To Live and Drive in LA with Sam Jayne
We had Sam Jayne, Creative Director at Cove and Founder of Jam, stop by our office and catch up. Sam explains his thoughts on appropriation, sustainability, and how he relaxes despite his many projects. We collaborated on a shirt that was informed by this conversation, which can be purchased here.
MW: How have you been Sam? It’s been a minute since we last caught up. What’s new?
SJ: Yeah man, my day-to-day has been pretty crazy the last couple of months. I’ve definitely had the issue of not being able to say no and just am super grateful for a lot of interesting and diverse projects that have ended up in my lap. Cove is the main thing on my plate right now though.
MW: Can you explain Cove a little bit, for people who might not be familiar with what you’re doing there?
SJ: Yeah, Cove is this really interesting start-up that I’ve been working for as Creative Director in Venice. We’re working on a biodegradable water bottle.
MW: The first-ever fully-biodegradable water bottle, right?
SJ: Yeah, it’s gonna be made of this material called PHA, which is this naturally-occurring polymer that has been manufactured and used before, just never as a bottle. It’s been used in medical devices, the material exists naturally and has been created in the past for specific uses. But when we get this bottle produced and out in stores it’ll be the first fully biodegradable bottle of water.
MW: I’m sure it’s one of those things where people look back and say “Cove walked so other companies can run”.
SJ: The hope is that we get it out in stores and people who are conscientious or looking to change their habits for the better, see an alternative to single-use plastic and decide to go for Cove and get on board. If enough people get behind what we’re doing, I think we have a chance to send a signal and then create massive change.
MW: That’s amazing to hear.
SJ: So that’s the 9-5. It’s a really great situation. Steve Reinmuth from Some Days came in and did the branding and got them set up with some really solid stuff, and the owner gets the value of strong creative direction. He understands that for people to give a shit, they have to first know about it and then they have to make an emotional connection to it. And a lot of that can be done through our visual language.
MW: And outside of Cove, you’ve been working on Jam stuff. What’s been going on with that?
SJ: Yeah so the Jam stuff was really just a creative outlet that I started when I moved to LA about a year and a half ago. And that has become more and more of a thing, just because people have responded to it, and I enjoy doing it. So, as long as people are willing to buy a shirt here and there, I’m going to keep doing it.
MW: I know for a fact there’s humility in there because it’s not just a little thing. You’ve had a handful of collaborations, and outside of that, no one is doing that kind of design-style. No one is experimenting in the way that the Jam stuff is experimenting. So it really comes as no surprise, at least to me as an outsider, that people are taking to it.
SJ: Yeah, it’s really nice hearing that, and I’m glad someone with your taste level sees it that way. That’s what I hope for—that people see it as something new. It took some pressure off me career-wise, and it allowed me to trust my instincts a little bit. Before this, I was still trying to prove to myself, or prove to others, that I had value as a designer. But letting go of that just really opened me up to be like: this is what it is. It’s a fairly low financial risk. It’s not much of a burden to make a handful of shirts and not sell any. So, why not try it? It was really just something I wanted to see. I think of the idea of the Arcteryx fossil yin-yang—that’s something I had been turning over in my head for at least a year or two, but just never sat down and did it. That kind of fueled the fire a little bit. This is one goofy little thing, but now it’s a t-shirt, and a t-shirt is something that people can buy and see and interact with. And seeing people actually do that gave me the motivation to try it again and do different things. It’s been a really fun experiment. Someone like Scott Barry, over at Sqirl—I hit him up because I liked his work, and I guess he was into what I was doing enough to say: “Hey, let’s figure something out”. So it was a totally organic thing, and I guess if you choose a name like Jam, if you’re going to get one collaboration, it’s with Sqirl.
MW: Yeah, it makes sense. Sqirl is such a great establishment and restaurant in its own right, and the same can be said for Jam, and the fact that both parties had the taste to approach each other and collaborate on that seems kinda unfair.
SJ: Haha, yeah. It was one of those things where Scott is incredibly talented but also has a really unique and fun take on design. It doesn’t have to be super serious with him and can still be really, really good. And I think because he has that outlook, he’s like: “This [Jam] is a totally weird clothing brand that has 3 t-shirts and isn’t really defined as anything, but why not? It’s called Jam, we sell jam, if we can make it work, why not?”
MW: Yeah, and sometimes it can be as simple as that. Why can’t one of my favorite restaurants also have one of my favorite shirts? It's not ironic, but maybe comedic in a sense.
