The Designers: Alphabetical’s Charlie Jeffries on learning 3D and finding the right work/life balance
The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick. For the eighth part of the series, we caught up with Charlie Jeffries, a midweight designer at Alphabetical in London.
EM Hi Charlie. How’s it going?
CJ Hey Elliott, I’m good thanks! How are you?
EM Pretty good too, thanks. Can you place where your interest in design originated?
CJ I was always really into comic books when I was younger. I loved the illustrations in books like Akira and found myself redrawing characters and lettering from that series over and over. I was also lucky to be surrounded by a really creative family at home. My dad is a developer so I was always learning from him and trying to teach myself bits of code and creative software from quite a young age.
EM Did you feel any pressure to pursue a creative career because of your family history?
CJ Not at all really, my family always encouraged me to pursue whatever I felt most interested in. I just always looked up to those around me and the cool things they were doing, so I fell into a creative career very naturally.
Zelda Malan turned my perception of design on its head.
EM What does your journey to becoming a designer at Alphabetical look like?
CJ I studied Graphic Design at Kingston School of Art, where Zelda Malan (the infamous first-year course leader) turned my perception of design on its head. Introducing us to the course with a whirlwind year of creative thinking and idea generation, with weekly (and weekend-ly) projects and crits.
Fast forward to my second year when we hosted a mid-degree exhibition at Hoxton Arches, where I met Bob Young, one of two creative directors at Alphabetical. I was previously aware of the studio and admired it because it seemed to reflect a really similar ethos to the course at Kingston, encouraging creative thinking and discouraging any limitations in design application.
After a summer internship during my second year, Bob and Tommy (the second creative director) invited me back into the studio after I had graduated, and I’ve been there for almost two years now.
EM Can you highlight something you’ve learnt during your time there?
CJ Alongside the immediate experience and learning curve of starting at a studio straight out of uni, it’s been a really great environment to grow in. The guys really encourage development in our practice and roles within the studio – they aren’t tied down to keeping an ‘Alphabetical’ aesthetic. I’ve really learnt to adapt my practice and skillset throughout each project, and over the past couple of years, my work has naturally shifted further into 3D and motion design under their direction.
EM 3D and motion can seem quite daunting for those coming from a more traditional graphic design background. What approach would you recommend for learning?
CJ It is daunting when you’re learning, and it definitely still is for me! I found watching beginner tutorials very useful when starting out, just to get to grips with the interface and basics, but I think you can easily get lost in that kind of thing. As soon as I started pushing myself to experiment and figure things out on my own, I found that the work I was producing was far more unique and interesting – and it felt way more rewarding. I’ve still only learnt a tiny portion of what you can do in programs like Cinema 4D, and there are also a million different ways to do one thing. So I’d say it’s just about finding a flow and method of creating work that suits you best.
I also love embracing the mistakes and work in progress.
EM You have some typographic work on your Instagram about the rapid depletion of coral. Can you share any insights into that project?
CJ Sure, I’d been reading a lot about this subject matter before starting the project, and I guess I just wanted to express some of the insane facts I’d learnt through a medium I felt I could speak through. I ended up creating this degenerative typeface that shows the depletion of coral over the next 30 years, the rate that it corrodes correlates with recent data that predicts 90% of coral reefs will die out before 2050. The monotone colours were used to mirror the bleaching process that kills the coral, an effect of sea temperatures rising. I guess this was an experiment born from something I felt passionate about more than anything!
EM It’s good to see the format of the ‘side project’ used to raise awareness. Do you think it’s important to always have a side project on the go?
CJ I feel like side projects are a really important part of a creative’s practice. It gives you a chance to explore subject matters and methods that you may not be able to through client/studio work – especially when raising awareness for certain topics. I also love embracing the mistakes and work in progress, which comes naturally with side projects. Sometimes, I think this is the area of other designers’ work I’m most interested in.
EM Do you have a favourite piece of work that you’ve produced at Alphabetical?
CJ We’ve spent the last year developing an identity for Bespoke, a personalised shopping service offered by one of the most prestigious shopping malls in Hong Kong, Landmark. This identity was a really big project for me, a steep learning curve developing a brand on such a scale for an international client, but it felt like a real win by the end of it. The team in Hong Kong really fell for the concept and committed to centring the entire brand around personalisation and DNA. This really paved the way for a wealth of dynamic, progressive applications that our team had a lot of fun coming up with. Particularly building software to generate unique binary patterns for all of the Bespoke members.
EM What does your setup look like?
I love playing the guitar when I’m grasping at straws on a project.
EM As designers, we’re expected to produce highly creative work all of the time. How do you approach days where you don’t feel so creative?
CJ I think this is a question that I definitely would have answered differently four months ago, but I just make sure I take myself away from the screen when I can. Either moving your work back to the sketchbook or finding time to switch your focus to something non-work related is great. I love playing the guitar when I’m grasping at straws on a project because it’s creative in a different capacity (something that’s only been possible during lockdown).
EM So would you say the lockdown had a positive impact on the way you work?
CJ I’ve relished the ability to manage my own time slightly more freely. I think striking the work/life balance at my pace has improved my creativity massively, something that both my creative directors have noticed throughout our team during lockdown – we’re now rethinking our studio structure to try and reflect a similar work ethic for when we return to the office!
EM Who would your dream client be?
CJ For me, I think it would be a record label whose music I’m into. Someone like Lex, Ninja, Warp, Stones Throw – those guys produce some amazing work. I think if I ever went back and did something other than design, it would be music – so I guess it feels natural to want to mix the two.
EM Are there any other studios or creative people, in any industry, that you particularly admire?
CJ Two Much, Digi Gxl, Butt Studio, Isabel and Helen, Play Lab – all doing insane work at the moment.
EM Do you see yourself starting your own practice one day?
CJ One day!