Noble Employee Spotlight: John Nissen III

by | Jun 21, 2024 | Design, Noble Team

A kindergarten school art project from 1973 that Nissen created at the age of five.

A pre-school art project from 1973 that Nissen created at the age of five.

John Nissen III, 56, is the Art Director for Noble Works and has worked in the graphic design industry for 35 years now. He was born in Florida on the Eglin Air Force base but his family quickly moved back to St. Helens, OR and then Tacoma, WA for his early grade school years. Right before his second grade school year his family and him moved to Olympia,WA and there he completed schooling through the seventh grade. Once again, the Nissen family made a move to Brush Prairie, WA where he finished his eighth grade and high school years and was able to graduate from Prairie High School. At a very young age Nissen showed interest in art. From his pre-school teacher manifesting him being an artist because of his unique art pieces, to him winning a middle/high school art contest while being one of the youngest contestants to enter. He decided to pursue art as a career and continue his education at The Art Institute of Seattle.

As Nissen dived into art school, he quickly discovered that it wasn’t as laid back as society painted it to be. He went through intense courses that tested his art skills and prepared him to enter a professional role in the design industry. From his starting class only a third of his classmates finished the program and Nissen was one of them.

“Everybody else dropped out because it was just too hard. It was brutal. It was so much homework and so many critiques. Even in the first quarter, lots of people dropped out. I think they thought it was going to be easy,” Nissen explains.

Despite the challenges art school brought, it drove Nissen even closer to art. The Art Institute allowed Nissen to explore more job opportunities than he originally imagined. Nissen became drawn to the possibility of creating album covers or T-shirt designs.

Nissen and his friend, Von Glitschka, during their early days at Sun Sportswear in 1988.

Beginning Professional Graphic Design Experience

Following his graduation from art school, at 20 years old, Nissen was very fortunate to land a job as a designer at Sun Sportswear in October of 1988 with the referral of a friend/colleague who worked for the company at the time. There he worked on creating designs for licensed product T-shirts, that supplied big stores like K-Mart, Mervyn’s, Target and Walmart. Being able to achieve one of his goals early on in his career. 

“I didn’t think I would be at a place where I actually had to draw every day. But I was so glad when I got there because it pushed my skills. I still didn’t feel super confident in my ability to draw cartoons or anything. But I was forced to further my skills. It was a very competitive environment at the sportswear company. You had to get your designs approved and you were competing against 30 or so other designers.” 

With another job referral from the same friend/colleague, Von Glitschka, who had already left Sun Sportswear, Nissen decided to join his friend and make a career move by taking on another graphic design job for Adamson Design Group in Salem, OR. Nissen now married and a new father, packed him and his family up to begin a new chapter.

Adamson Design Group allowed Nissen to leap into designing for other industries such as churches, schools, sport organizations, automobile companies, etc.

Nissen at his desk at Adamson Design Group – 1997

“It was nice to get out of a super competitive environment and be in a more chill environment where we’re all working together instead of feeling like you’re working against each other. It felt a lot like a family. I basically grew up there. I went from being 26 years old to 48. That’s a lot of growing to do. I took over a lot of responsibility during that time. People came and went but I stayed and it helped me to grow in my career by taking on more responsibilities. I ended up becoming the Custom Art Director. ”

With being at a job for 22 years, Nissen anticipated it was time to make a career change in hopes of learning new graphic design skills and software that he hadn’t experienced yet. In hopes to grow as a designer, Nissen decided to part ways with Adamson Design Group.

To his surprise his new venture at Cardwell Creative didn’t last long. 

“After 10 months the owner decided to not have a senior designer and let me go.” 

“The positive was I learned a lot, because I was forced to learn new software and new ways of doing things. I had been at my previous company for so long that I knew had become stagnant. So I forced myself to make a big change for my career and it did help me. I just wished that it could have lasted longer and I kind of left feeling like a failure, in a way.”

“Up to that point, I had not been unemployed for 28 years.”

graphic design

Nissen reading “Design: Logo” a book his friend, Von Glitschka, authored which had a few of his logo pieces featured in 2013.

“But, also, I kind of needed that. So then I went out on my own. All my career, I was doing my side business, John Nissen Design. I really wanted a job but figured in the meantime I can grow my business because I was still having people asking me to do stuff for them. So I thought I’ll just do this until I get a job. It ended up being a while and then the pandemic happened and nobody was hiring.” 

“Freelancing  was a good experience overall. It forced me to really focus on how to get work. It pushed me. In hindsight it was good to be forced to do that before the pandemic happened because I probably would have been out on my own at that point anyway. So I was already used to all of that.”

