Becoming Designer & Director at Aardman Animations – An interview with Gavin Strange

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This week Ian interviews Gavin Strange, Director & Designer for Aardman Animations by day, and by night he runs JamFactory, where he works on a number of passion side projects including film making, toy design, illustration, photography and more! We talk about the journey Gavin took to get his job with Aardman, his side projects, design process, his thoughts on uni and much more.

 

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Gavin Strange Interview Transcription

 

Ian Paget: I understand that you didn’t go to university, but you’ve been able to work your way up to become a graphic designer and director for Aardman Animations. Could you talk through your journey to how you was able to get into that position?

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah, sure. I’ll try, and give you the relatively short version because I do get excited and go off on…

 

Ian Paget: No, it’s fine. You can go into it in as much detail as you want.

 

Gavin Strange: Okay. Tangent it is. I’ll go right back to school. I just wasn’t someone that was in particularly academically gifted. I liked school, and I always liked learning and things like that, but I just never measured greatly against tests. I was never really bad, but I was never really good. I was just somewhere in the middle … just very mediocre, and that just meant that I had very mediocre aspirations because I just didn’t know what the world expected of me, almost. You know. So I was always just going from next step to next step.

I never really had any big plans, especially about then. You know when you’re 15, 16 years old and someone says, “Well, what do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life?” That’s such a grand, and daunting, and terrifying question, especially at that age. You don’t know. I think it’s a question to ask, “What kind of person do you want to be?”, really.

Anyway, back then, I wasn’t really sure, but I knew I was interested in design and graphics and art, mainly based on I liked computer games, and characters, and toys, and animation. I just, kind of, liked that stuff, and I didn’t really know where that would take me until I just thought, maybe, I should go to … Maybe to, at least, in the next step of education and that would be to go to college, local college in Leicester, where I was originally from. I just, kind of, went on this course … this two-year course, B Tech national diploma and graphic design. I was really not very good.

I’ve told people about this before, and I think people think, “No, he’s just being silly or modest.” I’m really not. I’m not amping it up. I genuinely was really not very good. You ask any of my friends. They can’t believe that I’ve got a dream job now because, back then, gain, I was just somewhere in the middle. I was neither bad. I was neither good. I didn’t really … The spot hadn’t … I hadn’t found it yet.

It wasn’t until a few years later, though, and I’ll come to that, that it really did, sort of, kick in. So I really enjoyed college and I loved it, but I kept getting more distracted with … I made a best friend, back, with Johnny, who I’m now still best friends with, 20 years later.

We, basically, sort of, didn’t pay attention to graphic design. We just went to go in the computer room, downloading trailers from the Apple site. This was when it was a real ordeal. You had to really put in the hours to watch a trailer, to get a trailer. So we just spent the whole theorising about films, writing terrible scripts. As a side note, I wrote a terrible film script called, “Angels,” when I was 16. Johnny brought that out at my wedding day and had copies available for people so they could read-

 

Ian Paget: Oh, I love it. That’s brilliant.

 

Gavin Strange: … and I died with embarrassment. It was awful. Anyway, I was, sort of, even back then, sort of, really interested in film and excited by film. I’m still graphic design, and characters, and comics, and all sorts. So I bumbled my way through this course and, again, neither being particularly good nor particularly bad, but I knew that I wanted to get into the industry. I did know that. I was starting to form at least an idea of what I’d like to do. It wasn’t really a plan, but it was just a … sometimes just knowing what you shouldn’t do is as good as knowing what you should do. If you can cancel out anything and, at least, refine your plan … even if it’s not particularly meticulous, and I think that’s a good thing… so, I knew I didn’t want to go to university.

That was purely on a simplistic point of … I didn’t really drink and I thought that’s all university was in three years. So I thought, just logically, I thought, “Well, that’s silly. I’m not gonna do that and,” and I’m like, “I didn’t really … I’d looked to say I’d give a real in depth analysis and weight of my options, but I don’t have any recollection of doing that. It was just, “Yeah, I’m not very good on the booze. So I won’t.” So I didn’t.

So there was just two people in my class that weren’t going to university, and we wanted to get into the industry and a local design firm, at the time, was looking to hire a junior designer. I was perfect for it. So two of us, me and this Michael Doff, who was a brilliant designer … very switched on, very skilful … We both went for the position and, basically, it just came down to … I think Rob ran out all of the creating director’s favourite Pantone pens … Letraset marker pens … sorry, and that made the creative director a bit grumbly. So they chose me.

So I got this job, and I’m in this job and it’s just a whole different world. It’s just going from the safe environment of education to, “This is a job.” Not only was the excitement of I was getting paid for this stuff, but just the responsibility, as well … getting up in the morning, going to work. That was just such a thrill, especially because I think I was still 16, at the time. I was just turning to … No, sorry. I was nearly 18 … So 17, just turning 18 and, because my course was just wrapping up, but I already did the work, you know when you’re waiting for your results, I started the job already. So I was 17, 18 years old, just really so wet behind the ears, just totally new to all this stuff and I was just so overwhelmed just in the best way. So I was at this design firm and, really early on, within the first few months I think, if I’m remembering this correctly … You know what it’s like. You think you remember things a certain way and maybe all of this is fantasy. Maybe none of this happened.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, yeah. I know. I understand what you mean.

 

Gavin Strange: I mean, who knows? I got the opportunity to set … basically, the firm says, “You’re a Junior Designer, and we’re teaching you the ways to be a professional graphic designer. How would you like to be a Junior Web Designer? We’ve got this new part of the company that we’re starting, and we want to get into new media,” as it was called back then. I tinkered with the internet. I played around. I had a really, kind of, rubbish PC that I was just interested in tinkering around with and just trying to make stuff graphically and tinkering with the internet. I was just really intrigued. So I just like, “Yeah. Of course,” just excited for any opportunity, really. So my role switched.

I had this graphic design base that I started with, and still continued to learn from the designers on the team but, also, the director of the new business side took me under his wing and started showing me the ways of the web, and building websites, and designing sites, and interactive stuff. So that, for me, was my education because the spark had ignited in me because it was up to me. I think I probably was just used to education just guiding you along, whereas in the workplace, it was, “Well, you’ve got to be accountable yourself. You’ve got to make sense of it or you’ve got to represent yourself. You’ve got to be active and engaged,” and, “All the pressure’s on you,” and I finally realised that no one had ever really given me any responsibility before, like I said, because I was very in the middle in education.

I never really got the opportunities to take something and run with it. I was in the job. It was like, “Well, of course it’s on you. We’re paying you. We’re teaching you. What are you gonna do with this opportunity? So I just went to town, really. I just wanted to grab every opportunity I could. I wanted to do anything and everything. I wanted to try every visual style. It was at this same time I’d started here that the director of the new media side … it was said, “You need to have your online portfolio. You need to have your own web so you can tinker and play with stuff.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure. Okay.” So he just recommended just buying a domain name and starting websites. He says, “I’ll show you how to do, but you’re doing all this stuff during the day. You should play more.” I was, “Okay.” So, at the time, I was really into design crews like Designers Republic, One Two Three Clan, the work of Tado, all of these super cool design places with aliases, with monikers to use for their names. I said, “I’m gonna have a super cool name, too.” Okay, so I went to the domain name registrar site. I went, ohh erm … I drew a blank and just wrote, “Jam… dash… Factory”-

 

Ian Paget: Brilliant

 

Gavin Strange: … so I just hit fire and, then, decided that that was my name. Then, it just really took off from there. Really, I honestly redesigned my website all the time because I’d learned something new at work and I just wanted to get more of that … I don’t know … that visual style, or that little piece of CSS, or that little, tiny hover menu trick. I just was so enthralled with the details that I would just go home and tinker, and try, and play, and I just used that site for everything. I would put my photography on it, my character designs, my skateboard designs. What it did was it’d just give me a space to be confident because I was never really confident in anything I did, but this safe space … this little, tiny corner of internet I’d carved out for myself … It didn’t matter. I didn’t have to justify that I wasn’t a photographer, or I wasn’t a character designer. I would take pictures, no matter how bad they were, but I was proud that I’d taken them. Again, coming from … fresh out of education, not expecting much of myself. I was just proud that I’d tried and I’d done it.

I think what it really did was it just fostered a confidence in just trying … not confidence in the work, but a confidence in just giving something a go because, as far as I could see, there was no down side. I’d just make something, put it on my little website, get excited about something else, and add that to it as well. That just carried on building and then that, in turn, gave me more interest and excitement in the day job and it just became this cycle that … more and more excited, want to try more things, want to redesign the site more, want to push it and see where I could take it.

So I did that for four years, basically. I was at this design agency, being a junior … learned so, so, so, so, so, so, so much and loved being a part of it. Four years on … I was probably, I think, 22 and, again, I don’t have any recollection of what led me to the thought, aside from a boost of confidence from a friend of mine who ran a skate store.

He basically said, “Look, I can see that you’re growing.” He ran a skate store very close by to where this design agency was. He says, “How about … I think you could go … I think you could go work for yourself and do freelance and, if you wanted to, I could give you three days’ worth of work, here, at the skate store, doing the website,” because, back then, 10, 15 years ago, or whenever it was, the internet and e-commerce was really quite new and he saw this as an opportunity for him to get his site online and to get things moving, digitally, for him and it was an amazing opportunity for me.

So, again, I can’t remember worrying about it too much and I just went, “Yeah, sounds great. Let’s do it.” So I walked into my, then, boss’ office, trembling and saying, “I’ve made the decision I’m gonna work for myself,” and I, kind of, remember him chuckling, really. I don’t know, again, if this memory’s right, but I remember him smiling, going, “Do you even know what freelance means?”

 

Ian Paget: Freelancing is pretty tough isn’t it. I don’t think many young designers know just what’s involved do they. You never know… He might have been smiling because he was quite proud of you, especially since he’s been giving you guidance. He could probably see it coming.

 

Gavin Strange: I think so. You know, looking back and I was so, so young and so fresh-faced at that time, as well. I really was the baby of the group and I think it was probably more just, a, “Whoo, the audacity of this one,” you know just almost taking it … you know, there was no … me leaving was not gonna make any dent or impact in any way, whatsoever. So it wasn’t just like, “Oh, I’ve been running the company for 10 years and that, and now I’m gonna leave.” You know, I didn’t leave him in any position at all. Yeah, I think he was more shocked but I did. I handed my notice in and then spent another four years working for myself, but what I continued to do is I, then, made JamFactory my business. It went from being a side project portfolio thing that just existed for digital experiments and all sort of stuff to … It was my home, and that’s the URL that I shared with people and sent around to people because, at the same time, I was learning all of the internet stuff of how to build sites.

I was fully immersed in cultures. I was really into PHB, BB bulletin boards about music and design, and all sorts of stuff. So I was really into the internet … you know, into IRC chat channels, and finding software, and finding stuff, and working hard to find stuff and get immersed in digital culture. So I, sort of, had all of that behind me as well and it just gave me, again, a bit more of confidence to, “I think maybe I could make this work,” and I did, and I worked at this skate store.

So it was a dream job. I worked above a skate store. So I was a skateboarder at the time. I loved skateboard cultured. I still do love the aesthetics of skateboarding, a, sort of, DIY Ethos, the variety of graphic design from so super clean vector work, to gnarly, illustrationy, sketchy stuff. So it was, again, just … I think I just went from experience to experience getting deeper and deeper into this world of creativity.

So, I’m sorry. We’re still not even to Aardman yet. This is… I apologise to you dear listeners.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, keep going. Keep going. I’m loving it because I’m really relating with your story because my background is quite similar. I didn’t go to university. It wasn’t out of choice, as such, in the same way as you, but I learned on the job in the same way you did and, kind of, worked my way up. So we’ve got similar paths. So it’s a really interesting story. Please, keep going. I’d definitely love to hear how you went from working freelance and, then, went back to getting a full-time job again.

 

Gavin Strange: Well, I think, like you said, learning on the job, there’s just so much to be said for it … and I realise it’s very easy to say the opportunity … jobs are very, very hard to come by and they seem increasingly more difficult to come by. So that should never be underestimated or looked over, but there is, if you can get those opportunities. And that’s scary, because learning on the job … you know, that’s like, “Oh, God. I better not screw this up,” but I do think if you really, really weren’t ready for the opportunity, you … A, wouldn’t put yourself out there anyway. You just wouldn’t even consider it and, probably, the opportunity wouldn’t find its way to you, anyway.

When those opportunities do come along, and you are really nervous and you think, “God learning on the job,” in whatever situation … whether it’s a job you already have and it’s a project you’ve gotta learn. If the opportunity’s there, and it’s in your brain and in you’re starting consider it, that means, I think, you are ready and you can do it. You’ve just got to overcome it and you know you’ve gotta find the confidence, which is all part of the process, anyway. So I, very much, condone learning on the job.

Anyway, back to working for myself. So I was, again, even deeper in that … four years in, I loved it. I managed to just approach different people in the local area that was in Leicester, so the skateboard store Casino Skates, which loved was in a really independent shopping area. Then, a few of the other stores, locally, like next door or two seconds away … knew I was into digital, sort of, web stuff. So I got to work with them, as well, so then started expanding it. So my bread and butter, really, was digital design and I love it and I did love it at the time, but I just felt like I wanted to do so much more. Now, I love character design. I love designing products. I love toys. I love film. I wanted to do more of it. Basically, I continued to do those things that no one wanted to pay me for in my own time … just self-initiated projects, and would put them on my website.

Over the years, people who were looking to hire me, at the time … they would see a character design illustration next to a digital website and, because I wouldn’t say, “Well, I made that in the evening on a Sunday because I wanted to,” they’d just see the work. Even if I would’ve written a description. Not everyone does. You know, people see the work at the end of the day. Don’t they?

So, I started to get more work based on the stuff that I was putting in there … not all the time, and not this huge, sort of like, “Well, I don’t need to do digital work anymore.” It was small bits and pieces but, again, what that did was grow my confidence. Grow my confidence to go “Oh, okay. Maybe I can continue sharing this extra stuff, but it just added to the portfolio. So I had more character design work, more illustration work, more graphic design work, more photography work. It just started amplifying, more and more, as I did more and more with the different mediums.

Bread and butter was still digital design. In the middle of all this, I decided to move to Bristol and, again, there was no grand plan. My girlfriend, at the time … She lived in Leicester and she was moving to Bristol. I hadn’t lived anywhere else because of the university thing. So I just thought, “Well, now is the best time as any because I haven’t had the opportunity or experience of living away from home, and it’s really important that I do. Bristol sounds like a great place. I’ve never been, but I’m pretty sure it’s good.”

So I went for a visit and I went to visit the only person that I knew, then. It was an artist called, “Mr. Jago,” that I was a huge fan of, and still I’m a huge fan of. He’s an amazing artist, painter, character creator. I was always just a massive fan of his work. He happened to do the branding for the skate store that I was working at in Leicester, but he actually lived in Bristol. I was such a huge fan of this dude. I just wanted to make something for him. He didn’t have a website and I wanted to make one for him because I loved his stuff.

So, because of the connection of the skate store, I got put in contact with him. I just sent him an email saying, “Hello. You don’t know me. My name’s Gavin. I really like what you do. Can I make you a website for free? He wrote back to me, saying, “Yeah. Of course you can. How about we meet up in Bristol to chat?”

So I go to Bristol and just fall in love with the city. It was totally different to Leicester in the midlands where it was from. It was green, and luscious, and it was full of hills, and it was just different. It was a totally different vibe. I just thought, “Yeah, I definitely do want to move here. This is the place for me.” So I did. I moved. I knew my girlfriend, at the time, and Duncan, Mr. Jago. That’s who I knew.

