What Matters to Joe Newton

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Joe Newton is a font-obsessed designer, educator, artist, and musician who lives in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. He recently illustrated his first book, Savage Love from A to Z, in collaboration with nationally syndicated sex advice guru Dan Savage.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Creating on my own terms. Freedom from restraints. I do enjoy working for clients, but it’s a relief not to need to second-guess my decisions.

I’ve expressed this in a variety of ways.

Music has been the most consistent outlet, creating with others. Each person contributes as they see fit. When the chemistry is correct, it becomes more than the sum of its parts. (Perhaps the best client relationships achieve this.)

I’ve tried to make this creation less goal-oriented. Just let things flow. It’s hard to let go of the idea of doing something with an intended result, e.g., making music should result in performance or recorded output. But sometimes, it’s rewarding to create for the sake of creating.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

I loved drawing as a kid. I think this was not particularly unique or conscious creativity. But unlike many kids, I kept doing it. I didn’t get discouraged by my limitations, i.e., the inability to draw realistically.

My first memory of consciously being ‘creative’ was performing the lead role in my school play in 3rd grade. I was very aware that I was performing for the audience. I didn’t take a further interest in acting, but enjoyed performing music and have continued doing that over the years.

What is your biggest regret?

I don’t think a lot about regret. But perhaps it’s something basic, like not spending a bit more time with my dad during his last years. Like many people, my frustrations and resentments towards him got in the way of being more generous with him. I only figured out how to feel more generosity towards him in the last year or so of his life. It wasn’t about what he could give me but what I could give him.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

Walking. Walking. Walking. Walking. Walking.

And forgiveness? I’m still very close with my former partner of 16 years. But it took a couple of years to work through it. I found that the friendship was worth more than whatever satisfaction I could take in being angry.

What makes you cry?

Maudlin ballads.


How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

It’s always mixed— push and pull. I tend to pick everything apart. That can suck the joy right out of creating. On the other hand, I can come back to an older project and see its merits over time.

Then I can pick it apart all over again. That’s a struggle: “I’m good at this.” / “I’m not good enough.”

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I’m agnostic. Perhaps some part of us lives on. But more as an expression of energy or ideas. The afterlife could be what others carry on from their contact with you.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I can be fussy and irritable.

What do you love most about yourself?

I can be steadfast and patient.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

I like the simple comfort of a taco. Roast some potatoes with onions and garlic, add some beans, cheese, greens, fresh guac, and pico de gallo. Grill the tortillas until they get a little crisp. I never get tired of that.