SJ: Yeah, I think that’s the beauty of the moment we’re in, where on one hand every reference is at your fingertips and it’s all coming at you, and it’s almost hard to figure out what’s going on. But then at the same time, these doors can open for totally strange and special things to happen. The whole conversation around the internet and access to information is pretty tiring, but it’s also true. It is a great tool for exploration and for connection...I still believe in it and the opportunities it can provide. For weird connections and for things to exist that maybe wouldn’t be possible under different circumstances.
Left Image by: Paley Fairman
Right Image by: Sergiy Barchuk
MW: Speaking towards the convenience of the internet, you really have a knack for appropriation. Using stuff like the Nike logo or The Olympic Rings, and taking those and twisting them and subverting it. Can you elaborate on that and where it might come from?
SJ: Yeah, I think growing up and being interested in skateboarding and streetwear is where that all stems from. How you flipped a reference was really what made something hot or what made it stand out and be special. Like the ‘Fuct’ logo as the Ford logo, for example. It’s kind of in my DNA. I saw this stuff as a kid and just totally got into it. So you see it in streetwear and in skateboarding, but over the years it’s been done so much—the collaborations, the flips. I think it’s a fun and hard challenge to do it in a way that feels really fresh and interesting at this point. For me, it’s the challenge of: How can I make something feel really familiar, but also totally weird? And then from there, I am what I am as a designer. I know how to do typesetting and layouts. I’m okay at art and creative direction, but I’m not an illustrator. So when I want these things to have visual, illustrative elements, I’m looking for people who can create it better than me. And when I flip it, I hope to do it in a way where I’m paying some sort of homage to it, or at least create some sort of really interesting visual thread for others to tug at. I’m not trying to say: “This is my original thing”. I’m just saying I like it, and I’m putting it next to this other thing and maybe then it becomes something new, or maybe it stays two separate things in proximity, and that’s fine. I do sell these shirts, so I guess I’m profiting a bit off other’s work, but I’m not trying to hide it and pass it off as my own. If anyone said “Hey that’s fucked up” or “Pay me”, I’m totally fine to give them a share.
MW: Do you ever question the ethics of what you’re doing, or are worried about people popping up and suing you?
SJ: No, I’d be honored if anyone is paying attention enough that they want to cease and desist me. I’d take it as a compliment that it’s made its way to them. I’ve gotten multiple orders from One Beaverton Drive, so I know people at Nike are aware of it. It is totally insane that Nike employees see it, and then want to wear it. That’s just really cool to me. I think that people can see that there’s a playfulness to it and that it’s so obvious that I’m not trying to jack it, and instead trying to breathe some sort of new creative life into it.
MW: It’s refreshing to hear that you’re not trying to do this to get rich. You’re not trying to build mansions off of this.
SJ: No, not at all. I’m simply trying to express an idea. Even if it’s an offbeat or weird-to-describe concept, I’m just doing it because I want to see it. I’m putting it out into the world to see how people respond to it, rather than claim or ride someone else’s wave.
MW: And I think of some of your stuff, like the Nike Swoosh or the Olympic Rings. You moved the rings so it's not even technically their logo anymore. But it all just made sense.
SJ: I’ve been thinking about the Saul Bass graphic that I’m playing with for the shirt that we’re making. It’s because I want to see that graphic on a shirt, and I wanna wear that graphic. And it fits so nicely into this idea of when I’m thinking about Los Angeles, and it’s a reference for that moment. To try and license that, or do it the right way, it adds so much noise that I don’t believe is necessary considering the scale and context. That might be fucked up, but I like the idea of just doing it and seeing what happens. Like if it somehow got to Saul Bass’ people, I’d be so happy they saw it. Any money I make off this, if they want that money, or if they want me to stop, or want to work on something together, I am completely here for that conversation. And I think people will respect that sort of honesty, in regards to playing with others work. Maybe I should be asking for permission, but I’d rather give it a shot and see what comes of it.
MW: It’s not as fun asking for permission.
SJ: Yeah and the stakes are low. I’m not an ad agency using this for another client’s work. I’m not an artist who’s putting it in a gallery to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’m just trying to communicate an idea, and a t-shirt feels like a really good vessel for that.
MW: Tell me about the Saul Bass illustration in proximity with “To Live and Drive in LA”. Obviously you wanted to see the Saul Bass illustration on the shirt, but where did you pull “To Live and Drive in LA” from, and where was your head at? We fell in love with it immediately.
SJ: I’ve always had a fascination with the 80’s LA film aesthetic. Stuff like ‘Repo Man’, ‘To Live and Die in LA’, ‘Paris, Texas’, ‘They Live’. These are films that people talk about and reference all the time. They capture a special moment. But I always think about these films. When I sit down to work on a project, I go through this cultural rolodex of things that have inspired me or caught my attention—things that were so interesting or enjoyable that I couldn’t just passively consume them. I see something, I get interested, and I have to look it up… see who the cinematographer is, know the actors and what other films they’ve been in. I do this because I know when I’m excited about it, other people have to be as well. And I want to transfer some of that intrigue and energy into the project, even if it’s just one person who gets it. So, ‘To Live and Die in LA’, a great film. Being in LA, there are moments when I look out the window and the light hits a certain way, and I can kind of almost see a moment from the film. I’m driving from Highland Park all the way to Venice, and I’m thinking about what this shirt might be. I thought: What do I do with my life? Well, I work a lot and I drive a lot. I think it’s a JJJJound shirt that says: 8 hours of work, 8 hours of play, 8 hours of sleep. And I’m kind of flipping that to where it’s 8 hours of driving, 8 hours of work. And then for some reason, it gets mashed up with ‘To Live and Die’, and I’m onto ‘To Live and Drive in LA’. And I remembered that Saul Bass illustration of the people walking their car. And I just wanted to see these things next to each other.
MW: You’ve worked with Seed, doing probiotics and wellness, and now working at Cove. Both of those companies are very sustainable at their core, really pushing towards a better life and a better future. Thinking about the idea of living and driving in LA, and California as a state perceived as sustainable and forward-thinking. And those two things don’t really add up. You look at the 405 at 8am and where’s the sustainability in any of that?
SJ: Yeah, it’s a bit of a paradox, when you think about LA, I get it. I wanted to be here because I saw that there was some kind of energy here. I saw that there is this opportunity to be in a bustling city connected to all types of people, and then to also be able to hit a trail and be in nature and get out of it all. And I think that’s what everyone sees. It’s the dream: to be by the ocean and be by the mountains and in this cultural mixing pot. So, I can’t blame anyone for being here, but at the same time, it’s too many people. It’s the tradeoff. I think California is a really interesting place in that, you have these hotbeds of very smart, driven people who are trying to better themselves, better the world, trying to push ideas and make things happen. Then you also have an incredibly wealthy amount of people who want to keep things the way they are. LA was founded on oil. This city wasn’t set up to save the planet, it was set up to make money. And I just feel really fortunate, even though I’m realistic about the small scale, that I’m finding companies that believe in things I believe in, and want to work towards reshaping people’s attitudes and outlooks on how they interact with the world. Having them take responsibility for the decisions they make. Whether it’s Seed, and understanding what is happening inside of you and how it’s connected to everything, or Cove, which is really trying to send a signal that shows that people really do care enough to do something different, and if you provide them with the option, they’ll spend a little more money to do the right thing when it comes to something like a single-use product. I love that they represent these things and I love that they understand the value of good design, and that design at its core is just communication—and how you use that tool of communication really makes a difference for how effective the message is.
MW: Do you think there was an inherent part of you that wanted to work for small start-up companies that focused on bettering people’s lives? Or just a coincidence?
SJ: My mom’s a teacher and my dad’s a lobbyist for a labor union. So a pretty progressive upbringing and in some service to something greater. In my mom’s case, being a teacher, you’re trying to educate the future. My dad, fighting for worker’s rights and really believing in: “This is a way to create a middle class”. So some of that is instilled in me, but I think even more so, when I started working at MIT’s magazine, MIT Technology Review, I really got a master class in art direction, and really understanding the value of design and how to use the tool properly. We had this huge challenge every issue: How do you make something honest, intellectually and academically, to these really hard to illustrate concepts, but then attractive to a layman or everyday person? I kind of became addicted to that problem-solving.
MW: It sounds like a dream job honestly.
