• Article by: Tristan Pollock, Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 14, 2012 – 8:51 AM

Spunk Design Machine’s Johnson went from homeless to heralded designer.

In 1992, Jeff Johnson couldn’t pay both his tuition and rent. He was a homeless college senior living out of his 1983 Buick Skylark and sleeping in the art department of Minnesota State University, Moorhead, a stone’s throw from Fargo.

Johnson graduated and followed his dream of designing to Minneapolis. He got hired first as an intern at Duffy Design, then as a partner with Fallon Worldwide. Johnson quickly advanced into a designer role, then senior designer and, eventually, design director.

“I went from homeless art student to international designer in about 15 seconds,” explains Johnson, the co-founder of Spunk Design Machine, a seven-employee boutique design agency.

Modest yet fascinatingly fun and creative, Johnson has worked on everything from branding Fruitopia to designing the campaign art for “Miller Time.” After starting Spunk Design Machine, Johnson expanded his reach into sustainable local brands and therapeutic toys. One example is Talking Tools, a collection of role-playing child therapy games.

Johnson knew what it was like growing up in a hectic home. The youngest of eight siblings, Johnson had one sister who was mentally disabled and needed extra emotional care. Staying close with his sister, Johnson was inspired to co-author, design and fund the close-to-the-heart Talking Tools project. “My sister has inspired me in a lot of ways,” he says. “We still very regularly get together.”

Also taking on a variety of Minneapolis-based clients, Johnson created Galactic Pizza’s compostable pizza box and 3-D menu (3-D glasses required), Seward Co-op’s modern storefront design, and the branding for all-natural soda Joia.

Johnson also stays close to his roots as a struggling student, saying he remembers how important his mentors and teachers were to him and wants to pay it forward. That includes lecturing and maintaining a position on art school advisory boards at his alma mater and at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul.

“The advice I always give to my design students is this: Start working on what you are interested in. You’ll meet the type of people you want to work for, whether or not you are successful.”

After opening a brand-new partner-owned studio in New York, Johnson collaborated with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman to help renew part of downtown St. Paul. One result was a new poster studio, named Big Table Studio for the collaborative environment it offers artists and headed by Spunk employee Peet Fetsch. It features a print shop, workshops and classes, poster shows and a retail space.

“I will always enjoy doing things for my community,” Johnson says. “That’s really what design is all about.”

JEFF JOHNSON

  • Age: 43
  • Job: Co-founder, Spunk Design Machine
  • Start date: 1996
  • Background: B.F.A. in graphic design from Minnesota State University, Moorhead; designer at Duffy Design

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