Adweek - Power List 2015

Adweek - Power List 2015

Where did you grow up and what are some of your favorite memories as a kid?

GQ 35 Under 35

GQ 35 Under 35

I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and moved to Cape Town when I was 14. I guess my favourite memories are actually the small ones that, in retrospect, I can point at as being moments of self-awareness before I ever would have know what that was. One of the earliest was watching this kid in pre-school draw this really crazy character and thinking that he was the coolest person I’d ever met. I wanted so badly to be able to do something like that and have other kids be in awe of me which I think was the first childish step in realising that I wanted to be a creator and not just a consumer. It was also the beginning of understanding that there is a big difference in loving something, and loving the idea of making that same thing.

Another similar one happened years later with music; meeting a friends older brother, and him making a mix tape for me which was so different from what kids at school listened to. More than loving the music itself, I fell in love with the idea of it’s difference, and the stupid superiority of the implied independence it made me feel. It was one of the first times I can remember feeling excited at the idea of being different, and the beginnings of wanting to discover and manifest all the ways in which I could be a more clearly defined version of myself. There are a bunch of these paradigm shifting moments scattered throughout my childhood, and they still sometimes happen. I think that’s what’s so powerful about them, is how present those feelings still are. I still want to be the kid drawing, but I also still love being the kid in awe.

When did you first realize that you were creative? Who encouraged you with it?

I’m not sure I ever had a moment when I realised I was creative but I have always had an ambitious, perfectionist streak, so I tend to work really hard at achieving in areas that interest me. So enjoying drawing and painting and making stuff as a kid was a balance of some natural talent and the stubbornness and drive to work hard at getting good at it. Obviously that was never conscious as such, and I had a lot of fun making stuff, but I think there was always a level of competitiveness I had, even with myself. I feel like I work hard for whatever creativity I do have, it’s not just this free flowing independent thing that I channel. 

Like most children i was probably motivated a lot by external validation. My parents encouraged me sure, but childhood is a kind of feedback loop: You do something and somebody likes it, it makes you like doing that thing more, so you try do it again but better. And we tend to abandon things we fail at or don’t get validation for. So a superficial encouragement came from any adult or friend or girl that seemed impressed. That being said I’ve also always had a pretty heavy internal locus of control, so a lot of my motivation also came from a personal sense of approval or disapproval with an end result. It’s not surprising that I ended up doing craft driven work.

Doubt is what keeps you moving. If you don’t doubt yourself then chances are you’re just doing what comes easy.

What was your journey from school through to where you are today in your career?

When I finished school I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I first took a year off. I had lots of interests with little focus. I wanted to do something creative, but I had also been working menial jobs to earn my own money since I was 16 so I was also pretty pragmatic about needing to earn cash. I barely understood what design really was at the time, but it came up in a career assessment. I didn’t have internet at the time, so I couldn’t really research it too deeply, but it seemed like a good balance between art and commerce, so I applied to study it. Obviously once I got into it I began to see how it was this amazing intersection between all these things that I loved; creative work with a problem solving component where I got to work with words and illustration on a daily basis. 

Once I finished I, again, wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do specifically within design, so I ended up working for a few different studios doing a wide range of things from print design to web design to designing and directing for animation. It was a way of learning a lot, figuring out what I liked and didn’t like and then moving on. This went on for a few years and I learned a lot. I got to a stage where I was doing quite a lot of creative direction in the motion company I worked for which meant doing less of the work myself. At the same time as working I had been experimenting quite a bit with with my own type and illustration work. I wasn’t ready to give up making work to focus on creative direction, and was getting more and more excited about the stuff I did on my own time, so I decided it was worth the risk to leave and try do my own thing. That was almost 7 years ago, and I’ve never worked for anyone since.

Boston Magazine

Boston Magazine

How did you come to running your own studio and what is it like to be creative but also have to take care of the business side of things?… Is that something that came naturally for you?

I don’t see business and creative work as two mental camps that you have to choose between but rather as different facets of the same whole. When you start out on your own and you’re young, you’re freelancing I guess. You have less responsibility and you can afford to not think about it as a business and just focus on the work, ignoring the money and admin side of it to some degree. But if you want to survive and grow you have to at some point make the paradigm shift of accepting that you and your work are part of a commercial enterprise. I’ve always been semi business minded and don’t have an issue with reconciling doing something I enjoy with trying to get paid fairly to do so. I think creative people are trained into seeing money as a dirty word by clients and agencies who know they can exploit that. We all get those emails, where someone seems shocked that you’d actually need to earn money to do their job, because it’s such a great opportunity etc. As if we’re all trust fund kids doing who don’t have rent to pay.