Because it was such a small friendship group … Probably sure you can’t actually call two people a friendship group, but still, I’m sticking with it. I would hang out with Jako a lot. I was doing freelance digital stuff, but I’d go over to his lunchtime and take my sketchbook. Because he was a traditional artist, I would take my sketchbook and just draw when he was drawing. That gave me more confidence, he just gave me tips and advice, and it just got me out my comfort zone because I wasn’t very confident with what I could do with pens and pencils, and stuff. This just became a regular thing. We’d just go out and hang out, basically, or since we’d just work together, He’d be doing his work. I’d take my laptop and be doing my digital work and we’d just hang out in a space.

Through him, I started going to other art shows that he was a part of and started meeting lots of other Bristol artists, and designers, and creatives, and just started expanding on that. I would go to lots of different art shows and just be introduced to people, for friends of friends and, again, I was still really involved in the internet and still making friends digitally, and making friends digitally in Bristol, and stuff … and just expanding my network, how it was, and just trying to reach people.

What I did, and what I made sure to do, was professionally, to keep the work coming in so I could afford to pay the rent. Just was, constantly, refreshing my portfolio. If I didn’t have any paid work, I would just contain doing filmmaking, photography, characters, illustration … anything and everything. Purely out of my own excitement, I just wanted to do that and it was adding to this portfolio and would always make sure that I would update it and would, then, update the wider networks.

So, in Bristol, there’s a thing called, “Bristol Media,” which is like a hub for connecting filmmakers, designers … all sorts of people, together and looking for work, amongst many other things. One day, I get an email that just says, “Hello,” from mom and I picked myself up off the floor and just stood in shock, and it was an email from a guy called, Dan Ifgam, who, at the time, was the creative director of the newly-formed Aardman Online Department. They were looking for a freelance designer to come in and work, for possibly quite a long period, on a single project. It was designing a website for what was gonna be Channel Four. I didn’t know that at the time, but it was a big animation project for Channel Four. So I replied, just so quickly, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh, my God, oh my God,” just totally not playing it cool, at all. Dan, basically, said, “Do you want to come in for a cup of tea and have a chat? Let’s have a chat about what it is.” That was 11 years ago, and I have never left.

 

Ian Paget: That is amazing. So, they actually contacted you.

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah.

 

Ian Paget: They actually contacted you. You didn’t apply for a job.

 

Gavin Strange: No, –

 

Ian Paget: I like that story… I have so many questions.

 

Gavin Strange: I mean, that’s just the beginning, as well, but that’s how I first got me feet in the door at Aardman.

 

Ian Paget: I’m thinking probably the first thing to discuss is university. The fact that you being able to get such fantastic job without needing any qualifications. Instead, you’ve been able to find an opportunity where you could… basically, learn on the job.

I had a very similar experience, myself. I don’t have a formal education, but I’ve been able to work my way up … kind of like in the same way that you have. So, from your perspective, now that you’re in a role where you basically need to employ other graphic designers, do you think it’s worth graphic designers going to university or do you think it’s better to find an opportunity where you can, basically, learn on the job, as we both have done?

 

Gavin Strange: It totally comes to personal preference isn’t it, and I only have my own experience, which is one-sided.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, same.

 

Gavin Strange: There’s, obviously, lots and lots and lots of positives to take from going to university. It’s so much more than just was a qualification says it costs, and it’s the friendships and the social side of it … not the fun stuff, but literally, making friendship groups and transition from further education to university. Moving away, you know, it’s so much more of an experience but if you look at the cold, hard reality of commercial experience and industry experience and building a portfolio is really all that matters. People really only care about, “What can you do?” And “I want to see it.”

I wanna see, well, now, you know an Instagram feed full of your work or a regular twitter feed full of it, Behance, or your own website. You can do that without going to university. It’s difficult because staying motivated, and motivating yourself to do self-directed projects is really hard. So if you’ve got a network of tutors there that are gonna set that for you and, are going to develop you, that is well-worth going. So I think it really is about personal preference. And I don’t think it’s up to me or you to ever ascribe a certain way to go. I definitely think there is equal opportunities for both sides of that coin isn’t there. There’s gonna be positives to take from both … I like that it can be both. It’s not, If you don’t go to university, basically, you have no chance for getting anywhere. It’s all qualification. Our industry is visually lead, which favours anyone making anything visual at any time or point of our life.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, I think that’s a really good answer because you, kind of, explained the benefit of doing either and it’s really down to preference. In situations. I would say … I don’t know about you, but the opportunity that I got, where I could actually learn to be a graphic designer, I felt like I was in the right place at the right time. Those opportunities are not … to be able to find a graphic design job where you can play and learn on the job, I don’t those opportunities come up that much, but I might be wrong with that.

 

Gavin Strange: Oh, no. Yeah, definitely. I feel so unbelievably lucky. I just can’t imagine how the planets align so much to get all these opportunities. At the same time, you can’t ever plan for that. You just have to get your head down and make stuff. Really? Don’t you? Fortunately, for you and me, we were in the right place at the right time. Someone took a chance on us and gave us an opportunity, and we wanted to deliver on it. That’s the thing, but you don’t know those opportunities that pass you by. You never see those. So, it’s quite hard to quantify. So it gets quite cosmic, at some point.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, yeah. It really does.

