine was at 20 Jay St. It was always a better day when you’d run into Tina. Her laugh, her big personality, and her realness was a good leveler for me. I say this often, but CreativeMornings is just Tina in 151 cities around the globe. Tina, like CreativeMornings, is inspiring, inviting, inclusive, and fun. When I knew that I was going to be moving out to LA I asked Tina what she thought about me starting a CreativeMornings in LA. She said she was in the process of setting up a chapter in Zurich and would be happy to let me try it in LA. She wanted someone she knew and trusted to be the guinea pig. She also knew that once we announced the LA chapter it was going to blow up…and it did. I am honored to be the person who she entrusted to get the ball rolling globally.

It was, in the early days, not too dissimilar to what it is today. Just this past Friday I said to Levi Obery, my amazing Video Production team of one, “CreativeMornings, never not a punk rock show in someone’s basement,” as I gazed at the crazy wiring system he had rigged up to power our A/V for this past event. I started this pretty much solo. I found the venues, speakers, cobbled together some volunteers, and got this thing going. Years later I have a great volunteer team, but I am still (just this past week) driving to Home Depot to buy moving blankets to cover skylights and begging my photographer, Ryan Morgan, to climb on roofs for me.

Early on it was so DIY. Willard Ford, formerly of Ford & Ching, was the only person who would host for us. He was amazingly generous with his time, his space, and his energy. CreativeMornings wouldn’t have happened without him. I was working at an agency called Something Massive and the partners there helped me get the ball rolling. They were super supportive. About a year into it, it got financially difficult to do it. Media Temple stepped in and gave me a few grand to keep it going for another year. They stuck by it, and still do. I am so thankful for everyone who has ever helped out, especially in the early days before it became a “thing.”

I should say, because people ask me this a lot, it was slow at first. LA is tough. It’s tough to get be out in the morning. The only other lecture series I knew of was DeLab and now there must be like 40 lecture series in LA. It took me about two years to get a solid crowd of over 100 people. It was worth it.

These days I have a great volunteer team who make the events fantastic: Levi Obery (Video Production), Ryan Morgan (photography), and our amazing event-day volunteers Noel Festa, Alec Rojas, Matt Lebo, Maggie Tielker and my eight-year-old son Jack even helps out. I also used to run all over town picking up coffee, donuts, supplies, and more. For the past three years, Stumptown Coffee has been supporting us and their team drops off and sets up coffee at all our events. Similarly, Cali Water Cactus Water, has been a great partner for us and I like to think we’ve helped given their brand some more visibility. The other major difference is consistent sponsorship. For the past few years Media Temple and Shutterstock (who are also a global partner) has been instrumental in allowing us to grow. I mention the volunteers and sponsors, because that is the big difference. They all help grow the community. The talks are as good as they were at the beginning, but the size of the venues, the larger crowds, and even the occasional pastry offering from Sqirl is all due to the sponsors and volunteers.

Sonari Glinton speaking at CreativeMornings at NPR in Culver City

UA5: How do you choose venues for Creative Mornings? LA is very spread out and there are a lot of good candidates, so what do you look for? Any favorites?

JS: I try and move the event around as much as possible. I generally choose a venue that is first and foremost easy for our speaker that month. Our audience will travel, but it sucks to go across town during rush hour. I’ve found our best venues, for attracting a large crowd, are in Downtown, Eastside, Hollywood, and Culver City. Santa Monica has been a total bust. So, we’ll continue to try and find a good spot there or in Venice. There seems to be interest, but when it comes to the day people just don’t show.

Nowadays, I look for venues that can hold minimum of 200 people, have already setup audio visual (mics, projector, screen) and seating. Parking is not a big deal for me as I hope people are trying to take public transit. Plus, nowhere really has free parking.

Some of our (mine and our community’s) favorite venues include: NPR West, Herman Miller, Rapt Studio which are all in Culver City. In Hollywood, the 9 Dots Community Learning Center is great. Downtown we’ve been using the theater at the Japanese American Museum and the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Central Library are great. Honestly, any place that wants to host for us is my favorite. I am so grateful as I know it’s really intrusive.

The last thing I’ll say is we look for venues that share our ideas and values of creativity and inclusivity.

We thought that if we were all talking about the same theme each month it created a global conversation. It’s fascinating to see what people in Milan, Jerusalem, Rio, London, etc. are saying about “urban,” “weird,” and other themes.

UA5: On a similar note, what’s your process for choosing speakers? How do you fit them into the monthly themes?

JS: A few years ago CreativeMornings started global themes. Each month we have a theme that all chapters use. This was a way to help differentiate ourselves from the growing number of monthly lecture series. We thought that if we were all talking about the same theme each month it created a global conversation. It’s fascinating to see what people in Milan, Jerusalem, Rio, London, etc. are saying about “urban,” “weird,” and other themes. It’s been really helpful to have themes. It allows me to look ahead several months and do research so I can find someone amazing. Sometimes I will have a speaker who I will match to a theme or sometimes the theme will dictate the speaker. For example, a few months back we had “risk” as our theme. I had communicated with some folks at VICE awhile back and, as soon as I saw that theme, I reached out to them.

Most of the time, someone will pop into mind right away. I often will cold email people and 9/10 times they say yes. I’ve only had one “no” and a few “no’s” for scheduling. We don’t pay speakers, so it’s a big ask for people to come take time out of their days. Moby said “yes.” That was fun and, honestly, not unexpected. I think people want to contribute to the conversation we’re facilitating. I try and keep our line-up diverse in all aspects of the word. We have people from all walks of life involved in many different industries. CreativeMornings in Los Angeles has definitely evolved from being visual design heavy to being a larger examination of creative thought and work within Los Angeles.

