20 minutes with James Victore

& Mo Mfinanga

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  • Published March 10, 2015
  • Portrait by Stefan Nitzsche

James Victore is an author, artist, speaker, and teacher who runs an independent studio in Texas. A voice ignited by intensity and curiosity, James encourages people to find their potential, silence dogma, and embrace creative courage. This has yielded him the opportunity to win an Emmy, have work exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, and obtain clients such as Adobe, TIME Magazine, and New York Times. Smart-witted and passionate, James continually aims to produce work that's sexy, bold, and memorable, which we talk about below. This introduction was updated on June 22, 2018.


Topics

 

James: Dude, I'm tickle pink. You're going to kick ass.

Mo: I hope!

James: Just keep doing what you love and ask for what you want—it's awesome! Dude, my son is 18 and he is charming, funny, and an amazing guy and I am trying to instil in him this kind of Go get what you want [attitude].

Mo: Just tell him to hang with me and I’ll try to help. [laughing]

James: That would be awesome to get my son to hang with you. That would be groovy. He's fun and funny.

Mo: What does he do on the weekend?

James: He plays games and soccer. Because he has spring break, we're leaving this coming Sunday for a week in Tucson since he loves aerospace museums and rockhounding, and there's both of those out there. He just got accepted to his A school which is Austin University, and I'm like why go to a school that costs $60,000 a year?

Mo: Does he have scholarships?

James: Yeah, for more than half of it. But still, there's an amount of debt that's going to be incurred. Because I made it possible for me to be a resident of the great state of Texas, and his B school is University of Texas, that would be $7,000 a year.

Mo: I looked at college and my heart sank seeing tuition costs.

James: You know what, college is for people who don't know what they want to do. Here's how it goes, and I have so many friends like this: My son is smart, funny, charming, and he has this idea that he'll go through this four year of whatever competitive school, bust his hump, pull his hair out in his sleep, and get a degree to [hopefully] realise at some date that he's a smart, funny, charming guy. He has to figure out how to get paid doing that.

Mo: I'm incredibly thankful to do what I do at such a young age and I could attribute that towards self awareness.

James: But where did you get self awareness from, your folks?

Mo: I got it from curiosity, because when you're in your primitive years, you're always asking why.

James: I instil that in people. I want them to be like five-year-olds and ask why, why, why, because that's important.

Mo: Exactly. My parents are notably conservative.

James: So they want you to go to college and all. They're shepherding you towards comfort and security, but what they're shielding you from is success. What they're shielding you from is risk—risk is where the good shit is. I'm sorry, but risk and failure is what it takes.

Mo: Yeah, and self awareness—

James: —I'm talking to a 17-year-old about self awareness. Oh my god. This is amazing. Dude, I love ya. It's funny because I was in the offices of Esquire and they asked me to do some special project, and the executive editor and I had a nice conversation until we talked about fear. We love these edges and risks and failures. Anyways, sorry, go on.

Mo: No worries. When you're growing up, your parents and dogma start to eat you up. It can make or break people and if they don't nurture that curiosity then they're not going to question themselves and the people around them. They'll follow the rules.

James: Have you ever heard of this guy named George Land?

Mo: No.

James: Well, he invented the Land Camera, which was an early Polaroid. He was a tinkerer, a scientist, and he did this study where he got hundreds of kids and tested them for creativity, and they all scored 90 percent. So they bring them back every five years and go through and test them for creativity, and watch the numbers drop. From the time they were 20 the number was 15 percent, which would be considered creative. And he didn't have any answers or resolutions for it but he had a question, and the question was, "Where does it go?" And the where it goes, and I've seen it, is that it's taught out of us. It's shamed and embarrassed out of us. It's something that we willingly give away so we can fit in, right? You see gay children in high schools who have to closet it. I teach graphic design and I don't want creative kids in my classes. You know why? Because they disrupt. They talk out of turn. They disturb!

James: Creativity is dangerous. It's fucking supposed to be like that! [laughing]

Mo: And when you have the people who do act on their curiosity, some will give the excuse of not having the right set of tools. Well, everyone starts off with a knife. Some people have a machine gun, but regardless of your weapon, you're both in it for the kill. If you're good enough, you can get as many kills as the person with a machine gun.