 

Gavin Strange: You can’t worry about what you can’t control. So you’ve just gotta do what feels right to you in that moment, I think.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. One of the other things I wanted to ask you about is free work. I know … Is it quite common online that I will see people, basically say, “My time has value” and you shouldn’t do anything for free, and there’s a lot of conversations around … No matter what level you are at, you should be getting paid for the work that you do.

I’ve done a lot of free stuff in my career, just things I’ve been playing with, things I wanted to fun, things I wanted to get involved with in a similar way to you. Obviously, you’re a huge advocate for doing free things because if you didn’t do those things, you probably wouldn’t have got your job at Aardman.

I’d love to know more of your thoughts on free work … cause it sounds like you really advocate and you would encourage people to do that.

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah, I do advocate. It’s funny, though. Isn’t it? The conversations about it online. Basically, there’s no nuance on the internet anymore. So it’s so damn difficult to have a measured, calm, conversation with something so emotionally charged and with negative connotations is just free work is very hard in 280 characters for anyone to really sum it up in … and also, naturally people don’t read a tweet with one opinion and go, “Oh, actually, thank you for the information. I’ve totally changed my mind. There you go.”

So, the internet debating aside, yeah, I think if it’s free work for yourself, then, of course. That’s how stuff gets made. Also, you’re you’re in control and you don’t feel exploited, that is up to you. I do understand that, like everything, there’s two side … Well, there are actually more than two sides. Again, it’s not about black and white because if you, basically, do something for free, you are devaluing it possibly.

Of course, someone who’s, maybe, not so gracious … Say you’re making something. For example, I made a few things for a buddy of mine … a rapper called POS I’m a big fan of … I’m a good friend of. We make stuff for each other. He’s given me music. He can make beats. I make videos for him. No money is exchanged hands. We just happily just making stuff because we, both, like making stuff.

At the same time, does, then, someone else hearing that, or seeing that, go, “Well, oh, cool.” So filmmakers don’t need any money, then, do you think?

 

Ian Paget: That’s true.

 

Gavin Strange: You know, there is always a risk of you are basically telling the world … your actions are saying, “I don’t need paying for this.” So, again, I think it’s a bit of a tricky tightrope to walk in it. As long as you feel comfortable and in control, anything you do, won’t see anything and everything you sell for free. I think it depends on who’s asking, basically. It depends on what they’re expecting.

I think it’s great for building blocks and for developing more, but yeah, of course … If you’re good at something, you want to get paid. You want to get paid because you want to able to do more of it. There’s not any arrogance in wanting to get paid for it. You only want to get paid so you do not starve to death, or pay your rent, or look after your children. So, I do understand why it’s a tricky debate online, and some people are…

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, and I think that it’s very much like … Say, if it’s Mr. Rich Businessman owns hundreds and…

 

Gavin Strange: Oh, I love that guy.

 

Ian Paget: … he’s got loads of money, if he’s coming to you going, “I want this for free or as low as possible,” that is, obviously, a problem because he’s obviously making money from your time from the work you’re doing, and they’ll probably be pushing you and chasing you. Obviously, that is a different situation to the example that you said, whee it was someone that you’re a big fan of and you wanted to give back to him, in some way. Very different situations because that one you, you’ve actually made the conscious choice to say, “I want to give this to you as a “Thank you for being so great to me,” or …

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, like a gift in the same, “I love the fact that moving to Bristol was because I emailed Jago, going … said, “I love you. Can I make you something for free?” That’s just because, or wanting to make it … wanting to do something for him, and it just so happened to be … And, no, it wasn’t just like he’s gonna love this because it’s free.” It was, “I really like you. I’d like to make this … Oh, by the way, you don’t have to pay. There’s no money that needs to exchange hands.

Coming back to the original point, it is just more nuance than right or wrong. Isn’t it? And it’s totally contextual or sensitive.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, it depends on the situation. Yeah.

 

Gavin Strange: I think it’s why people have go so many horror stories. It’s about when you need the money, you’re, “ok, I’m going to take on that job.” Got the feeling it might be a bit nightmarish, but I’m just gonna do it and get it done.” Then, it just ends up getting more, and more, and more. You get paid less, and less, and less. You start spending more and more time on it, and there’s nightmare jobs. So people are very wary of that, as well aren’t they.

I think you could donate for free to enhance yourself and enhance your portfolio, awesome but, if you’re feeling exploited, then, absolutely not.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. One thing I really that you said was that, in your portfolio, you’ll be a sleeper in everything in your portfolio, which is quite rare for people to do that, but I like the fact you mentioned that people that come to your website do not know the difference between that project that you did for several thousand pound and, then, that thing you did Saturday night, just for a bit of fun and they, kind of, sit next to each other on your website. I like fact that you said that because, obviously, if there’s a style or type of work that you want to get … if you actually put that together, or you compare it on your website, no one knows that you didn’t get paid for it. Aaron Draplin does the same thing. He’s got loads of work on his website and half of it is just stuff that he just did for fun. It’s attracted paying clients from that. I sounds like that’s exactly the same situation for you and, very much, the reason why you did end up getting contacted by Aardman Animations, which is amazing.

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah. I really believe … I think that because I put in … They were looking to hire additional designers. So this is the other thing, as well. You do need to have your bread and butter, or your core strength, or what it says on your business card, because you need to fit into someone’s spreadsheet or document.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, you need to fit into a box. You eventually go into a box. So, yeah, I agree with that.

