Changethethought began as the creative alias of graphic designer Christopher Cox. It was an expression, both in name and purpose. In its initial incarnation, launched in 2002, Changethethought functioned as the portfolio site for Cox’ work. But after several years operating as such, he decided to shift gears and expand the scope of the site to include the perspectives of multiple contributors blogging on the topics of art, music, culture, and even politics. In doing so Cox created a heavily trafficked site intended for discerning readers while still leaving space to showcase his own burgeoning work.
A prolific talent, Mr. Cox believes in sound but progressive graphic design—a belief echoed in his creative output. Whether designing for print, online, motion, or gallery, the 31-year-old Denver, Colorado resident and Kearney, Nebraska native produces bold design that is both technically proficient and visually enthralling. Plainly speaking, Cox is a diligent workman. But that doesn’t mean his pieces lack artistry. One look at his personal work (showcased in the above slideshow) and its evident that the makings of a fine artist are lurking just beneath the surface. I caught up with Cox in the slivers of time between his dayjob as an art director at Cactus and his afterhours work as a freelance designer to discuss the nuts and bolts of his work.
Let's start simple. What first attracted you to graphic design and how and when did you get started?
I picked up a pencil when I was about five or six years old and started drawing all the time. In first grade I would even stay in from recess so I could [create very] realistic drawings of dinosaurs that I was infatuated with out of National Geographic
. I've always been a little compulsive when it comes to anything having to do with creativity. In college I majored in medicine for the first couple years until chemistry took the wind out of my sails. I took an anatomy class and the teacher was enthralled by the sketches I made to help me remember muscles and organ names. He talked me into take a drawing class and within a semester I was majoring in graphic design. My program in college was very difficult and super rigorous. Our professor attended VCU and modeled our program after theirs. We had a companion history class combined with study in typography every semester. We ran from art nouveau all the way up through The International Typographic Style. By the time I graduated I was getting really interested in the Internet and was fascinated by Joshua Davis and WeWorkForThem. And on the print side I was consumed by anything Shepard Fairey touched.
Tell me about Changethethought. It seems that it used to be an alter ego, a name for you to work under. But has that idea changed in recent years?
Originally I thought it would be important to work under a name that was bigger than just myself. When I first started the site, I was really pissed at where I saw America going. And after Bush stole the election, I wanted the name I worked under to be a reflection of my views and my end goal in the communicative arts. In an advertising/consumer sense, I also wanted to create an entity that was memorable and stood for something. That way, in the distant future when there [might be] more people working under the name than just myself, it would be a natural transition. I think our generation has been overexposed to so much branding in our youth that we now, as designers and artists, almost feel compelled to create a brand that represents us as individuals.
I typed 'Change The Thought' into Google one afternoon, after I had been laid off from my first job, and I read on a page somewhere the sentence, "Change the thought and the feeling must go.' It was about how if something is bothering you [and] you just adjust your perspective a little, your emotions will get in line. I really felt a connection with that statement and that is where I first got the actual idea to just call myself that. It is a tough name to work under because when I get aimless and just make stuff that has no message I start to feel guilty. It always pulls me back to trying to create a dialogue between me and my peers.
I'm interested in talking about a line from your bio, the one that reads, "He is often described by his peers as 'prolific' for his ability to quickly assimilate, and move fluidly from one medium to the next creating distinctive work in various styles across each new medium he chooses as his current obsession." Can you explain, in a bit more detail, what you mean by assimilation?
By assimilation, I mean that if I don't know how to do something and I want to learn, I just do it. For example, before Christmas of 2007, not that long ago, I knew nothing about Wordpress, PHP, or CSS. I emailed Josh Spear and asked him, 'How did you build your blog?' He said, 'Download Wordpress, buy some books, and start hacking away at a theme.' So that's what I did. I was up until about 5 a.m. in the morning [everyday] over my entire Christmas break [that year], but near the end of January I was finished. Now the blog is running and doing pretty well. I guess I have always figured if you really want something, you have to just push as hard as possible for it. I wasn't really raised to take risks so it's hard for me sometimes, but my wife is so supportive. She always encourages me to chase down my dreams and that is why I married her. She is totally selfless and I can be a big self-obsessed artsy crybaby sometimes. Being married to her has had a big impact on me. I also had someone very close to me almost die when I was finishing college. That really knocked the wind out of me for awhile. It made me look at life and ask myself who I am and what the hell I am doing here. It also made me realize that I am going to die someday, maybe even tomorrow, so I should spend a part of each day, even if I have to hold down a job to pay the rent, doing something I love.
