July 2, 2024

AI in Art, Being in a Rock Band, and the Importance of Integrity at Work, with Jared Hiebert

A stylized blue lightning bolt with a red accent.

Jared is a Sr. Designer at Just Drive Media, where he has been creating graphics, videos and animations with us for the past three years. A guitarist, producer, and poster artist, Jared brings a unique style to Just Drive Media and its clients. While much of what we do for clients involves following corporate brand guidelines and doesn’t leave much room for interpretation, we get to leverage Jared’s style and influences a bit more in our own work, which has made for a fun new look on our own channels.

Jared Hiebert on playing guitar and singing on stage in 2019.

As we kick off this series on getting to know our team members, we thought Jared’s story would be a great place to start.

AW: How exactly did you go from playing in a rock band and designing band posters to working for a remote tech PR and marketing agency like ours?

JH: (laughs) Growing up, I thought I was going to be a rock’n’roll star. I was seduced by Queen, Alice Cooper, and The Doors. To my mother, the total infatuation with Jim Morrison was, well—worrisome. How could I fault her? Especially with hindsight. One time she burst through my room and told me that he was, “all that you care about!”

I started playing guitar at 16 and was writing and recording songs on a digital multitracker pretty soon after. That’s where I got my foray into music. My parents gave me a choice of guitar or karate when I was much younger. I picked the latter to my detriment! No one in my immediate family was musical, so it wasn’t like I grew up around it. When I started, I knew it was kind of a “late-in-life” scenario, and by 18, I was heading to college—really to appease my parents. I was still impassioned by music, but college felt like a safer, more reasonable route.

It could have been, too. But I wasn’t very focused. I had always been interested in art and started learning some of the graphic design tools at the same time as I was learning the guitar. So, after getting an associate's degree through community college, I wound up in a Graphic Communications program at Murray State University in Kentucky. I couldn’t tell you what I learned. Nothing. I was a horrible student. The only beneficial experience from the program was needing an internship to graduate. This is where I found my first job as a professional designer—a small sporting goods store that was also the go-to shop for screen printing.

This was my real school. They hired me full-time after I somehow managed to graduate college. I did not like school. In fact, I still have nightmares about school to this day—ones where I’m biting off more than I can chew, taking too many classes, and forgetting about one that is required to graduate! In the world of design, experience is crucial. I’ve yet to work with a company where having a degree takes precedence over meaningful experience. Working with real people and unique scenarios allowed me to begin getting a grip. People would bring in ideas. It was my responsibility to interpret what was in their head, then create the design within the parameters required for screen printing. Production and creativity—what the college program was attempting to teach. I needed to be hands-on.

I really liked this job—I was treated well. It’s easy to be a “big fish in a small pond.” I still wanted to play music and was contemplating a move to Los Angeles. My parents persuaded me to go to Austin instead. It was a good call. Again, hindsight! A close cousin of mine lived outside of the city. I was able to move into his house with his family, which helped me get my feet on the ground. Despite Austin in 2012 being the premier spot to be, it was not a city that had ever crossed my mind. Coincidentally, it was nicknamed “The Live Music Capital of the World,” so I naively thought I could “make it.” Funny.

It may sound absurd, but Craigslist plays a crucial role in my life. Through Craigslist, I found meaningful connections. Foremost, I was able to create ads looking for bandmates in their “musicians” section. Here, I detailed messages about who I was and what I was looking to do. I wanted to play guitar in a killer rock’n’roll band. I linked my recordings from Kentucky as evidence of my style, and after months of meeting and auditioning people, I had a group that was regularly rehearsing and playing shows. My first band! All at the tender age of 23!

Jared (guitarist on the left) performs live with his first band.

Simultaneously, I was applying for design positions—very unsuccessfully, I might add. Having the degree, I thought, would make me a shoo-in—no way! This was a first-of-many wake-up calls during what I’ll deem my “tormented twenties.” What little experience I had as a professional designer qualified me for an entry-level role as a production artist (found via Craigslist, no less) for a company that specialized in souvenirs—the primary target being tourist destinations. Go into any Surf Style, and you will see a myriad of their products from koozies to bottle openers, magnets to key chains, lighters to flashlights, bags to britches! That last part is a joke, but you get the picture.

