Here we go…

I was born March 4, 1982, in Peoria, IL. My older sister and I were raised by a single mother. She was a constant example of hard work and perseverance. We lived in a river-town. A place that is industrial, full of hard-working people and home to Caterpillar’s World Headquarters. Growing up in this environment gave me a blue-collar. Whether I was mowing a lawn for green Kool-Aid or working on my jump shot, I was always working hard.

My youth was filled with a tight-knit group of friends that I still call brothers. Most of the time, we could be found in the woods jumping our bikes off something dangerously high. And, when it was game-time, our uniforms reflected the season: Soccer, Basketball, Baseball, Football, Tennis, Track and Wrestling. These friends, teammates and experiences taught me how to be a person. I still carry these life lessons with me today: show up; work harder than the next guy; leave it all on the field; lose with grace; show respect; and always shake hands.

In high-school, I had the opportunity to explore art, design and the trades. As a senior, my mornings were spent in Commercial Art classes. Our class ran a small design studio, producing brochures, posters and t-shirts for community clients and events. It was during this time that I was introduced to Photoshop One, paste-ups and Rubylith film. This experience laid the foundation for my career. I learned about collaboration, communication problems, listening to clients, creating on deadlines and using design to support my community.

In the afternoons, I went to my co-op job in a local machine shop, where we created hydraulic pumps, lift-arms and beds for large and small dump trucks. I was engaged in all parts of the production process, from surface grinding raw casts to turning final diameters on 10 ft. Lathe beds. This time was instrumental. I learned industrial craft, process, precision, assembly, timeliness and quality-control. But, more importantly, I learned how to take pride in every step and every detail of the creation process.

In 2000, I entered Northern Illinois University School of Art and Design as a Visual Communication student upon receiving the Richard Peck Memorial Art Scholarship. But, my love for soccer pulled me away for a short while. I became a founding board member of the NIU Club Soccer team, and competed against schools across the Mid-West. To do this, I became a Liberal Arts major and learned how to read, write and research at a high-level. I believe every graphic designer should have a Liberal Arts education, as communication design is a language-based endeavor and these skills are primary. In 2006, I received a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences supported with a Minor in Studio Art, Visual Communication.

During my time at NIU, I served three years as the Editorial Design Director for NIU’s award-winning collegiate newspaper, the Northern Star. In this role, I led a talented team of student designers that earned numerous state and national awards. This experience translated this into a short professional career in visual journalism, as an editorial designer for the Chicago Sun-Times News Group from 2005–2008.

In 2008, I returned to NIU to pursue an MFA in Visual Communication. As a graduate student, I began my study of human-centered design. I collaborated with Professor Manuel Hernandez on the production of a kiln-building handbook commissioned by the United States Environmental Protection Agency for firing ceramic water filters that provided potable water to third-world areas across the globe. I was a collaborator and Graduate Assistant for Rick Valicenti and John Pobojewski of Thirst during their pilot class for Moving Design. And finally, I studied Design + Architecture in Italy, Switzerland and Spain.

In the summer of 2010, I was selected to be part of Camp Firebelly, an intensive apprenticeship program that brought together 10 designers from around the country to learn and create work for two Chicago not-for-profit organizations within 10 days. Campers worked and collaborated with the Firebelly Design team on research, concept, design and production of print materials and hand-crafted products.

In 2011, I took a leave of absence from my graduate degree program and embarked on a series of experiences that have shaped my future as a graphic designer. I became a Fellow at Firebelly University, a nine-month intensive entrepreneurial incubator that brought together five designers, with a social awareness, from across the country to start and run the Social Design studio Tilt Shift; support a not-for-profit; and explore the development of social enterprise opportunities.

In 2012, the Firebelly University Fellows were invited to be designers in Stories of Change Impact Lab hosted by the Tomorrow Partners, Sundance Institute and the Skoll Foundation. Filmmakers and social entrepreneurs worked intensively with designers and mentors to accelerate storytelling and digital technology solutions to challenges facing their organizations. This week-long, immersive design charrette culminated with presentations aimed at potential seed funding to extend the stories in innovative and meaningful ways.

In 2012, I founded Heart Giants, a design studio focused on making art and design viable in small communities. We work with small business and mission-based clients with a focus on making their communication accessible. Heart Giants has worked with a variety of inspiring clients and socially impactful projects.

In 2016, I completed my MFA degree in Visual Communication from Northern Illinois University and have since dedicated my career to being a design educator. From 2012–present, I have been an Instructor of Visual Communication in the School of Art & Design at Northern Illinois University.

© Johnathon Strube, 1982–2020.