Air Force artisans: Jan Kays

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Ian Dudley
  • 30th Space Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This will be an ongoing series highlighting the diverse talents and artistic passions of Vandenberg Airmen.

Jan Kays, 30th Space Wing visual information specialist, works quietly in her place of Zen; headphones providing a sound barrier from unwanted distractions and three monitors displaying her latest design project. In her creative space she is always surrounded by half-finished and completed projects, and the collection of Dr. Who and Star Trek memorabilia scattered around her office would make most nerds giggle with delight. Amidst the organized chaos, a collection of triaged projects line the desk in color-coded folders with sticky-notes interspersed in vibrant pastels. Even her desk reflects the high standards of her aesthetic.

In the 15 years that Kays has worked in the graphics department at Vandenberg, she has had a profound impact on how the base is perceived.

"Vandenberg has something that not every Air Force base has, and that is branding," said Larry Hill, 30th Space Wing community engagement section chief. "All of the artwork and everything that represents the base visually is consistent. When you see something about Vandenberg you can tell, even if it doesn't say 30th Space Wing or Vandenberg Air Force Base, because we have great branding, and that is all due to Jan creating that for us."

Kays began her military art career shortly after graduating from art school when she was 19. Having heard that the military was taking illustrators, and knowing how tough it was to land a job straight out of art school, she signed up.

"My recruiter told me to take my art portfolio with me to basic training," said Kays. "I marched every place with that 25-pound portfolio and showed it to anybody who would look at it. My basic training job counselor asked to see my portfolio; he took a look and got me a job with HQ recruiting service at Randolph as an illustrator. I didn't realize it at the time, but that job was one in a million."

It didn't take Kays long to make an impact as a designer for the Air Force. As a young Airman she was tasked with making Air Force road signs. This design later became the 'Aim High' Air Force logo for 25 years.

"I got orders to England for two years and when I came back, as I was driving onto Norton Air Force Base I saw busses driving by with that logo on them," said Kays. "What had happened was that the signs went out and they found they were being stolen left and right, they couldn't keep them up. So they decided to make that the Air Force logo. It was used for 25 years after that."

Kays served nine years before she separated from the military to pursue civilian illustration work. During the time spent not working for the Air Force, Kays worked at an ad agency, freelanced as a medical illustrator, conducted crime scene reconstruction drawing, and was an art director before coming around full circle to once again use her talents for the Air Force.

"I illustrated a few books on cancer and reconstruction after cancer," said Kays. "I also did some work for the American Cancer Society. I ended up doing a little bit of everything."

Kays is a practitioner of a multitude of mediums and will use whatever is best suited to the project at hand to accomplish her objective and thrives on a challenge.

"In the workplace I know what the end result needs to be before I begin, and that's what I love about it, it's creative problem solving," said Kays. "It's the fact that I have finite resources, an end product that I am supposed to have, and usually a short amount of time. That is typically how it works. I have to figure out how to get all of those to the end result, and make it a really good end result. That's what makes it fun."

Jan has been in the design career field for 45 years now; to say she loves it would be an understatement. Despite the amount of joy she receives from working in a field she is passionate about, there are a few downsides.

"You have to learn to give away ownership in this career," said Kays. "When you are doing art for yourself it is yours and you own it. But working in a commercial entity you have to understand that you aren't working for yourself and have to give away ownership; a lot of people have a really hard time with that. In addition, I work for the Air Force, so I can't take any credit for my designs."

During her time at Vandenberg, Kays has shaped the way communication is perceived and has delivered a level of aesthetics rarely seen at other Air Force bases.

"In communication, the non-verbal is so important," said Hill. "You can create a list of items on a poster and people won't pay attention to them. But when that same information is presented in a way that is aesthetically pleasing you're going to pay attention. Because of Jan we are able to focus not only on what we say in writing, but how it is presented."