We spoke with Sean Thomas a Creative Director at jones knowles ritchie about his career to date and ask a few questions for designers out there.
Describe your path to what you’re doing now from studying at Norwich University of the Arts
I was lucky to be offered a few jobs via the Norwich School of Art & Design end of year show, but I actually ended up taking a junior designer role at Pearlfisher on the back of a friend recommending I go in for an interview. It was a far smaller agency back then and I liked the idea of learning how the role worked as the company grew too. I had close to seven great years there and learned a huge amount from the team, working on local and global brands; I got to travel a lot, worked my way up to a Design Director role, was part of an exciting office move and made some great lifelong friends along the way.
I left to take a job at The Core (part of Hornall Anderson now) to try something different and work towards hopefully becoming a Creative Director in the future. Over time it became clear that they would never really need another person in that role so I left to go freelance.
I worked at several different agencies and enjoyed the freedom of freelance but most enjoyed my time working at jkr. I missed the sense of interaction and creative resolution working full time gave me and I was offered the chance to build a team from the ground up. Most Design Director roles I’d had to date also hadn’t really involved that level of teamwork, so I felt it was a good challenge.
"I’ve always felt my strengths were in working with people to achieve better work."
After working with many clients, helping out in the New York office for a bit and eventually building up a team of 6 designers, I was offered the chance to become Creative Director here. I’ve always felt my strengths were in working with people to achieve better work and relating design to clients, so I was incredibly happy to get given the opportunity and am loving the role so far.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It’s incredibly varied which is what I enjoy most. Working in an agency across a whole multitude of brands means you can be designing logos for the world’s number one beer brand one day and brainstorming one off promotional teasers for a start up company the next. I get to work with a huge spread of talented people and help make the work better, whether it be through creative direction or merely helping with the point of view on why something feels more right for a client than something else. Being a step away from the actual doing of the work means it’s far easier to spot pitfalls and make things better. It often involves a lot of tea too.
Whats the best and worst part of your job?
The best part is working with people who are better than you. In an agency of 120 people, there are people here with incredible skills you could never hope to master as an individual such as screen printing, app design, filmmaking abilities etc. So being able to draw on that team, work together and collectively achieve something far greater is really rewarding. Watching the development of people around you is also another huge factor. Seeing designers who were juniors only a year ago presenting to clients and getting their work through is a great feeling.
"I guess the hardest part is finding the balance between driving a designer on to answer a brief better and ensuring you’re not dampening their enthusiasm."
I guess the hardest part is finding the balance between driving a designer on to answer a brief better and ensuring you’re not dampening their enthusiasm. Design, like art or writing, involves putting a bit of yourself out there and asking lots of people what they think of it; most of the time, you just have to guide and steer the designers but sometimes you have to say that something is just fundamentally not right and needs restarting. So doing that in a way that leaves the designer with a clear direction to go in and feeling motivated is the trickiest part of the job.
How do you approach a design brief?
By questioning it thoroughly. If you’re not sure how to vaguely tackle a task when you leave the briefing, chances are the brief either isn’t formulated properly or is wrong. I also try and think about the bigger picture; What is the overriding idea for the brand? How can it work across a variety of media? Does it have room to evolve?
What do you look for in a designers portfolio?
Ideas and an ability to think differently. Also, a strong opinion and a sense of reason to why a designer is doing something is key. The difference between art and design is that design fulfils a brief and addresses a problem; so I look for someone who enjoys problem solving over someone who likes merely playing around on a Mac. Though making things look nice always helps too!
"…a strong opinion and a sense of reason to why a designer is doing something is key."
What separates a great designer from a bad designer?
Most of the things I mentioned in the last paragraph really. Above all, the people I enjoy working with the most know their own mind and have a clear vision of where they want to take a project; they often need help along the way improving it or figuring out what isn’t quite right, but if you truly believe in what you’re doing, then you’re halfway to making it happen.
Whose design work inspires you the most and why?
I feel like the days of having individual designers I look up to has possibly passed. I like the odd thing by individuals nowadays but I get far more excited about collaborations between a client and designer than I do the work of a solo designer. I really like David Pearson’s book covers of recent years and adored Ken Wong’s work on the Monument Valley game though.
How do you feel design might be changed by technology going forward?
I think it’ll hopefully allow more flexibility and adaptability. Within all forms of branding, we’ve seen a huge change in the speed at which you can make things a reality. It’s not uncommon to see design now reacting to events of the day within hours of it occurring.
"Within all forms of branding, we’ve seen a huge change in the speed at which you can make things a reality."
We launched a limited edition bottle for Jura recently around Orwell’s book ‘1984’, and as the theme of the book and packaging was censorship, we joked with the client that perhaps for the launch day, they should just censor their own site and shut it down. Within a couple of hours, it had happened. Decisions like that used to take weeks, but it’s great to see instinctive creative sparks become real ever quicker.
What characteristics are important for a junior designer to show to get hired at JKR?
A desire to want to learn and improve. Meeting Ian Ritchie (the ‘r’ of jkr) as a younger designer was fantastic as I realised I could learn a lot from his experience. You leave college with the tools to be a great designer, but it’s only by answering real problems and putting the effort in that you become one.
If you could choose to share a desk with anyone from past, present or future, who would it be and why?
Probably Alfred Hitchcock. Always liked his sense of humour and that he was trying new things even in the weeks before he died.
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