David Schwen of Dschwen

David Schwen looks like an unassuming Minneapolis creative. He’s incredibly soft-spoken and doesn’t like to brag. But, did you know he’s rocking over thirty-five thousand followers on Instagram? As of late, he has been receiving some serious recognition for his unorthodox “Pantone Pairings” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Limes” series. His voice is low and slow and you can feel him conjuring up his next big, yet ingenious idea when you’re near him. Established publications like, Wired Magazine, GOOD Magazine, Fast Company and more have recruited him for his clever talents. In our interview, we asked him about how he keeps his creative juices flowing and what it was like going out on his own as Dschwen LLC. Also, he put together an original Pantone Pairing just for us! Read on to see what life is like for the Insta-famous. 

Here’s a good question to start with, what is your degree in?

I went to school for illustration, but switched to graphic design. That’s where I fell in love with typography. I wanted to keep doing illustration, but now I do all of it.

How many years out of college are you?

I graduated in 2005, so 8 years.

Was modeling your first job out of college?

Ha! Nope, it was Carmichael Lynch in their design department. I started as a junior designer. You learn a lot of new stuff at your first job, especially what design for advertising is all about. It was a lot different than just art coming from art college. 

Sounds like you found yourself working for a corporation, what was that like for you? Stifling? Creative? Fun?

It was different; I knew I had to do that a little bit of that kind of work to make some money at first, but ever since then I was making my own stuff on the side.

Your on-the-side stuff, was it freelancing or just making art?

Mostly, just creating stuff. I started using Threadless, a t-shirt company that lets artists make whatever they want, it goes up for voting and if the community loves it and if they feel like they can make money by selling it, they’ll print it your design on a t-shirt. It was fun to have no clients and just make fun stuff.

What did you do after Carmichael Lynch?

So after Carmichael Lynch, I was there for almost four years, then after that I went to Fallon. I was the associate design director there, I was going to help build up the design department. It was great. Then Mono called me up wanting to know if I was interested in talking. I worked at Mono for almost two years as a design director, and then from there I went to Target in-house where I was the senior art director. I wanted more time to do my own stuff and that’s why I went to Target. I wanted a little more nine to five, relaxed job so I could focus on making more of my own things. This was a great progression, because now I’m just full-on working for my own company called Dschwen, it’s been great!

So you did a little contract work for Knock, and you recently picked up a cool project. What’s the project?

I’ll be working with an agency out of Chicago to develop a new brand identity for a college over the summer. I’ll work on that while I continue to do all my editorial illustrations for magazines and all my Instagram fun stuff. 

You have four kids, don’t you?

Yes I have four kids. They’re great, I have three boys and my youngest is a daughter.

Poor thing.

No, don’t worry. She rules them. She’s a boss. I get to spend more time with them in the summer because of my new schedule.

You got some recent press and a lot of attention for a project you were doing on Instagram. Can you tell us about that project? How did that idea come about?

My Pantone Pairings! As a designer you’re always pairing up Pantone swatches when you’re picking out colors to see how they look together. I always write them down in my book that I use here (reaches for his Minnesota Field Notes Notebook in back pocket). I was looking through my books one time and asked myself, what else can I do with pairings? I do a lot of work with food and everyone really enjoys food pairings. So I did a bunch of silly, not too serious, Pantone pairings with food.

What was the first one you did?

The first one I did was ketchup and mustard. I almost didn’t even post it! Jess, my girlfriend, and I were on our way to something, I showed her the picture and asked her if it was gross or weird. She said, “no that’s awesome, you should post it!” So I posted it! I noticed that it was getting a lot of attention, tons of ‘likes’ and great feedback, so I just kept making them.

Instagram featured one of my photos where I made an “Insta-grahm Cracker” so that one had a lot of likes on it also. 

Didn’t you make some prints of your Pantone series? 

Yep! Twenty prints of the whole series. I have been shipping them out to places all over the world. I sent some to Hong Kong, Germany, Ireland the UK and all over the US. It’s been getting a lot of fun buzz. You can find them at foodartpairings.com. The milk and cookies pairing is almost sold out. I didn’t think that one was going to be the most popular, but people love it.

I might have a sale coming up called “Leftovers” so be sure to keep your eye out for that.

What else do you like to do in your spare time?

I like to go on bike rides, especially now that it’s summer. I just moved to Northeast Minneapolis, it’s nice being closer to more people. I’m also in the process of training for a half-marathon coming up in a couple weeks so we’ll see how that goes.

Now you’re your own brand, do you see that being your future?

I think so, yeah. As long as I can keep it going I’m going to do it because it’s great to have freedom and have variety of work instead of going to an agency full time.

How do you go about hustling, marketing yourself and getting work?

When I first started up on my own I contacted a few people, started networking a little bit, but ever since then I haven’t done much. So, I might need to figure out a plan if there’s a quiet time.

What was your biggest struggle moving from an agency to doing your own thing?

Just trying to make sure that I have enough going on and to have very little downtime. It wasn’t too hard; I feel like I should have done it sooner because everything I’m doing I love so much. I’m not as restricted, it works a lot better with my lifestyle because I have kids and I want to spend time with them, I’m able to be my own boss, and everything is great.

Do you have any cool projects on the horizon that you can talk about?

I need to do another series; I’ve got some stuff in the book that I need to go through (David pulls out his Minnesota Field Notes notebook and flips through the pages quickly). I’m going through these things like crazy. I’m always writing stuff down in here or in my iPhone if I just come up with an idea out of nowhere. I’ve got this list on here that it titled “Ideas”. It’s super long list. Some days I’ll go through it and say to myself, “that seems like an O.K. idea” or “man that idea really sucks what was I thinking?” Ha!

This all kind of started from a project that I was doing where I made something cool everyday, something that a lot of artists are doing nowadays. The goal is to make something cool everyday for a year. So I set out to do that, I made it seven months which I’m still proud of, but I think by taking that project on myself, it kind of trained me to be like this. During that process I was always thinking of stuff, it was very freeing moment as an artists and designer. 

Where do you find inspiration for your design?

I’m very inspired from being in a community of people whether they’re artists, photographers or designers, the fact that everyone is making something and all the different mediums that they’re using. A lot of my work is very multimedia, I’ll be making something out of clay, then I’Il be making something out of food then I’ll be doing something on the computer, it’s a big range and I think that’s why I don’t ever try to get in a set style. It’s very important to me to never get stagnant like that. I don’t want to be known as the Pantone guy, which it’s kind of already becoming that (David laughs). Whenever I post something that’s not from the series everyone comments, “more Pantones!”

Where did the idea for your “Teenage Mutant Ninja Limes” come from?

That literally happened when there were some limes out on the counter in the fruit bowl and my daughter’s bright colored hair ties were lying on the counter next to them, and I looked over and saw that and it just hit me. I started cutting all her headbands and just dove into it.

Was she pissed that you ruined her headbands?

No, she was napping so it worked out (David grins and everyone laughs).

What’s your drink?

Americano, every time. Very consistent. You make the best Americanos. Jess loves the Miel! Every place she goes to she says that it doesn’t compare to Greg’s Miel.

credits: photos by Eliesa Johnson, taken at the Walker Art Center