Jacob Escobedo (opens in new tab) is a man of many talents. The head of design for Cartoon Network (opens in new tab) and Adult Swim (opens in new tab), he's also created album artwork for the likes of Broken Bells and The Shins. With such an expansive portfolio, he's the perfect man to give insight, advice and tips to designers wishing to succeed in the design world.
We sat down with Escobedo to talk about all things creative, with a look into the workings of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, how he carved out such an impressive career and the advice he has for those following in his footsteps.
When did you know you wanted to work in design?
I distinctly remember a shift when I recognised design as a teenager. It was the first time I had an emotional reaction to something printed. I was 14-years-old on a road trip with my family, we stopped at Kmart, and I had 10 bucks in my pocket.
I wandered into the music section and picked out a Joy Division tape - I remembered that band name from a t-shirt this weird girl at my school wore. I thought she must have great taste in music because her headphones were always on during class.
So, I bought Closer and played it on my walkman on the drive home. The first song, 'Atrocity Exhibition' came on with this tribal beat and saw-like grinding guitars, and then Ian Curtis chants "This is the way, step inside.." over and over again in that haunting deep voice.
I had never heard anything like it. I looked down at the cover - the stark white negative space surrounding that photograph of the mourning figures beside a shrouded body.
Staring at that haunted image, I felt my perceptual viewpoint pull away from my physical self. It was an immediate sense of separation and independence from my parents. I realised how powerful images and sound could be together. That was it for me. Soon after, I started collecting books and albums for their covers and eventually figured out how to turn on a computer.
What form did your design education take?
I started at the art department at the University of Utah and would stay up all night messing around with plaster and wood. This is where I met my wife, a Tennessee girl who captured my whole attention with a welding torch. We would sleep under tables in the art department the night before a project was due. I learned more about relationships that year than art.
So after a year, I cut out and started painting and illustrating for agencies and independent newspapers. That was my real education; actually doing the work, and hustling to get stuff done on deadline. After a couple years, I had a stack of printed work. Only a fraction of it was decent - I hope to never see that stuff again.
I freelanced with Cartoon Network before getting hired. Fortunately, they saw promise in me. I remember the first day of freelancing, I designed a PowerPuff Girls CD for a song by Apples In Stereo. I abstracted the characters and designed this psychedelic pattern of flowers rising from Blossom's hand.
The art director turned his head sideways and jerked his head back while squinting. I guess this level of experimentation surprised him. He had it printed just like that and a few months later hired me full time.
I think every path is so different. It never works out exactly how you plan it. You just have to be aware of those gaps to shoot for.
When I do interviews now, I ask to see sketchbooks. This gives me some insight into a process, which I think is more important than the finished piece. Also, being versatile is key. If you can illustrate, design, animate and write, you're hired.
You've worked at Cartoon Network/Adult Swim for almost 15 years - what is it about this company that keeps you here?
Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Tim & Eric, Superjail!, Off The Air, Rick and Morty, Adventure Time, Regular Show, Uncle Grandpa, Gumball, Clarence and of course our grandparents; The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Lab, Space Ghost and Harvey Birdman.
I am still here because I love each of them like my own children. Just don't tell my human children. The people are pretty great too. I feel like we are family in some respects. I've known Brandon Lively, my symbiotic sidekick at Adult Swim, for 12 years.
What's the process for creating new marketing initiatives?
We generally like to sit down with the creators and talk about ideas first. Then we sit around and laugh and draw and put stuff up on walls and point and grunt. The next morning we tear it all down and start over. Something like that.
Is the office environment as fun as we imagine?
The Family Guy pinball machine drives me nuts, it’s right behind my office wall and I hear it all day. No trampolines. Lots of cushions, lots of murals and discarded furniture. It’s like a fun junkyard. I do have a Wayne White painting above my couch that I stare at with huge sparkling eyes.
We have a mural of the Titanic that was split in a remodel. One half sits at one end of the building and the other half welcomes people in the lobby. When I first started at Williams Street it was a vacant warehouse with a sledgehammered hole for a doorway.
We also have a 20 foot gold owl on the roof, staring down at the freeway. It has secret laser eyes that we only use on approaching enemies.
Do you ever feel that your creativity is being restricted?
I actually feel that working here has provided more opportunities to do projects I’m interested in. It’s completely energizing.
It's rarely limiting and when it is, you find interesting ways to work around those things. They just wired 10k into my account for saying that.
Would you agree shows on Cartoon Network /Adult Swim are becoming more influenced by the art of comics and thus making comics kind of 'cool' again?
I think it's going both ways. There is a huge influence on our shows from indie comics. The studio keeps recruiting these comic icons. Many of the creators are friends with or fans of all this art culture. So, yes it's completely influencing the look of these shows.
On the other hand, you're seeing all of these comics popping up that have similar feels to Adventure Time, Regular Show, Superjail! etc. I like to think this movement goes back to the godfathers, Gary Panter, Wayne White, Hairy Who, John K.
Most young people don't even know about these guys. Which I think is insane!
To your other point, it's ALWAYS been cool. It was just more hidden before the internet. It was an underground culture that was hard to find but it's now emerging because of the web… and Cartoon Network.
You don't have to be published to be prolific or influential any more. These kids are popping up everywhere outdoing everybody before them at an alarming rate.
It's kind of amazing. To see it evolve is so fascinating to me. I have stacks of their hand made comic books surrounding my desk at work. I’m a bit of a hoarder.
How did you get into creating album artwork?
I met Danger Mouse and worked on DangerDoom - a collaboration with MFDOOM. That's where all the music work started. I’ve been fortunate that all of these projects have just continued to string together. Being able to illustrate, draw or paint some of the visions these bands come up with is pretty crucial to my path.
What's the process for designing album sleeves? Do the band give you specifics or do you give them a few options to work with?
That's a tough question to answer. Every album is a different process. Sometimes they come with ideas, and sometimes I'm left to myself. It helps a lot if they come with thoughts or inspiration. It usually goes through rounds and rounds of options.
I have filled two hard drives with these failed explorations. When I die. It will all emerge and shut down the internet for a few days.
You work on a lot of projects simultaneously - how do you find the time?
My biggest secret is that I don't have Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. No social networks. I think that's where people get distracted mostly. I would be completely consumed if I even opened an account.
Sometimes I look at my wife's Facebook and get pulled into staring at photos of people with dirty socks sitting on their couch drinking milk. It's so weird to me that we have this voyeuristic culture that is completely accepted. I'll stop there, because it will ruin the book I'm writing.
The truth is, I work around the clock, which might be considered an illness. My wife is my other secret. She makes it so that I have time to do all of this. Our life is pretty insane with four girls, two dogs and a tree frog.
What advice would you give anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
"TRY HARDER." I quote that from an email I got from David Lynch while working on the Dark Night of the Soul project. Sometimes there is no better way of saying it.
I would also like to add, if you want to be successful. Follow Vladimir Putin's footsteps. He has completely figured something out. Occasionally take your shirt off and ride large animals.
Words: Sammy Maine (opens in new tab) Main image: Brian Smith (opens in new tab)
Liked this? Read these!
- The designer's guide to working from home
- The best collage maker tools - and most are free!
- The designer's guide to special characters
See more inspiring examples of Escobedo's work on his website (opens in new tab)