27 January 2013

INTERVIEW: Jonny Black, Cast Iron Design Co.

                                                                                                                                              all images are copyright CIDCo.
JONATHAN JAMES BLACK, Graphic Designer // Cast Iron Design Co.
I’m co-owner of the Cast Iron Design Company in Boulder, Colorado. The company was founded in 2010 with myself and my business partner Richard Roche. I received a BFA in Graphic Design from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and an MFA from the University of Arizona.


what type of internship/s did you do? any recommendations for landing an internship? 

I didn’t have any design internships, but I worked two different prepress jobs that gave me a lot of experience with print production.

what did you do once you graduated college? 

Moved to Boulder Colorado to run the business full-time.

when did you decide what direction you wanted to go in with your career? 

I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer when I was 15, after designing shirts and a website for the band I was in. It was a really shitty band, but I’d like to think we had above-average graphic design.

other than design courses, were there particularly interesting or beneficial classes that you took? 

Photography and printmaking.

any advice for student designers getting prepared for the design profession? 

Everyone always says this, but it’s absolutely true: work your fucking ass off.

did you feel prepared coming out of school to work where you are now? 

Very. But since I went to grad school I was in college for a total 7 years, as opposed to four for most.

what, if any, are the benefits to getting your masters? how valuable was your grad experience? 

My graduate experience was awesome and extremely nourishing. I highly recommend it. I became a much better writer, more intelligent, and of course improved my design skills. The shitty part is that I’m in a lot more debt, but it was definitely worth it.

what is the best advice you can offer a VC senior? 

Work your ass off and constantly feed your obsession with design. Otherwise you’ll probably get a shitty job working prepress, cropping shitty photos and watching the clock all day.

is it better to have a physical portfolio or a digital one? 

Get a website. Cargo Collective is probably the best/easiest format right now.

what was more useful, school or on the job experience? 

School taught me more, but I learned a lot working too.

will specializing in a single area of design be helpful or hurtful as a graduate? 

It’s okay to specialize in a single area (for instance if you love making posters, make a shit ton of posters). That being said, you do need to be able to show how you can translate an idea/brand across multiple platforms, so stop making posters sometimes and do other stuff.

do you format your portfolio to cater to the place you are applying? how do you decide what to include and what to omit? 

Include your best. Less is more. Sometimes we see a portfolio come in from a student, and there’s a few good projects and several shitty ones. The should’ve just sent us the three good ones. Edit.

does the addition of a master’s degree help in getting work? if so—how important? 

I can’t say exactly, since I didn’t apply for jobs, but it probably wouldn’t help that much in terms of landing a job. Your portfolio is what counts.

what experiences from undergrad helped you to succeed professionally? 

My mentor. I had a design professor who gave a shit. And pushed me.


where did your company name come from? can you elaborate on your Cast Iron identity? how did it come about/develop? 

The company name came from my own cast iron skillet, and I thought of it one day while cooking. Here’s the full explanation from our site:

The name Cast Iron Design Company refers to the classic cast iron skillet. The timeless, efficient, and functional qualities of the cast iron skillet are all characteristics we strive for in our design work. Cast iron skillets are heirloom objects, often lasting hundreds of years, passed down from generation to generation. They are made of a singular material (iron) which is relatively simple to melt down and use to make something else. Cast iron cookware leeches healthy doses of iron into your diet, in contrast to contemporary cookware which instead leeches traces of carcinogenic teflon. We’re also quite fond of the connotations people have with a cast iron skillet, such as memories of grandma fryin’ up eggs & toast for breakfast, lumberjacks cooking a stack of flapjacks over an open fire, or old fashioned wives chasing their nar-do-well husbands out of the house.

can you talk about Cast Iron’s commitment to sustainability? 

