To call Justin Helton the “next big thing” is a bit misleading. He’s been designing music posters since 2005 for major and local bands including The Avett Brothers and Phish. Compared to progressive and artsy places like Portland, San Francisco, and New Orleans, Knoxville might not seem the most likely place for one of the country’s hottest designers. But Justin has merged his love of music, art, and design into a successful career – right here in his hometown.
Art Teacher’s Refusal Leads to Career and Artistic Fulfillment
It all started in with a shortsighted teacher at Farragut High School who refused to let Justin take higher-level art classes because he talked too much.
“That really irritated me because my artwork was some of the best in the class. I needed a creative outlet so I took a graphic design class instead. I was hooked the second it started. I knew that I wanted to focus on the music industry – starting with my friends’ high school bands. I designed cassette tape sleeves, CD covers and t-shirts. After winning our senior class t-shirt design competition, I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Already a diehard music lover, Justin attended as many concerts as possible throughout high school and college. These shows made him realize how much he loved the aesthetic designs of concert posters and flyers – regardless of whether they were hand-drawn, photocopied, or digitally designed. Luckily the University of Tennessee has a renowned printmaking program (nationally ranked in the top five). After graduation Justin started Status Serigraph, which provides everything from concert posters to fine art to packaging to branding to website design.
I asked Justin how he built and promoted his business – because it’s one thing to be talented and quite another to be successful.
“You know, in a lot of ways, the poster itself is like a giant business card. So I literally started off by making sure that my name and website was prominent on each one. Put another way, if The Avett Brothers sell 100 of my posters at a show, well, that’s 100 potential people who will visit my website to order other concert posters or hire me for a separate project. For the longest time, I only shared and promoted my work on MySpace, but then decided a professional website was essential. I treated it like an online portfolio and allowed visitors to buy my posters directly. A few years later, I added links to my Facebook and Twitter accounts so that people could follow my work and get to know me better. I also try and take photos throughout each step so folks can see my design process. The personal component is important because it helps customers connect to my work.”
AC Entertainment: A Partnership is Born
In 2006, Justin sent an email to Ashley Capps over at AC Entertainment (ACE) arguing that he could make their posters more exciting. After pitching Ashley his screen-printing techniques and designs, Justin started producing posters in exchange for concert tickets. Fast-forward five years, and Justin now serves as ACE’s Creative Director.
“It’s been amazing – I get to design posters, branding, advertising, and merchandise for events and organizations like Moogfest, Big Ears, Sundown in the City, the Bijou Theatre and the Tennessee Theatre.”
And Justin still isn’t resting on his laurels. After landing his favorite band of all time – Phish – as a client, Justin now aspires to work with Radiohead. “I’ve really been into their music since I was about 13, and I would love the chance at making a poster or designing an album for them. They are seriously one of the most creative bands of my time.”
Six questions for Justin:
- Favorite charity that you support: I think the Joy of Music is a great organization…actually any sort of musical program that involves educating children about music is good in my book!
- Knoxville guilty pleasure: I love the Bearden Beer Market. There selection of microbrews is incredible, and the owner is a super cool guy as well. I’m currently working my way through a six-pack of Mud Slinger Nut Brown by the Redhook Brewery…excellent!
- Favorite restaurant: Little Joe’s Pizza in Farragut. I worked there in high school – food is amazing and completely homemade, which isn’t something see much of anymore.
- If the Mayor ever asked, I’d tell him: Knoxville is filled with artists, but they’re primarily inside galleries and studios – would love to see more initiatives that support art in public spaces. I LOVE the sculptures that have popped up around town, and I would really love to see more public murals, etc.
- One word that describes Knoxville: Growing
- If you didn’t live in Knoxville, where would you live and why: San Francisco. It’s probably my favorite U.S. city because there’s a vibrant art, music, and design scene. I’m hoping to head out there to sell posters at the Outside Lands Festival this year.