James: And what you're talking about is the marine ethos. Like, one bullet, one kill. It's not about spraying; you have to be tactile and efficient about it. And you're talking to someone who is shit-serious about creativity. I am the wolf in Peter Pan, you know. I'm the guy who's luring everyone away to come to the circus, because the circus is where the good stuff is. And I'm not look to them to be frivolous, I'm just asking them to do the really fucking serious work, because not only your works makes you money, cause that's selfish, but to understand that you can make money. And you, Mo, can make money by entertaining, enlightening and educating.

James: Deepak Chopra says that if you want attention, you have to pay attention; if you want love, you have to give love; if you want to make money, you have to help people make money. It's not about you, it's always about other people. If we were cavemen and its like me and my little family and I see this other little family, I can't go and destroy them because I need their help; I need to go and help, and then we become stronger, together.

 
 
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Mo: Guess who I was with earlier today?

James: Deepak Chopra. [both laughing] I wouldn't put it past you dude.

Mo: Your former student, Timothy Goodman. He was talking about something along the lines being inspired because he's inspiring people. He sees how he's trying to connect to people with his work, and the result of their emotions makes him feel good that they feel good. I'm paraphrasing here, though.

James: I think Tim in 15 years is going to be amazing.

Mo: What is he now?

James: [Grins] He's chrysalis. He's going through a very weird process. The whole TV show thing adds a lot of pressure.

Mo: Do you need that pressure in order to grow, or no?

James: I think growth just happens, but for most designers it doesn't happen. Most hit 28 and they realise what they're doing that makes money for them and they stop there. It's called a shtick. It's like, you're the guy who comes on stage and does the quick shoe dance and dabbles himself with water!

James: Growth doesn't happen to every creative. Most of them actually start stagnating and that's where I come in. I mean, I've seen it in myself and other people and that's why I'm making less work than I am teaching and talking about creativity, because I realise that I'm a pretty good designer but a better teacher.

James: What most people think when they think of successful work is if I redesign Doritos. It's like, its cool by association, but it's fucking Doritos, are you kidding me? You pandered to the masses, yippe ki-kay. So what? There's very few jobs you can throw at me that I would be excited about.

Mo: Like what?

James: For me, most jobs would fall back on my go-to's. I don't want to talk to five people, I want to talk to more people. Something for a museum or something on the street, mano-a-mano. Like, talking to the people of Boston, Williamsburg, or New York about cleaning up after their dog would excite me. Even a smoking issue would excite me as the con, not pro. [both laughing] Yeah, smoke 'em if ya got 'em! [both laughing]

James: You know, creativity is dangerous, but what my creativity is, is telling the truth. There's two things about the truth that we often say. We say things like, "It's funny because its true," and we also say that, "It hurts because its true." [laughing] So that's my job, to employ those two vehicles.

James: Did you blow out our candle?

Mo: It was an accident, James.

James: [Grabs another candle from a nearby table] It sets the mood.

Mo: [In a humorous tone] Do you design often?

James: Do I? I don't design without an invitation.

Mo: Why not?

James: Because I sit in the subway car and look around and I would redesign things in my mind, but it's what I do for a living and I have to look at it that way. I learned from a genius painter—I was in art school for a short time—who studied with Fernand Léger, and what he learned from Léger was to not give your stuff away, even to your friends. Because if you give your stuff away, it'll end up on the refrigerator. If you make them pay, it'll get framed. I don't want my work to be dismissed. I'm shit-serious about what I do. I love what I do. I think there's an immediacy and import to what I do and I want other people to understand that, but I quite frankly give a lot, Mo. My best work is made for other people.

 
Be authentic, be in the particular, and pull from what’s inside of you.
— James Victore
 

Mo: Is it selfish if we create work for ourselves?

James: No, I don't think that's selfish. There's an idea that I have that you're talking about, which is: in the particular lies the universal. The idea is that the things that interest me, the things that drive my heart wild, are of interest to other people. Quentin Tarantino, he doesn't do market research to make his next movie; he makes the next movie because he wants to make it, and he knows that the things that interest him are of interest to other people.

Mo: That's training your intuition, right?

James: Exactly, it's your intuition, and the things that make you weird as a kid make you great as an adult if you pay attention to them. I don't think of it as selfish at all, I'm just trying to be honest about the work that I do and love.

