Design By Duncan on dropping out, challenging himself and being around the right people

Elliott Moody
0 min read

Design By Duncan on dropping out, challenging himself and being around the right people

A connoisseur of kinetic movement, Duncan Brazzil is a Portland-based graphic designer who, under his studio moniker Design By Duncan, has crafted striking visuals for a global client list that includes Rihanna’s FENTY, Nike, Universal Music Group and Esquire. We checked in with him to find out about his journey to date.

EM Hey Duncan. How’re you doing?

DB I’m doing great and hope you are too! Things are going really well! I’m about to start two fun exciting projects – a motion project for Snapchat and a branding project for an events company based in California which will be fun, because I don’t do branding work too often. Will be fun to try and incorporate motion into the identity system! Although it’s uncertain times it’s interesting to see what is moving forward in the world.

The smoke has cleared in Portland from the recent crazy California fires, so we are doing much better and feeling healthy again! Moved apartments recently, have been kept busy with that and can’t wait to customise my space into more of a ‘work from home’ studio setup! Finding myself becoming inspired by a lot of things outside of ‘graphic design’.

Meanwhile, wanting to take my motion skills to the next level, 2D has been really fun but anxious to learn some 3D/C4D. Was having a look at some artworks created via Blender and Unreal Engine and would love to try and incorporate some of that kind of work with mine this coming year. It’s a great time to be learning new skills so when we’re all back in the offices/studios we’ll have our new tool bags to enjoy at the very least.

Things are looking up for myself and everyone in this industry, I believe it.

EM Since university, you’ve made your way through Dundee, Glasgow, Manchester and Edinburgh, before settling in Portland. How has that journey been for you?

DB It’s been one hell of a journey! I was born in Dundee, Scotland so was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to go back there after leaving university to work for five years, ending up back stateside now in Portland. Scotland and England gave me a start in the industry. I think I learned more working over there than I ever imagined, more than a degree would ever do for me. I’m inspired by the work ethic and drive people have there. London was a lot of fun too at times just to be able to get that exposure and be made aware of how much talent there is, was eye-opening and key to learning as a younger designer. The design events and community there is next level too. Love the UK and will always be hugely influenced by British design/designers (Neville Brody, Eddie Opara, Chris Ashworth, The Designers Republic, Made Thought).

Scotland will also always have a place in my heart too. There are some great people in Edinburgh and Glasgow working in the creative industry. Ah, I miss it so much and it has only been a year since I left! Due a visit after this COVID-19 madness.

EM What gave you the confidence to establish your own practice in Portland?

DB I think there is a lot of opportunity and freedom to do what you want in the States as they say in the films and that, but I wanted to come back to try and see how it would be to work back here mainly since all my experience working professionally had been in the UK since dropping out of university. Ultimately I wanted to try a new city and was looking for a big change in some way, be it UK or US, a shift that would help me grow in and outside of work. I was thinking of moving to London before I left and still think about going there someday for a while.

The whole freelancing/setting up my own practice just kind of happened out of coincidence. When I first got to Portland last year, I had one interview for a full-time role out of applying to 10+ places and then hadn’t really established much connection at all with the local design community or other designers. After almost two months of living on my friend’s couch with my suitcase, I was lucky enough to get a short stint at Recess Studios as a freelancer – they do a lot of stuff for Nike and Jordan and from there realised I enjoyed the freedom of freelancing and wanted to try my hardest to keep it going.

I already felt like it was an adventure moving back to the States but freelancing now adds another exciting type of lane, which has been exciting. You just meet super interesting people all the time which keeps it fresh. I will say there are times though that felt uncertain once I’d made the leap that would give me anxiety but I’m learning to be more hopeful lately and have patience. Things are looking up for myself and everyone in this industry, I believe it.

Learning to have confidence in your own style and craft is so important.

EM Having dropped out of University, do you think it’s been harder for you to succeed in the industry?

DB There was kind of a fear I had when I started to apply for junior roles with no degree but I felt a lot more confident as time progressed. When I dropped out I noticed quickly I didn’t have as many strong university projects in my portfolio as I’d wanted, so it took some time to add to it with self-initiated projects to build a portfolio that would eventually reflect my skillset properly.