One way I won’t choose a speaker is if someone keep tweeting at me that they should speak. That’s a huge red flag for me. Also, so many people email and say they should be speakers, yet they’ve never attended a CreativeMornings event. That, too, is a red flag for me. Also, pro-tip, don’t introduce yourself as a “maker.”

Moby speaking at CreativeMornings near Hollywood Forever Cemetery

I hope attendees feel the same thing that I used to feel, and still feel, when I leave an event. When I used to attend events in NYC I’d walk back to my studio buzzing. I’d be buzzing from the people I met, the talk I heard, the feeling of being a part of a community within a larger city.

UA5: What do you hope for attendees to get out of the experience?

JS: I hope attendees feel the same thing that I used to feel, and still feel, when I leave an event. When I used to attend events in NYC I’d walk back to my studio buzzing. I’d be buzzing from the people I met, the talk I heard, the feeling of being a part of a community within a larger city. I wanted to draw, wanted to read more, and felt so lucky to be working in a creative industry.

Leaving my last job was ignited by CreativeMornings. I was spending the majority of my time at work arguing with my boss and feeling like I was so far removed from having a creative job even though my title was Creative Director and I managed a team of 12. At one CreativeMorning the speaker just said the right thing at the right time and I thought, yes, I need to move on. That was the kick in the pants that I needed. Flash forward a year and I am in a much better place.

Fara Howard of Vans speaking at CreativeMornings in Downtown LA

UA5: Do you keep in contact with the hosts in other cities around the world? Can you tell us about an impactful talk you heard in another city?

JS: CreativeMornings has grown so much and continues to grow. Every month when I prepare my slide deck for our events I go and look at the number of chapters. At time of writing this, we’re at 151. I know a few of the other hosts. My wonderful friend, Tsilli Pines, runs the Portland chapter and I talk to her as often as I can. Obviously I still am connected with Tina and Sally Rumble who run the NYC chapter. I know the Austin guys and the DC guys a bit. We also have chapters in San Diego and Tijuana who I chat with from time to time. I thought the recent talk in NYC by Michaela Angela Davis was powerful, necessary, and so relevant. It makes me proud we’re having conversations like these at CreativeMornings. Also, in NYC (and you can grab this from our podcast) Debbie Millman’s talk entitled “The Top 10 Things I wish I knew when I graduated college” should be required listening for anyone before their first day of work. I pretty much love everything Debbie Millman does, so I could be biased.

UA5: Can you tell us about your design work with local products like Smile Frozen Goods?

JS: I love working with local brands. I did it often in Brooklyn and it’s fine to do it here in LA as well. I do a lot of work for the UCLA Department of Art and make logos around town for folks. I love that process. A few years back, my industrious pal Kevin Hockin (Co-founder of Boxed Water, Burger Lords) called me up and said he wanted to start an ice cream company. He wanted some branding help and wanted to know if I wanted in. When Kevin calls you just say “yes.” He’s a ball of energy and for all those people who think they’re “hustling,” just spend a day with Kevin…you’ll learn what hustling is all about. This Smile project is still a work in progress, but it’s getting there. It’s all Kevin really. I drew a logo in a book and then we had Drew Melton ink it and bring it to life. We wanted it to be fun, to feel like you had seen it before (when you were a kid), but not overly retro. Kevin bought a few utility carts which he redid and turned them into awesome little ice cream trucks. They’re like super-powered lawn mowers that are street legal. It was, and is, a fun project. I can’t say a ton right now but it’s possible you could be visiting a Smile Frozen Goods shop in the near future.

Smile Frozen Goods cart design by Jon Setzen

UA5: If you had to design a brand identity for the people and city of LA, what sorts of elements would make it into your idea? What colors would represent the city, what fonts, what styles?

JS: This is easy. I’d just email Steven Harrington and tell him we’re designing a brand identity for Los Angeles. Then, I’d leave him alone for a couple of weeks, and it would be amazing. That is my honest answer.

However, if Steven wasn’t around, I’d grab a notebook at start writing a list about Los Angeles. One thing I would leave out would be anything having to do with the entertainment industry. While I love movies and television, in the grand scheme of things happening in Los Angeles, I find it to the be the least interesting or inspiring, yet it’s what almost everyone outside of LA associates with LA – and for good reason. So, I’d like to put the focus on the things that, to me, make LA amazing. I’d focus on the mix of cultures here, the mix of topography, the mix of neighborhoods, and the ability to get lost in no time at all. I live in Glendale and I love that in 10 minutes I can be deep in a canyon, alone, and removed. So, I’d focus on a more stripped down look for this brand with a focus on nature and keep it casual. I’d have my wife, Mindy Markowitz (who is the best illustrator I know), draw an illustration of a coyote and I’d like to pair that with Klim Type Foundry’s Tiempo Text – a current favorite. Color palette-wise, I’d probably stick to something from the original Eichler palette which I think always looks great. I also think it’s important to show the more casual, rustic, and accessible side of LA rather than the mansions, the Hollywood sign, Beverly Hills, and all the other things you see in every establishing shot series of everything that seems to be set in LA. I’d enlist Laure Joliet and Hamish Robertson to photograph the things that make Los Angeles unique. They both have a keen eye and show a side of LA that many outside of LA don’t often see. I think we’d be off to a pretty good start.

Related Links:

Find out about the next event in LA or in your city at CreativeMornings

You can check out Jon's latest work at Bluebeam and Jon Setzen Studio

Keep up with him on Twitter

Illustration by: Christine Jackson & Troy Curtis Kreiner

The speakers above are, from top to bottom, Sonari Glinton, Moby, and Fara Howard

The interviewer, Ryan Ernst is a Digital Strategist at Use All Five.
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