SJ: No. it really was. We had a great editorial staff, we had the proper budget, we had the support. We got to work with the editors and figure out how to tell these stories in a really rich way. We got to work with everyone in the creative community. Artists, illustrators, you name it. We got to leverage their talent to help support this important editorial work we were doing. So I got hooked on that problem-solving through design. I think of a place like Seed, when you’re talking about the microbiome, and it’s this impossible-to-visualize thing, but it’s also connected to literally everything. Those go hand-in-hand. And then when you work for one start-up, another one sees you. Maybe I’ve carved out too small of a niche with 4-letter start-ups in Venice. But it’s cool. They’re companies that are dedicated to being visually interesting in order to grab people’s attention, and to be worth people’s attention. But they also want to be totally honest and educate you and tell a deeper story at the same time.
MW: I think what Cove is doing on Instagram is really interesting. You’re really turning that space into a newsfeed. And devoting yourselves to informing your audience about what’s going on. Was that a push from you, or was it already there?
SJ: They knew before I got on board that the most powerful advocates on social for us, and the most powerful advocates as consumers and out in the world, are people who are highly educated. Highly educated about the subject matter that we’re dealing with when we talk about what’s happening with waste, what’s happening with plastic, with plastic-alternatives. I really wanted it to be something that people felt like had substance. And it does, but I wanted to communicate that through our visual language. We’re really in this because we care about the environment and we care about change and we care about this problem we’ve created with this immense amount of plastic that the planet cannot handle. And that doesn’t start, or end, with us. It’s a big thing we’re apart of, and we want to support the other people doing work in that space. We want to ‘train’ our consumers not to just buy Cove, but to be more aware of their surroundings and the decisions they make.
MW: You’ve worked out a really good system for yourself where your 9-5 job is giving you the freedom to really run with Jam. Did you ever give yourself the permission to suck? There’s this real learning curve where you’re like: I don’t know anything, and I’m just going to stop trying to be the best at what I am doing and experiment with no risk.
SJ: A lot of this is somewhat new to me, in that, I spent a long time in my career just doing what I was doing and not thinking about it other than: This is a job, something better will come along. I’ll go through the motions and it’ll lead to the next best thing. And it really wasn’t working. I was just punching in. This gets into a sensitive area within design, where people who are attracted to it, are probably toxic in their critique of themselves. And I know I’ve experienced this. I don’t think it was until I started going to therapy, and started to deal with this separation of my identity from my identity as a designer. And what your work says about you and how you stack up on Instagram.
MW: For sure. At the root of it is taste, so if my taste isn’t good, what does that say about me?
SJ: It’s so easy to get sucked into what everyone else is doing, your perception of everyone else’s work, their life, their creative output. And just feel like shit. And be paralyzed by it too. That was something really hard for me. I had gotten this job in Boston at MIT that I loved. I finally was doing work that I was proud of, after being in a weird spot for a while. Then I moved back to D.C. because of a relationship, and I felt like it was all ripped away from me. I had been on this high where I was creating work I was so proud of, and then I was at a job that wasn’t giving me anything. Suddenly, I was no longer tied into a creative community because I wasn't commissioning people. I wasn’t around other creative people who I was feeding off of or was excited by. I was feeling so shitty about things. And that’s when I got into therapy and started getting into what’s wrong with me. When you start to look at it and talk about it with people, you start to realize how fine you are, and how good your life is. It was such petty bullshit, it’s insane. And putting it in perspective. I was able to let go of it a little bit. But understanding that if I don’t do work that I want, if I’m not creating the work I want to see, who’s fault is that? Even now, I’m sure you guys feel and talk about it, maybe not if you’re lucky, but understanding what it’s all worth and what you’re doing. You look at the best stuff because you probably have great taste, and you start to measure yourself, and it’s just not a healthy habit.
MW: It’s always an uphill battle. We’ve gotten to the point where it’s this system. At the root of every decision is the question: Is this getting us to where we want to be? What are we getting when we get there? Is it all worth it?
SJ: And it’s like, what do you even want? Do you want to be recognized? Great, you get recognized and you still feel the same.
MW: We all have this point where you get to work with your dream client. So you work with them once or twice, and then an hour after working with them you ask yourself: Why don’t I feel better about this than I do? Not to say that that kind of work isn’t great, but at the end of the day it just isn’t as important because it’s not our own. We’ll do client work and do these great projects that we’re really passionate about, but what gets us most excited is stuff like this. This conversation, getting to sit down with people we look up to. It feels a lot more rewarding.