The position lacked the creative aspect of the print shop. It was all production. My job was to create uncompelling print files. Can you type out a city name, then make sure it is 5 inches long so it can be heat-pressed onto a designated area of a bag? That was the objective in a nutshell. Any downtime was spent filling the creative void, and my subject was great. I would make posters for my band! This was a crucial step in design for me. Any show we played had tons of details that needed to be displayed in a compelling fashion. Band names, venue names, dates, times, addresses—you name it. Text is a crucial part of design. This allowed me to experiment with creating layouts and graphics without restriction. Creative freedom. I felt very little freedom anywhere else at the time.

I didn’t like the job. I thought it was going to be a stepping stone. But, I was there for nearly half-a-decade. I continued applying for positions during that seemingly endless run. Nothing came to fruition. My mental state really started to decline. My band broke up. My girlfriend broke up with me. My hair was beginning to fall out, which required an elaborate combover to hide any bald spots. I was very self-conscious about this. I wore a hat constantly. I was trying to make things work—a desperate house of cards teetering on the edge of collapse. I needed to channel this emotion into something tangible. The only way I knew how.

I went on a relentless streak of writing and recording songs on a nightly basis. The guitar riffs flowed out of me, with melodies and lyrics to match. Finding a singer was impossible—even through Craigslist. I spent hours trying to attune my head with my hand. Trying to sing while playing sometimes abstract and complicated guitar parts is not an easy endeavor. I stuck with it, and eventually, I found my very literal voice. Writing and arranging my own songs was a new venture. It simultaneously dug me out of a rut while creating a new one.

Playing in a band was something I wanted for a long time. For a brief period, I had one. My new act, with me as a front person, was more alternative by nature due to the way my voice sounds and my approach to writing songs. Finding bandmates was harder than ever. This led to the decision of playing with a drum machine. Anyone who is involved in music will inform you that good drummers are an in-demand commodity in scarce supply.

For live shows, I was able to connect a drum machine directly through a PA and play the beats I created through a venue’s sound system. I would play my guitar to the backing track and sing through my set—usually to an indifferent bartender. It was not always a popular act. My determination was unwavering. I kept going, and I started meeting more people.

Jared performs live with his drum machine.

For every show, I would still design a poster. You would be shocked to see what people use to promote themselves! Smaller bands tend not to have a promotional budget, especially compared to bigger bands who are able to promote with works of literal, stunning art. Most people in bands work a day job, then hope that their gig is on a Friday or Saturday night so they can have fun, then sleep off the hangover. I found myself in a kind of “debauched” lifestyle. It’s hard to keep up with that!

My ego was knocked down a peg, too. Several, in fact. I encountered musicians so insanely talented that I wasn’t even a small fish in a big pond, but rather a kind of sea amoeba—a musical simpleton. A single-celled blob floating in the ocean. One musician I encountered was even famously plucked from the audience at a Foo Fighters concert to take over guitar duties. Dave Grohl deemed him “KISS Guy,” since he was donning Gene Simmons’ iconic makeup. Painted on with acrylics, his face literally melted off as he shredded through their song ‘Monkey Wrench.’ Talk about symbolism! A viral video of the event launched him into Austin-infamy.

While that may be a kind of fairy tale scenario for one person, I witnessed a collective struggle. The city teems with talented artists; many of whom are scraping by! The struggle was not enough to stop me. Some of my former bandmates even joined my plight. I had a real band again. We were playing and gigging on a semi-regular basis. It was such a thrill to meet other musicians and make friends along the way.

A member of one band we regularly gigged with was so inspired by my “proof of concept” of playing with a drum machine that she decided to take a leap into fronting her own project. When she asked me to play guitar, I took her up on the offer. I was now in 2 bands!

The new pursuits translated into me becoming an increasingly bad employee. My apartment was a five-minute commute from the office, and I came in late every day. I took extended lunch breaks. I left the second the clock hit 5. I slept very little. My whole lifestyle was very unhealthy. I cared more about playing music than I did being part of this company. I would have deservedly been fired had I not quit, which I did sometime in 2017.

My intention was to start doing freelance work. I made so little money at the souvenir company, I thought for sure I could make at least that much on my own. Unbeknownst to me, the posters I had been making collectively formed a new portfolio. I posted my resume to Craigslist and waited for any response I might get. This is how I met Just Drive Media. The then-creative director reached out to me to assist with some contract work. Based on my posters, he thought I might be a Queens of the Stone Age fan. He was right. I’m a massive fan! It became something we mutually bonded over.

