Weapons Declassified: Ken Hejduk

Ken Hejduk

Written & Designed by:Raji Purcell
Edited by: Jon Savage
Photography by: Pablo Contreras

How does design set the standards and affect our surroundings? How does this in turn change the overall mood of people? As a designer, what power do I have to influence culture and make the world feel a certain way?

All of these questions I’ve certainly gone over in my head. I’ve heard my teachers gloss over them. My friends and I have discussed them in brief over dinner. But it took Ken Hejduk’s talk at WMC to make me really consider it as deeply as I should have. It’s one of those things you hear a hundred times, but then someone new says it to you and it clicks. Ken made a light turn on it that day. His talk wasn’t a lecture, it was more someone presenting a discovery they had made. We all seemed part of the discovery together.

Ken not only gave a deeply fascinating talk that day, but was very open to discussing pretty much anything and everything with me for what seemed like a good half hour extra. It was great to talk to someone so approachable and really get inside his head. I’ll talk more about how he finds inspiration, and what advice he imparted to me at the end of this article.

Who Is Ken Hejduk?

Ken is a part owner of Little Jacket, a design firm in Cleveland Ohio—where he was raised and eventually attended Kent State for design. His skills range in every medium of design to furniture building, and he’s even been a chef! In a few words I’d say he’s soft spoken, passionate, and wise. Someone I was certainly happy I had decided to talk to.

Ken Hejduk Brief

Here’s What Happened:

It would appear that the Weapons of Mass Creation speakers were doing nothing but getting better and better. I sat feeling like such a child of design, allowing the more experienced and wiser to give me more advice and inspiration than I knew what to do with at times.

From here it only got better. When Ken Hejduk took the stage, he immediately took a different stance by beginning to talk less about design. He referred to design as a thing that people do on their computers by themselves. He talked about it as an entity that influences culture and the masses on every level.

Ken opened saying:

“I thought I’d talk a little about not the general state of design, but whether or not design matters.”

I felt that posing this question seemed incredibly crucial to how this entire talk would influence me. Right away he got me thinking about what he was saying and trying to answer that question for myself. The fact that he too asked himself this often, gave me relief and a commonality I would not otherwise feel with such a design veteran.

Ken continued to explain that sometimes we do work and we kind of wonder what happens to it and whether or not it was meaningful. His conflicted feeling was only augmented further by the cheap feel of advertising. He questioned the impact of design, and what its purpose is.

Ken Hejduk at WMC Fest 2011 from Go Media on Vimeo.

Continuing from this Ken fervently pushed that, “Initiative matters,” and that when, “…you take the time to care, people notice.” At this point in time the talk became very attention grabbing for me as he discussed Little Jackets’ new hires and how zealous they are about their work, going above and beyond by taking the time to really explore problems with each project. Further piquing my interest he talked about discussions he had with various industry professionals about what it takes for a design student coming out of school to get a job.

“A good portfolio is expected, its when you take the initiative to put yourself in situations to make yourself better, challenge the status quo, look harder for an answer. That’s the type of things that other professionals are looking for.”

A good piece of hard hitting truth for me to think about since this will be my position come May.

Diacarta Ken HejdukKen then began to discuss the opposite of worrying about getting hired — creating something for yourself. Such was the case with Little Jacket, which started out when Ken and a few other grad students (including Mikey Burton) decided that they wanted to learn to screen print and make some gig posters. And, like many other designers such as William Beachy and Jeff Finley, this is how they got their start.

“Before we knew it the phone was ringing and we were scrambling to come up with a name, and file papers so that we could legally collect money. In grad school we had started a business. Really it was just a stupid little creative initiative that dictated our path for us. Saying alright you don’t really have to look for a job out of school you just created something for yourself.”

Just another one of the many times I’d hear a story like this at WMC and be frustratingly inspired to do the same. I supposed then that this theme of creating something for yourself or teaming up with friends would become an overarching theme. Maybe a key to success if such a thing exists.

