The story of his early days reads somewhat like the screenplay for an indie film. A fledgling art student from Calgary decides to pursue his master’s of fine arts, despite being told he’s not good enough. After receiving the letter accepting him into the California Institute of the Arts, he calls the admissions department to ensure they haven’t made a mistake. He picks up for Valencia, California, and with commitment and determination, he thrives there. His thesis project goes well beyond making the grade, winning a Design Distinction Award from i-D magazine. Upon graduation, he founds his own design studio, Champion Graphics, and lands a job as art director for the Beastie Boys’ seminal, übercool magazine, Grand Royal.
Geoff McFetridge has been putting other people’s names at the forefront for some time, creating title credits for an assortment of projects from skateboard videos to films like Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. “The interesting thing about credits is, the whole movie is already done—it’s the very last thing to do,” McFetridge says. “I’ll work with a director and ask, ‘What are the things that are left to say?’ Graphics are really good at talking about abstract things, or ideas that might not have made it into the film.”
McFetridge refers to himself as a graphic designer, yet conversely kicks down the walls of conventional thought regarding that title. He doesn’t let the tag restrict him to making images and type look pretty in the traditional sense; he’s also an animator, a painter, and an illustrator. “I’ve been playing with this idea of what a graphic designer is,” he says. “Like toying with context—I’m doing art in a graphic design context or doing design in an art context and just completely muddying those waters.” His constant shifting of these scales has allowed him to find a balance. “I’ve created my own kind of economy where people come for this thing that I do, this very specific thing that is none of those,” he says.
Economy is an appropriate word, as he’s been able to develop his craft and his business by staying true to his art. He’s providing clients like ESPN, Greenpeace, MTV, and Marc Jacobs with what they desire, but on his terms. (His graphics have emblazoned a pair of special-edition Nike running shoes, a playful coffee mug for the Bay, and appeared in a motion graphics piece for Hewlett-Packard about nanotechnology.) “I leaned toward open-ended projects that are about creating content as much as they’re about creating visuals,” McFetridge says.
He drew constantly as a child, and he had a eureka moment in high school when he mounted a photo of a drum kit onto “some crazy-coloured orange paper” that he carried around. It was in the act of creating something without drawing or painting that he discovered graphic design. His aesthetic has since evolved to include animals, the human form, graphics that have been manipulated in rudimentary ways, and simplicity with space. A wide variety of places have displayed his work: animation on a piece of toast in a music video for alt-rock band OK Go, graphics on redesigned cans of Pepsi, and illustrations in The New York Times.
“I’m always trying to make work that has some consequence,” he says. “If I spend an hour doing something, I want to be bummed if I spill coffee on it after. If I can express something that is personal and sincere, then there’s a sensation of bringing things to life, rather than just filling the world with more stuff.” His work has been exhibited around the world, including shows across the United States as well in London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo.
“On my daughter’s parent-consent form for school, I had to fill in the ‘occupation’ box. I put ‘artist’, and that’s kind of a new thing,” he says. With the transition from fledgling art student to artist, Geoff McFetridge is finally putting his own name first.
Photos provided by Champion Studio.