Coffee geekery, visual apps, Arcade Fire… and The Boss
Where to start with JT Helms? Seriously readers, help us. This week’s new talent has done so much cool stuff that we’re kind of rabbit-in-the-headlights-in-awe. JT Helms is an ACD at the Designkitchen in Chicago – he’s also set up creative playground Future Haus, created a terribly sexy app called Visn and counts Bruce Springsteen as a fan. Yup. You read that right. The Boss loves Helms. We love Helms.
LBB> How did you first get into design?
JTH> My interest in design started with a pretty Fine Arts heavy education during high school. I went to the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in South Carolina for my junior and senior years, which was essentially a boarding school for socially awkward art kids. It was there that I realised that I had more fun addressing external problems with visual solutions and less of an interest in art as a means of self-expression. I was strongly attracted toward minimalist aesthetics too, which was reflected in my first design heroes - Paul Rand, Michael Beirut, John Maeda. After high school I decided to study visual communications at Winthrop University in South Carolina.
LBB> Where did you begin your career?
JTH> My first job outside of school was designing detailed instruction manuals and tech diagrams for a telecommunications company in North Carolina. It was actually kind of fun. It gave me an appreciation for organising lots of data in a way that was either correct or incorrect - there was no room for creative interpretation there.
After that I worked in a few more small design shops before I finally made the move to Chicago. I started working for Carlos Segura at T-26 Type Foundry, eventually ending up at Designkitchen.
LBB> Where are you from originally and what kind of kid were you?
JTH> I grew up on my great granddad's farm in China Grove, North Carolina. I was a farm boy - well, sort of. I didn't exactly have to milk the cows. I mostly built tree forts and played with stick swords. It gave me a pretty big imagination.
LBB> You're based in Chicago - what makes it such a great city to work as a creative?
JTH> Being stuck indoors for eight months of the year due to weather certainly doesn't hurt. I feel like I'm forced to get creative or I risk losing my mind.
LBB> You’re an ACD at Designkitchen – how have you found that experience?
Yes, I've been here for over five years now. I started as a mid-level designer doing identities for boutique hotels and website work for Motorola and Burger King. I got a lot of practice making websites look and work as beautifully as possible. Over time, the company has shifted its focus to larger campaign-level work that is more rooted in strategy and conceptual thinking. That is how I wanted my career to evolve. I really love the role of ACD here – it involves a lot of control and creative freedom.
LBB> What motivated you to set up Futurehaus?
JTH> Futurehaus started because a couple of co-workers at Designkitchen and I needed the occasional break from large-scale client work. We were looking for a more playful, experimental outlet, with particular interest in developing iOS apps and doing work for local businesses and galleries. It helped us keep our creative kicks going and we’ve been inspired to take what we’ve learned and apply it to our agency jobs.
LBB> You were involved in the Visn app - what was your role in that project?
JTH> Greg Calvert and I lead the charge on UX and interface design. Javier Otero takes charge of our iOS development. It was a truly collaborative effort between the three of us from the start. We wanted to build an app that was a twist on the typical RSS feed reader, which led us to the notion of 'judging an article by its cover'. If we put imagery associated with articles in a feed by themselves, it could become a new kind of path to discovering content. At the same time it became a great way to get visual inspiration. We like to think of it as a little mobile art gallery.
LBB> Visn seems to be part of a trend towards visually-driven communication online - what do you think is behind this trend?
JTH> I think developers and users are looking for new and more dynamic ways to interact with the content. The rise of touch technology forced a lot of people to reconsider the kinds of interfaces we take for granted. We no longer need to scan web content in email-style lists, like most RSS readers do. Apps like Flipboard and, hopefully, Visn have shown developers thatthere are more effective ways to serve content. They’ve also demonstrated to users that there are more entertaining ways to consume it too.
LBB> The branding work you did on The Wormhole Coffee Shop satisfies both the inner caffeine freak and the not-so-inner geek. How did this project come about? What was the original brief and what was the design process like?
JTH> Working on the Wormhole Coffee identity was a perfect alignment of the stars. When Greg, Javier and I first started working on Futurehaus, we would meet at the coffee shop every Sunday morning. We have no shame in admitting that we're big sci-fi/fantasy geeks too, so getting juiced on caffeine while sitting next to a full scale Back to the Future Delorean replica was pretty inspiring.
Once the Visn app was well into development, we decided we should try to give back to the coffee shop we had been working in for months. We asked the owner, Travis, if he was interested in seeing the first attempts at concepts for identity and a website. He indulged us and really liked our ideas. We wanted to make sure the design had the same eclectic-80's-nostalgic-glitch feeling of the shop. We implemented things like a loyalty punch card that makes you enter the Contra code to get a free coffee and a t-shirt design that maps the interior of the coffee shop in the style of an 8-bit Legend of Zelda level. It really turned out to be one of our most enjoyable projects and has gotten the coffee shop a healthy dose of recognition online, too.
LBB> What other piece of work are you proudest of and why?
JTH> It was quite a while ago now, but in 2007 I became obsessed with a song called ‘My Body is a Cage’ by Arcade Fire. It inspired me to dig through my old western movies (which I'm also a huge geek about) and edit together a scene based on the track. I did it just for fun.
I posted it to YouTube the next day so I could send it to my brother, but it started getting attention from Arcade Fire fans pretty quickly. By the end of the week it had a few hundred views. In a couple months it had hundreds of thousands. Today it has over five million views on YouTube.
It was a modest but wild first-hand experience of what it means to 'go viral' on the Internet which was just starting to become a buzzword vernacular at the time. Bruce Springsteen mentioned it in an article in Spin magazine, and Pitchfork named as one of their top 50 music videos of the decade. To this day I can't believe that what started as a personal experiment, made on a whim, became one of the most fulfilling projects I've ever done. I'm glad it happened. It taught me not to leave any creative stone unturned because even the smallest idea can become something bigger.