SJ: Yeah, totally. To be able to create a connection through a t-shirt that leads to a conversation like we’re having is way better. I think it’s what everyone wants. It’s not a million followers on Instagram or Nike emailing you, as much as we might think that’s what it’s about. But I’ve also realized, for me, I’ve developed some sort of practice. I’ve practiced this for over a decade now and have developed some decent muscles. I don’t even care about showing them off, I just like working them, you know? I go home and I do work after work because when I’m in it and that moment strikes where you landed on something that feels like a breakthrough, or even the feeling of accomplishment. I’m addicted to that feeling.
MW: I see people, colleagues of ours, who are making insane work, and they’re like 23 or 24. And that’s terrifying because I’m not doing that. But at the same time, I don’t want to rush into things and spend the next 30 years wondering: Now what? Now, who do I flex for?
SJ: Yeah I mean, my concerns have always been geared towards: Am I going to be able to produce good work? Am I going to be able to produce work that I’m proud of? And I've gotten to a point in my life where I’m able to do that without depending on other people as much. And I find that really exciting. I’m totally honored and humbled by people coming to me to ask for anything, so I almost never say no, even when maybe I should. But I think a lot of it comes down to me liking being in practice. I like feeling like I’m exercising these graphic design skills I’ve developed. I like feeling like I’m using my brain in that specific way. And I know that by doing some random project that I make no money from, that I don’t get to put on my portfolio, that I’m learning something that could help me out somewhere else down the road. And sometimes that is enough. Don’t get me wrong. I have my freakouts. But I can’t say no because at my core I like doing it, and maybe I’m a little scared that people will stop asking at the same time. And I’m stuck in that.
MW: Do you ever feel a conflict of interest between your full-time job and your passion projects?
SJ: When I’m taking a salary and coming in 9-5, that’s the thing. I have to make sure I’m delivering at 100% there. And I’ve set up the Jam stuff in a way where that doesn’t matter. There are no seasons, no wholesale to anyone. I just put it out when I put it out. But there are other situations, whether it’s a client or a friend asking for help, where I don’t want to go home and do it, but I’ve said I’m going to do it so that means I have to. My little hack, it’s just some trick for my brain: I get home and I set up my computer and workstation, and then go food, or do whatever for a little bit. If I don’t set up my computer, I’ll just get home and chill and it never happens. But, if I agree to it then yeah I have to do it. Sometimes the work doesn’t take that long. I sort of know where it’s going and it either works, and I have a good idea, or it doesn’t and I have to go back to the drawing board.
MW: As you said, you’re a decade into this and have really built some muscle around it. You know what’s good and what isn’t.
SJ: Like if it’s not working you put it away.
MW: Exactly. And not killing yourself over it. I think there is something to be said about the simplicity of: “I said I was going to do this, so I’m going to do it”. It really is that simple, but at the same time it never is quite that simple.
SJ: No, it’s never as simple as you want it to be, or as simple as it should be. But also, you’ve done it a while, you realize that you can’t say yes if there are too many competing projects. I might stack too many things to where I’m stretched thin, or I might do too many back-to-back-to-back projects, where it’s like I need a break. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I can’t deliver on the client’s needs or someone who has committed to me long-term.
MW: So, all that said, 8 hours working, 8 hours sleeping, 8 hours driving. How do you relax? Because as much as I’d like to believe you’re a machine and can just do it all and don’t need any rest or relaxation, I also know that is such a huge part of what we do.
SJ: I do for the most part get pretty good sleep, about 8 hours. But I really do go home and work. I have two dogs and live with my girlfriend, so going on hikes, or even just having coffee with her. Taking it slow. I’m kind of a serial hobbyist. At the moment, bouldering, climbing; I know it’s a bit of a fad, but I’ve got a good crew to go with. It’s a really fun group of creative people, but we barely talk about our work or design even though we’re in the same shit. It’s just about climbing. In the past, I’ve been super into biking, I had a year where I did Brazilian jiu jitsu. I get into these hobbies and I guess I can become a little obsessed with things. I also like to go out to eat and have a drink. There’s such a good food scene here. I’m not really partying as much, but I still like to have a few drinks when I go out. But I’m always thinking: “When can I steal two hours to knock something off my to-do list”, or “Here’s an idea, I better take note of that”.
MW: We should make a collaborative ‘Best Spots to Eat’ in a certain neighborhood.
SJ: That’d be sweet.
MW: A top 10, for anyone who is new to the area.
SJ: It could be one of those super type-heavy, like ‘Here’s every spot in your neighborhood’ kind of thing. Just like an unnecessary amount of information.
MW: Something that no one will read.
SJ: Well, we’ll read it at least.
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