Your personal work differs greatly from your client-based projects. How would you describe that difference?
Well, for one, my personal work isn't boxed in by the budget of a client. It's where I have the opportunity to just explore and express whatever I am thinking, feeling, or whatever is inspiring me at the moment. If there is a theme it’s coincendental. I may try something that turns out well so I do a short series. I get bored fast so I like to create something in one style and then immediately follow that with something totally different.
I grew up painting and drawing so it's nice to just freewheel sometimes and make art for art's sake. The barrier when working with clients is that the work has to be appropriate for their needs and that means you have to put aside your personal motives from the get-go. I am not sure if it was Paul Rand who said it, but I once heard [the quote], 'The highest expression of an artist is self expression and the highest expression of a designer is the client's expression.'
The great thing about working under these parameters is that they can crossover into your own work and help you think about things like target audience. For example, when I am making posters that I want to sell, I want them to be something other designers want. Otherwise, how else would I be able to sell them?
I get the impression that you split your time between maintaining Changethethought, both the blog and personal work aspects, as well as holding down a day job in design. Can you tell me a little bit about what you do to pay the bills?
I currently work as an art director at Cactus
, an advertising agency in Denver, Colorado. At Cactus we do a little of everything. Right now I am designing a fairly large website. I [also] just wrapped a series of commercials for the Colorado Lottery. I really enjoy working on commercials now almost more than anything else. I am satisfied with the print work I create on my own for Changethethought [so] art directing television commercials is something entirely different. I also work on a lot of branding campaigns for small clients.
[At my job] I wish I got to be as creative and really go all out like I do in my personal work. I try to push things as far as I can but Denver can be a conservative place and you find yourself taking a lot of baby steps with clients. It's frustrating because [I] see trends emerging on the Internet, where things move very fast, and it feels like things are crawling [here] in middle America. It forces you to be a better communicator and develop a relationship with clients so they are willing to take risks with you and try something different. It's sometimes hard to get clients to understand that doing something that gets people talking, even if that means ruffling someone's feathers, is exactly what they are paying you to do.
Graphic design, and art in general, has become increasingly popular over the past decade. What are your thoughts on this spike in popularity?
The Internet has given it a lot more exposure. It's the perfect vehicle for design and you see a new portfolio online almost every day of the year now. There have always been a lot of people out there working creatively. The Internet has just given us all a place where we can talk to one another and show each other what we are up to. I think its a great trend. It's a really exiting time to be involved with anything creative.
I think graphic design in particular is becoming more popular because it is a way you can earn a good living by doing something creative. You get to, in a small way, help direct culture and that is exciting for young people. Especially in the U.S. where I think a lot of young people feel like they have seen a lot of their freedoms stripped away in the last decade. Good design requires a lot of thought and an extreme attention to detail but it possesses the possibility to generate an image or communicate a message that could potentially last for a very long period of time. I think that is enticing to a lot of young people hoping to find a way to express themselves, still have a job, and gain approval from their peers.
You're obviously a motivated individual with defined goals. Where do you see yourself a decade from now?
Wow, I really don't know. My younger brother is going into film right now and that is something I have always wanted to do. I am taking acting classes this summer and may start [going] to auditions next year. I would [also] really like to live abroad at some point and work in Europe and maybe South America. My wife is Brazilian, so there is a possibility there. Design and art seem to be a lot more intrinsic to culture in Europe, and I think it would be a lot more liberating environment to work in. It would be exciting to work in the UK, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or Zurich in the future.
No matter what I do, I want to keep Changethethought alive. Outside of marrying my wife, starting Changethethought is probably the best decision I have ever made. I want the site to keep growing and eventually function as a big resource and communication hub for designers, illustrators, filmmakers, typographers, and artists. I want to keep a political slant on the site as well to encourage people to engage in politics and care about where the leaders of our world are directing us. I also want my store to become a lot more robust and offer a lot more up than it does now. The plan on the horizon this year is to sit down and write out a solid business plan so I can set some hard goals with where I want to take everything.
All images featured in this article were used with permission from the artist. Images are © 2008 Christopher Cox, all rights reserved.