Justin always knew he was going to go to Ringling College…
“Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be an artist and draw, and my grandpa was an artist in Bradenton. I have a picture from when I was about twelve years old visiting campus with him. It was my dream school.”
The Los Angeles-based illustrator, motion graphic designer, and art director now designs and illustrates for big brands like Marvel, Disney, Hasbro, and Saturday Night Live, but he built his diverse portfolio on the rock-solid foundation he got at Ringling College.
“The foundational education of composition and technique I learned there is unsurpassed and it has served me immensely well,” Harder says.
“A lot of folks ask about going to art college. I tell them, you will always be around way more passionate people at art school than you will be at any state school. My peers influenced me so much and I learned from all these other majors. For example, I got a deep interest in design from my roommates.”
Harder worked for a design firm in Dallas, Texas after he graduated, but his dream was always to strike out on his own. “You start as hands for your employers, but you want to become the mind — the one who comes up with new stories and designs. You want to overshoot where they pigeonhole you.” He moved out to California with no contacts or clients, living in an RV on Malibu Beach. “I just hit up everybody and got some bites and worked my butt off. Ringling taught me hard work pays off. You can be the most talented guy in the room, but if you’re not nice and don’t work hard, no one wants to rehire you.”
Well, people did want to hire him, and he parlayed his commercial work into a job designing the end title sequence for the 2013 movie Thor: The Dark World. He started his own studio, Claus, which went on to do more title sequences for Deadpool, The Book of Life, and My Little Pony. “I love working on movies because, unlike commercials, they’re forever. And you can entertain and connect to people on a bigger scale. I work with a director and help them shape the beginning or the end of a story, help them bring to fruition what they have in their minds.”
It was his unique style and approach to superhero iconography that made Harder the perfect artist for Ringling College’s new “Creativity Takes Courage” campaign. “When the project started it was a single poster for Admissions,” Harder explains. The campaign inspires prospective students with the idea that as a student at Ringling College, you will be brave. Students take risks, question norms, and rethink “the way things are.” They create work with purpose and meaning, and they push themselves to be stronger, better, and more powerful as an artist or designer.
Harder first created a single, striking image of superheroes that embodied some of the core skills offered at Ringling College. “But once the Marketing team saw it and showed it around, they said we had to develop more.” They wanted at least one for each of the College’s thirteen majors.
“My biggest challenge was coming up with thirteen individual dynamic poses that harken to the actual core of each major.” Harder got a lot of feedback from all the different program heads, and enjoyed the process of working with them to create unique figures that represent each major but all feel part of the same team. “Being a comic book fan all my life, I wanted to keep them cohesive, like a Fantastic Four or early X-Men unified look.” He also wanted to create figures that were iconic rather than too specific. “I’ve always been a fan of the old school design and minimalism. I determined early on that eyes created too much of a particular person. That didn’t seem broad enough. I wanted to encompass as many different kinds of bodies and skin tones and people as possible.”
The final art embodies both Ringling College’s diverse academic offerings and Harder’s unique style with a set of dynamic, colorful, and inspirational heroes as varied as the College’s student body. Harder himself is already at work on new projects, which include even more superheroes.
Target stores are releasing a signature series of bedding and apparel that feature Harder’s versions of Marvel superheroes. They should be available nationwide in time for the 2018-19 school year when Ringling’s next class of heroes arrives on campus.
By Rick Dakan | Images courtesy of Justin Harder
Rick Dakan is a member of the Creative Writing Faculty at Ringling College.