The Small Stakes is Jason Munn's design studio. He specializes in concert posters, working with bands like: Against Me!, Death Cab For Cutie, Feist, Modest Mouse, Nada Surf, Stars and Wilco. Jason's work has been shown in Print, Communication Arts, Step Inside Design, Computer Arts Projects, Étapes, ReadyMade, and Creative Review as well as being part of the permanent collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Explain your process from start to finish:
Well most of the time when I get a job, I’m pretty familiar with the band. If I’m not, I usually approach it like any other project with research and so on to figure out where to start. Lots of times I am just sketching and writing down things that are unique to the band. And then I start with concepts and sketches, crappy little ideas and sketches. Eventually I will mock those up really quick on the computer just to see if I can get things to work space wise and image wise. A lot of times I’ll go back and redraw things. And then I’ll go back on the computer and scan in my sketches and redraw them and organize everything and lay them out.

Why silkscreen instead of doing a digital output?
There are a few different reasons. One of the main reasons I first started doing silkscreen is because some of the first show posters I did were for a small venue in Berkley. We would do fifty or so posters and in order to get a small quantity produced like that, silkscreen is one of the best ways to do that. Versus if you were to go to Kinkos or something and get fifty posters at that size, they’d probably run you forty bucks of fifty bucks apiece. Silkscreen is just really a means of getting things produced in limited quantities and is not extremely expensive. Another part of it is the quality of a hand produced and the projectile feel of it.

So it’s more of a necessity thing than a preference thing?
It definitely is a preference in some ways. I definitely gravitate to something that is screen produced versus something that is digitally produced, although a digitally produced poster can look great too. I approach silk jobs pretty much in the same way. I chose silkscreen because when I first started doing it I was actually learning how to print at the same time. So the printing aspect of it kind of helped me in my design aspects I would try to keep things simple because when I got too complicated it would look like crap when I first started printing, but that’s getting off topic a little bit.

Do you work directly with bands or is there a middleman involved?
That’s all a little bit different too. When I first started out I was doing posters for a small venue in Berkley called, “The Ramp” and they would book the shows and then ask me to do the posters so there was not a lot of contact with the band. I was mostly dealing with the people booking the shows. They would tell me to do whatever I wanted, but I would try to do something appropriate for the band. After doing that for a while I met people at the shows, people in bands or that run labels and what not. Now, for the most part, it’s through bands or management or possibly through a promoter in another city. Sometimes with management the band sends the idea to management so they can get back to me. No one really tells me what kind of image, I come up with everything myself. They might tell me, “We don’t want birds on it” or “we don’t want skulls on it.” It’s very open ended.

Do you choose these bands or do they choose you?
I’ve kind of gotten myself in with a lot of indie musicians. That’s always the music I’ve listened to. Again the things with early prints, the venue was booking these kinds of shows so it felt very natural for me to be designing with these bands because I’ve been listening to them for so long. There were some bands that I really wanted to do stuff for that I contacted early on when I started doing posters. Now I’m kind of in that world a little bit. I’ll get contacted quite a bit to do posters by these bands I’m already listening to. It’s a pretty small world for the most part. Occasionally there’s a band I really want to do something for so when they’re coming to town I’ll try to do something for them.

What’s been the best band or your favorite band to work with?
There’s a band called “The Books” that I’ve done a couple posters for. I was really excited to do work for them. I like to do bands that are very unique in their own right. They make it fun to do posters for them because they’re the only band doing that sound, such as The Books. It gives you a nice starting point for doing posters for them. Those posters tend to be some of my favorites. It was great to work with The Books. The National was a great band to do stuff for. The first band that hired me to do stuff, my first actual paying jobs, was Death Cab for Cutie, which was pretty cool. I had been listening to them for quite a while and to get a chance to do some stuff for them was pretty exciting for me. That was about five years ago now. That was a good starting point. A lot of people saw that work. They took all that stuff, tour posters and t-shirt designs, on tour and that led to more work.

Is it hard to work with a band?
It’s pretty fun. As long as you’re keeping the band in mind when you’re doing stuff and trying to do things appropriate for that band. Of course a lot of my work has a similar style so the bands know I’m not going to go too far off from what I am doing. For the most part I haven’t had any trouble. Of course there are quite a few rejected designs along the way, but again it leads to a better piece a lot of time. Or it gives me an idea for another band. There are some things that have been rejected that I really liked and sometimes I’ll look at it a few months later and realize that it should be rejected. CD designs and album packages are a little harder. Typically posters that have a long shelf life, there are a limited number of them.

I don’t know necessarily what makes it a good design. The first part would be, does it work for that band? When I look at it does it make me think of that band? The same way you would look at old movie posters, it relates to the movie in some way or book cover designs, you see it and it makes sense when you look at it. If you give the same band to twenty different designers and you’ll have twenty different solutions. A lot of times it will make sense with band. That’s my first thought, is this appropriate for the band? There are things I gravitate towards; simplicity and limited use of color. I typically enjoy a fair amount of space in the posters, but the next person could easily do a poster with something else and it would still make sense. I think the band is the first and foremost.

Being in the San Francisco area, do the old Fillmore posters inspire you at all?
Generally I like them, just the history behind them. In San Francisco there’s a huge history of people making posters for a living, which is exciting. I like some of that stuff, but I’m also more so inspired by the mid-century designers, from the late 50s, early 60s, very clean and limited color palate. The reason a lot of that work speaks to me is because it’s more idea based. They didn’t have computers where they could go on there and start drawing crap around. Everything was stripped down and simple. It wasn’t simple just to be simple, but because they had an idea and that’s all they needed. That’s the kind of work I’m really drawn to.

How did you get into designing posters?
The posters idea came from my friends just asking me to do them. I did a few of them during high school for local bands, which were some kind of Kinkos cut and paste, copy kind of posters, which were fun to work on. Going into school for design, I was very interested in doing album covers and music related design work. It was kind of what got me into design just record covers and things like that. I grew up in a pretty small town in Wisconsin. When I thought of artwork I thought of record covers, magazine illustrations, skateboard graphics and things like that. That was my form of artwork. There weren’t galleries or things like that where I saw artwork. I didn’t think about it until later. Even when I started school as a fine arts major, I’d do some drawing or painting and I’d think it’d be great for a t-shirt. I was kind of in the wrong place. The poster thing happened when I moved out here. I didn’t have any plans when I moved out here. My only plan was to find a job, which didn’t really happen very easily. In the middle of all this my friends asked me if I’d be interested in doing posters for a venue they started booking shows for. At that point I didn’t even know how I was going to get them printed. That was kind of my starting point. Thankfully it led to other things.

You said you looked at skateboards as artwork. Would you design skateboards if the right company or skate approached you?
I’ve done a couple of them. I was very involved in skateboarding growing up. For whatever reason I don’t really have an interest in it anymore, I don’t know why. I did do a few skateboard graphics a few years ago. I never saw them produced, but I heard they printed up well.

How do you view the current state of design in America?
I look at design magazines and I look at websites, but at the same time I don’t really know too much about what’s going on. I look at the poster world and I look at some people doing really different work. I think design tends to be all over the place.

Favorite Beatles song?
It’s a George Harrison one. I can’t think of it. “I’m so tired”, I don’t even know if it’s called “I’m so tired.”

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Small Stakes Interview

Alex Folsom