Justin Fox drives expensive cars and hangs out with beautiful women for a living. Such is the tough thankless life he leads as founder of Zen Garage, a Sydney website/retail space dedicated to celebrating creativity and culture in whatever form it takes. Whether that’s cars, bikes, art, photography, music or skateboarding. Prior to this he spent a lifetime working with some of Oz’s best design studios, forging prominent online communities like Australian Infront, and generally working his ass off to make the web a better place for like-minded folks to collaborate and create.
You’ve been creating cool shit online for the past decade and a half. Which is an eternity in normal years. Give us the rundown on how you started and where you’ve ended up today.
An eternity indeed. Scary to think about just how many hours my eyes have been locked onto a screen. Without writing an essay (though it might be necessary); I really found a thing for art in high school. I used to jig all other classes to paint. In year 12 I even moved my artwork out to the stairwell outside so I could paint even when the art department classrooms were shut.
As much as I wanted to study art I put down Graphic Design as my first priority (advice from the parents), and I got into Design at UNSW’s College of Fine Arts. During uni I spent my time with art students more than design students and I met a wise guy who advised me to make the course work for myself. Once I figured that bit out I did what I wanted with each brief (rather than simply following the briefs) and I focused on the skills I really wanted to develop, namely photoshop and interactive/web work.
I landed a nice internship with a small company who put me onto a larger company. I hung out with my project managers and bosses at lunch rather than other people from creative departments. Project managers got sacked a lot, they then were often recruited elsewhere and because they liked me, they would call me from new places I’d never worked at before. I ended up being a freelancer doing lots of overflow work for various companies around Sydney. I had so much work on that I ended up starting DFM Design Fix Media; a small company of 4 which took on overflow work from various agencies.
THAT’S THE POINT.
TO PUSH WHATEVER IT IS
I’M INTO AT THE MOMENT.
At this time I was pretty unhappy with the lack of energy and networks available to younger digital designers in Australia so together with some close friends I started Australian Infront. My first community. From there it’s been easier for me to create numerous communities (all passion related), using similar tools which I developed through Infront.
Above – Australian Infront
I’ve been freelancing as a designer ever since, but more recently I’ve been disheartened with running communities which I no longer have passion for. It feels fake, it’s kinda crushing, so I set about working on a new project which combines all my passions into the one project. That’s Zen Garage. We’re almost 2 years in now and I’m absolutely loving what I do (which is the point of Zen, to push whatever it is I’m into at the very moment, every day).
How have you seen the web evolve in all that time?
When I was first getting into the web we learnt through books and the internet was SLOW (14.4 modems). I was blogging back then, but that was before blogger even existed. I used to html code my blog, which was part of a blogging ring and was even nominated for blog awards. I used to design 640 wide sites in photoshop and cut and code them myself. I’ve seen a shitload of usability experts over the years hinder creativity, they’ve won in many ways as the web almost seems to have a universal UI these days. Somewhere along the line there was Facebook, Google and Google Images, Tumblr, social media. It’s changing so fast. All I know is that I spend more time on Facebook now (for both work and time out) than anything else when it comes to the Internet.
Above – Early artwork by Fox.
Casting your mind back to the nascent days, what were some of your favorite sites of the web’s first generation?
First gen sites were SO free. It was almost as if creative people all over the world were trying to break browsers. Move your mouse left to go right, scroll infinitely to the right instead of scrolling down, using pulldown menus to reveal art instead of text menu options… those days were a lot of fun. Community/collaborative sites were fun too. The Design Posse, K10K, Invertebrae, Surfstation, these were the sites I haunted daily (and I had these site owners as great icq friends too).
I remember reading a blog post of yours way back when you first launched GillespieFox, talking about how the advent of your own business would afford you the opportunity to work and play in equal measure. How did that work out and what did you learn from that experiment in terms of work-life balance?
Bang on. I’m not loaded (far from it) but I get by doing what I love (I work because I love this shit). It’s taken me all these years to figure the balance out. Ultimately I’m still quite inconsistent with it all but I’m much quicker at saying no to work which I know would just end up wasting my time, and I’m just as hungry as ever to get into new things and get obsessive compulsive along the way.
I WORK BECAUSE I LOVE THIS SHIT.
With Zen Garage, you guys have crossed over from online into retail locations and real world racing events and meet-ups. What have been some of the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge with Zen is trying to make profit! There’s a lot of costs in running a bricks and mortar business in comparison to an online project. We’re awesome at all the online stuff, but none of us have a history in retail and we’re all very much learning as we go. We’ve got massive dreams though, and the team is super hungry so the challenges are welcome.
Above – Zen Garage HQ (Before)
Above – Zen Garage HQ (After)
We see so many brands try and create online communities or capture the attention of their fans online. How have you managed to launch and grow so many thriving web communities where others have failed?
I’m pretty sure it’s mostly got to do with my being genuinely obsessed with stuff. It comes across in the images I post, the words I write and the general spamming I do in order to get a new project off the ground. That obsession combined with my community tool belt which I’ve developed over the years works pretty well hand in hand.
Above – A little zen advice via Fox.
What’s next for Justin Fox?
For once I can actually see a little into the future. Where other projects have started up quickly I’ve never been too sure on how long they would hang around for (as passions/hobbies come and go), but with Zen I know for a fact that I’m onto something special and I’m more committed to it than anything else in my life right now. I’d love to get Zen HQ right, then move on to potentially opening Zen retail shops both interstate and world wide. I’d like to look into a food element too, even if it’s a food van which we can bring to our monthly events. So many dreams. Luckily I still have a bit of time to make more marks in the wall.