John Harman and the Creative Beings behind the masks

Final prototype packaging for one of John Harman’s Creative Being face mask designs.

Final prototype packaging with one of John Harman’s designs.

John Harman became a master of vector art through an unlikely path. Soon after high school, he joined the U.S. Navy to work on gas turbine engines. After six years of mastering the techniques to maintain the systems of a ship, he had the stark realization that he didn’t want to become an engineer.

He left the Navy in 1997 in the middle of the dot-com boom, which prompted him to become an IT professional. This led to Harman’s first serendipitous encounter with design. “In my downtime while doing tech support, I had found a copy of Photoshop installed on my work computer and as I learned how to use it, it became a hobby to create designs based on whatever video game I was playing at the time,” he said. “This was me rediscovering a creative streak I had left behind when I was young.”

This yearning for applied creativity prompted Harman to embark in an online degree program in video game design while keeping his tech support day job. “I was in love with learning and creating,” he added. “I took every opportunity to teach myself something new and make stuff for fun.”

Harman’s next career move was into the IT department of a company that made slot machines, and it got him closer to actually creating stuff for a living. Eventually, he somehow convinced his new employer to transfer him into a design role in the creative services department, where Harman’s unique mix of technical and design skills were put to good use. “All of those choices and all of the various skills I picked up along the way apply to everything I do, even now. I approach most of my design goals from the perspective of troubleshooting or systems design. I not only want to create something visually appealing, but I also want to make it work well and benefit others.” This year, Harman received funding from the Adobe Creative Residency Community Fund to support his work keeping people safe and bringing the design community together during the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked him to share some of the career milestones that brought him to where he is today.

Learning by doing

From a technical point of view, there are two different types of digital images: raster and vector. Raster graphics are made of a series of individual-colored pixels, and are ideal to create images with intricate details and textures. Vector graphics use mathematical formulas to determine the magnitude and direction of each graphical element, which is then recalculated each time the image is resized so that it remains sharp and clear. Harman got a glimpse of vector graphics during his online degree program, and it was definitely not love at first sight (actually, he hated them!). Raster graphics prevailed for Harman, until a work colleague showed him that he had simply been dealing with vectors the wrong way. “When I finally understood how to use Adobe Illustrator, I quickly realized how well suited it was to my way of approaching art and design. The stricter rules of how you put together something using vectors vs regular raster art was so monumental that I rarely want to use anything else if I can help it,” he said.

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust Vector Line Illustration by John Harman.

David Bowie- Ziggy Stardust Vector Line Illustration by John Harman.

To capitalize on his ‘learning by doing’ ethos, Harman set himself a series of 30-day and 100-day challenges to explore new things and ways of designing, many of which were influenced by pop culture and current events. “I have always loved pop culture and music as an escape, and it’s always hard as you get older when your idols or heroes pass before their time,” he said. “Many of the portrait designs I did, reflected those losses while others were influenced by whatever media I was fascinated with at the time. In a way, those also felt like explorations of the tools and styles.”

Album cover art for Massive Attack's 1998 album, Mezzanine, submitted to the Adobe Design album art challenge.

Playing with the type tools in #IllustratoroniPad for the #albumartchallenge from @AdobeDesign and I couldn’t think of a more influential album to me than @MassiveAttackUK 1998 album Mezzanine to recreate. Image Source: Twitter.

Supporting Creative Beings

This close relationship with Illustrator has endured to this day for Harman — he has been part of a select group of creatives testing the early alpha and beta versions of Illustrator on the iPad (and discussing its possible uses via a dedicated Slack group). When the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, he and three other members of the group — Justin Roy, Jack Watson, and Brent Metcalf — decided to use the app to collaborate on a project that could promote and support the greater creative community.

One of the first ideas the small team settled on was that of creating face masks, now an indispensable part of everyday life, featuring art and telling the stories of the people — the creative beings — behind the designs. All the proceeds from the sale would be given back to support other creatives, and the project could eventually evolve into other products too. “Seeing other creatives struggling both emotionally and financially, I was inspired to try and offer what I can to help lift up where I can. Creative Being is just one of those efforts to try and support and mentor others,” he said.

The high demand for masks generated by the pandemic has caused a huge production backlog, so it’s very hard to compete in the print-on-demand industry. Instead of focusing on the quantity of the masks, Harman and his collaborators decided to concentrate on the story that the object could tell. When Creative Being was accepted into the Adobe Creative Residency Community Fund, it allowed them to purchase a batch of blank masks to start experimenting on a friend’s direct-to-garment printer.

Physical prototypes of the Creative Being face masks created by John Harman and his team.

Prototypes with different designs.

The experience starts from the moment the user receives the mask in the mail. In order to give the packaging design a unique look, Harman created a custom-made folded envelope using a Cricut Maker cutting machine, the kind used by hobbyists and DIY enthusiasts. “This made a huge difference and allowed me to take the SVG output directly from Illustrator on the iPad and cut out the design as well as adding debossing on the paper.”

John Harman prototyping his Creative Being masks on Illustrator for iPad.

Prototyping the packaging using Illustrator on the iPad.

The bio and story of the artist, and care instructions are included in a small booklet that goes into the envelope together with the mask. “We created a template in Illustrator on iPad that made it easy to print and cut out a bunch of ideas, and make adjustments on the fly,” said Harman. The first ten prototypes have been produced featuring the art from six members of the Illustrator on the iPad beta group, including Harman.

Creating face masks has been a direct consequence of the global pandemic. However, Creative Being’s reason for existence is to serve the creative community, and not tied to one specific crisis. “Beyond the making and selling of masks, we want to invest in the creative community and give people a place to ask for help and be able to help others in turn,” said Harman. “We are working on ways to build that now and hope to be able to launch that along with the shop.”

John Harman’s tips for using Illustrator on the iPad

Working on Creative Being has been a great way for Harman to learn how to use Illustrator on the iPad. “The most important thing I can pass along to people using it for the first time, is that it requires a different approach to some things than those on the desktop program. It’s really intuitive to use and while it might seem simple at first, the amount of power to work on a tablet is amazing,” he said.

Vector graphics and abstract patterns, like those typical of optical art, are Harman’s bread and butter, and Illustrator on the iPad has a few functions that are just perfect for that. _“_The repeat tools are one of my favorite things to play with, especially since I make mostly geometric OpArt type of designs these days, the radial and grid repeat factor heavily into my own designs.”

Above all, when you get a Creative Being package in the mail and open it up, Harman wants the artist’s story to shine through (as well as what he and the team have created). “It’s about making something great looking that people will appreciate but also to make sure that the end user also knows the story of the artist and the art.”

To learn more about the initiative, sign up for Creative Being’s mailing list and visit Creative Being’s Instagram page. To learn more about John Harman and his work, check out the links below: