Design Maverick: The Art of Challenging the Status Quo

In the world of entrepreneurship, few skills are as important as vision and passion. Jeff Johnson, a 1992 Art graduate from Minnesota State University Moorhead (at the time known as Moorhead State University), embodies this ethos.

“You can’t fake it if you love it,” he says of his work.

From admittedly humble beginnings on a rural Horace, ND farm to becoming a sought-after designer for global brands, Johnson's journey is one defined by his dedication to his craft. One of the first stops of that journey, Moorhead, set the stage for his illustrious career in design.

At MSUM, Johnson honed his skills in the art department. Working odd jobs to sustain himself, including rolling film in the student design center, Johnson got used to wearing many hats. He lived in the art department – literally. Johnson says he didn’t have housing one year and made the department his home, truly immersing himself in art & design.

“I had a magical experience,” Johnson says while reminiscing on his time in Moorhead. It was here he forged strong connections which last to this day.

Upon graduating with honors, Johnson ventured to Minneapolis with several of his peers from MSUM. He quickly made a mark in the design industry. Starting as an intern, he ascended to the role of Design Director within six years. He worked with iconic international brands such as Coca-Cola’s Fruitopia and Miller Time.

In 1996, Johnson founded his own agency, Replace, as a side hustle. A few years later, he embarked on a transformative journey to New Zealand, where he served as Senior Designer for Designworks in Wellington. This international stint broadened his perspective, paving the way for his return to the United States to run Replace full-time.

Replace emerged as an international award-winning team of artists and writers specializing in brand design. Guided by the belief that businesses exist to improve and replace the status quo, Replace approaches every project with a bold, innovative mindset. Their work found its way into prestigious institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Minnesota Historical Society, and Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center.

Johnson's vision for Replace is clear. He says, “I want to work with people who change the status quo.”

One client that exemplifies this disruptive mentality is Jonny Pops. The Minnesota-based company specializes in better-for-you frozen treats made with real fruit, cream and natural foods. Despite initial challenges and the absence of financial compensation, Johnson's belief in Jonny Pops' mission fueled Replace’s commitment to the project. Johnson believed in the startup to the point he did not collect full payment for the first several years of design work.

Johnson says it can be challenging for entrepreneurs to opt for clients with smaller budgets. He says “in the entrepreneurial space, you need to decide why you’re here.”

For him and his team at Replace, it’s about making a difference. In fact, Replace donates 50% of profits from select products it sells to a variety of non-profits.

As he prepares to participate in an entrepreneur panel at the 26th annual Student Academic Conference, he has some advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

“The market changes. What doesn’t change is honesty, hard work and a clear vision.”

These guiding principles have helped Johnson and the Replace team succeed in empowering the disruptors and challengers of the world.

Johnson is one of four MSUM alumni who will speak at the Student Academic Conference’s Entrepreneur Panel.

Other presenters include:

  • Carrie Leopold (Biology, ‘04) | Inspire Innovation Lab
  • Melanie Fierstine (Social Work, ‘98) | MindFit
  • Melanie Iverson (Mass Communications, ‘06) | She Overcomes

BFA in Studio Art

Grow as an artist and explore techniques to develop your skills.
Learn More

More Stories from Dragons

View All Dragon Stories