We caught up with the award winning, Michael Lester, a London based freelance designer and illustrator to ask him a few questions about working at Ogilvy, winning awards, finding freelance work and tips on making a name for yourself.
Describe your path to where you are now
I grew up in a small coastal village in the east of England before moving to London in 2010 to study Illustration and Visual Communication at the University of Westminster.
"University was a massive playground. I tried my hand at pretty much everything..."
For me, university was a massive playground. I tried my hand at pretty much everything and left not really knowing which ‘thing’ would be my ‘thing’. After graduating I managed to land a six month internship in Paris at advertising agency, Ogilvy. I was offered a position after my internship was up and stayed on for another six months before moving back to London, where I now work as a freelancer.
What does a typical day look like for you?
The great thing about freelancing is every day can be different and by working for yourself you have the power to affect just how different each day is. Generally I will rise early about 7.30 and do about 30 minutes of admin work over breakfast - emails, write the day’s to do list, etc. This helps me feel productive from the off without having to tackle something too challenging as soon as I’ve woken up.
"I find I get more clarity of thought sitting amongst busy people in a (slightly more) foreign environment."
I’ll then work through what needs to be done for the day, usually the work falls into two categories - thinking or doing. If my day consists of a large chunk of ‘thinking time’ I will often get out, go for a walk and grab a coffee at a cafe/ external space and work from there as I find I get more clarity of thought sitting amongst busy people in a (slightly more) foreign environment. If I have a lot of ‘doing’ work I’ll stay in my ‘studio’ (a tiny room in my flat) and get on with the day's workload.
Getting the balance between thinking time and doing time is really important and I’m still getting the hang of it. I think most times I find myself with ‘creative block’ it’s because I have messed this balance up, maybe I’ve started designing on my macbook when I should have thought it through for longer with just a notebook and vice versa.
What tips do you have for finding freelance work?
When reaching out for new work by email, always make sure you get a name to address it to before sending, and do your research on the person/ agency who’s receiving your work - what have they done and why is your work relevant and going to benefit them? If it’s an agency, maybe a recent project they did was similar, if it’s a client maybe you’ve already done work for an audience they are targeting.
"The best way to attract new work though will always be by doing good work…"
Include this and let them know why you’re a good fit. The best way to attract new work though will always be by doing good work, so don’t spend too long trying to get more work, focus on using that spare time to knock out a personal project or spend longer on what you already have to make it even better. It’s the best way to bring in potential client interest without having to worry about hassling people.
Did living in Paris influence your creativity and work?
Absolutely, but maybe not in the way I expected. I was working crazy hours in the agency (which I would recommend for a year or so) so I didn’t have a ton of time to enjoy too much of what the city had to offer and be inspired that way. Instead, I found the that living in a shoebox flat and walking everywhere due to the size of the city made me completely absorbed in the work I was doing there.
It created this little creative bubble where things like not speaking the language in one sense was a barrier but in another just added to me being completely indulged in the work. So in that year I learnt so much from the agency and people, but also from myself.
"I’d never really experienced that intensity of work before and it did me the world of good."
I’d never really experienced that intensity of work before and it did me the world of good. There’s a calmness to the city too which perfectly counteracts the craziness of working for a big agency like Ogilvy, Paris. I came out of work one time at 4am in the morning after finishing a big pitch for the next day, and across the street there were 2 or 3 families sat having a meal at a restaurant as if it were 6 in the evening. It was a nice balance!
Is there anything you wish you would have known when you were starting out?
That it’s ok to not have a speciality! When I was finishing university I was struggling with which discipline my work fitted into. I didn’t have enough consistency to approach an illustration agency, I didn’t have enough ideas-based work to apply to an ad agency and I didn’t have enough graphic design work to go down that route.
A lot of the advice I read at the time said the goal is to develop a niche and a lot of the last year of uni was about ‘finding your voice’ so I felt a bit stuck. During that time I attended a talk by Ian Wharton (now at AKQA) and he reminded me that creativity is transferable.
"We imagine each creative skill as separate vertical ladders we have to climb when really it’s a giant play park…"
We imagine each creative skill as separate vertical ladders we have to climb when really it’s a giant play park and you can jump from one discipline to another without having to start from the bottom. Now I’ve not only accepted that I enjoy being diverse but I’ve tried to make not having a speciality the thing that defines my work. The dream for me is to be offered jobs based on the clients knowing that I will do something great with the brief whether that be a website, a print, an animation etc. I’m still a long way from this but in a strange way I’ve found embracing the differences in my work has actually brought it together.
You’ve won some D&AD pencils, what’s next?
I’ve almost finished a massive project that consists of 20 animated posters for an exhibition, so that is pretty exciting and will be dropping very soon. Outside of client work I’m going to be developing my animation skills a lot more. I have an idea for a short (animated) film that I’ve been holding onto and tweaking over the last couple of years waiting for the chance to get going and I’m going to try and get that moving before Christmas.
In a more general long-term sense I want to transition into more of a ‘studio’ to accommodate the different types of work I’m creating. I always struggle with what to call myself, am I a designer, an illustrator etc, so presenting yourself as a studio has a nice feel to it. It’s a tough one as a freelancer, you don’t want to give the wrong impression but done right I think it can really elevate your work (think Draplin Design Co.)
Do you have any mottos or rules that you live by?
“As long as you believe that the peak of your creative work is just around the corner, and so long as it never is, you’ll go pretty far.” Ok it’s not as short and snappy as I’d like, I think I need to rewrite it sometime… but it sums up my way of thinking.
"...believe that the peak of your creative work is just around the corner..."
I’m a hopeless optimist who believes we should never stop learning, so I love the idea of having dreams far too big but getting a lot further by doing so. Dream big, fall short, move faster. Actually maybe I will make that last one my motto!
If you could share a desk with anyone from the past, present or future, who would it be?
I’d have a little studio with John Lasseter showing me how to bring characters to life, Paul Rand teaching me the rules of design, Alan Fletcher reminding me to be break the rules of design and Tom Waits serving us coffee and telling stories all day. That sounds pretty good.
If you haven't already be sure to check out Michael's self promotion work, The ‘World’s Smallest Portfolio’.
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