Morning Person: Chris Doyle
From brand identity to album covers, Christopher Doyle is an internationally recognized designer with a litany of awards and accolades. A past CreativeMornings speaker, Chris shared the meaning of creativity to him at our Sydney chapter.
He also once found a piece of Nutri-Grain that looked like E.T. then sold it on eBay for a thousand dollars. We talked to him about his work and starting his own studio.
CM: How did you get your start?
Chris: Educationally, it was pretty bumpy, which is important to note because it was such an accidental entry into design. I spent so much time and energy trying to get into art school. I was so determined to get into art school because I was convinced that I would be a fine artist, which was very naïve. I failed miserably.
Graphic design was my back-up. I saw it as the poor man’s art school. To me, it wasn’t nearly as interesting or as cool, for lack of a better word. It ended up being my fall-back, but once I got there, I found that it was actually far more enjoyable. Failure at one thing forced me into another and I was much better because of it.
In terms of the job, I was just in the right place at the right time in that when I graduated from the University, we were all putting out CD-roms and everybody’s work was on the same one. A group of students built this big sexy thing to be handed out which, by today’s standards, was kind of clunky and weird. One girl from our class had pursued these agencies in Sydney and got interviews. Having worked on the CD-rom, she inadvertently previewed everyone else’s work to potential employers and they just picked and chose applicants based on her presentation. She was understandably annoyed about it, but I ended up getting an interview out of it and, luckily, a job at Saatchi & Saatchi, the ad agency, in the design division.
It was a very exciting, very scary start for me. It was great because it was small and I was lucky enough to get in with these two guys, the two creative directors there. They were incredible mentors, very generous and very smart and kind, both of whom I am still friends with to this day. For me, it was a gentle introduction, still a scary one, but a fun one too.
Art direction and design for Aria award winning band, The Jezabels. Photography by Christopher Doyle, Pierre Toussaint and Robbie Powell.
CM: How do you feel that living in Sydney impacts the type of work that you do?
Chris: I noticed a shift in my work in Sydney. By that, I mean that the the last three years of my career—up until the end of last year—I was at Interbrand, a global branding agency and work for them came from anywhere, a good example of how, location-wise, we are more connected then we ever were. At such a global agency, work could really come from anywhere. The idea of doing work for overseas clients wasn’t really a hurdle.
I think when you’re at an agency that big, the location doesn’t really matter. Now having moved out of there and started working for myself, the work is a lot more localized. Since opening my own studio, I am working on jobs that are inside Sydney, a few from Melbourne. I seem to be doing the same sort of work, but the jobs are just smaller. I’m also doing a lot more arts and culture work which is nice.
CM: You spoke earlier of a few people at Saatchi & Saatchi that were instrumental. Are there other people who stand out to you as having helped you along the way?
Chris: With those two creative directors I had in that first job—I was just really lucky that I found myself under two people who were very generous.
I meet a lot young designers who don’t find themselves in that position and they work three or four years under people who aren’t generous and who aren’t kind and who aren’t unselfish with their knowledge and experience. They come out of that first three, four, five year period not very confident or knowing what they’re doing. Or, the flip-side, they come out very independent and very steadfast in the way that they think because they’ve been forced to figure it out themselves.
I would always err on the side of recommending someone find a mentor to hand over all that experience. There is no substitute for life experience. You can know software, you can research, you can know craft, but there is no guide to sitting in a room with a client who is ten or fifteen years your senior asking you really really uncomfortable questions. If you can find someone who can let you eavesdrop on all that stuff and occasionally chop off little bits and give it to you to manage, eventually you figure out your own way to do all that. That’s just invaluable experience. I recommend more people do it if they can.
The Jezabels album cover. Photography by Christopher Doyle, Pierre Toussaint and Robbie Powell.
Of course every designer and workmate I have met along the way has had some sort of influence too, mostly good, some not so good. All my creative directors have impacted me in different ways too, recently Linda Jukic and Mike Rigby especially, who are both still good friends of mine.
CM: That segues into the next question. What advice would you give someone just beginning their career?
Chris: Travel. I know that sounds a bit condescending and I never did, but if I could do it again I would definitely take a year off. I was scared and nervous that I would miss out on starting things if I took a year off, which was a really stupid way to think about it, given how young people are when they finish university. I would absolutely have traveled if I could have my time again.
The other thing is, join a studio. Try to expose yourself to people who are already immersed in that industry, already doing what they do. It’s fascinating how confidently, probably is the kindest way to put it, and how excitedly people finish university and start studios of their own. For me, I just think that there is all that experience that is not really about design, it’s about people, that I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to get that out of someone else who has done it for ten years before you.