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah, you’ve got to. Haven’t you? That’s how commercial world works. That’s how people work. We can’t go, “Hey, I really need a polymorphic artist musician, science teacher, who also dabbles in chemistry, but also network.

 

Ian Paget: It’s probably easier to have said a plumber. You’re not gonna hire an electrician to do your plumbing, even though they probably could do it … some of them.

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah, exactly. I think, it can backfire because they don’t know what you are and you become too much of a generalist. Again, I think that’s up to you in how you word it or how you put forward your portfolio or just what you label yourself as. You know? Sometimes, it can be so simple … what you put in your Instagram bio will tell people what you are.

So, if you are coming out of the university, or you’re coming out from college, and you want to be a graphic designer, but you don’t have confidence, just say you’re a graphic designer and show your work because you look at it. People won’t start judging it based on, “Oh, that’s not true.” It might be on the quality of work or the style of the work … whether that’s relevant for the person looking, but they won’t question that. It’s all about the work. Isn’t it? It is a visual medium at the end of the day.

So I think it’s playing a game, really. It’s appealing to people so you get the work. Also, it’s that extra little nudge of, “Hey, did you also know I do this?” People will be pleasantly surprised and you won’t know when they’re thinking of you because they might be going, “Oh look. There’s this brilliant copywriter but, actually, they are really good musician as well. Do you think … Actually we’re got this perfect thing where they need to write something and, maybe, make a little ditty. Do you think we should give him a chance or just give him a shot … see what they think?”

If that makes life easier for people, then, go for it. Anything you can to get those opportunities to get you through a door, and like we were saying, if you do need to learn on the job, then learn on the job. So, yeah, I think, again, it’s not all that simple. Is it? There’s so many different parts to this, but essentially, making the work that you want to be hired for.

 

Ian Paget: Absolutely. Now, I want to ask you about something I read in an interview. Basically, sometimes, when you work, you get angry and frustrated at yourself that you’re not better. I really appreciate the honesty. I know, myself, I can have days where I say, “Work on a logo design project,” and, despite working solidly, all day, by the end of that day, I just don’t feel like I’ve got anything that’s good enough to present. I can imagine that most graphic designers experience the same feeling … that they can, basically, better. Could you expand on what you said, a little bit more? If possible, talk through how you got through those moments.

 

Gavin Strange: Oh, mate, it’s the bane of my life. I’ll tell you a funny story. So, I never, ever … well I, hopefully, never, ever lose my temper with people … with other humans. I definitely lose my temper with myself and my abilities, all the time, at least every week. Definitely, I go through this same cycle with stuff that I’ve done forever, with stuff that I’m new at. Oh, God, I’ve definitely come to accept it and know this is A, the creative process anyway. Everyone goes through this in different form. Also, I am just … I just get really frustrated, really, really quickly because I love stuff. I love it. I love design, and art, photography, and film, music … all the different things I love that I try my hand it. I do want to be good. Why would not want to be good? I know it’s not the end goal.

So many of my friends, especially my friend, Ricky … he’s so good at just putting the emphasis on fun. So skateboarding … He’s a brilliant skateboarder, and I’m a terrible skateboarder. Whenever we go skateboarding together, I would just get so frustrated, so quickly. That was another down side, actually, of working at the skate store. I just would go out skateboarding and get frustrated and snap my board in two, intentionally. cause I knew I’d just go back to work. I’m buying a new one.

Anyway, Ricky was always brilliant at just calming me down and say, “But it’s just for fun. Why would you not do it if you just weren’t having fun? I’m always so pent up going, “But I wanna be good. I wanna be good at it.” I’m not quite sure why that is. I actually think psychologically, go right back. It goes right back to being mediocre. I don’t want to be mediocre. I want to try, if I can, to the best of my ability, to be better than mediocre. So it’s probably some deep-seated issues that I’ve got in more core but, oh man, frustrated and the bit that I’m definitely not pleased at. So I’m lucky enough to be a dad, and my son is two, and I see him trying to do things and his face just screws up and he really loses his temper, really quickly. I just say, “Oh, my God. I’ve given this to you. Oh, this is my fault. I’ve given you this stupid quick-to-anger reflex of your own abilities, and I’m so sorry.” Hopefully, he’s gonna grow out of it, and leave it there, and become very calm and just realise this is the process of doing anything, and not be like his dad.

 

Ian Paget: All of your work, on your website, is absolutely incredible. So, you’re clearly getting through that. Is it just the case of, “keep going”?

 

Gavin Strange: Oh, mate, you’re too kind. Well, I don’t think it is. This is the thing. You know what it’s like. You look at anyone else. Say Draplin. Draplin as an amazing example. You just look at him and it’s just like-

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, it’s amazing.

 

Gavin Strange: … Oh, God. You’re so good. Then you look at your own stuff, and you just stare at it and go ughh… you know…

 

Ian Paget: Are you saying that, even when you finished it? You feel that it’s not good enough? Is that what you’re getting at?

 

Gavin Strange: No, generally, I am proud of what I’ve made. That’s why I share it. That’s a big reason why whenever I started, I did put it online because it was like, “I made a thing. I’m just really proud I made a thing.” I think those things should be celebrated. It’s hard. You’ve got the whole universe against you, trying to make you not do something, trying to make you watch a TV program of worry bout the terrible politics that’s happening in the world, or the eventual heat decay of the universe. There’s so many things that should worry you and stop you making something. I think it’s a damn good thing you can make anything.