Poster collection designed by Jared Hiebert.

It’s borderline comical that an obsession with a band got my foot in the door. You never know what will! In fact, our admiration for that band was so deep, we met up in Colorado to see them front row at Red Rocks. To this day, I regard that ticket as the nicest and coolest thing anyone has ever done for me. Which makes the next part so shameful.

Upon returning to Austin, I was still wrapped up in the partying lifestyle. I blew it with Just Drive Media. I missed some deadlines. I was unfit to be a responsible adult trying to freelance. That takes long-term commitment and discipline. The contracting gig that I was so lucky to acquire was squandered! I was left with nothing. This was a “rock bottom” moment for me. I carried the guilt of what had happened for years to come. My parents had to start helping me pay rent. I had no money. I started applying for graphic design jobs.

I applied to at least 200, which is not an exaggeration. Of those, I got 2 interviews but only 1 offer. After using every job site known to man, an agency ad I answered on Craigslist turned into a hire. It started off good. This go-around, I was making designs for a giant vehicle dealership and a movie theater. It was fun to be in a position with a more creative bent. I built myself back up a little bit. Until I took my final fall.

The inability to separate my music lifestyle from work did me in. My work suffered. I couldn’t complete an intensive 80-page catalog design in time for publication. I was fired on January 5, 2019. On January 6, I turned 30. I could no longer sustain the lifestyle in Austin. I was run down. It dawned on me that I’m not a rockstar. I decided to go back to Kentucky. I wanted to straighten up.

This sounds crazy, but I swear it is true. I was thrown a type of “cosmic” bone. The day of my firing, a Craigslist ad that described me verbatim was posted for remote contract work. I applied and was immediately hired. The company made challenge coins and enamel pins. They paid per design. The harder I worked, the more money I generated for myself—truly a great gig!

Additionally, I had answered a different Craigslist ad from a Broadway actor who was working on a musical based on the book Steppenwolf called “For Madmen Only.” The music he envisioned was punk, glam, and electronic. He hired me after hearing my recordings and paid me a large sum of money per song I finished.

By February, I was back in Kentucky, working a remote position for the best Austin-based company I had ever been with. All the while making more money in music in the span of a few months than I ever did the previous 7 years combined. I worked with intense focus for the rest of that year. I made enough money to pay off my debts and had savings for the first time in my adult life.

In September of 2019, I flew out to Austin to play a final, triumphant show with my band. It really ended on a high note. So high, in fact, I thought maybe I’d move back one day! Or maybe that I’d try a different city. Perhaps Nashville.

Covid happened.

This disrupted everything. My priorities shifted in addition to where I wanted to live. My golden goose freelance gigs were disrupted. It was around this time when I reached back out to Just Drive Media. I wrote an extensive, sincere apology letter. I didn’t even want anything, other than to say I was truly sorry for what I did. It was something I had thought about often. Reaching out like this rekindled my relationship with the company.

Eventually, I was offered some contract work. The work began to compound. This led to a full-time job offer. I have proudly been a full-time employee at Just Drive Media now for 3 years!

AW: Wow, that’s a pretty incredible story. Thank you for sharing all of that. How did you feel about making the shift from rock’n’roll posters to corporate work?

JH: It’s great! It’s not a shift. I do both!

Lou Reed once famously said:"The only people who pay are the advertisers. Everyone else gets everything for free."

I feel similarly. The primary people who have paid me well for my work are corporate people!

Being remote means I can live where I want, and I have more time in my day. Since I have chosen to live on a farm, I am very grateful to anyone willing to help sustain my lifestyle. I can still make posters in my downtime, and I am making more of them than ever!

An image of the farm in Fredonia, KY.

AW: Tell us about that. You have a side business where you’re still creating art and posters that seem largely influenced by your rock’n’roll heroes…

JH: Rock’n’roll heroes and cats! I still need to fill the creative void. They’re great subject matter. I’ve continued writing and recording tons of music, but for the first time since I started playing, I shifted gears a bit—designing and selling art prints. It’s a lot of fun! I did an art show recently, and it was great to see what people were drawn to. I’m currently experimenting with screen printing the designs, which really helps bridge the gap between digital and more traditional design.