I get in trouble for that. People say, ‘What, you’re saying I’m not allowed to start my own studio?’ I bite my tongue now when people ask me. For me, personally, I benefited immensely from being able to watch someone who’s done it before. All the designers I admire had mentors in people above them. Michael Beirut for example was under Massimo Vignelli, and he places a huge emphasis on that relationship because it shaped who he was as a designer at a young age. I think if people have the opportunity to do that, even just for a few years, I would take that over striking out on your own.
CM: Going back to something you just said, ‘it’s not about design, it’s about people'—can you expand on that?
Chris: It’s really just my perspective on it, but I think young designers often finish university and there is an eagerness and a keenness to get out there and start. But so much of what working as a designer is, is not about design. The more 'senior’ you get in an agency, for lack of a better word, the more you rise up through a vertical structure in an agency, you realize that you do less and less design.
I left my last job, day-to-day not really doing much design, but doing more directing and presenting and going to meetings and floating around. It was enjoyable in a different way, as it’s the experience of dealing with and managing people, which is a huge part of what we do. We’re in an industry where we work for people. Unless you’re going to stay in your bedroom and only create for yourself—which is fine—we’re in a business of communicating with people and helping other people communicate.
I just saw from a really young age, the power of being able to talk to people, present to people, guide people and empathize with people. Empathy is a huge part of it. If you rush out there without that experience, it makes creating design and putting it out into the world a lot more difficult.
CM: This one is a bit of a doozy. What are three things you believe in right now?
Chris: That’s deep. How abstract can I get?
CM: You can get as abstract as you want. Anything that tickles your fancy.
Chris: I believe in my family. If I’m away from them for an extended period of time, I am not happy. If I don’t see my kids and my partner for more than a 24-hour period, I notice an absolute consistently timed kick-in of sadness. I believe that they are core to my physical and emotional stability. I believe that writing is crucial in design. I believe that print is not dead.
CM: Can you expand on that?
Chris: It’s not really a particularly insightful or original observation, but I think that we’ve been talking about print dying for the last ten years. For me personally, I still see the printed artifact and the craft of creating a physical item as something that is part of maintaining my equilibrium. The idea that if I was to exist and work only in on-screen formats, I would feel uneasy. I would feel less grounded and less in touch if I wasn’t producing and consuming things by hand.
In Australia, and everywhere I guess, there is this massive resurgence in craft. There is a stream of people who still care about creating physical, printed items and artifacts. In some ways I guess it’s a backlash against the on-screen experience, but printed graphic design still seems very healthy to me. Letterpress is everywhere here and it seems to be healthier than it ever has been in the past. I feel good about that. I love seeing digital evolve, especially seeing what motion and film guys are doing but I rest easy knowing that things I can hold in my hands, are still being produced.
CM: What’s one of the last things you made?
Chris: I made a great veggie burger last night.
CM: Do you do a lot of side projects?
Chris: I try to. That is part of the reason I left my last job. I am now doing smaller projects and identity work. Given the size of the agency I was at I was forced to squeeze that work in to outside hours and that was kind of frustrating. Part of the reason I left that job was to see if I could do more of that kind of work.
Starting up my own studio, I naively thought there would be lots of time to do personal projects, but the opposite is true. There is no time beyond the work that I have, which is frustrating. There is more freedom to take on things. No one is watching the clock. Creatively it is a good thing. I am sure I will never be rich, but I am happier than I ever have been.
CM: That’s an admirable goal. What is the most exciting thing propelling you forward right now?
Chris: I think it is the constant thrill of being responsible for your own output. It is incredible exhausting not having 20 to 30 people in a room to bounce ideas off of. You can’t call in sick and you can’t stop a lot of days when you want to. I am more exhausted, but I am happier than I have been also, which was the goal.
I think it’s admirable not only to have a financial goal, but a creative goal. To be able to get by and be happy as opposed to being rich and sad. It seems pretty obvious, but it’s strange, I am happier then I have been in ten years. I need to fix a few things to make it a more financially viable situation, but I feel more at ease than I have ever have in my life. That keeps me going.
Branding and ID for Natasha Cantwell.
CM: What were some of the biggest challenges in starting your own studio?
Chris: Time management. Finding time for things. At an agency, you have many people working on different tasks to make it easier for you to focus on your one thing. The biggest challenge is the administrative and business side of the studio just takes up a huge amount of time.
CM: What did you have for breakfast for this morning?
Chris: What did I have breakfast? I had this awful cereal called Health Wise. I then had some peanut butter on toast and I haven’t had coffee yet. Once that happens, all will be well.