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The True Leader: Jonathan Zawada

The fact that Jonathan Zawada traverses a creative landscape that is on a level near impossible to be gifted enough to enter is perhaps common knowledge, but the fact that he is one of the most unaffected winners of a game he never even intended to play may not be. This is a designer who has somehow defied the laws of creative superiority and has either misplaced the memo that gave him permission to flaunt his ego or has chosen to ignore it. As an indisputable leader of an industry where humbleness is largely underrated, his gracious nature is one of those rare instances in life where the antithesis of the norm far outshines its counterpart. But Jonathan doesn’t actually make an effort to be unassuming, nor does he hide behind a mask to conceal his talent; it is undeniably present, just not outwardly manifested. The truth is, he just doesn’t really focus on it all that much, which is the purest form of unpretentiousness that you can get, really.

for compilation CD You Only Live Once

design for Japanese label 20 Million Fragments

Jonathan’s reaction to his own thought process seems to be that there is nothing really remarkable about it at all, which simply makes his genius all the more endearing. After all, discussing Jonathan’s projects is near impossible, as each is an essay in its own right; there’s the branding, which he has done for the likes of Bassike and Tina Kalivas; the publishing work, which includes his very own fashion comic, Petit Mal; the textile and fashion design, some of which has been conducted under the banner of TRU$T FUN! with his wife Annie and Shane Sakkeus; the mathematical guide to fashion inspiration, Fashematics; CD covers (including The Presets’ Apocalypso, which won an Aria for best art direction); and then of course there’s the animation, the art direction and, last but certainly not least (as a matter of fact, there’s probably a lot we’re missing) the illustration, which, if he did nothing else, would be enough to demonstrate his profound artistic capability. But clearly, this is a guy who has high expectations of what he’s able to accomplish.

“Time management has been a learning curve,” he says. “I have to figure out what to take on, and a lot of the work is in different mental spaces. I have to allocate enough time to do that and also learn to say no. It’s always a mystery what I’m going to be doing next, but that makes it somewhat terrifying. I always think this will my last job for a while.


print for TRU$T FUN!

If you get him to read off his client base, such a statement seems difficult to believe, but that’s probably because it’s more likely in his own head than reality. Extreme talent will always bring an endless list of clients, and although his projects read off like a hit list of any aspiring young creative’s dream jobs, work is work at the end of the day – so Jonathan still attempts to engage in his own ventures as much as possible. “I really tried to keep the paid work and the fun work separate for a long time, but I haven’t really been able to anymore and I miss that outlet. I still want to do it, but now I am doing some art shows so I know if I have any spare time, I need to work on those. And then there’s an added pressure with knowing what people expect – it was easier when no one had seen my work before.”

Jonathan’s instinctive ability to interpret his clients’ visions in a manner that even the best of their imagination could not reproduce is almost uncanny, and it’s exactly what propels them to continue going back for more. As a result, Jonathan has long-standing working relationships, but he insists there’s more to his office hours than the enviable t-shirt prints and CD covers.

“Every so often I’ll do a billboard, and it just kills me,” he laughs. “It’s so frustrating and horrible. I worked five years on and off with ad agencies, and I left because I wanted to talk directly to the people making the decisions. Even if it’s not visual, I want to get what’s in their head, not in the producer’s or the marketing director’s.”

Schweppes ad

t-shirt design for Something Else

Working on his own is a luxury Jonathan certainly does not take for granted. Now based at home alongside his wife Annie, who he consults regularly for her “amazing taste”, he is keenly aware that he does not work well with other people in his space and is therefore intensely appreciative of the fact that he does not have to. In fact, when asked to reflect on his success, it is the first – and, perhaps, singular – perk that comes to mind.

“I’m really grateful I can work from home, especially in the summer, when we can go to the beach in the middle of the day or week, but other than that, it never feels like success – my jobs are bigger & more varied, but beyond that it’s not all that different,” he muses.
“But I’m happy to work late and wake up early – I enjoy it so it’s what I would want to do anyway if I had the free time.”

And doing it in his free time is exactly how Jonathan started creating at the age of 10.

“I moved with my mum to Melbourne and it was the beginning of school holidays, so I spent two months at home by myself with no friends. I had to entertain myself, so I made board games, and I was really into basketball, so I would obsessively draw all the team’s logos and players. I got really into it but I didn’t really notice that was the direction I was going in at the time. Even at the end of high school, I pursued animation, not design.”

The Presets/BMW take on Are You the One? directed by Jonathan and Shane Sakkeus as TRU$T FUN!
and animated by Collider

Delving into programming and scripting from around 16 years old, Jonathan eventually found himself immersed in graphic design almost by accident. While building websites alongside then graphic designers George Gorrow and the rest of the Ksubi clan, he was inspired to think more about design and started to apply it to his personal work, and, after the loud applaud for his take on The Presets’ first EP cover, it became his main gig. He credits his knowledge of programming as the reason why his foray into the design world was an easy one, as he always had something to fall back on.

“For me, the thing that worked was having technical skill – now it’s a lot different trying to earn a living with graphic design,” he remarks when asked what he says to the many aspiring designers who contact him seeking guidance. “I have always treated this like a job, not a hobby or lifestyle. It really boils down to 90 per cent technical knowledge, and I think students need to understand that’s what design is.”

As someone who prides himself on “avoiding every show at fashion week” and is the first to leave at events, Jonathan is one of those rare creatives who just does what he likes and happens to be loved for it. He’s not chasing work around or lusting after the recognition – that is merely an arbitrary side effect. It is certainly not something he has ever craved, which is exactly what makes him instantly relatable. Although his love for Sydney is paramount (as he puts it, “why would anyone want to live in a city that isn’t as amazing and beautiful as Sydney?”), he acknowledges that most outings tend to be networking exercises, so a move down to the country (south coast, to be exact) may well be imminent: “We don’t really do anything here. We don’t go to anything really, we just spend all our time in our apartment, so we may as well get a garden and a studio room and a view…”

an interpretation of Mecca Cosmetica for Westfield’s ‘Fashion Loves Art’ exhibition

a Jonathan Zawada zine

His nonchalant nature reflects back to his perception of how he makes his living, which he elaborates on when asked to define great design.

“To be honest, I really don’t think about design, and you know, I don’t even know if I like it. Graphic design is there to communicate, so unless it’s truly illegible, it doesn’t interest me. I like it when it blends into the product itself, when you don’t even notice it – when it just enhances the product and makes it make more sense. I like quiet design, which is pretty much stuff I don’t do. Really, design is just totally unnecessary.

His acute awareness that what he does is far from saving the world is refreshing, but it should never fail to be noted that the world is far more beautiful with artists such as himself living within it.

Jonathan Zawada

words: Seema Duggal


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