James: There's an alternate title for my book Victore, but there's a whole string of alternate titles that are crossed off on it, and one of them is called Girls, Bunnies and America, because that basically is a map of the things that I love. I love girls. If you look at my work, there's women's legs, hair, boobies, and womens... [pauses] parts. And there's bunnies, meaning chickens, feathers, bones, and natural history. Those things interest me, and America—social, cultural and political. If I am really honest and pay attention to those then I will make really great work.

James: I am channelling these pieces, because I quite frankly know that other people respond to them, but not everybody. Your work cannot appeal to everybody. What marketing and advertising tries to do is that they try to appeal to everybody and that's why they suck, and that's why most of the work we see is so horrible.

Mo: I agree with you because Simon Sinek—

James: —you talked to him?

Mo: Not yet. I'm currently reading Start With Why.

James: But now you know people who know people, so leverage that. That's the process. Dude, people would love to talk to you because you're not everybody. You're still in high school! Are you kidding me? Okay, anyways, leverage that.

Mo: Definitely. Simon Sinek said that when companies talk about what they do, they'll always define themselves by what they do instead of why. The same companies seem to quantify things that shouldn't be quantified. Why are they doing this?

James: Business! Money! It's sad. Money talks and creativity walks. Like you said, it is an undefinable thing. I put out a tweet today because I was reading somebody's blog about taking a class on the science of marketing. And I'm like, [in a high pitched voice] 'Science of marketing?' [laughing] Are you kidding me? There's so much money and people want answers. When people come to me, I have to tell them that there aren't any answers. That's the bad news, but the good news is that you're trying to talk to human beings and that's what it all boils down to.

Mo: Connection.

James: Connection! And here's the bad part of the news: you can't communicate with everybody—it's impossible. So be authentic, be in the particular, and pull from what's inside of you. We don't have to go to focus groups. We don't have to ask what soccer mom's think; we have to relax and go, "What do I think?"

James: Someone asked me if they should have a niche, and I'm like, niche? That sounds like a small corner you're backed into in order to get paid. No, you shouldn't have a niche. You know what you should have? A fucking opinion. [both laughing] That's like a club with spikes in it.

 
 
 Use a Condom/Bugs, 1997

Use a Condom/Bugs, 1997

 
 

Mo: I remember you once saying that what makes you weird as a kid makes you great today, which really resonated with me.

James: Dude, you are the living example of that. You're a living embodiment of that, even to the point where your parents would like you to go to college, you're like, "Hmm, I think I know more than that." You, Mo, are saying this: I am so trusting of my gifts and my talents to support me that I don't need college.

Mo: I've always garnered the thought that when we're younger, our curiosity ignites with a snowflake, which turns into a snowball. It's our responsibility to fill that snowball (curiosity) with what we want.

James: Girls, bunnies and America was a cast-off subtitle for my book, but the subtitle of my book is Who Died and Made You Boss? And if you go two pages into the book, there's this huge list of more than 300 names that I sat and came up with in one day. It includes film-makers, artists, Evel Knievel, writers, philosophers, and others because I am everyone I have ever loved. Because I study something, I take it inside of me. If I go to a movie, like Hunger Games, I take them seriously. I wrote down: “What makes you think they're not talking about you?” Most people go in there and go, "That was entertaining," and they forget; they don't embody it. I have this former student who has Obi-Wan Kenobi as her profile pic on Twitter. I'm like, "No! I want you to be Obi-Wan Kenobi." If you've done enough to put that image there, then I want you to be that. Not Obi-Wan, but your own version of that. We take in these influences, but we don't wear it as a clown suit, we make it fit us.

Mo: I agree with you. I watched Hector and the Search for Happiness, which allowed me to gain a different perspective of happiness. I saw how it could formulate into my own perception of happiness.

James: Exactly. You didn't see it as entertainment. That was school. And I love entertainment, but I always have a pen and paper with me because I'm always going, 'Oh my god, I have to write that down!’ I have to figure out how to incorporate that into my body.

James: Entertaining is OK, but that's why half of the Super Bowl ads sucked, because they were entertaining.

Mo: Those ads aren't expensive enough.

