Doing more with less is always a good litmus test.
Sanky, who is embarking on his one-year-presidency of D&AD on September 14, 2010, is a founding partner of interactive agency AllofUs. In his capacity as art director, he heads the team of visual designers. Previously, he stud-ied information design at Nottingham, and joined interactive communications agency Digit at its inception as an art director. He has spoken at Design Indaba, IDN conferences in Sydney and Singapore, Flash Forward, The Typographic Circle, and Design Yatra in Goa. He also teaches at the London College of Communication, Hyper Island in Sweden, and Space Invaders in Copenhagen. Michael Weinzettl chatted to him about his life and career so far.
L.A.: Where does “Sanky” come from? In what context were you given – or did you give yourself – that name?
Sanky: Embarrassingly, it’s my childhood nickname that just stuck. It’s got to the point that people I’ve known for over ten years don’t know I’m called Simon, so it just seems weird to ask them to call me something else.
L.A.: Please tell us a bit about how you grew up. I heard that your first passion was graffiti – or was it BMX bikes? I read you won the Gosforth Park BMX freestyle competition in 1984 at the age of twelve …
Sanky: I’m a sad old graphic design stereotype. I could add in comic books, trainer obsession, or rare records, in equal measure. Graffiti has a special place in my heart due to its pivotal role in getting me into design as a career.
L.A.: How did your “éducation visuelle” evolve? What were the different stages?
Sanky: Graffiti taught me about good old basics without me knowing, I guess, color, form, composition, working in a team and delivering under pressure …
and it also made me aware of the importance of language in creativity.
L.A.: Where do all your influences for your work come from?
Sanky: I always say they come from anything but my desk – mainly the people I meet and the adventures that ensue. I guess it’s also a reaction to the laziness that the internet brings.
L.A.: What about your parents? Did they encourage you and your graffiti or were they mostly worried because what you were doing must have been illegal sometimes?
Sanky: I didn’t hide it. They always knew what I was up to at night and they worried, of course. My dad is a social worker so I think he was concerned with how far my lack of concern for the judicial system would extend. (It only extended to graffiti and the odd paint stealing, by the way.)
L.A.: Is there still a record of the work you did as a graffiti artist in your teens?
Sanky: I’ve got a lot of my sketches and maybe a couple of photos. It’s quite odd, looking at what I was doing as a teenager, i.e. drawing, being slightly nerdy.
L.A.: What were the things that you admired when you were growing up, that led you to studying graphic design?
Sanky: My mother’s piano playing (being around that kind of talent is very inspiring), Ken Garland, CND, the Danish “Nuclear Power No Thanks” logo, my granddad’s jazz collection and his Saarinen tulip chairs, being allowed to think freely, and being sent on a design YTS scheme (on-the-job training courses as formerly run under a UK government scheme – ed.) that made me go to college after the first day.
L.A.: So how did you get your first job in graphic design? You stayed with Digit for quite a long time, didn’t you?
Sanky: I studied in Nottingham, where Digit was born. The day I put my show up, I got the bus to London and managed to get some placements at a cou-ple of agencies – I can only remember Blue Source and, I think, Tomato – but my girlfriend at the time was still study-ing in Nottingham. Daljit had just set up Digit and came to the show needing a designer so I went with my heart and stayed in Nottingham. I was working full-time four days after graduating. I was very lucky. I stayed at Digit and helped it grow for nearly nine years.
L.A.: Were your graphic design studies a good preparation for your work in the digital arena?
Sanky: My first year typography tutor was amazing. He was mad as pea soup but could see my desire for learning the foundations of design and actually knew his stuff. I took more away from his teaching in two months than any of the other “tutoring” I got for the rest of my degree. He also introduced the basics of form and composition, which I realized I’d learned from graffiti. It’s scary: I’m not sure that these fundamentals are taught everywhere nowadays as some people think that they are outdated skills, whereas they gave me invaluable reference, allowing me to play with the notion of design in my subsequent work. Today, I still sometimes quote Jon’s pivotal comment whilst teaching us the idiosyncrasies of kerning … “You could drive a fuck-ing bus through that!” he commented whilst looking at “A WAY” written on my page. The thing is, great digital work is just about good observation and insight, plus a strong idea using appropriate channels / tools / platforms to deliver something amazing. Isn’t that the same for all creative disciplines?
L.A.: What about your move to London? How did that come about?
Sanky: An American company approached us who saw the “potential in digital” back in ‘97! We were in the process of being bought out when we met Shane Walter from Onedotzero and the Antirom / Aidiorom crew, who told us that there was a lot of work starting to bubble up in London (Antirom had just landed Levi’s and been on the cover of the Guardian, I think). So we managed to get out of the buyout, save three months of working capital together, and moved to London to see if they were right. I think they were right.
L.A.: You founded AllofUs six years ago. What was the reasoning behind that?
Sanky: We wanted to get away from just web work as the notion of interactive, for us, was a methodology. Anything can be interactive so we set out to see how technology can be used alongside other, possibly more traditional practices. Also, the work that was being commissioned for galleries and museums, largely by artists who didn’t understand the design process and dealing with content … so we saw an opportunity to occupy some of that space. We now work in interiors, identity, product (digital and physical), as well as the more obvious digital channels.
L.A.: What does AOU do exactly? What kind of clients come to you and what do they want from you?
Sanky: We are a multidisciplinary interactive design agency. Our clients range from large entertainment corporations (Sky, Xbox) to galleries (V & A, Science Museum) to other kinds of entertainment (Coco de Mer) to hospitals (Great Ormond Street), to fashion (Nike, Selfridges) – just people that we can create new engaging solutions with.
