An Interview with Jord & Jonno Riekwel

To most, family is what we go home to at night: Who we can spend time with, outside of the parameters of work. For some though, family seeps through into their work life too. Today on The Industry, I’m chatting to Jord & Jonno Riekwel, two Dutch designers – and brothers – about how they both got into design, sibling rivalries, success, and much more.

However, unlike a lot of designer siblings, the two didn’t follow the exact same path: Whilst Jord went into logos and branding, Jonno went into websites. In the interview, they explain how this diversity of skills has helped them both out. But I’ll them tell their own stories:

Jord & Jonno Riekwel Interview

Jord (Left) and Jonno (Right)

Hey guys, thanks so much for joining us on The Industry. As a slight twist to how I normally start interviews, can I get each of you to tell me a little bit about the other person, and the work he’s doing?

Jonno: Well, Jord is my oldest brother and has always been an example for me. He started with design by designing signatures on forums (ahh, the good old days). When he left for England for 2 years, I decided to get better than him. When he came back, we talked a lot about design and he decided to design logos after making a couple for me. He’s been a successful freelancer for a couple of years now.

Jord: Jonno is the 1.5-year-younger brother of Jord Riekwel. After going to hairdresser school, playing too many video games, and writing an email-bomb app, he decided to become a designer at the age of 18. While Jord went to design school, and served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jonno used his time to become a self-taught designer and made more money than most kids his age. As a designer, Jord thinks that Jonno is still the senior. Jonno always seems to be ahead of the curve, if he does it, others do it too, after six months. Jonno hates to be a one-trick pony, and is therefore always experimenting and trying new things.

So, what about the rest of your family? Are they also creative in any way?

Jonno: Ha, yeah!

Jord: Our mother, Patricia, is great with knitting, baking, drawing, and making her own clothes. Our father is a teacher but also a great drawer. He also carves art from stone, and paints.

And do you think it was your father who got you into design/creativity?

Jonno: Yeah… He used to trade secondhand iMacs – real old-school iMac G3s…

Jord: He kind of got us into using Macs. Whilst the whole world thought they were stupid, we were doing stuff on an old Performa.

Jonno: Oh, the amount of conversations we’ve had with others about Mac vs PC…

Jord: We were Mac users way before all the cool people these days. Now, most of our friends have iMacs/iPads/iPhones. Even our grandparents have an iPad.

Jonno: Even our mom… Who would have ever thought that would happen?

I used to have an old PC before getting a Mac. But having a Mac really inspired us, I think. Especially when OS X came out. It opened up a world of graphics.

Jord: Our dad got us a pirated version of OS X, before it was even released, I think.

Jonno: Haha, yeah!

But as for design, it all started when you made signatures for people on forums…

Jord: Well, I always looked at logos and designs when I was a little kid, sitting in the back of our car. My stepmom suggested I go to design school when I was 13 or so – It was normal middle school, but with lots of design-related stuff. I was the only kid that could use the Macs at school.

Jonno: That was the complete opposite to me: I went to random crafty schools.

Jord: I used to be able to nail all the Photoshop assignments, as I had taught myself PS at home. But they also taught me Quark Xpress, and later InDesign and Illustrator. I loved Illustrator. They also taught us to bind and cut our own books, and print stuff with old Heidelberg machines, and screen print our own designs on t-shirts, so yeah, I got a pretty decent design foundation.

Jonno: …I learned how to braid someone’s hair.

Jord: At home, I’d mess around and make signatures on forums, but it wasn’t until I came back from the UK that I started doing design more seriously – mostly vector work for Jonno’s clients, since Jonno only knew pixels in Photoshop, and not vectors in Illustrator.

Jonno: And then I had to code your site, because you only knew illustrator!

Jord: Actually, you still code my site, and you even designed it!

Jonno: Hehe, yeah.

Jord: As you see Conor, we always traded skills…

Jonno: Yeah, Illustrator is not for me.

Jord: I went to uni to study marketing/communication for 4 years, and did some design on the side, but at the end of my study, just as I was becoming a dad, I started full time freelancing. Since then, I have been able to support my family – I now have a little office, a wife that takes care of our 2 girls at home, a house, and a car. Oh, and a bunny.

Kingfisher Logo - Jord & Jonno Riekwel Interview

Kingfisher logo, by Jord Riekwel

Jonno: I quit high school when I was 16. I figured out I wanted to do something creative and with my hands. For some random reason I chose to learn to be a hairdresser. Don’t ask me why, I really don’t remember. After that I did a year of taking care of the elderly, and a super basic ICT study. In the meantime, I got that old iMac G3 and Jord left for the UK and so I started learning Photoshop.