James: Right? The Snickers ad was hilarious, but am I going to get out and buy Snickers and whatnot? No. [Dramatic voice] "A boy, and he doesn't have legs, but science helps him with a prosthetic device, and he's in high school running track," and then they go: Nissan Altima. I was in a theatre watching these ads and people would get quiet, and when the name of the car would show up, people would go, "Aw, fuck you!" because they see through this shit. My son can't watch TV with me, because he'll go, "Dad, it's just an ad," yes, but do you see what they're teaching people? People are taking in this message whether they know it or not. Even if I'm making posters for myself, I put fake logos on them because it gives it validity. It's like, wow somebody paid money for that, I should pay attention to it then.

James: Part of the problem, Mo, is that most of these products have no truth to them. Like toilet paper ads. What are they going to say? "This one doesn't stick to your ass." There is some truth if you say that a pick-up truck is sexier than a minivan, but the truth is what you really want to sell because you can't argue with it. [laughing]

Mo: You can't argue opinions, you can only have them.

James: People like to have psychophysical debates about graphic design with me and I'm like, "You got an idea and I got an idea and that's cool." 

Mo: I don't understand why we quantify so many things, though.

James: It's human nature. It's something we like to do. People like to know the seven habits of highly successful people, or the five most important things to do to not get fat. We like numbers.

Mo: We like something that gives us easy hope.

James: Exactly, and the problem is that life is a mystery and we don't like that. We don't like that life isn't unquantifiable; we don't like that life is a mystery; we don't like the fact of it being a paradox; we don't like the fact that we don't know the ending, which makes us feel very uncomfortable. Its just not wired in us, because it's scary. And more and more, we're not training our children to understand this. Like, if we were here 200 years ago, bedtime stories were Grimms' fairy-tales and they were all true about how if you step outside the bounds, then you will get eaten by a large witch. We don't have that any more. We now seek comfort and safety all the time. Corporations are all about safety—ROI (return in interest). Professionally, as a designer, it doesn't work that way. I've judged international competitions around the world and we cannot possibly appeal to everybody. So my recourse is don't even try.

 
The first rule of business is fun... I more than love what I do; I see the importance of what I do, which drives me completely.
— James Victore

Mo: You know what supports that sense of safety? Things like Twitter and Instagram. You can have 12 comments that say your work is amazing, but you will allow two negative comments eat you up. Why are we doing this?

James: Why do we focus on the blemishes? Why do we focus on the bad stuff all the time? I can have 200 people tell me how awesome I can, but I will listen to the one critic, and part of it is because we almost want to believe that one more because we're so afraid of our gift. We're so afraid of this light that's inside of us.

Mo: How do we not become afraid?

James: Just like everything else, how do you become good at anything? Practice, practice, practice.

James: Most of the good ideas that I come up with are here (a restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn), because it's screw off time. If you're in the studio, its like, "I gotta do something good here because I'm in the studio."

James: If you look at the renaissance period, there’s people who did amazing things in different fields, and I'm like how did that possibly happen in 24 hours? You know that they slept and drank wine. Its just a level of efficiency. My wife is going to have a baby pretty soon—

Mo: —Congratulations.

James: Thanks. So, both of us are going to have to be much more efficient.

James: A lot of what we've talked about the last 10 minutes really boils down to perspective. I work hard; I bust my bump. I don't work in the evenings nor the weekends. I have a very chill schedule and I'm pretty efficient. Other people are like, "Never sleep. Always work," and they get nothing done. Its all about perspective. It might be an old school thought, but if you can't get it done between 9-5 then you're not a fucking professional. Most companies are not run that way.

James: Most companies are 9-8, and I know people who keep clothes at work because they don't know if they'll be home. Why do we sell our soul? There's a Burning Question we're going to film in a few days and this guy says how he's contracted for 38 hours a week, but he stays 40 hours a week. I thought you Europeans figured this shit out! Really? [laughing] Don't tell me that. Why do we do that? Why do we give our souls and health to work?

James: The most ultimate goal, and you'll see this, is that if you love what you do then you'll never work a day in your life, which is the lazy way to say it. The first rule of business is fun. If you don't enjoy it, then its going to feel like work. Long hours will feel like long hours. I more than love what I do; I see the importance of what I do, which drives me completely. My friends ask me how I have energy. I'm like, really? I have energy? [laughing] I don't see this but cool!

 
 Racism, 1993

Racism, 1993

 

Mo: How are you moving forward in life and your work?

James: Helping people have success. That's where I am right now. I'm at that point if I can figure out how to help other people realise the potential inside of them.