Chili-cook-off Ken HejdukKen continued his story of the origins of Little Jacket, explaining that after they acquired many jobs for musicians they started sending out hand made promotional packets to get work outside of the music industry. As they got new and different projects, design started to take on meaning to them. They were making things around them better, and contributing to worthy causes like an adult spelling bee to raise money for charity. Eventually, much to their surprise they even got Roger Frank, a designer with far more experience than them, to join their forces.

Ken then switched gears to get into the main subject of his talk. Explaining that just after Jeff Finley asked him to speak at WMC Fest, Ken and his wife had made a trip to Toronto, Canada. This is where a revelation grew inside of him.

“It just blew me away… I was blown away by the attention to detail of so many places. I’m in the middle of this dense urban area and there was a field of flowers and it was amazing. I thought to myself, that’s smart, that’s good planning, that’s good design.”

Ken Hejduk QuoteSoaking in the aesthetic quality of the atmosphere of Toronto had inspired Ken and filled him with creative energy. He took to the city like a detective, and dissected what made it a great city to him. He found that it was the little things. The small initiatives that improved the quality of life overall and were a parallel to the kind of qualities that made a good designer in his eyes. Attention to detail, and going above and beyond. As if the atmosphere and well planned out areas for people weren’t enough to inspire Ken, he picked up Toronto’s weekly circular called the Grid. Ken could not believe how well it was designed for something so local.

“This is when it hit home to me that when you set a certain standard, everybody follows. Every last infographic, every little illustration, every block of type, everything was done with so much care. I couldn’t really believe it.”

With this in mind and frustrated by his local design community he decided to move back to Cleveland, feeling as though there was a sort of design renaissance happening there and the standards are being raised.

To further push his point, Ken discussed a collaboration project he did which involved a survey asking younger people what would make Cleveland cool. What he found was that all of these people who weren’t in any way designers really wanted high design things. And what they determined was that smart (design, planning, transportation, etc) was equivalent to being cool. Stating that even though design is a broad field and most of the people in the audience are graphic designers, he felt as though we still make a large impact on what surrounds us. Many feel that they do not have the power to make any change in the community because they don’t have a voice or that somehow the government is surprising their ability to do anything. However as creatives we are the ones that change culture and influence what is around us.

Smart-equals-cool Ken HejdukThe cities where there are microcosms of intellectual, cultural community is where the most design innovation happens. The successful cities are those where the creative class spurs regional economic growth. Embracing the creative class is important, but we as creatives must take to initiative.

“The world around us — even the small world around us, needs to be better.”

It’s the designer’s job to ask, “Do we want to look at something poorly designed or well designed?” We have to say that we’re not going to settle for bad design, we want something more unique or innovative. This creates places where the community wants to gather and that, in turn, makes the environment better.

“That’s where design and initiative do matter. So, you should give a damn and you should raise the standards, because slowly you’ll change the world around you.”

I had the great opportunity to talk with Ken Hejduk after his presentation. It was a great experience for me and I couldn’t have been more appreciative that he took the time to just chat about life and design. We probably talked for a good thirty minutes, but I asked him two questions I wanted to put in my article. I first asked from where he draws inspiration; secondly, I asked his advice for young designers like me.


Ken shared with me that a lot of inspiration, for him, comes from history. Ken told me he is fascinated by anything with a long history, such as a city. And, the cultural stories that come out of that. Beyond that his wife, kids, and the people around him are what inspire him daily. He also often looks at old, simple designs for inspiration.

“Don’t be afraid to fail. Just try things. It’s okay to fuck up.”

Thanks for chatting Ken!

Listen to the Talk

As I watched every talk, I kept Garage Band open on my MacBook and recorded everything I could. The quality of the mp3 below may not be the best, but you can get an idea of what it was like from my perspective in the front row. Bootleg version!