Jeff Johnston

Top 40 Under 40 2011

Photography 3Ten/Aaron Pedersen

Age: 36

Job Title: Industrial Designer

Why He’s Top 40: He finds solutions to every problem, whether it’s creating a fish maze for a zoologist or making something useful out of scraps of lumber.

Key To Success:  “Design is always a hunt, a search for something, and I get taken away.”

When the doctors and professors at the University of Alberta’s biology department want to take their research to prototype, only one goateed, kung fu-loving occasional-beekeeper can help: “Jeff from the shop.”

“I have academics coming to me, asking for anything and everything related to biology,” says Jeff Johnston, fabrication workshop coordinator and U of A industrial design instructor. “And I build it.”

Since 2002, he’s been honoured to build hundreds of apparatuses – or, as he might call them, “solutions” – related to zoology, genetics, paleontology and more. “Problem solving is 30 to 40 per cent of what I do. It’s what keeps me going.”

He’s also an independent industrial designer, one who sold a design for a whimsical picture holder to Umbra, which in turn sold more than a million of his products. And, there’s at least 500 people wearing his geometric wood pendants, a solution to two problems – what to do with wood scraps and how to woo his new girlfriend. Four years later, Brandy Burdeniuk, his partner in life and their business, Offcut Jewelry, still gets complimented for that first design whenever she wears it.

Johnston is also teaching design foundations in the U of A’s design department, where he learned his craft 10 years ago.

Together with associate professor Robert Lederer, Johnston came up with one the department’s most successful ideas in 2008. As one of their final projects, students make architecturally inspired pet abodes, which they auction at the annual Pets in the Park. Proceeds – now in the thousands of dollars – go to the Edmonton Humane Society.

It gives back and challenges his students to seek unique ways of using their talents. “Too many talented people are quick to assume that to be a designer you have to leave for a larger city. There is work that needs to be done here, you just have to be creative and look for it in unexpected places.” 

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