From the site:

Green design is about getting more out of less—less materials, less energy, less water, less waste, less carbon emissions, et cetera—in order to minimize environmental impact. We carefully consider our options in order to produce the highest quality finished product with the smallest environmental footprint. There is a common misconception that green design equates to higher costs, which isn’t always the case. Often, green design solutions end up saving money.
We believe that considering the environmental impact of a project is an essential facet of any good design solution. Our approach to green design is research-based. Take for example, paper. Though paper may seem like a simple material, it’s a surprisingly complex subject. Choosing the best option requires careful research for each individual project. We work with clients, manufacturers and production specialists to consider the environmental impact throughout all stages of the process, extending beyond the traditional role of designers.

what motivated you to become a ‘green’ designer? does the cost/expense of your work increase by going green? 

I was a “budding” environmentalist before going to grad school. One of my professors had a class about social and environmentally conscious design, and I connected the two. After that, my role as a designer had purpose. No matter the budget, you can always find ways to be more conscious of your environmental footprint. If you’re interested in green design, I highly recommend Green Graphic Design by Brian Dougherty.

how many years did it take to start your own company? what was the basic process for starting? 

To get everything set up (website, legal stuff, etc), it took about six months.

what are the best ways to get work? be seen? advertise yourself? 

Do something creative and unique. Make something awesome that will make you stand out from the rest of the students who are trying to get a job.

which clients do you tend to work for? which ones do you avoid? 

We work for a lot of different businesses, mostly small businesses, and we’re very lucky to have every one of them. We avoid clients who seem like they’re assholes. You’ve got to trust your gut.

how do you find a steady stream of clients? 

We don’t. There’s an ebb and flow to things. Sometimes we’ll get five inquiries one week, and then zero for an entire month. We’ve never advertised, and most of the inquiries come from our website (which has made it onto a lot of blogs) or word of mouth (referrals).

where did you meet your partners? 

My business partner and I met during undergrad. We had good design chemistry, and even more important, good personality balance.

most difficult job/project you’ve had to complete? 

Personal website, hands down.

how do you deal with the pressure of deadlines? and how fast are real-world projects compared to college projects? 

I deal with it by using it as a tool. Deadlines push me. Make me focus better. Make me stay up late and work into the night. Deadlines—although they can be a huge bitch—are your friend. College projects are always fast. Real world projects typically take months, but every project has its own pace.

what is the best way to understand, precisely, what a client wants? 

Listen. Then reiterate it in your own words (we develop word lists with clients).

do you ever do any free work, just to get your name out there? 

I used to do a lot of free work, as its a great way to get experience as a student. Volunteering my design skills for school clubs, that kind of thing. But now I can’t afford the time because free work isn’t free anymore, it means I’m losing money. And we’re not exactly rolling in it. I’d say the best way to promote yourself is to create a website and look for small design jobs on craigslist. That’s what I did and it was a very valuable experience.

what was your first paying project/gig? 

Stuff for my band when I was 15.

how often are you forced out of your own style to please clients? 

Although our website (which is about two years behind) shows a very vintagey style, we only use that “style” when it’s appropriate. We make our design decisions based on what is appropriate for the project.

what are a project’s typical time-window for completion? how many different projects do you work on at once? 

Time always differs based on the project’s components. With the two of us we can handle about five clients at a time, but prefer about three.

what do you do regularly to advance your career? 

Read about design and look at design. As a student, one of the most important tools for becoming a better designer is to look at and analyze design as much as you can. Get a google reader account (or an RSS reader app) and start subscribing to RSS feeds of your favorite design blogs.

what skills would you say are most important? 

Be flexible. Show you have range. Range in visual execution, as well as range in design mediums (interactive, print, environmental, etc).

do you modify your look/style to meet the customer, or do customers come to you for your style? 

From time to time we do have clients come to us for our “vintagey” style that’s showcased on our website, but we usually turn those people down if we can. Our design solutions are based on what’s appropriate for the customer (ex: fun/serious/modern/contemporary/vintage).

when did you start your business, and what challenges did you face initially? 

