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Meet Joby Harris of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena

Today we’d like to introduce you to Joby Harris.

Joby, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I moved to Los Angeles from Pittsburgh, PA at the age of 21 to chase a lofty dream of building spaceships as a special effects artist for movies. I made a fast detour into theme parks landing a job at Walt Disney’s Imagineering making models and sculptures instead for a theme park in Tokyo called Tokyo Disney Sea. Those first five years in LA were an artist’s dream, working at Disney during the week and also playing in a punk band on the weekends in Orange County. Many say it takes 5 to 10 years to really do what you want to do in LA. Well it took me 6 months and I thought I had the LA dream in full swing, at least until I got laid off.  Once the theme park design was completed and the park was built, I was sent packing and I found myself having to, in a sense, start over. I began doing special effects work for productions with budgets so small, I had to make the FX props they needed out of dollar store pots and pans just so I could take as much of the money home as possible to make ends meet. Eventually, I found my way into a good FX shop called NEOTEK (now called HPR) and was suddenly making props for tv shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Malcolm in the Middle and Firefly.  I even sculpted spacesuits for the show Star Trek Enterprise.

As computers took over the FX industry, more and more model makers and prop makers were getting laid off. I anticipated this surge of layoffs and took initiative showing the shop owner my portfolio of concept designs, storyboards, illustrations I’d done on my own time. I quickly became the shop’s concept designer, now designing the props that would be built for the shows instead of making them. Over time, I realized I couldn’t be afraid of the digital realm or threatened by it anymore but had to embrace it fully. (Geeez I sound old.)  I taught myself Photoshop and 3D programs and dove heavily into freelance design for the next ten years doing artwork for books, album covers, posters and non-profit outreach materials. Feeling like surviving on paths others told me to walk rather than thriving creating my own, I realized I needed to take control of my story and go next-level into my passion: films. I took some risks financially and created a commercial for Doritos that won a contest sending me to the Super Bowl as a prize. I met some heavy-hitting folks in the industry there who told me, “You got it as a comedy director kid!” But there was a problem. I was dead broke and other commercial directors I talked to told me it was feast or famine in that field especially for new directors. That’s not what I was looking for no matter how good the “dream” seemed.  I was hurting financially and it was robbing my peace. Is there anything more important than your own peace and joy? I knew I had to get out of freelance and be a responsible person and do something consistent that would allow me to start building some savings even at the expense of setting the dreams aside for a season. Plus… a little health insurance never hurt anybody. This meant (thunder and lightning) getting a full-time job. I could only hope it would be creative.

I immediately received a call from a friend at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena asking if I was looking for full-time work. He’d started a small design team on the lab and needed someone who could wear a bunch of different design hats: drawing, graphics, filming, editing, etc. I took the job and now it’s been eight years of working as a Visual Strategist for NASA and JPL. Each day I use every artistic tool I’ve ever picked up along the way to support the scientists and engineers with design, artwork and strategy. I visually help them brainstorm their missions, dream about the future and most of all, communicate what they’re doing to the public in meaningful and tangible ways.

Has it been a smooth road?
As my industry grew to embrace new ways of doing things and quick to toss the old, I had to navigate and compensate, quickly learning new tools or else I’d get swallowed up. Complacency was always an option for me but that’s not why I left everything to move to LA. I had to attack the change and be proactive. I had to communicate with others with honesty about my situation and offer what else I had to contribute that was useful. People arent’ mind readers and they aren’t looking out for your dreams to be fulfilled. You only get what you voice and ask for and you have to be proactive in letting people know you’re there and capable. If people know, then they are more willing to create space for you.

My biggest hurdle was always my finances. Too afraid to give up my “freelance artist” way of life for a 9 to 5, I often lived paycheck to paycheck in a pile of anxiety. I even secretly and embarrassingly lived out of my car for six months just to use rent money as a means to get ahead of my debt. Things changed for me one day when I made a difficult decision to set the dreams aside for a season, be a responsible person, and get a job for the purpose of saving money and reinvesting in myself the training I needed to take things to the next level.  If I put my head down and worked hard, I could have savings, be better at my craft and most importantly have some inner peace that I lacked going from paycheck to paycheck. Little did I know the job I took to simply make money to pay for schooling, at JPL, ended up becoming my design career, launching me as an artist further than I ever would have gone had I stuck to the previous plan.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
JPL is NASA’s go-to center for unmanned space missions. Before people go somewhere, we send rovers and robots and spacecraft. JPL is made up of mostly scientists and engineers who create space missions, scientific instruments and many other science or tech-related projects exploring Earth and outer space.

I work as a Visual Strategist which is a fancy term for designer or Art Director. I support the scientists and engineers with design, artwork and strategy to help them “think through their thinking” as we say.  It could be designing a proposal for new planet-finding telescopes or taking data from an already existing mission and presenting it graphically in a more understandable way. For the Exoplanet office, I’ve illustrated vintage-style travel posters to far off planets that actually exist as though they were vacation getaways. I’ve sculpted a giant detailed three-dimensional moon of Saturn to show kids the icy surface and geysers that shoot out of the poles. I’ve created branding for space missions, and graphics showing the science they believe is going on beneath the surface of moons like Europa. Ultimately, I use every tool I’ve ever picked up along my journey to help NASA and JPL folks communicate with each other effectively and also communicate to the public the amazing things they’re doing intangible, engaging and hopefully inspiring ways.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
Space and NASA has become more and more popular over the past ten years thanks to movies, exciting real launches broadcast online,  and even the selling of the NASA logo on clothing found everywhere. As the world goes through its flux and flows, space is something we can all connect with no matter who we are or where we are. We all collectively look up with wonder and fascination.  Exploration and discovery aren’t trends or fads, they’re universal, timeless, and make up the foundation of the human spirit. So, I think NASA will continue to be a strong source of hope for people and only grow stronger as more and more access is given online to launches , science and mission photos and videos. We’re seeing more kids drawn into STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) than ever before. As far as art and design being a part of the conversation, I believe I’m at the beginning of its use and influence. Ultimately design and art at NASA is in its purest sense a communication tool. The majority of the world understands complex things differently than the PHD level scientist. A lot of important things get lost in data once it reaches the public eye. This is where art and design come in and build the bridge between two so both can understand and both can be educated and both can be inspired.

My proudest moment as a designer will be having artwork potentially going to Mars this year on the Perseverance Rover. A design I did with the help of a team of folks in our studio, sits etched on a plate beneath computer chips containing the names of 11 million people who want their names to also go to the red planet. On this plate, in a simple line art style is one sun and two planets: Earth on one side and Mars on the other. This simple image shows, no matter how far apart we are from each other (Earth and Mars) we are joined by the same star and the same light. It speaks into connection, unity, exploration and wonder. This is where art can live within the space industry and I feel the benefits it brings to communicating a message, a story and inspiration to people is just getting started.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Photo of Rover Etched drawing of planets and sun – NASA/JPL-Caltech; Photo of me in the air – Dan Goods; Photo of me in white t-shirt/ hat – Alicia Chandler; Photo of me with older gentlemen. Older gentlemen is Richard Danne the man who designed the NASA “worm” logo

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