As time progressed I was able to speak better and more openly about how my experience from university was such a great learning experience even if it was a short time, primarily because I was surrounded by others that were passionate about their craft of design or art. Outside of the classroom with my friends, I gained skills in how to run and brand events, ideate and screenprint merchandise. My friends from university motivated me to try, experiment and most importantly apply what I was learning in the classroom far more than my teachers did. I learned that if you try and get to an end result you’re never completely wrong if you can have your ideas heard or understood.

Experimentation or trying in areas I don’t know anything about is what I find most enjoyable. I think learning to have confidence in your own style and craft is so important. It’s evident that being able to explain the process/style following university can get you even further. Attending events is great too and being involved or present in the design community online or your local area is important too.

EM You’ve built a strong aesthetic based on kinetic movement, black-and-white and bold sans serifs. How did you land on that style?

DB I’ve always loved black and white. Typography I got really into it in college because I realised I wasn’t much of an illustrator or graphic artist and instead kind of landed on typography for school projects to create visuals as my last resort!

I do find it challenging these days to move away from black and white, though I don’t mind working with colour and have to try hard to convince folk I do like a bit of colour in my life! My favourite colour is like an off white cream right now actually.

To be honest with kinetic typography, I’ve always tried to communicate or bring out emotion via the movements, keeping it to a form and function kind of approach and have always thought adding colour just to add colour for visual aesthetics didn’t really satisfy me or makes sense in most cases. I really think adding colour should be treated carefully or for when you are trying to lift something’s meaning or purpose, not just for visual purposes. Colour theory is definitely something I want to learn about very soon.

EM What does the process of creating a kinetic animation look like?

DB Pure experimentation. Where the best ideas come from. All I have to say is there’s no right or wrong process. Design processes and foundations are meant to be broken or changed… Do whatever you think is right. The grid exists but don’t be afraid to break it either.

I want to inspire more change going into 2020.

EM What’s your number one typeface?

DB I don’t have a favourite typeface but I respect and love all the independent type foundries popping up like CoType Foundry, Pizza Typefaces, Dalton Maag… So much goes into crafting these typefaces, I actually think independent type foundries need a lot more credit.

EM So far, do you have a project you’re most proud of?

DB Not really, lately. I want to inspire more change going into 2020 real talk. I want to be a part of more of a movement, now that we’re all working remotely. I want to be brought on to projects where I feel I’m using my skills to help people or doing something that inspires change rather than working to help promote or sell a product I don’t necessarily care about or believe in.

My favourite project though during COVID-19 was with Justified Studio in London for FENTY, where I created 2D motion graphics for a live music event on Instagram. It was cool to contribute to something where people really enjoyed the moment and could escape from this year we’ve endured. Really feel for musicians and labels at the moment.

EM What advice would you give to designers that would like to incorporate motion into their work?

DB I would say not much more then go for it! It is really exciting to bring something to life and even just small movements or very basic animations or applications can really communicate or elevate the feeling or purpose behind what you’re trying to show. It’s like adding another layer to your work.

EM How did you learn?

DB I went to school for Studio Art with an emphasis on Graphic Design, so I was taught basic principles and design history before dropping out. Learning has mostly come from reading and YouTube to be honest, although I would give more credit to reading and events for helping me build my own style to how I talk about my work. Reading is my favourite, I definitely need to stock my own shelves with more books once my mind can re-centre itself.

EM You’ve been very open with sharing work-in-progress over the years. Why?

DB Honestly, if I could give advice to anyone I would say do this as much as you can when showing work. I love showing just snippets because a lot of the works in progress pieces or pieces that get scrapped are often the best. The more perspectives you are able to give or light on one project can be really strong and more appealing to people in how you got there, instead of the final polished piece. They start to see and appreciate all the layers of hard work you added to get to the end of the race.

EM Who would your dream client be?

DB Anyone working toward a better cause for the world though I’ve enjoyed working within sport, fashion and health and wellness the most.

EM What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen?

DB Just being able to travel has opened my eyes so much. The coolest experiences or things I’ve seen have come from my travels. Cities like Rome, Cairo, Egypt and visiting the pyramids really opened up my eyes to the realities of the world. Seeing cities for the first time, places you’ve never ventured too is my favourite feeling. Scotland, New York and France, some of my favourites as well for how pretty these places are. Want to revisit all of these after COVID-19 and hope for the best right now as I’m most nostalgic about travel!

Graphic Design

Design By Duncan