The only real challenge we have with the business is money. It’s the shittiest part of owning a business. Everything else is great. Our ongoing challenge is being efficient. We spend way more time on projects than what we’re paid for. That makes for great design, but not great business.

do you often work alone on projects, or with a team? 

To some extent, Rich and I always work together on projects. We’re much better that way, even thought it’s time consuming. We’ll hire others when necessary but it’s pretty rare. We prefer to do everything ourselves.

how do you know what to charge for a job? 

It’s a balance of how much money we think the client has, and how long it will take us. There’s no real formula, and every designer struggles with how much to charge. Jessica Hische wrote a great article about it on her blog, look it up.


why did you change the typeface used on the questionnaire document? 

I wasn’t exactly looking forward to spending an hour looking at Bembo Standard.
editor's note: I'm using Helvetica on the blog regardless. So no Bembo, and no Supria Sans. But the font thought is appreciated.

what is the one thing you struggle with the most? 

Business-wise: making money. Personally: being efficient and staying focused. I waste an incredible amount of time on the internet, mostly looking at cat gifs and stupid shit like that.

how do you stay inspired day after day? 

I don’t. There’s a natural ebb and flow, and I’ve learned to accept it and work around it. Sometimes I’m super excited about a project I’m working on, working extremely fast and efficiently. Other times, I’m in a lull.

which of your works/projects was the most inspirational to you? 

The best and most important projects I’ve worked on are projects I believe in. I’ve been very fortunate to work on a lot of these types of projects.

where do you find motivation/inspiration for personal projects? do you do personal projects? 

I don’t do as many personal projects now that I’m out of school, but the projects I’m working on professionally are exciting and nourishing, so it’s not really an issue.

what is your process for choosing a typeface? any favorites? 

I have a giant library of typefaces that I treasure dearly. My process for choosing type is to find the typeface(s) that resonates with the tone or feeling of the project. I have too many favorites to list, but H&FJ’s typefaces are the best in the world.

are there any cultures or countries that inspire you creatively? 

Cultures that put a higher priority on good design. The Swedes and the Swiss are two.

with what you know now, is there anything you’d do different? 

Not really. I’m very grateful for where I am and the path I’ve taken thus far.

what music to you listen to when working? 

If I’m designing, a lot of indie music, pre-80’s country, folk-ey shit, psycadellic rock, etc.

if you were to describe john in two words, what would they be? 

Italian Stallion.

how has your design style developed since school? 

Simpler and more modern.

what is your design process? 

Research: Learn about the client and the business. Find out what’s been done.
Brainstorm: Word lists, mind maps, mood boards, etc.
Sketch: Never skip the notebook. Something magical happens with pencil and paper.

are there any traditional, off-computer tools you like to use for design? 

A really nice pencil or pen, and a really nice notebook. Spoil yourself here and it will make sketching much more enjoyable.

what do you like about the medium you work in? have you always wanted to work in it? 

I love technology and I’m lucky enough to have a gigantic-ass 27” iMac. I love it. I also screenprint posters from time to time, which I absolutely love doing. The only other medium I would like to work in is hand-painting signs. Someday that’ll happen.

how much design work do you do in your spare time? 

In the very, very limited spare time I have, I’m outside or with friends. I spend 90% of my waking hours working.

do you prefer print work or web work? 

Print is my love. There’s nothing like that feeling you get when you receive the finished product. I designed my first book recently (not like some blurb shit—the real deal) and it was amazing to finally get that thing in the mail.


  1. GREAT interview- loved reading it! Inspiring and some interesting food for thought! Can't wait to hear from the others

  2. Most inspiring part was the Cat gif example (which wasn't provided by Jonny). It will be treasured in the CIDco cat gif vault for eternity.

    - Richard

  3. Knowing the crucial role that cat gifs play in the creative process at CIDCo., I thought it was important to share with the up-and-coming design students, an example of what drives real designers. Also, happy to add to the vault.

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