James Victore hopes to be Moses for creative people. It’s a bold statement, fit for his distinct bluntness and clear sense of passion. “I want to help give hope and freedom to the weird ones,” he tells High on Design. By weird ones, of course, he means creatives just like himself. With this as his mission statement, James’ design work and teachings are a celebration of self-expression, risk-taking, and autonomy of thought.

James’ body of work is prolific, rich in both media and theme. His design work is presented in the permanent collections of museums such as MoMA and the Louvre. He’s also an author, teacher, podcaster and public speaker, and has worked with notable clients, like Adobe, Time Magazine, MailChimp and more. We spoke with James about his many creative undertakings:

Designing ideas, not trends

James’ projects tend to overlook latest graphic design trends, with thick-brushed hand lettering that wildly disregards graphic design pillars such as kerning and tracking. Instead, what seems to be the guiding principle in his work is strong ideas and concepts that stem from profound insights. One such project is his work for the New York City Department of Probation (DOP), or more specifically – the waiting rooms thereof.

James’ approach to the project revolved around his sense of empathy for the clients. The visitors coming into the DOP are people convicted of a crime, now standing in line to meet with their probation officer. “That client is me – they just got caught,” he says. This outlook allowed James to address the project free of judgment or condescendingness, leading to an intelligent and amusing design.

James ended up creating a series of posters that are a satirical take on traditional motivational posters, the kind that are meant to be inspirational but are mainly worn-out clichés. James’ takeoff is honest, encouraging steps like asking for help, rather than a magical overcoming of difficulties.

One poster, for example, shows an Escher-like geometrical doodle of an impossible structure, with text that reads ‘a lesson in perspective.’ It’s a design that’s open for interpretation, calling for a layered reading. As James put it, he wanted to offer something really good to an audience that isn’t used to having nice things.

James Victore design for the NYC Department of Probation
Design by James Victore for the NYC Department of Probation.
James Victore design for the NYC Department of Probation
Design by James Victore for the NYC Department of Probation.

Your opinion on a poster

We asked James about his love for poster design, his medium of choice. He explained that for him, posters are the perfect format, and only more so in our current digital age. “The value of the poster today is even greater than its historical presence because we have so few of them. A poster is a surprise, you turn the corner and POW! Right in the eye, unexpected. The poster is an exciting and visceral part of life,” he points out.

Posters, from a historical perspective, call for a social, political and cultural conversation or debate. This only makes them more appealing to James, who paints his opinion large and urgent on city walls.

Speaking of a series of early political posters that he put up around New York City, dealing with topics like the death penalty, racism or marginalized Native American history, James remarks, “I found this work to have supernatural powers. They took on legs of their own, got into people’s heads and hearts. This is graphic design at its best and most useful.”

When James first created this poster series, he paid for it out of pocket. As a result, he was late on his rent and was almost evicted from his apartment, but the effort eventually paid off when the posters found their way into MoMA’s permanent collection. To this day, James values honesty and the views presented in his work, more than he does financial incentives.

Just Say No, silkscreen poster design by James Victore
Just Say No, silkscreen poster design by James Victore, 1999.
Celebrate Columbus 1492-1992, poster design by James Victore
Celebrate Columbus 1492-1992, offset lithograph poster design by James Victore, 1992.
Moët & Chandon, poster design by James Victore
Moët & Chandon, offset lithograph poster design by James Victore, 2000.

Tapping into your innate weirdness

And yet, it’s the financial resources that help us do the work we love. “I know how hard it is to grow up creative, and how hard it is to get paid for that creativity,” says James. Acknowledging his own creative good fortune (“I am blessed to have found clients who will pay for my opinion,” he specifies), James strives to help others express their own creative selves in his teachings, whether in his classes or his books.

He’s careful to mention that while he’s passionate about teaching, it’s the students, and not him, who put in most of the work. “I can’t tell anyone anything. What I do is remind them of their innate powers,” he explains. “We are all born wildly creative, some of us just forgot.”

And we forget, James elaborates, because we try to fit in. “We leave behind the things that made us weird to get a job – later to realize that that job and the ensuing paycheck isn’t enough,” he observes. “We made a bad trade. Your weirdness is your most essential creative asset, because it is you at your essence.”

Getting in touch with your true opinions, quirkiness and feelings is at the heart of James’ latest book, Feck Perfuction, and his upcoming online class on his Wix website by the same name. James brings up the ancient Greek motto “know thyself” as a prevailing truth that he finds relevant. “We all carry the answers to our questions and problems inside of us,” he notes. “The hard part is trusting ourselves with those answers, and to feel confident and secure with whatever comes up.”

Feck Perfuction book by designer James Victore

Feck Perfuction book by designer James Victore

Feck Perfuction book by designer James Victore

Feck Perfuction book by designer James Victore

Feck Perfuction book by designer James Victore

Feck Perfuction book by designer James Victore
Feck Perfuction by James Victore.

Claiming your freedom

This mindful perspective is carried across into James’ personal life, too. As a parent, he tries to set an example for his children of individuality and creative living. “I hope this will give them their own strength in the face of the pull to conform,” he tells us. In fact, James sees all aspects of life as part of a continuing learning trajectory, from parenting to married life, and even personal health.

As an avid motorcyclist, James got into a motorcycle accident last year that resulted in a dislocated shoulder and broken ribs. But James insists on seeing the accident and the subsequent pain as a gift. We all have our pain points, James reasons, and “if we do not face these and address them, our lives will become bent and smaller every day, every year.” His fight for mobility and strength, together with his daily struggle for creative integrity, have both grown to become shaping forces in his life. And one struggle at a time, James is on a mission to set himself – and others with him – free.

Book design for The Do Books, by James Victore
Book design for start up publisher, The Do Books, by James Victore.

Book design for The Do Books, by James Victore

Book design for The Do Books, by James Victore
Book design for start up publisher, The Do Books, by James Victore.

Book design for The Do Books by James Victore
Book design for start up publisher, The Do Books, by James Victore.

Find more dangerous design work on James Victore’s Wix website.