So there’s a part of it that’s that, I think just comparatively, in terms of what I make and do. I think this is healthy. I hope everyone else has it. You just look to other people and just go “Oh, you’re so amazing. Oh, I wish I was amazing like you,” but I don’t see that as a negative. I like that and I love being inspired by so many countless people. It’s just-

 

Ian Paget: You know what? I actually think if a graphic designer doesn’t have that, they’re just gonna slow down and carry on doing the same mundane things and it’s all gonna look the same. But I think the fact that you do have the anxiety, and I like to think that a lot of the listeners have that same feeling that, sometimes, their work is just not as good as it could be. They want to be better because everyone’s got that drive. They’re learning and improving and getting better, and I think it’s important. Without it, you’re not gonna improve and you’re not gonna keep learning. So I just love your transparency with that because I think a lot of graphic designers experience it, but they hid it. They pretend they’re trying to hide behind all the fancy work they are able to do. So I think it’s normal, and…

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah, I hope so.

 

Ian Paget: I’d like to think everyone listening to this is thinking, “Yeah, I go through that, as well, and it’s normal, and it’s okay to struggle sometimes, but you will eventually get to that finished thing.

 

Gavin Strange: I hope so because this is one of those things isn’t like anything in life. You just go, “Oh, God. I hope I’m normal and everyone else does this thing,” whatever the thing is. “Oh, God. Or am I just, kind of, super aware?” I hope so because, hopefully, that’s a natural human reaction. It’s just frustration with your own ability and wanting to be better.

 

Ian Paget: I think it’s normal. I do. I genuinely think it’s normal and everyone wants to improve. I also want to ask about your process, as well. Again, it might have been in that same interview that I read, but you said that your process changes with every project. Since the show is about logo design, would you be able to give a couple of different examples of what you mean by that? I, personally, follow quite a linear process. I got this research phase where I learn about the business. I sketch a load of things for a couple of days. I’ll, then, start working in Illustrator, and I’ll vectorise a few of them … keep polishing, keep copying until it’s perfect and, then, obviously, present that. So it’s quite a linear process and I, pretty much, run through that every time. How does it work in your case when you work? How would you work differently?

 

Gavin Strange: That’s a really good question. I supposed I work relatively linear in that … Yeah, I often start with mood boards, especially if it’s for blending, graphic design. Definitely, mood boards, a bit of research, just general inspiration for soft tone and feel. That, also, I generally do if I am writing a pitch/treatment for moving image jobs and making a film or a commercial. Generally, I like to start even to just to get the job I like … putting a mood reel together, if it’s moving, and just get interest generally inspired by other people’s work and images and things out there … then move to sketch process. I think what I mean when I was probably talking about it changes every time. Just depending on the context and what the medium is, I also just get excited.

Sometimes, I just like to run ahead and jump straight into Illustrator. Sometimes, I’ve just seen something like a test. I’ll go straight into it. Like today, I was working in After Effects, doing some style tests with some different effects for a thing I’m doing at work. Yeah, I just like getting excited, and being a bit skittish and jumping all over the place. Then, I might just go and do a doodle and … Yeah, just trying to tune in to what I’m getting most excited on, really. I’m not very disciplined when it comes to that, and I just try and let that be … just go, “Well, okay. There’s a reason why you’re not disciplined because I’m probably more excited at just testing out the effect because, then, that effect might take you off in a different direction and that was, also, then, actually linking right back to starting Jam Factory, my boss, at the time, telling me to test out any effects and styles I’d learned in the day, in the evenings.

I would, then, make … all my posters and my graphics would all fit into a certain visual style because that’s what I was excited on. Then, that would morph into something else. Then, I would use it in a personal project. Then, that would spin off into something else, and letting these natural neuro connections happen. You know? Again, that still was happening for me. Right now, I just did a graphic test on something I was really excited by. It’s, sort of, a mashed-up three different tutorials together which give me a certain effect, which, then, led me into actually proposing now for job that I’m doing. It’s right, and the people saying … them going, “Yeah, yeah. That’s exactly it.” I’m just so glad that I still work like that, just based on excitement and intuition, I guess, to see where the process might go.

 

Ian Paget: It sounds like you’re just very playful with everything that you’re doing. I mean, even though, the way that you explain it, it sounds like it’s very scattered but, obviously, you’re getting stuff done. So your, obviously, working in the right way. It just seems like if you’ve got an idea that you’re thinking of, you’re just gonna dive and start experimenting with stuff so see the direction it could possibly, but you’re not a hundred percent sure if that’s gonna work, and if it doesn’t work, you’ll, then, hop on something else. I think it’s good. It’s interesting to hear other peoples’ processes.

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah and I think, like you say, it’s all done within the context of … within timeframes of deadlines, of deliverables. I’m not just gonna go, “Hi. Yeah, so you actually wanted a page of six different rough markups. I’ve actually just made you a collage made of pasta and a mood film that’s two hours long. I’d like to be professional and deliver what people want. It generally leads to that idea, process, time. Just go with the flow-

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. You’re just experimenting.

 

Gavin Strange: Again, it’s just playfulness.

 

Ian Paget: You’re playing. You’re playing with the brief and seeing … you’re pushing the boundaries of what it could be and I think that’s really interesting that you take that approach.

 

Gavin Strange: Thanks, mate.