I made realistic motivational cards a while ago that say ‘Work Hard & Get Paid’ as a response to the romanticised exploitation narrative of the starving artist. I think it’s safe to say that nobody gets into design or illustration cause it’s such a lucrative racket. We’re all here for the work first, but that doesn’t negate the desire and need to be financially stable either. So for me the business side of creative work is necessary and fulfilling in it’s own way. 

I think there is an enabling aspect to collaboration that lets you give yourself permission to try things outside of your comfort zone and achieve things that would be tough to do alone.

How important in your opinion is it to not to be too influenced by the work that other designers put out there?

I tend not to worry too much about that. There are so many great illustrators out there doing amazing stuff but I barely go on the internet quite honestly and never go on design or illustration blogs to look for inspiration. My work tends to be pretty eclectic as a result of allowing myself to experiment without being too scared of trying to define, protect or avoid a specific personal ‘style’, or to be constantly trying to get closer or further away from someone else’s work because I’m using it as a reference. The only way I know how to make honest work is to sit down and just make it. I’m not going to spend my career working in reference to what everyone else is doing though. 

I do think I’m privileged in a sense to have started doing this kind of work when there weren’t too many people doing it, at least that I knew of, and access to actually seeing their work was almost non-existant for me. It meant that I could start from a point of experimentation without the pressure of living up to a certain standard set by millions of others, or worrying about the social media response. So in a lot of ways I was free to try and fail. I imagine it’s much tougher for younger people coming into this now, because the internet is so saturated with great imagery, and everyone wants to be amazing and recognised immediately, often without the work and failure needed to achieve it. This leads to a lot of attempts to leap frog off other peoples hard work. The dangerous counter point to this is that we've created an industry of style specialists, where everyone is trying to define and safe-guard a specific thing that they, and only they do. And while that’s cool and can lead to amazing work, I think it can be a minefield for young illustrators to navigate and find their space in. And with the social media often being a copycat witch-hunt zone, it’s probably tough to get through doing shitty or derivative stuff on your way to finding your own voice without being openly and savagely criticised for it. 

My advice would be to get a general understanding of the history and technicalities of your craft, and look for influences outside of your field of design if you need to. If you’re making truly honest work it’s unlikely that it’s every going to look exactly like something someone else has done. Plus making your own work is much more satisfying than making someone else’s. 

Teaching Tolerance - Illustrated Quote

Teaching Tolerance - Illustrated Quote

In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of social media? How does it effect your work/life?

I’ve made a lot of great friends and connections through twitter and Instagram, many of whom I’ve met personally while travelling and have become real life friends with. I mainly use Instagram as a bit of a blog for work and like most people I probably get a little preoccupied with numbers of likes and followers, but mostly I’m an observer on social media. I’m not part of the sharing generation and tend to keep my private life off the internet.

What I most love about social media is that it gives you access to the experiences of other people, which has helped me better understand and engage with my own privilege and place in the world.  Over the last few years, largely due to articles and video links found on social media, I've become so much more aware of the more nuanced issues relating to gender, economic, sexuality and race based privilege and discrimination, which in turn has helped me better understand how my behaviour can positively or negatively affect those issues.

It’s a great space to just listen to the experiences of other people. I think I’ve become a more socially aware and empathetic person through social media, which is ironic considering how incredibly anti-social and narcissistic, even the space I personally occupy on it, can be.

Do you ever doubt your creative ability and if so, how do you get through that?

Yeah, everyday. But doubt is what keeps you moving. If you don’t doubt yourself then chances are you’re just doing what comes easy. I honestly don’t think it’s something you get through, I think it’s something you lean into and use to make better work.

What have been some of your favorite projects you’ve had the opportunity to work on?

Early in my career I did a bunch of experimental branding pieces for Nike. It was amazing to get creative freedom from a dream client like them so early into going out on my own. It think it was an instrumental project for me for a few reasons. Firstly I got it off the back of a collection of personal experimental work I’d done, so that was hugely validating and a massive confidence boost. Secondly it helped with getting me visible to more international clients, which is still where the vast majority of my work comes from. And lastly it was for Nike, which is a reason in itself. 

I’ve also worked along side my buddy Adam Hill, with Rosetta Roastery, a local coffee roastery in Cape Town since their inception around 5 years ago. We’ve helped them build their brand from the ground up and have become trusted creative collaborators, and good friends with the owners. it’s a small project in many ways, just a single location, but their product is amazing and we’ve been involved in the project on so many levels that it feels more like a partnership than a client/designer relationship. Plus their store is in the same building I have a studio so I get to have great coffee and enjoy the space every day. I think it sums up so much of what I love about design. There’s not much more you could ask from this job than to be able to add real and long lasting value to someone else’s vision in a genuinely collaborative way. 

