Justin Gabbard Likes His Quiet Alameda Life

The busy Google art director finds the Island provides respite from his hectic workdays.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

As an award-winning illustrator and busy art director for Google, Bay Area native Justin Gabbard loves coming home to Alameda. Specializing in editorial illustration and hand-drawn typography for print, online, and advertising, he counts among his client list The New Yorker, Stanford, Wired, Newsweek and The New York Times. After living in New York City for several years, Gabbard brought his family back to the Bay Area, settling into life on the Island.

What has been your life and career path in the Bay Area?

I grew up in the Bay Area, but my path into tech has not been direct, which I’m grateful for. Growing up amidst the first dot-com boom and bust, I’ve been aware of tech and had exposure to mobile and web design through friends in San Francisco and Oakland over the years.

One early inspiration was the amazing Mission School art scene that emerged in the 1990s in San Francisco. Seeing the Beautiful Losers show at Yerba Buena was a lightning bolt to my brain as a teenager. For me, it fused together art, music, and punk rock into a whole life vision. Seeing such talented artists like Margaret Killgallen, Barry McGee, Ed Templeton, Chris Johanson, and others was really formative for me.

I did my undergrad at CCA in Oakland where I met my wife, Kylie — working at Cato’s Ale House on Piedmont, I wooed her with free pizza. During those years, I was able to attend shows at Upper Playground Gallery, Fecal Face, 111 Minna, and so many other amazing galleries. Most of my work then was painting and drawing until we moved to New York for grad school and I got my MFA in illustration at the School of Visual Arts in 2007. Five years ago, after our son Townes turned 1, we moved to Alameda to be closer to family and friends. I was an adjunct professor at CCA for five years and have worked as an illustrator for nearly 10 years now.

A few examples of the graphics and art Gabbard creates.

What was it like returning to the Bay Area to work?

When we first moved to Alameda, I was working out of an amazing art studio on the East End, sharing a space with the super talented KC Rosenberg. My studio focused on editorial illustration, and I juggled four to five projects at a time, ran the studio, and taught students at CCA in San Francisco. Combine that with being a parent to small kids, and it was quite a lot to balance. These days, I am more focused on my role with Google. My work for them and other influences have allowed me to invest a good amount of time volunteering for the Alameda Food Bank and the Alameda Point Collective.

What are you up to at Google?

When the iPhone came out, mobile design exploded, and now, more than a decade later, illustration, animation, and design are able to live in that space like it never has before. So for me, becoming art director for Google Play was an exciting opportunity. I run a team of designers and illustrators that spans Google Play Store and its Apps, Play Games, Books, and Movies and TV. We’re creating brand campaigns, illustrations, animations, and more for over two billion active users across the world. It’s cool when we get to create illustrations for regional holidays like Songkran (Thailand) or Golden Week (Japan). In some ways it’s similar to my previous work, but the scale is much, much larger.

More examples of Gabbard's graphics and art.

How does living here influence your urban view?

I love the East Bay. It’s a diverse, vibrant, beautiful place to live and has such a great history of activism, art, and music. I really hope that all of the new investments moving into the area will make living here more equitable for everyone, not just the people who can afford it. Oakland has so many great murals going up downtown, and I think Alameda would benefit greatly from some more public art initiatives at that scale. I’d love to help underrepresented artists create and install work around Alameda. If anyone has a budget for it, let me know. 

What does “coming home” to Alameda look like after a busy week at Google?

With two young children, Alameda has been great for our family. Our oldest is now 7, and last June, we adopted our younger son; he’ll be 3 in May. My wife works in the city, too, as an architectural lighting designer for Pritchard Peck Lighting, so Alameda is just a nice place to come home to after commuting all week. We laugh when we realize it’s Sunday night and we haven’t left the island all weekend.

We spend a lot of time working on our old house, which is a never-ending art project. We love going to the Alameda Theatre for date night, and my son and I get some quality time at the Pacific Pinball Museum and High Scores Arcade. Places like the Alameda Point Collaborative and Ploughshares Nursery are doing great things on our side of the Island. Walking along the Bay Trail, hitting up the skate park and Jean Sweeney Park are all favorite spots for us, too. And walks to the beach on a Sunday can’t be beat.

For more info about Justin Gabbard’s work, visit his website at JustinGabbard.com.

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