Alex took a brief break from his hectic schedule of popping ollies, ironing his hair and sometimes doing a bit of designing to discuss the finer points in his AHOY working life. Or his weird inability to sleep without hearing Ashton Kutcher’s voice, whichever crops up first.
To start off with, talk us through your background a bit – where were you working before you started at AHOY?
AHOY is the first agency I’ve worked at, actually. When I graduated from uni I ended up going straight into doing freelance work, and I did that for about a year before I got quite a big contract that required me to work in a virtual studio set-up with three other designers, a creative director and an account handler.
So you never met face-to-face – it was always over the Internet?
Yeah, I mean we did already know each other, but day-to-day we were keeping in touch with each other over Skype and instant messaging conversations. Anyway, after that I set up my own company with one of the designers from the virtual studio set-up, while still carrying on freelancing on the side. I kept that up for three or four years before I decided I wanted to have some more traditional agency experience under my belt.
What was it that made you choose AHOY as the right venue to get that agency experience? What was it about AHOY that stood out to you?
I was in quite a good position at the time – I still had plenty of freelance work to see me through, so I could really shop about to try and find the right fit for me. I’d already done some freelancing for AHOY before I started working in-house, and every time I came into the studio I just really liked the atmosphere. A senior designer position opened up, Dave emailed it over to me – it just seemed like perfect timing, so I snatched his hand off.
How does the AHOY working environment differ to the other environments you’ve worked in?
It’s noisier, but in a good way. It’s a really nice chance of pace at AHOY.
In a lot of these interviews, people have spoken about the previous agencies that they’ve worked at being quite managerial, with account managers hounding them a lot of the time, and projects being quite regimented in how you’re supposed to approach them. Is that something you’d agree with, even with your experiences working in a virtual studio set-up?
Yeah I would agree with that, if anything the virtual set-up was more managerial than a typical agency might be. I think we get a lot of freedom here. Dave’s a really great creative director because he gives us the freedom to explore the creative routes that we want to, even if we aren’t necessarily going in the right direction – he’ll let us take it as far as we want to, and then guide us back. It’s the same with our account handlers; they give us a fair bit of flexibility in terms of how we approach projects and briefs.
How would you say Dave’s creative direction style differed from other creative directors you’ve worked with in the past?
He’s not dictatorial, that’s for sure. He’s just got a good eye for design, I suppose. He’s a good teacher.
Alright, I think we’ve stroked his ego enough there! What’s an average working day for you at AHOY?
I get in at about 8:20, make some breakfast (it’s an egg and cheese butty from Martin’s on Friday, though), brew up and then from there, it’s completely varied. The only constant throughout the day is that I’m working on branding and digital projects, so I could be doing anything from sitting in on a branding workshop, to wireframing a website – there’s no real set structure to the day.
Which I suppose is a good thing, right?
Yeah, definitely. It’s funny because I think totally different activities can end up informing one another – so something that I hear in a branding workshop might form a spark of an idea for another project entirely.
Which clients are you most excited to be working with?
I think the most interesting client I’m working for at the moment is Imagine, who specialise in live marketing solutions. It’s a project that’s been coming along quite nicely, even though it’s taken quite a while for it to come together – I think I’ve been working on it on and off ever since I joined last year?
Do you have any good stories from projects you’ve worked on?
The first thing that springs to mind is that once a client asked me to make a snowflake look “warmer”.
How did you end up in design originally?
I intentionally fell into it, if that makes any sense. I went to college, but only stuck with it for about three months before I got bored and dropped out. I’d chosen quite academic subjects like psychology, but they just weren’t for me so I went back to sixth form to take a graphic design course, which turned out to really be a product design course – they didn’t really know what design was! So I did that, along with a couple of other A-levels. Sixth form was three years of dossing around and drinking, if I’m honest, but it was enough to get my partying out of my system. Then I managed to blag my way onto a design course at uni, using just my product design work, and because I’d gotten my partying out of me, I could focus on design and I ended up loving it. It was quite lucky, really.
Are you originally from Stoke, or are you just living there at the moment?
I’m originally from Stoke and I’m still living there – I never left!
How do you find working in Heaton Moor?
It’s a change of scenery, I mean, I worked in Manchester city centre for a few years, and Heaton Moor is definitely a great change of pace – it’s nice and leafy. I think one of the main perks of working in Heaton Moor is that it’s more relaxed, and if it ever does get a bit hectic and noisy in the studio, we can just go for a stroll. Plus, we’re only a 10 minute train ride from being in Manchester, so we can always go for a pint after work, get to exhibitions and stuff like that.