How did you first get into freelance work?
“At one point I had three other roommates. We all worked at Sun Sportswear, so we would often stay there late at night working on our own projects. Me and my roommates started our careers at the same time and we all hustled. That’s what we wanted to do; we just wanted to work and further our career. If we weren’t feeling like we were able to use all of our creativity at our job, we would do it on the side. I focused on the music business because I just loved music. I started meeting musicians in Seattle and got in with this little scene that was growing. I hated to leave it when we left Seattle but there was a sister scene in Portland and they were all connected. So it didn’t feel like I was really giving it up because the guys in Seattle could still call me up to work on projects and I started making more friends in Portland who were in bands.”


graphic design Original MXPX logo that Nissen designed in 1994.

First MXPX album cover featuring the original mascot for the band that Nissen designed in 1994.

“My work for MXPX exploded when they grew in popularity. Then my name got associated with them so then I started having really amazing opportunities that I would not have had before. Artists that I didn’t know started contacting me to work on their graphics.”

“The music thing really propelled my freelance. If I didn’t have the passion for it, I would not have done so much work. l was driven because I enjoyed it so much.”

Coming To The Noble Side
“Over my self-employed years I would see job openings, I would apply for them and seldom would I ever get anything back. It was kind of discouraging and then I had a few times where it came down to me and one other person and the other person got it. I knew I was doing something right in my application process but there wasn’t enough feedback. So I kind of had given up on applying but I was still getting alerted about job openings from Indeed and other places. One day Debi, (John’s wife), texts me a picture of the sign that was out by the McGilchrist road because she went over to get lunch at a food truck nearby. She sends me a text of the photo of the sign and says, ‘Have you heard of this place?’ Because all the things listed I had done in my career. At that point, I had even done some vehicle wrap designs. Then the job for Noble came up on an Indeed email alert in July of 2021.”

“I went from kind of being aware that Noble even existed to the next day seeing there was a job opening for a graphic designer, dropping off my resume and cover letter, landing an interview, to getting a job in a week.”

The past three years, Nissen has made a tremendous impact for Noble Works by elevating design standards within the company and delivering quality design assets to Noble clients. Nissen quickly transitioned from a standard graphic designer position to being the art director for the design department. He continues to push creativity through every project and his passion for his craft shines throughout the final designs he delivers.

graphic design

What does your job entail?
“The quick description of my whole career, I like to say it’s making other people’s ideas look pretty. That’s the simple way to put it. The more complicated way is I do whatever kind of design needs to be done for whatever the project is. So if it’s our own promotional materials, I have to figure out how to best represent the company. If it’s someone else’s business, I try to do the best work possible within their budget. Whether it’s a little or big project I put my best effort in it so I can be proud of the visual designs that will represent their passion, company, business, events or whatever.”

When did you get introduced to vehicle wrap design?
“I asked some basic questions of the person hiring me to do it. I just said, ‘Hey, can I do it this way? Is this how I can lay it out?’.

“And they were like, ‘yeah.’ I just did it. I don’t think I did any research. I basically took photos they sent me of the vehicles and worked off of that. I remember doing this boat that Nick from Envy Signs had me do. And he sent me the photo of the side of a boat and told me kind of what he wanted me to do. I just pieced it together from stock art and made it fit.” 

“I feel like with every design project or new design challenge, it’s pretty much the same. You have limitations, the material you’re working with or the specifications of that material or the thing that the art is going to live on. They’re all pretty much the same.”

“So in that way I’ve kind of realized over the years that every new application of a design is really the same kind of challenge that has to look good to your eye and communicate what the client wants.” 

Nissen with a MXPX fan who was coincidentally getting a tattoo of the mascot he designed for MXPX in Las Vegas while he was visiting.

Nissen with a MXPX fan who was coincidentally getting a tattoo of the mascot he designed for MXPX in Las Vegas while he was visiting.

What design are you most proud of?
“The most famous is the mascot for MXPX. There’s nothing that compares. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say there’s people all over the world that know that character. It’s opened doors and helped my career by being recognizable. There’s a certain age demographic of people that know MXPX and their mascot. There’s a lot of people that have MXPX tattoos.

Before there was social media or the internet, people would see a piece of art if it was selling on a product. The reason why people grew up seeing my artwork was because it was on album covers, magazine ads and those were distributed all over the country so I didn’t even understand how much my work was influencing other people. Then when the explosion of the internet started it was still there on myspace, websites, etc. I’ve had a handful of people who have found me on Instagram or on my website and have said, ‘I got into graphic design because of your work.’ Which is mind-blowing to me but really cool.”