A friend of mine had just started to learn HTML & CSS, and I figured I could learn both, so I could make anything myself. When I was 19, I got a job offer at the other side of the country where I learned a lot about UX. After a year there, I decided to freelance and work for a startup in Amsterdam. There, I learned a bit about the startup life (and that you need to make sure to have a contract, or you’ll end up penniless when things go wrong, which happened.)

Then, after having done that in a while, I went back to freelancing. I called my company Jonnotie and I started as an experiment to get more visitors than Jord’s site. It ended up getting 10k unique visitors a day for a year, but I lost interest in the project and sold it.

When I was freelancing, I decided that I would need an office to be a bit more professional, so I rented an office with another designer and 2 developers. After a while, we discovered that with 2 devs and 2 designers you have a perfect base to make something without other people, so we started making Shipment, and formed the company Awkward.

I also got married to someone from New Zealand and I now have a daughter with her. No car though.

Old Jonno Riekwel Portfolio - Jord & Jonno Riekwel Interview

A very old portfolio design, by Jonno Riekwel

Is it difficult to balance work and family life? How do you go about doing it?

Jonno: Yeah, now that I have a wife and baby, I have a lot less time for designing. In the beginning, it’s hard to balance, and it took me a while to get used to. 2 years ago, I could do almost anything with my time, but it’s dramatically changed. But that’s good – It’s a completely different life, and I like it better than not having a wife and kid.

Jord: For me, the first 2.5 years of freelancing were done at home. I turned a little room in to an office. It was very nice. I could wake up at a nice time, have breakfast with my wife and daughter, work, eat lunch together, work, have dinner, and be done. People always asked me how I had the self-control to get my self to work – They told me they were glad to have a boss. For some reason, I never found it hard. It could be a bit distracting at times: change a diaper quickly, answer the door, play some Words with Friends with my wife, or whatever. And when my girl started walking she used to come in all the time. However, the upsides of working from home totally outweighed the small downsides.

One larger downside was though that working from home did make it harder to end the working day, mentally – I often found myself sitting behind my iMac after dinner, doing stuff, wasting time, instead of spending time with my wife. I decided to stop taking my iPad/iPhone to the bedroom, so I don’t check Twitter/e-mail when I wake up to go to the bathroom. And since April I own a small office – Our second baby had to sleep somewhere, so my former-home-office is now a pink girls’ room!

I miss being at home, but I love the peace and quiet here. And it is easier to stay focused, and then let home be home, instead of working there too. The only computer I have at home is my iPad.

I don’t think I could ever work for a boss again. The amount of freedom is incredible. However, this has downsides too: Being a freelancer means no-one pays me if I am sick, or on holiday. Also, a tip: make sure you get an accountant.

Jonno: Oh, yeah! We have the same accountant.

I can relate to what Jord said about not working at home, but my wife is addicted to The Sims, so I do quite often have time to work on ideas at home. Or play Battlefield 3.

Fun Mobility Logo - Jord & Jonno Riekwel Interview

Fun Mobility logo, by Jord Riekwel

Do either of you feel any sense of competition between the other? Do you try and outperform the other, or are you just happy when the other succeeds?

Jonno: Well, got started because we both had a site and we did a stats competition. At first, Jord got the most, so I’d have to pay for dinner when I visited. But then got a little out of hand.

We were always competitive as gamers when we were teenagers, but never professionally.

Jord: Actually, “Larkef” was my alias when we used to play Starcraft 2 against each other. And “Jonnotie” was Jonno’s.

Jonno: Yep! After Brain Salad and Peanut Brains.

Jord: We used to take about an hour or so to build a massive army, and then fight

Jonno: Oh yeah… and Unreal Tournament.

Jord: The good old days…

Jonno: I’m playing UT with my colleagues after this interview – The good old days are back!

Jord: But yeah, it was always just fun competition. With website stats, funny comments on Dribbble, or when playing a game. But not professionally. When I started freelancing, I took whatever job I could, so I also did a lot of websites, icons, and app interfaces. Bills don’t pay themselves, you know. Jonno always gave valuable feedback, and I always looked at his designs for inspiration. Jonno would always refer logo jobs to me. About a year or so ago, I dropped all other types of work, and now I only do branding-related jobs.

When I need some feedback, I can always go to Jonno. We are always quite harsh with feedback. We speak our mind. Both of us are very visually minded, so we always have opinions. It sometimes stings, but always leads to better designs.

I think both of you have styles that really stand out: For you, Jonno, it’s super-clean, pixel-perfect interfaces, whilst you, Jord, do these similarly-clean geometric logos. Was this something you intentionally developed, or something that just evolved? How important is having a unique style, do you feel, in an industry as large and as diverse as ours?