What’s the best piece of industry or work-related advice you’ve ever received?
I think in terms of advice that clicked with me instantly, I’d have to mention Adrian Shaughnessy’s blue bible – “How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul”. It’s a book that flags up lots of things, which in retrospect are probably fairly obvious, about communicating with other people. It’s little things like when you’re presenting work, present it to a client rather than to yourself.
Do you read a lot of design books, or are blogs a better resource for you?
I tend to buy a lot of design books, but I don’t often read them. I mean, to be fair to me, a lot of them are more reference books than anything – so in terms of reading about design, it’s probably blogs more than books for me.
Are there any blogs or books that you’d particularly recommend?
Anything from Viction:ary, which is a bit of a plug because I’ve got a couple of pieces of work in some of the books that they sell.
Let the record show that Alex just did the business guns at me as he said that! What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Probably the notion that concept is key. It’s something we were taught throughout uni, but I’m not sure I agree with it. It meant that when I graduated, I was really good on the conceptual side of things, but less strong in terms of execution and visually presenting those concepts.
It’s a bit of a struggle when there’s places like Shillington College that are teaching exactly the opposite – churning out students that are weaker conceptually, but they’ve got really good grafting skills, they can really make, for example a piece of typography, work for them. I think overcoming that teaching of concept being more important than execution has been invaluable for my growth as a designer.
Which is a brilliant segue into the next question – are there any strings you’d like to your designer bow?
One thing I’d like to start learning – I’ve dicked around with it a bit in my spare time – is a scripting language called Processing, which you can use to make generative art. I’ve seen some really cool, interesting stuff made with it, and I’d like a piece of the action too.
Have you always been creatively inclined?
I’d say probably not – I mean, thinking back to my childhood, I was really interested in science. I remember my dad bought me a science encyclopaedia that I read back to front throughout primary school – I just loved it. But then within the first year of secondary school, I’d completely killed that love off!
It’s not as though that left me directionless, though – I don’t think anyone has a clear, defined direction at such a young age. I didn’t have anything to aspire to or climb to just yet, then it just kind of fell into place that I got bored with my courses in secondary school. I think I learnt more what I didn’t want to do, than what I did want to do.
Was parental pressure a factor, do you think?
Not at all, I think it was societal pressure if anything. It was pressure I applied to myself – I wanted to be in the same classes as my friends, and we all took business studies, IT etc. rather than subjects like art. I’ve never taken an art course.
Any albums or songs on repeat at the moment?
I’m currently working through a big list of albums that I’ve missed from 2014, so not a lot in the way of repetition – but I’ll reel off my list that I definitely didn’t prepare beforehand… Fucked Up’s album Lost Boys, Rented World by The Menzingers, Tycho’s Awake, an Architects album called Lost Forever, Lost Together and finally Charmer Charmer by Tiger’s Jaw. They’re all from my “recently played” section on Spotify.
What’s your favourite night out spot?
I live in Stoke, so there isn’t much in the way of great night out spots…
There’s got to be a Liquid & Envy, right?
Haha, I did find a decent little cocktail bar fairly recently in Stoke, but other than that, I’d rather be dragged around the bars in Manchester by my friends.
Let me guess – Northern Quarter?
Yep, another Northern Quarter answer – but we usually end the night in Satan’s Hollow.
What TV series or film do you recommend at every chance you get?
I’ve got seasons one to seven of That 70s Show – there is a season eight, but it’s not worth talking about – and I’ve watched on repeat for about eight years now. There was a pretty sad point in my life where I couldn’t sleep without it being on in the background!
Why does the weird keep coming out in these interviews?!
What can I say, I love it! So there’s that, and then letting out the inner geek – I’ve just finished watching a Netflix original anime called Knights of Sidonia, which is about robots in space.
Of course it is! So if you weren’t working in this industry, what would you be doing instead?
I’m not sure. I’ve got a lot of friends who are teachers and nurses, and I always think about noble those professions are, and how they directly benefit other people. I know that design does in certain ways but it’s nothing like the ways that those professions do, and it would be arrogant to say otherwise. They’re not necessarily the right professions for me, but I’d like to think that I could do something like those jobs in terms of directly benefiting other people.