Last Sunday we went to London to the Four Designers conference, hosted by Patrick Baglee. The conference was an eye opening look into the various careers that can be made through design, the challenges, rewards, opportunities and struggles. We heard from those who had set up successful agencies and earned notoriety for their work.
The conference took place over several hours and I heard a huge volume of advice, recounted experiences and examples of work. I couldn’t possibly recount everything but I’ve condensed my post into the nuggets of wisdom that drew me in the most.
Matthew Shannon – BRASH BRANDS
Matthew Shannon is a highly respected graphic designer who has, during the course of his career worked for Atelier Works, Addison Group, Meta Design and Getty images. Of his lecture his explanation of the complexity of the job of a graphic designer hit home for me most of all. He explained the process by which he helped re-brand the Skoda car company.
In 2001 Skoda was bought by Volkswagen. They gained much needed investment and began to innovate. They required a re-brand. Shannon explained how Skoda was often ridiculed for being a terrible car company, he gave us some examples of this:
“What do you call a Skoda with a sun-roof? – A skip”
The trick, he explained. Was to understand the audience for your brand. It was clear that people’s perception of Skoda was poor, so the key would be to work off that knowledge. This lead the team to create the tag line “It’s a Skoda. Honest.” The genius of this is exceptional to me. Acknowledge to the audience that Skodas of the past were as terrible as percieved. But these new vehicles? You can hardly believe they are made by the same people, they’re so good. Owning the stereotype and disarming consumer’s prejudice.
This level of work of the part of a design agency was something I had not considered until this point. I understood that to create a brand, research was required. But as Shannon said “for a brief while, a designer must become an expert in the field he is designing for”.
THINK — RETHINK — DO
This simple idea was very helpful to me. As Shannon said, once you have all the information and understanding you need (THINK) and have explored every avenue (RETHINK), the design stage itself (DO) is relatively simple. The trap some fall into is that they begin drawing up ideas (DO) first. Leaving them little room for maneuver and severely compromising the effectiveness of their work. I realise that I have been guilty of this in the past but now feel I can look at future projects with fresh eyes.
Other Good Advice
- Learn as much as you can about other cultures, design does not exist in a vacuum. It is an ever changing, morphing phenomenon that is approached very differently across the world.
- Be ready for change, at any moment your business model could become obsolete and you must adapt quickly.
- Do not neglect anything. If a business has a positive aspect they are not capitalizing on, make sure it is utilized. If they have socially responsible schemes and non one knows. Highlight them to the public.
- Don’t be insular. Get other people’s opinions, share your ideas, use outsiders to publicize. Use social media. Get feedback.
Joanna Davis – ZAK
Joanna Davies is the founder of ZAK. A design agency that she created from her own home. ZAK is an audience focused design agency that seeks to engage influential under 30s. Their main focus is on turning around struggling brands. They have worked with the likes of L’oréal, Vodafone, Southern Comfort and the BBC.
Her talk centered around an advertising campaign for New Balance Football. A small Football equipment brand in comparison to Adidas or Nike. As a result of this ZAK did a great deal of audience research. Asking young people interested in sports and sports wear what they wanted to see from a brand. What they discovered was that instead of placing footballing stars on pedestals, as was the norm. They wanted to see them as simply people. It’s easy to identify someone if you don’t see them as some form of Demigod.
The campaign brief was to advertise to types of football shoe. ZAK decided that on the very limited budget they were afforded, they should combine both shoes into one advert. Thus saving costs and setting the standard for such ads in the future. They also used a clever slogan. A signature of the NBFootball brand is that each shoe released is numbered. ZAK therefore incorporated this into the ‘NUMBERS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS’ campaign.
These are all simply anecdotes of past work. But they illustrate the real world role of a designer and a design agency. The the rich variety of responsibilities and tasks spanning every aspect of society. No two projects are ever the same. I learned an awful lot from Joanna about the uncertain nature of this profession. every problem has a unique solution.
Joanna’s Top Tips
- Be clear on what sets you aside from the crowd. Your experiences give you a unique perspective and thus a unique outcome.
- Street smarts, be adaptive.
- Be innovative, stand out.
- Ambition is key, always seek to improve yourself.
- Learn to compromise and work with others.
- Do all the research you can.
- Don’t take failure to heart
- Understand your client before anything else.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Matt Baxter – BAXTER AND BAILEY
Matt Baxter is one half of the Brighton based design group, Baxter & Bailey. A small yet prodigious design company founded in 2012. Matt began his lecture with a piece of insight I thought was very interesting. A quote.
“Anybody can be an expert in anything, given 10,000 hours of practice”
I feel as though many at the outset of their undergraduate studies, including myself, were under the impression that their abilities in drawing and digital software were going to allow them an easy entrance to the world of Graphic Design. But this quote put that in perspective. There is no way to breeze through such a career. It is methodical and requires training and insight. Simply drawing nice looking things won’t do.
Matt’s top tips…And then the opposite tips.
- SAY YES TO EVERYTHING
Take every opportunity you can get, enter competitions, find placements, be commited to learning as much as you can and being seen.
- FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT
In this line of work you will forever come up against challenges you have never faced before, you will always find yourself out of your depth at some point so just power through and learn as you go.
- GO PLACES
Visit galleries, travel, learn about design in other cultures. Not every culture has the same approach to design. Draw from every source you can.
- DON’T WORK FOR FREE
Don’t devalue your own work by doing unpaid placements and giving away what you’ve worked so hard to achieve.
- DON’T SAY YES TO EVERYTHING
Be selective about who you work for, do your best to insure your client does not contravene your personal moral code. They may have dubious practices etc.
- DON’T FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT
If you find you are no longer struggling to perform your role, then you may well have gotten complacent and you will quickly tire of your work. Don’t be afraid to work beyond your knowledge but you can ask for help.
- TRY WORKING LOCALLY
Work for places in your area, try to revitalize local businesses and interests of yours.
- DO WORK FOR FREE
Don’t be taken advantage of with unpaid placements. But by all means work for good causes and improve yourself in the process while being unpaid. Case in point, Baxter & Bailey did a piece for the Guild of Food Writers which still appears in top charts of all tie design work. A small project with little of no budget worked on during lunch breaks.
I absolutely love this piece. It’s like the visual equivalent of a perfect pun. It plays on image so cleverly in such a neat and minimalist way. I fully understand the attention this design has received. It serves as a strong reminder that the ‘doing’ process, actually drawing out a design. Is just a small part of the process. The idea needs all the effort. You need to work and work at finding the perfect idea before creation can begin.
For fear of repeating myself, the Four Designers Conference was an hugely enlightening experience for me. In my work up to this point, I have been so eager to get to work and start putting pen to paper than I have possibly sabotaged myself and my final outcome by limiting my options for innovation. The first idea that may pop into my head may well be stimulated by a memory of something I have seen done before, rendering the product a copy, or at least something unremarkable.
The emphasis the designer I met was universally on the methodical process of research and just thinking about things. Read the brief ever so carefully and develop you ideas. Don’t rush into anything. My perspective has been entirely changed on Design and I am better off for it.