Jonno: The most annoying things is that it just happens: I just liked making things clean because I’m not good at just coming up with a nice design. I can’t throw down a bunch of colors and images and make something amazing. So I just design what’s needed and make it look nice.

So yeah, all of my work is clean because I’m not much of a graphic designer. I think having a unique style will get you noticed, but there is more to design than style. I think that you can only really set yourself apart from the rest is being able to design everything around a product.

Jord: I have never been good at drawing. I do lots of sketching for logos, but they don’t look great, it is just about being creative and giving the chance for ideas to be born. For me, simplicity and geometry is necessary for me to make a nice logo. You could say it is a bit of a crutch that evolved into a style. I like my designs clean and balanced. I try taking away as much as possible but still add enough details to make it unique and fun.

I do try to get out of my comfort zone every once in a while. Actually, it is a future goal of me to become good at sketching, and good at typography. - Jord & Jonno Riekwel Interview website, by Jonno Riekwel

If you guys could each change one thing about your careers, what would they be?

Jonno: Nothing. I’m having a really great time trying to set up a sucessful company. Sometimes I think I should keep freelancing, but I don’t know how far that can get you. Setting up a company is really fun and will pay off in the long run.

Jord: If I could go back in time, I would perhaps have used some time to go to a school where they teach you real hand-crafts with technique. Such as drawing/sketching/painting/calligraphy. That would have been really helpful.

Jonno: I really regret not setting up a contract with the first startup I worked for. But that’s it.

Jord: To be honest, so far working without contracts has nearly always worked out for me. I do have them, but I need to refine them. I guess my jobs are usually short term and without massive budgets. I often send final files before getting the last 50% payment. No trouble so far, although doing that seems like bad advice for web/interface designers – I never work without getting a 50% downpayment though!

Jonno: “Things are fine until they are not” is my saying…

Jord: I think it is the nature of my specific job and current target group that I can afford some legal slack.

Jonno: Yeah, probably. I used to work the same way, as a freelancer, but as a company you have to think about a lot of stuff.

Hummingbird Logo - Jord & Jonno Riekwel Interview

Hummingbird logo, by Jord Riekwel

How would you define success? Do you think you’ve found it yet?

Jord: I think success is being satisfied for a moment with a job that you have just successfully completed. But then searching for the next step on the ladder, to get better. While working on a project I often feel like the worst logo designer ever, since it is a hard process, that takes a lot of time. But when I successfully complete a logo, I am really happy about, I feel great. I often post it on Dribbble, and when I get good feedback, I feel reassured that I should keep doing this. But the next week, all of that is forgotten, and I need to work hard on the next project. So, the weird thing is, whenever I see my work in the real world, I don’t have a sense of pride, since that stuff is in the past, and there is so much stuff I need to do now and am not good at yet.

Jonno: What Jord said.

Jord: Haha, go leech on someone else! :P

Jonno: As a person, I want to make things. I want one of those things to be used by a lot of other people, and to actually improve the lives of people. So I guess that’s how I’d define success.

InterviewZen - Jord & Jonno Riekwel Interview

InterviewZen website, by Jonno Riekwel

And finally, for those looking to get into design, what tips or advice would you guys give?

Jonno: Designing pretty pixels is one thing. You have to ask yourself the right questions. Question anything you do. Why is this line here? To group content? Or because it’s pretty? If it’s just for looks, ditch it.

Also, contrast: Test anything you make with direct sunlight on the screen; You’ll learn about contrast quick enough.

Jord: Just get started. Get yourself some pencils, paper, and software, and just start doing it. Most of the time, it will take a crazy amount of hours, practice, and feedback. But whatever you do a lot, you will get better at. Learn from books, from tutorials, and from others. Just mess around. And there is no shame in learning by trying to recreate what others have made.

Jonno: Fake it ’til you make it.

Jord: Heck yes, I did lots of faking!

And when you feel ready to freelance: whatever project you are working on, make sure you have some sort of briefing. You have to understand what the client is looking for, their target group, and how the design is going to be used. Then you have to make sure you start on paper. Whatever you are working on, a logo, website, or interface, make sure you start by sketching and allowing yourself to be creative. And, take on jobs that are a bit outside of your comfort zone, just a bit too hard. That will stretch you to learn new things.

Jonno: Connect with people. Add them on Skype. Have the balls to talk to some of your heroes. They will give you good feedback. Also, networking. Connections. Know people. Super important. I got pretty much every opportunity in my life thanks to talking to people.

You have to create your own opportunities. And they often come from unexpected places. So start connecting. Most can be done through IM, so you don’t even have to be good socially. That will come over time.

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