What is your biggest strength as a graphic designer?
“I think having a good eye because it pushes me to not settle. I feel like one of my strengths is just my experience and all the years of looking at good design. I mean I’m a student of design. I’m a student of good logos. It’s what I do in my spare time. It’s just part of me. I’m not the best, I clearly admit that there’s people way better than me but I do feel like I have a good eye.”

graphic design office workIn your 35 years of work what are some changes in the graphic design industry that you’ve noticed?
“The advent of so many tools that allow people to do their own designs has really hurt the perception of what value a designer can bring. It used to be if you needed something designed, laid out for a poster, flier or whatever; you needed to hire somebody who knew how to do it. There was a level of quality that needed to be achieved to be even considered a designer. Now that everybody can do it on Canva or any number of other tools, instead of it driving more respect for design, I feel like it’s made it harder for designers to make a living. They’re competing against software so that’s been a huge change. I feel like the industry is flooded with designers which also makes it hard because there’s so much competition. It was harder to be a designer when you had to do everything by hand, not everybody wanted to work at it. I love the tools that I have at my disposal, like computer software and stuff, but it has hurt the industry. What I mean by hurting the industry is basically making it hard for designers to make a living.

In some ways the level of respect for design has gone up but I think that more comes with an awareness that design is even important. Overall the quality level has stayed the same or gotten worse because there’s so many people that can do adequate work on their own without the help of a professional. I see a lot of bad work out there. Like I said, one of my jobs is to have a critical eye. So I’m going to notice things.” 

What progress has been made within the design industry?
“20 years ago or something, I feel like it was harder to convince somebody to spend their money on a logo. Now there’s an amount of people that are more tuned in to that world and have more respect for good design. Whether they want to pay for it or not is a different story but I think in their heart they know it’s important. They’ve seen big brands like Target, Nike or any number of other logos and the power of those marks. I mean you almost can’t put a price on it. I tell people who want me to create something of that magnitude, that those marks have brand equity. You’ve seen them forever so you recognize them. You have a feeling for those logos, you’re not going to have that with a brand new logo at first.”

graphic design office work

What are some of the toughest challenges you’ve had as a graphic designer?
“Finding solutions that the client will be excited about that we are also excited about. So basically making everybody happy. I feel like it’s a pretty tall order. It’s a challenge. Our job is to service our customers so really their opinion is the most important opinion, but sometimes that’s hard for me to swallow because I want to do what I think is best, but that doesn’t always jive.”

Do you think that graphic design will ever die?
“No but I think there’s going to be less and less people that can make a living at just graphic design. What I liked about coming to Noble is we offer other things to give value to our customers. Whereas if you were just selling design work then it’s very hard to make a profit. But the fact that we can offer all the different applications of that branding especially like vehicle wraps, is pretty cool. We have more things to offer besides just design work. When you ask that question my brain automatically goes to what’s going to happen with AI. I think it’s going to destroy a certain percentage of designers but there’s still going to be a certain amount that it won’t be able to replace.”

What motivates you to keep working in graphic design?
“I just love it. It’s what I do when I have spare time. I’m not talking about just graphic design. I’m talking about art in general, sometimes I will do a painting or something else art related. It can be frustrating, sometimes imposter syndrome creeps in but ultimately there’s nothing I want to do more than create cool stuff.”

graphic design office workWhat’s the best advice you can give to someone who is just starting out in their graphic design career?
“I have two versions of the answer. First one is if you can do anything else. Do that. Do not get into graphic design. Like I said, it’s hard to make a career out of it. The people that should get into it are the ones who are passionate about it to the point where they can’t do anything else. Those should be the people that get into it. That’s one answer but the other answer is more practical. Go outside and get inspiration. Look at more things than just what’s readily available on the internet. Get inspired by things that other people aren’t seeing. In some ways design gets stale when everybody is looking at the same things that pop up on Pinterest or Facebook. Do more exploring. Get away from what you know and find other ways to get inspired. That way you don’t end up just doing what everybody else is doing.” 

How is Noble different from your other workplaces?Art Director of Noble Works
“I like that the production is actually done in-house so I can see the whole process happening. It’s been a long time since I was able to see something like a vehicle, come in, get cleaned up and then leave looking completely different. That’s really cool to me. I love that part of my job.  As far as systems, I feel a lot of respect here. There’s a level of respect we have for each other that’s pretty rare. It’s a pretty drama-free environment and I think we value each other’s work. I’ve had the freedom to try to improve the way we do things in the design realm without any pushback. Fortunately, the design agencies I previously worked for very much had a similar mission of wanting to serve the customers well. It’s been nice that I’ve been able to make improvements to the way Noble does things. There’s freedom here for each employee to do their job well. That’s what I feel sets us apart.”