The Strange Story of How I Got Here
I am Jennymarie Jemison, a creative director and graphic designer in Austin, Texas. My design career began in Dallas, Texas, working on video game box art and marketing at Gathering of Developers, an independent game publisher. I started out as an intern there, but by the time I graduated college (Southern Methodist University) with a degree in Creative Advertising, I was the company’s full-time art director. I even had my own interns, both named Ben. I’ve produced the box art and marketing efforts of something like 35 video game titles, but the game that made the biggest impact in my life was Max Payne.
The original title was a big hit. I still see people proudly rocking the mouse pad I made almost 15 years ago. The game’s developer, Remedy, really wanted me to work on the sequel as well, but it was being published by Rockstar Games in New York City. To take the work meant I’d have move there. I’d never even been to New York, but I accepted their job offer, and I arrived just in time for my first day at the job, September 10th, 2001. Rockstar put me up in a hotel in Chinatown, just sixteen blocks away from the World Trade Center. I watched everything unfold from my window, and my hotel was evacuated without my knowledge. I spent three days there alone, making myself eggs in the hotel’s kitchen when I got hungry. It was a surreal introduction to the city I called home for the next five years.
Working at Rockstar made me a better designer. There were only five of us on the design team, and we were all responsible for different game titles. Grand Theft Auto, the best-selling game franchise of all time, was a huge effort that required all hands on deck. My introduction, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, was an incredible amount of work. I remember making palm trees for days upon days. It was such sexy game art, 1980’s Miami and the incredible illustrations of Stephen Bliss. The company’s art director and my boss, Jung Kwak, remains one of my Ladyboss idols. She taught me what compassionate leadership looked like. Rockstar Games is notoriously not the easiest place to work, but she kept us insulated from some of the harsher conditions and continually inspired in spite of them. I count myself incredibly lucky to have been there when I was, so that I got to work under her tutelage. When she left the company, I did as well. And I left a much stronger designer than I’d been when I got there. I also credit working in video games as the reason why my work is so varied. Each game franchise required its own look and feel. No one style could ever take hold.
I wanted my work to have a different focus after leaving. After years of working only on videogames, I wanted to create art materials for something that wasn’t violent. I wanted to spend less time on a computer, and I wanted to see more of New York City. I’d also never created a website either, and I felt that was going to be only more and more important. So, I made a website for a fake business. The furthest thing from violence and darkness I could remember. Cats.
My fake business became real when the website got circulated on design blogs and my phone started ringing. The person asked how much I charged per visit, and I said something I thought was ridiculous. Their follow up question was, “Can you come twice a day?” That summer was very profitable, if not slightly more stressful than I anticipated. I should have hired a bunch more Jennys, but I couldn’t trust anyone to check on the cats but me. I had a lot to learn about running a business. If I had expanded, I’d probably be some kind of cat madam by now, making guest appearances on morning talk shows. Instead, I retired after spending the loneliest Christmas of my life in NYC with only cats to comfort me. Fatal flaw in the cat nanny plan, you have to be available when people go out of town. Which means you can’t go out of town. What I did learn in the endeavor, was that making your business look legitimate, was almost as important as being legitimate. And that if you craft a unique experience for your customers, in my case, an elaborate questionnaire, (Sample questions: “Can you circle on this diagram anywhere your cat does not liked to be touched? What celebrity does your cat most resemble in spirit? Does your apartment have any ghosts? “) your customers will value that interaction and care. And that experience really is your brand.
I also took that time to do more things I’d always wanted to do. I went to acting school, a dream long deferred, at Atlantic Acting School. I started auditioning. I booked my first national network commercials. I started freelancing for MTV Networks, eventually settling at Spike TV. I was fearful of finding another toxic workplace there, having just escaped one. I was scared of the “Network for Men.” I soon learned there was no need to fear. They were the sweetest, most thoughtful men (and women) I’d ever worked with. They allowed me to do work I’d never done before, like art-directing award shows and creating the style guide for the entire network, because they were confident in both me and in their team. They allowed me to go on auditions, and when my ambitions of living a simple, slower life while exploring independent film led me to Austin, they gave me a cake. At Spike, I found that demonstration of trust, freedom, and support I now try to bring to the teams that I create.
Lured by breakfast tacos, film production, and sunny days, I packed up my Brooklyn apartment and headed to Austin. I knew I had work waiting for me, as my old friend from Godgames had a client that needed a website. He was on the web side, and needed a designer to help him. That first client was Tito’s Handmade Vodka. It was 2006. For the next six years, our work for Tito’s grew as they did, from sixteen to all fifty states. From outdoor advertising to their national print campaign, we did it all. Our little office was always busy, not just with Tito’s, but with countless small businesses. We called ourselves Fs77, and described ourselves as “tiny but powerful.” My three-legged spaniel, Stella, found on the streets of Austin, became our mascot. We even hired some young talents to help us. It was a golden time.
But all good things must come to an end. In 2012, Tito’s gave us the ultimatum we knew would one day come. Work for them in-house or say so long. My partner had started a kombucha company and it was just starting to really take off. I was about to begin production on the first film of my own. I had no desire to lose the freedom to continue to work in film and commercials. We tried to hold onto the office without Tito’s, but we only lasted a few months. More valuable insights learned, although there were definitely some tears involved as we said our goodbyes. I knew if I did things over, I would find a different way of operating that would allow for survival even in lean times. File that under “Things I could have learned by watching the first season of Mad Men.” My flexible team model was born.
I filed the formation papers for Five & Four on my birthday in 2013.
Why that name? What does it mean? Well, when I was three, and I could only count to five, so five basically meant infinity. Four was penultimate infinity. It meant the most of anything. I would tell my parents that I loved them Five and Four. I used it for anything I loved the most. I never used it to express the inverse of that, it was always only reserved for love. And I’m trying to keep it that way. Using all of these lessons learned along the way, I am trying my hardest to keep my work joyful, and my teams and clients happy. The best work is created that way. I hope that if you’ve read as far as this, something within my story here resonated with you. Let’s see what the next chapter holds, for both of us.
All photos and work are attributed to Five and Four unless otherwise noted. Please give credit if used elsewhere.
This is the online showcase of the work and interests of Jennymarie Jemison, the owner and creative director of Five and Four. The work herein was created by Five and Four, which is Jennymarie and select collaborators. Favorite topics include work, life in Austin, film, and freelance success.