There’s a whole new frontier with AI to explore. It pairs well with my 20 years of graphic design experience, serving as a kind of design co-pilot. The technology is not going anywhere. It feels important to understand how to wield it before it wields me!

I think we are going to witness an increasing number of reputable artists utilizing AI as part of their workflow. Humans growing up with AI will not maintain the same set of standards as those who didn't—much like how generations that grew up with the internet have different social norms, expectations, and skills compared to those who came of age before it. I should know—as I am living with my 86-year-old grandmother. The things I do, that are normal to me, might as well be science fiction to her.

What will the world look like when I am her age? With the growth of AI becoming increasingly exponential, I have little choice but to adapt and figure out how to put a human touch to whatever it is capable of. My approach is simple: AI is the most powerful generator of assets ever created. If I have a concept in my head, I can generate the pieces necessary for me to put together in a meticulous, time-consuming process. Really, this was similar to my approach before of combining whatever I could find into an “original” piece. The style has now evolved and, more importantly, it’s fun. I feel as though I was training my entire career for AI.

All technology at one point in time was cutting-edge. The question now is: Was the impact of that technology relative in scale to what AI is and will be to us? Several people have rung the alarm bell and speculated for decades. We probably exist within or are headed towards the “event horizon” of AI. We now must find the appropriate balance of man and machine.

AW: You’ve mentioned Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) as one of your influences. Who else influences or inspires your work?

JH: We’re living in a kind of “Golden Age” for artwork. There is total inundation on a nightly basis through endless feed scrolling. It might be too much! Sometimes I just can’t quit looking. Pinterest, especially, is amazing for discovering a variety of artwork, new and old. I feel inspired by works that are even hundreds of years old! These people made timeless works, which is really what one should strive for. At this point, I find anything that looks cool to be influential.

If you want specific names, I like artists like Moebius, Warhol, Mucha, and Luis Ricardo Falero. Each made works that were distinctively stylized and less realistic in their approach. As far as music, I like alternative people: Iggy Pop and David Bowie, Elliott Smith and The Kills, and Queens of the Stone Age, of course, whose front person is Josh Homme. I was fortunate to meet him once at a bar in Austin!

AW: No way! How did that go?

JH: It was SXSW 2016. He had just performed with Iggy Pop as part of his backing band. After the show, a friend of mine called me and said, “Hey! He’s at this bar.” My friend and I literally ran to the bar. No one else was there—it was total luck. When he took a smoke break outside, I approached him, and he was nice enough to humor me and my “fanboyism.” I really wanted to meet Iggy, but I’ll settle for Josh! He bought my friend and me shots of Patron Tequila, then after a quick picture, was on his way to the next city. I’ve heard stories where he wasn’t so nice, but he definitely was to me.

Jared poses with Josh Homme as they "cheers" their tequila shots.

AW: That’s so cool! Great to be able to meet someone that so inspires you. Along those lines, with art having become the way you make a living, I imagine there is a lot of pressure to perform. You’re often on deadline, and people are essentially demanding you to be creative on the spot. How do you handle this? Do you have a routine or flow state trigger that helps you get into that creative zone of genius?

JH: Just grind it out. (laughs) There’s a famous quote by Jimi Hendrix, where he alludes to “hating the guitar,” but “sticking with it” regardless and eventually being “rewarded.” I tend to work through my problems these days, which includes any creative blocks that may arise. Sometimes I miss the mark, but I try again until I get it right, to the best of my ability.

AW: That’s fantastic. What you’re describing is the struggle phase of the flow cycle. That’s when so many people give up. They think something is too hard, or they’re doubting themselves, or they’re bored, and they tap out just before they find that sweet spot. Pushing through can get you to a place where creativity starts to feel almost effortless. (Editor’s Note: we’re going to do a post on this process in the near future)

Ok, last Q: Which of Just Drive Media’s company values do you appreciate or identify with the most?

JH: Integrity. I spent so much time not being virtuous when I was attempting to kickstart my career that the people who were trying to give me opportunities probably regard me as a pariah. I don’t want to be known that way. I have an obligation to a team of professionals who rely on me for my expertise. This means coming into work daily with a good attitude, prepared to handle any challenge thrown my way. I want to do the things I say I’m going to do to the best of my abilities.

AW: Thank you for sharing all of this with us, Jared. We’re thrilled to have you here!

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