Mo: It's powerful to inspire people because that inspires you.

James: Yeah. I had a guy who wrote me the other day and he showed me his diploma—we give out a diploma when we do this thing called Dinner Series—and he wrote, "Best of times, best of times ." So I wrote back and said that they taught me so much and made my life richer. The teaching thing is awesome, and done well, is selfish, to come back to that word, because I learned so much more from them and it keeps me energised, and dare I say young.

Mo: It's about investing in people so they can invest in you.

James: I have to tell my students that we're creative people. We have to figure out how to get paid creatively. It might be out of the norm. For me, I get paid in a number of different ways. I have students in Japan who I Skype with. I have product in different ways like posters, prints, and such. I have commercial clients and sponsors.

James: It also depends on what you think you need to make. A lot of people get into this position where they get a little greedy. They want a couple of cars and a garage with a double entrance, and they this or that. Like, I've had the big house with the multiple rooms and bathrooms, and it's a show. I don't need the show any more because I've had it. And if you haven't had it, you go, "My friends have all this stuff," but its just stuff.

Mo: I just want to make enough to help people and myself. I don't want to be defined by the things I own.

James: Correct, but here's the other side: you don't want to aim too low. You should understand, and this isn't comfortable for me because I don't come from a comfort place with my family, but understand your value. What you're doing is setting your intention in the universe, and the universe wants you happy. When you get things from the universe, you have to say, "Thank you, more please."

Mo: I mean, what's wrong with asking?

James: Yeah, and it [the universe] wants to make you happy. A poetry book, named The Essential Rumi, mentions how the universe wants you happy so stop spreading your pain. Most people want to start a conversation with, "I'm so tired." They start by complaining. Stop telling the universe what a bad job you're doing with your life.

Mo: Yeah, and I've been in conversations where people will start talking like that. See whatever challenge as an opportunity. Be a bit disillusioned.

James: Yep. There are open doors everywhere, you just have to see them.

Mo: Not only see them, but also walk towards them.

James: Yeah. We just put out a video about trusting your vision and follow it even if you don't know where its taking you. Don't worry about the money or reward. All you can do is pay attention to the work and do a good job with everything you're doing.

James: I'm a muscle car guy and there's a bunch of cars out there I want and I want to have them. I have to figure out what I want to do personally and professionally, spirit-wise, educationally, but not money-wise. I gotta figure out how to make all this stuff work then the universe will give me that thing.

 
 Feck Perfuction

Feck Perfuction

 

Mo: Do you think you know a little about the universe?

James: I'm in its hands. I know that I trust it completely. My wife is having a baby and there's crazy stuff in the universe and we have no idea where the bread comes from, but it somehow is there all the time, which is really awesome.

James: It's just as much work and less money if you start working for middle and low clients. Go to the top. Time Magazine doesn't pay for shit. Whenever they call for a cover, I can't bring my A game. They will not publish it, because they're mediocre. They will only do things that look like Time Magazine. They're hedging their bets. No committee is concerned about greatness or art. They're concerned about saving money and safety, so good work will not survive a comity. We've got two wonderful sponsors, Mailchimp and Squarespace, and they've been really amazing because they're not messing with our content.

Mo: Do you believe in getting out of your comfort zone to grow?

James: Yeah, but the comfort zone thing is a little bit hackneyed way of saying it.

Mo: How would you say it? 

[Both laughing]

James: You know what, we're just always searching for new ways to introduce ideas. It becomes less meaningful saying comfort zone. The human condition doesn't change much. Peoples are peoples. You have to figure out how to communicate with them.

Mo: What do you think are the most common things people do that limit themselves?

James: A lot of people are waiting for permission. They're waiting for someone to give them permission to be creative, or waiting for someone to give them permission to rise above their station. I believe that people are afraid to ask for more. I think that, for example, you and your peers are already trained as graphic designers because you've seen comic books, cartoons, and various ads, and you think that's the way it's supposed to be, but its not; it's just the way that it's been done. There's so many different ways to do it. I think people are conditioned to not step out of that, especially clients because they want comfort. To step out of that takes bravery and boldness, which is sexy. I want to be around brave and bold people.

Mo: Reminds me of how people are extremely vocal in why they hate or like Kanye West.

James: Exactly. We're not for everybody. Just the sexy people.
 

 

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