Jason Wilkins attended the MFA Design program at the University of Texas at Austin but withdrew early to put his theoretical studies into practice. He found his fit at Dyal and Partners, the design studio he joined in 2012, which subsequently became part of Page. Wilkins played a key role in the recent redesign of the University of Texas at Austin's visual identity. He enjoyed working on it because it was first and foremost a strategic effort.
Jason's passion for design spills over into his personal life as well. He has been a guest speaker at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Arkansas, and is also a curatorial board member for the Pecha Kucha Austin chapter, an international movement that facilitates opportunities for creative individuals to meet, show their work, and exchange ideas.
What area of design do you focus on?
My good fortune in working with both a wide variety of talented designers and bright clients on a range of projects has really influenced and shaped my understanding of what a practicing designer does. Some projects require the design of communication, some the design of navigation, and others the design of space or place. Different problems need different tools, and for me, design is merely the process for understanding which tool might be the right to use. The individuals that I would regard as my mentors use the phrase “discipline agnostic,” and I was really taken by that because if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything will start to look like nails.
What did you do before teaching?
A small studio called Dyal and Partners here in Austin is where I was baptized by fire. We referenced design and art history when sharing ideas and craft was table stakes. Books were the main feature of the space which sat alongside Eames splints, Corbusier chairs, and Nelson lamps. We designed posters, books, brand identities, signage, wayfinding systems, experiential graphics, retail environments, websites, campaigns… anything we could. The best part was that a majority of the work was here and for great institutions—the University, KUT and KUTX, The Blanton Museum of Art, ACC Highland Mall, and People’s Community Clinic to name a few.
What was your experience working on UT’s visual redesign?
Imagine how difficult it can be to gain consensus within a single committee. Now multiply that throughout every college or school on campus, then add in central administration, alumni, students, and sentimental value, and finally subtract the incentive to use the new identity because there was no mandate (at the time) that anyone at University had to use it. You had to be kidding yourself if you thought that the primary challenge was going to be creating the logo.
The real challenges were to make stakeholders feel like they had been heard and get them to accept the journey from how we're framing the problem to what our solution was. First, we had to create a hard-working system that elegantly solved complex issues. Then, we had to design a story with a cadence that kept people nodding their heads in agreement every few slides so that by the time the presentation came to an end they realized they had been nodding in approval the whole time. So many people needed to weigh in at various times that we couldn't present at every meeting. So, we had to rely on others within the University do to the selling for us. That meant the story had to be simple and familiar—it had to resonate quickly without any fuzziness.
Designing the identity was nearly effortless in comparison. The goals were clear, and there were so many constraints that the solution was mainly an outgrowth of willingly accepting those constraints.
What classes do you teach here at UT?
I consistently teach typography and branding. I’ve also taught an internship course and will be co-teaching the capstone exhibition in the spring.
How do you balance both teaching and designing at Page?
It’s something that I feel like I am continually negotiating. I care a lot about my colleagues, my students, and my clients, and yet there are only so many hours in a day. At some point, you have to say, “I can’t do everything—where is my attention best spent so that I can be of most assistance?” Being honest about allocating where time is well spent is the most effective tool for finding balance, but that’s easier said than done.
Do you have any mentors who have helped you get to where you are today?
I have little sense of who I might be if it weren't for Herman Dyal, Carla Fraser, and Roy Watson. They threw me in the deep end and trusted that I could figure it out. Watching them work their way through the process, not only to design but to create presentations that shared those designs remains my biggest takeaway.
What was the biggest takeaway from your design education?
Read, make work, and collect ideas—all of those things should happen independently of your professors and assignments from your courses.
Read because there are a lot of smart people out there that have probably figured out something that you think, but haven’t articulated for yourself. Make work because repetition is how you build intuition. Collect ideas because it creates awareness, and awareness is a great way to later connect seemingly disparate ideas.
How did you get involved with skateboarding?
I started skateboarding the summer before 8th grade when I lived in Puerto Rico. I have consistently stuck with it since then.
This summer I co-founded a project called Curb. Our mission is to help kids reach their potential through skateboarding. The idea for Curb came about because we understood the impact that skateboarding has had on ourselves as well as so many other skateboarders we know. It's an activity that is 98% failure. The 2% of the time it works out its 110% worth it—even if success is only for a fraction of a second.
When you’re freely interested in something, it can really lower the threshold for wanting to get better at it. Continual investment of effort through practice is what we think fuels passion. So, what can the development of that kind of gritty, growth-oriented mindset do for someone? We think it can change your life if there are other pieces in the right place. That’s what we want Curb to be—a place where there are a lot of pieces in the right place to encourage someone to have the confidence to pursue their potential. We've just started, and we already see encouraging signs.