L.A.: Was AOU successful right from the start?
Sanky: We had three clients before we started. We won our first pitch and we’ve managed to retain all our staff through the recession – so, yes, I think.
L.A.: Have you had any role models throughout your career? If so, who are they and can you tell us a bit about them?
Sanky: Role models might be a bit strong but I have certainly been affected by some amazing people that I have had the privilege of meeting. Jon Ellery, for his no-bullshit approach; Harry Pearce, for his honesty and his mishaps; Neville Brody, for offering me a job in my twenties; Yugo Nakamura, for saying that our work had influenced him; Naoto Fukasawa, for making me understand the importance of observation; Colin Curtis, for being both insane and a musical genius; Alan Fletcher, for drinking wine with his feet in a jacuzzi whilst commenting on surrounding events with such insight that you could have easily used them as posters, campaigns or straplines; and Javier Mariscal, for giving the most emotional design performance I’ve ever seen. The list really goes on. I just feel very lucky to have people like this in my life as their influence is priceless.
L.A.: What is the work that you’re most proud of? Which items would you single out?
Sanky: I loved the identity we did for Great Ormond Street as it was for a fundraiser (ticks the “Good cause” box), and it was a very simple idea (a sound reactive id for a party called MAKE SOME NOISE), and maybe the Coco de Mer changing room camera booth! I guess also, a while back, creative direction and design for sites for MTV2, Habitat and Stella McCartney. We also worked on a magazine for boo.com so we saw all that happen from the inside … very eye-opening … and designing 007.com as I got to chat to Desmond Wilkinson Llewelyn (the actor who played “Q” in the Bond movies – ed.) before he passed away.
L.A.: Might there currently be a tendency in creative departments all over the world to attach a lot of importance to digital and the development of content for digital, and for traditional media such as print and TV to be somewhat neglected as a result?
Sanky: Not really. All that’s happening now is that aspects of communications – such as content and writing, for instance – have previously been margin-alized in digital; now that you can activate and mobilize on digital channels in a targeted and hopefully beneficial way (Is this user-centric design? I think it is.), everyone’s finally realized that digital channels are as important as the rest, and the public expect smarter, more useful thinking and approaches.
L.A.: What is your opinion of the standard of print and TV work coming out of ad agencies?
Sanky: As Parkinson said, your answers are only as good as the questions. Our industry needs to ask itself what are we tasking ourselves with well before you start to answer it.
L.A.: What were your personal favorites among this year’s D&AD pencil winners?
Sanky: Trillion dollar campaign for the Zimbabwean newspaper from TBWA Hunt Lascaris – I need not explain, surely. And Apple.com – again, I need not explain why.
L.A.: What does an average day spent at AOU look like for you?
Sanky: Trying to fit in directing between never-ending meetings. I try to actually “design” once in a while still but it gets harder to sit, uninterrupted, for more than 20 minutes.
L.A.: What are some of the things you hope to achieve during your D&AD presidency?
Sanky: Get the content out to more people with less waste. Try to support new talent and give them the leg up that they need, have smaller, more frequent events, and to engage with smaller agencies and individuals that are shaping our industry.
L.A.: Have you seen the economic crisis taking effect on creativity in graphic design in general, and digital in partic-ular? Or has digital actually come out of this as the winner?
Sanky: Let’s be straight: no one’s the winner in financial crisis, and if George Osborne’s left to it, we’re all going to be looking for a new job, What you do see is people not standing still and forging on in whatever space they’re given. Asking if you’re doing more with less is always a good litmus test.
L.A.: Do you think traditional advertis-ing – print and film – still attracts as many talented young people as it used to, or could it be that they’re all going to digital now?
Sanky: What we’ll see in the next 5-10 years is that kids who’ve grown up with “digital” and nothing else (they don’t even know the world without digital) will start to get more senior positions in their careers in all walks of life. So the decision-makers, both client and agency side, will have a pure, ingrained understanding of all things “digital” (as we old folk call it). When the shots are called by that generation, I think the game will change for the better as digital won’t be different. It’ll be normal and we can get on with ideas, purpose, permanence, and service campaigns, and exchange and reward amongst other necessary human conditions.
L.A.: Can you tell us a bit about D&AD’s programs for students. How does D&AD help them?
Sanky: Obviously, New Blood is a big part of the design calendar as it’s a showcase of over 100 courses covering what should be the cream of the crop. Also, this year agencies all over London opened their doors to have smaller events to connect grads to industry and have some more intimate Q & As, which were really successful. I want to keep that velocity going and create meaningful programs for the education ventures, shrinking the perceived gap between grads and industry.
L.A.: I’ve read that you’re researching a novel. Can you tell us about that? Will it be your first literary effort or have you been writing for a long time?
Sanky: I’ve been researching it on and off for about a year (more like off, recently). I can’t say too much as I’ve not seen anything too similar but it’s a fictional book based on the extremes of men’s behavior.
L.A.: What advice would you give to a young graphic designer starting out?
Sanky: Do what makes you happy. If you aren’t happy, then change what you’re doing, where you are, or who you’re with. Make tea for people when you first start a job. Edit your portfolio to 3-5 pieces. Be nice to everyone as design is a small industry and the one person you annoy will be the person interviewing you in five years’ time. (I guarantee this!) Have a social conscience.
L.A.: Why are you creative?
Sanky: Everyone’s creative; we all express it in different ways … What I do now is, I’m pretty sure, right for now but I’m sure I’ll be doing something different in 10 years’ time.