Fortune - 40 Under 40

Fortune - 40 Under 40

Hensteeth - Wine Label

Hensteeth - Wine Label

How important is the Design Community to you and your work?

Designers are the same as cos-players or trekkies. We’re all incredibly excited and passionate about this niche thing that very few people understand or even really know exists. We go to conferences about it, and talk about it when we hang out, and take photos of signs and manhole covers when we go on holidays. There is such a genuine passion behind making stuff with your hands and understanding how everything in the built world exists through design, and I think it’s great, and necessary to engage with people who share that passion. Right now it’s really exciting I think because social media has connected the international design community in this immediate and constant way and engendered this great feeling of supportive competition. You’re making friends with the same people who could be running against you for new jobs, or congratulating someone on a job you feel really jealous you didn’t get, while knowing they nailed it. I love seeing great new work that friends are doing and getting that kick of feeling like I need to up my game. I can’t imagine there are that many professions that have that same sense of community and support.

What do you love about living in Cape Town, South Africa and In what ways has living there been a benefit to your work and creativity?

Cape Town, and in broader sense South Africa is a pretty crazy place to live. On the one hand it’s incredibly beautiful and creative with lots of great people and energy, but on the other it’s still very much entrenched in the countries legacy of economic and social inequality. It’s kind of a country of dichotomies that we have to navigate every day which I think adds a tension and vibrancy to the work made here. The creative scene in Cape Town is incredibly ambitious and outward looking, but also closely connected, loads of great ideas and drive, but without the economy to support all those ideas locally. Tons of great independent designers with very few large design studios to work for. It’s interesting in that the challenges we face here are what seems to focus our ambition. I think the talent here can easily compete with anywhere else in the world, but we have to work harder to get noticed internationally. So in that way it’s a challenging but amazing city to be in as a designer.

Realistic Mantra Cards

Realistic Mantra Cards

What are some of your favorite parts of the design process?

You Know Better - Digital Sketch

You Know Better - Digital Sketch

Play, craft and collaboration. I love experimenting with techniques and ideas, new ways of doing same thing. When you work predominantly with letters and words, you have to be pretty inventive with how those same building blocks can be used in fresh and engaging ways. I also love the obsessive and detail driven process of craft, working on tiny details and finishing to give pieces polish. This is part of a compulsive side of my personality and a process I find pretty calming in many ways. This isn’t always about adding more and more though, sometimes the craft process is about reduction, and stripping away something to it’s essentials. I love doing simple vector illustrations, icons and logos as well as detail driven illustration work. Lastly i love collaborating with other people on projects. I think there is an enabling aspect to collaboration that lets you give yourself permission to try things outside of your comfort zone and achieve things that would be tough to do alone. 

What motivates you to create and put new work out there?

I’m not sure I have a choice really. Aside from this being the thing I do to pay the bills, I feel a kind of compulsive need to make stuff. When I have a bit of down time with commercial projects I will be sketching, working on a personal project or planning an exhibition. It’s a weird mixture of ambition, fear, guilt and excitement at the idea of being able to create something that didn’t exist before. I think I have to try harder to build a life outside of just working to be honest. I don’t want my job to be the only thing that defines me, or have no interests outside of it. It’s part of the reason I try my hardest not to work over weekends. or at night, and to make sure I do pointless and silly things like playing video games. It starts to lose it’s thrill when it becomes a manic series of end-reults. 

What are some of the things that make you feel blessed/fortunate in life?

Thats a tricky question. There is a deeper socio-political issue that I try to be really aware of, which is that I’m a straight white male from a middle class family, and I know with that comes a lot of privileges that are automatically and unfairly afforded to me. It’s hard to feel fortunate for some of those privileges without ignoring that that they often come at a disadvantage to someone else. But with that knowledge has to come a deep gratitude and acknowledgment of how lucky I am to have what I have: to have been able to grow up with the luxury of studying and working at something I was passionate about, to have a roof over my head, an amazing wife, great friends, all the while building a career out of making pictures. It’s ridiculous and rare, and so easy to take for granted, but I don’f for a second imagine it’s all down to my own fortitude, talent or tenacity, or some sort of divine favouritism that the incredibly problematic term ‘blessed’ implies.

Interview date: 8th October 2015
Interview by: Asher Compton
Introduction by: Jesse Acheson