"We live in an age with unprecedented access to content -- take advantage of it."
In this digital age, who can argue with the influence of social media? Certainly not Julian Montague. After all, the designer and artist extraordinaire boasts nearly 40,000 Instagram followers, where he regularly shares his all-encompassing work.
But how can designers leverage our accounts to strengthen influence, covet clients or score inspiration? We sat down with Montague to learn how we can tap into our best professional selves online AND grow our side hustles simultaneously.
DesignRush: What inspired you to go into design?
Julian Montague: I grew up around art and design. My father was an art and design historian as well as an artist himself. But like many designers, I was mainly inspired by album covers and skateboard graphics.
DR: We've definitely heard several designers say that skate culture was a huge influence on them.
JM: Yeah, and the timing of my inspiration could have been better -- I didn’t go to college for either graphic design or art, I’m essentially self-taught.
DR: Self-taught? That's seriously impressive.
JM: My career has also been a little unconventional too, in that I have never worked for an agency or a design studio. I had one job as the in-house designer for a small not for profit and then I went freelance in 2006.
DR: Bold move. It clearly paid off, though! Tell us the kind of design you gravitate towards.
JM: I’m inspired by all sorts of things, but a lot of my inspiration comes from mid-century graphic design, particularly, modernist book covers and posters.
DR: We've noticed a bit mid-century trend, from fashion to art to home decor. We're clearly inspired by you! You have dual careers as a graphic designer/illustrator and as a fine artist, but there seems to be a lot of crossover between the two practices. How do you separate them?
JM: I do think I create some confusion because a lot of my artwork involves the tools of graphic design. However, the two practices influence each other and often times I’m approached by design clients because they’ve seen my artwork. At this point, I don’t think it would be to my advantage to try to separate them in my social media presence. My most recent body of work is a series of exhibition posters for a fictional 1970’s art institution.
DR: You have an insanely large social media following. How did you cultivate a dedicated audience?
JM: There is a bit of a pre-Instagram backstory to it. I started a project in 2009 where I posted a different mid-century book cover on my blog every day for a year. These were almost all books I found in the real world so it took a lot of time and effort. I ended up continuing that practice for the next couple years and by the end had posted around 1600 covers online. The blog got a fair amount of traffic but for the most part, the images were being seen when they were extensively re-posted to Tumblr, Pinterest, and other blogs.
It took me a while, but after I had been on IG for about a year, I realized I should just start regularly posting the book covers from my collection. I posted covers twice a day and then posted my own work on average about every seventh post. Once that formula was in place I started steadily gaining followers. I believe that the key to my account is that it’s not just self-promotion, I’m reliably delivering content in a very carefully curated space.
DR: How important do you think a social media following is to designers? Do you recommend people have separate personal and professional accounts?
JM: It depends on your goals, but for someone like me who works on their own in a smaller city (Buffalo, NY), it has been an important way of reaching a global audience. As far as separating the professional from the personal, I find that my followers want art/design content and are not interested in my personal life. But other people have followings where their personal content may work well to inform their work-related content.
DR: So since your followers are more invested in your professional life, have you ever gotten clients off of social media?
JM: Yes, increasingly I have people reaching out to me because they have seen my work on Instagram. Mostly smaller publishing and recording industry clients, but a few bigger ones as well.
DR: It's good to know that's possible! Do you have any tips that can help others land clients from social media as well?
JM: I think it is useful to present your own work in the context of other people’s work you admire. If you find something cool, show it to your followers. This goes back to what I was saying about providing content and not just promoting yourself.
DR: We'd love to know a little more about you. Tell us about your first big project. What did you wish you had known going into it, and what did you learn coming out the other side?
JM: The biggest thing I have ever done was actually an art project that I worked on over the course of seven years. I photographed stray shopping carts in various cities and came up with an elaborate taxonomy to describe their various situations. The work was shown in many different gallery exhibitions and eventually became a book published by Abrams in 2006. It involved photography, art direction, design, writing, and a lot of self-promotion. I learned how to handle a big project on my own and I learned a lot about the world of publishing. The book went on to win the Diagram/booksellers prize for the Oddest Title of 2006, the world’s least prestigious literary prize.
DR: What are some of your favorite projects that you've worked on and why?
JM: My longest client relationship is with Just Buffalo Literary Center a non-profit that promotes the literary arts in the Western New York area. For 11 years I have been designing the identity and promotional materials for their international author series BABEL. For each new season of four authors, I design a new look. I enjoy implementing the design across all of the related materials, posters, programs, tickets, print ads, etc. It’s been great to be involved in bringing these great writers to my city.
DR: Alright, back to the topic on everyone's minds. How has your design process changed since social media's exceptional burst onto the scene? Does it affect your creative process, where you find inspiration or the types of things you create?
JM: I don’t think my design process has changed, but my visual diet has definitely become pretty intense. Sometimes it feels a little overwhelming to take in so much visual content every day but it has also made inspiration easy to find. Sometimes when I feel stuck on a creative problem just scrolling through Pinterest will spark a solution.
DR: What social media platforms do you gravitate towards?
JM: Instagram is my main platform for posting, but I also draw a lot of inspiration from Pinterest, if you follow the right people you can have a really design-rich feed. I use Facebook but only for my non-professional life.
DR: What are brands or designers do you draw inspiration from?
JM: There are so many! But I really like these three design groups: the Dutch design studio Experimental Jetset, Toronto design studio Monnet Design, and Hey Studio from Barcelona. All of these studios do a good job of translating the clean modernism of the past into something new.
DR: What advice do you have for creatives who are new in their career but looking to grow?
JM: My career is a bit odd so I may not have the best conventional advice.
DR: That's OK, hit us with your best shot!
JM: I’ll say this -- if you have an entry-level design job where you don’t get to do creative things, challenge yourself on your own time to doing complex personal design projects. You’ll get better as a designer and maybe generate something useful for your portfolio.
DR: Any final thoughts, comments, or words of wisdom you'd like to share with someone in the industry?
JM: As designers, one of the most important ways we learn and grow is by looking at design and art. We live in an age with unprecedented access to content -- take advantage of it.
Want more interviews like this?