 

Ian Paget: I notice that you have a really amazing work environment in your home called “the den”, which is where you work. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah, sure. So the den literally is our spare bedroom. I’ve always called it a den because, in the various places I’ve lived, there’ve been various different sizes. When I first moved to Bristol, it as just a big desk in the room that I stayed in, I had quite a big  room. It was cool, but I just like to fill it with stuff, like be surrounded by stuff … toys, logos, stickers, prints, all sorts of things. Then, the house before I lived in where we are now, it was literally under the stairs. It was this little cubbyhole, like-

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. I saw that one. I’ve seen photos of those online. I just love it … like a very small room, and you have filled it with toys and colour, and stuff like that. Is that literally just in that room, or was that just your entire house?

 

Gavin Strange: Oh, no. That was literally the corner of the dining room. So, if you dolly the camera back almost, you’d see the dining room table. My wife … she’s a jewellery designer maker. So she’s very creative herself. So she’s also very understanding of, “Let’s fill the house with colourful things.” So, there’s some restraint. There’s also nice little pockets of weirdness, of toys, or I’m just looking at some shelves with all glasses-

 

Ian Paget: Were those things chosen to inspire you or are they just things that you like? My room … quite full of toys, as well, but I’d have them around me anyway because I like them.

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah. It is that. It’s stuff I like. It’s stuff I’m inspired by. I just to be surrounded by things. My desk at work is like it, as well. I’ve got this awesome little shelf that I just realised that you can just fit a mega drive game box on it. So I’ve got a wall of old mega drive box games, and it’s awesome sets, like Sonic the Hedgehog One, and Streets of Rage Three, and all this awesome artwork from my childhood, and I just like to fill it with things. Also, there’s, sometimes, objects from stuff that I’ve made or with collaborated with and got a mask from a music video, and a toy that I did the collaboration with. So, yeah, I like calling it, “The Den,” because it’s like that’s my space. That’s when I do a personal project.

 

Ian Paget: Yeah. It sounds like a hiding place where you can go and create things.

 

Gavin Strange: Yayy. It is. Yeah, and I just like … The den, that I’ve got now in the house, is a bit bigger and I’ve got my Mac set up with three monitors. I always like having larger screens, six shelves filled with toys, then I have a big arcade stick connected to a telly, and I’ve got my switch, and I’ve, kind of just … I want it filled with stuff. Also, when my boy grows up, I want him to be able to come in and play and, whether he takes a role in the creative industries or not, but just I want him to go, “Oh, wow. Dad’s room is cool and I can play in it,” rather than, “Oh, I’m not allowed in Dad’s room.”

 

Ian Paget: Yeah, than it being a boring office.

 

Gavin Strange: Yeah, exactly.

 

Ian Paget: Well, we’re nearly an hour. So I’m gonna ask you one last question to close thing off. If you could travel back in time, and give your younger self some advice, what would that advice be?

 

Gavin Strange: I think about this a lot, and I also have spoken to friends about this. I wouldn’t tell myself anything. I would stand by and watch me make all the same mistakes, watch myself get everything wrong, get everything in a muddle because I think that’s absolutely, inherently, part of it. I don’t I’d be who I am today, where I am today without any of that, the good and the bad, especially creatively.

 

Gavin Strange: I think you have to make those mistakes. You have to be silly. You have to screw stuff up. You have to get things so wrong. Sometimes, they’re tiny, tiny things and they’re little, maybe, embarrassing things that only you know and you look back and go, “God, that was … can’t believe I thought that,” or, “Can’t believe I did that.” I think you have to because, if you don’t have the downs, you can’t appreciate the ups. So, you just have to just let it happen and just … I think what people get so hung up on can, sometimes, paralyse you going forward. It’s just, “Where do I go? What’s my grand plan? What am I trying to achieve?”

I think if you just concern yourself with, “What’s next? What is that tiny little step that’s gonna take me forward?” It might just be, “I just need to carve out 10 minutes to just, I don’t know, watch a new tutorial online, or I really want to learn that skill or, maybe, craft an email because really like this opportunity. Just identifying the smallest, lowest-hanging fruit to propel you forward, basically … to make you feel good about yourself, to give yourself a little boost of confidence to go, “Yeah, I did that today.” So, yeah, I would travel back in time and stand there, all weird and silent, and not say anything at all, a total, total waste of time travel.

 

Ian Paget: I think that’s really good advice because I would agree with that, as well. Obviously, there’s been ups and downs and sad times and hard times but, if I hadn’t gone through those things, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I think, like you said, even the bad times are important to who you’re gonna become and you need to learn and all sort of stuff. So, fantastic advice.

Well, Gavin, it’s been a real pleasure chatting with you. I can imagine that everyone’s gonna really relate with your story and enjoy this interview. So I just want to say, “Thank you very much for your time.”

 

Gavin Strange: Oh, honestly. Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure chatting to you mate, and thank you for thinking of me for getting me on the show. It’s really nice to talk about all this nonsense and very kind of you.

 

Thank you to the sponsor, FreshBooks

 

I’m incredibly thankful to FreshBooks for sponsoring season 4 of the Logo Geek Podcast! FreshBooks is an online accounting tool that makes it really easy to create and send invoices, track time and manage your money. You can try it out for yourself with a free 30 day trial.

Becoming Designer & Director at Aardman Animations - An interview with Gavin Strange

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