The Designers: Made Thought’s Joseph Lebus details his unconventional journey into the industry
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 fifth part of the series, we caught up with Joseph Lebus, a designer at Made Thought in London.
EM Hey Joseph. How’re you?
JL Hey Elliott! I’m holding up okay thank you! How are you?
EM Pretty good, thanks for asking. How have you found working from home through the quarantine?
JL It’s been interesting! Packing up the whole studio at Made Thought was a big undertaking, but it all went smoothly, and everyone is in good spirits and still producing great work despite the imposed distances between us all. Sometimes it can get a bit frustrating having to do everything through Zoom or Slack, especially when everyone is so used to collaborating in person, but so far so good.
In other ways, I’m actually quite enjoying it. Avoiding the commute into central London is always nice, but it also gives me some extra time in the mornings and evenings to do some of my own personal work, exercise, meditate, or just have some time to myself. I have really valued this.
EM Do you think this ‘slower’ time can have a positive impact on how we work in the future?
JL I think it has shown that, depending on the size of the company, it is possible to work effectively and efficiently without necessarily needing to be in an office environment. Having those extra hours in the morning and evening has given me the opportunity to exercise, meditate, get some fresh air, all of which has helped me find additional focus and energy. I wouldn’t be surprised if companies started becoming more flexible in this respect, giving their teams the opportunity to choose where they work from.
Just experiment and play as much as you can, no matter what the end result is.
EM Can you tell us about your background, and how that led to you becoming a designer at Made Thought?
JL My journey to becoming a designer at Made Thought wasn’t the most conventional one! I spent four years at Durham University where I studied languages. Upon graduating, I fell straight into a job I wasn’t enjoying or interested in, so I began to explore other options. My brother was setting up a business at the time, and I loved seeing how his brand was brought to life by the studio that worked on it. It showed me that there was a whole other way of communicating ideas beyond what language can do on its own. I began to explore design in more detail and enrolled in a couple of different courses that taught me the fundamental technical skills necessary to get started. I started to combine my learnings in design with my studies at Durham and saw a really interesting link between language and design. This became the basis of A LOT of experimentation which I put out on my Instagram, and that in turn led to me getting enough recognition to land my first few internships. I then applied to Made Thought on the back of this experience and managed to secure a permanent position as a designer.
My recommendation to all young designers who are just starting out or looking for work would be to just experiment and play as much as you can, no matter what the end result is. Often it is the process that is most interesting and rewarding. I think it is this experimental, loose approach to design and its traditions that sparked interest in my work and resulted in me working where I am today. Don’t be afraid of conventions or how things ‘should’ look, just go for it!
EM Your personal work is obviously very typographic. Do you have any inspirations that you think particularly informed this direction?
JL During my time at university, I explored the problematic nature of the languages we use to communicate meaning. Meaning is the spin-off of a potentially endless play of signifiers, rather than a concept tied firmly to a particular definition. Every word or phrase, once uttered, is lost in a world of differing interpretations and significations. It is never identical with itself, and so the attempt to capture true meaning through language would appear to be impossible. It was only after beginning my practice in design that I saw a really interesting connection between everything I studied at university, and how this could start to play out in the visual realm. Language might be flawed, but by affecting the forms of those words, we can get closer to conveying original meaning. That is to say, typography opens up a whole plethora of new possibilities for the way in which we can dialogue with language. This thinking has fuelled much of the experimentation that you see on my website and Instagram. It forms a core part of my approach to typography and visual communication as a whole and often leads to some really interesting results.
EM How much does the aesthetic of your personal work influence your Made Thought output? And vice versa?
JL At Made Thought, we always try to push ourselves into unknown spaces, taking that core idea and running with it until we arrive at new and original solutions. I adopt the exact same practice for my personal work – continuously iterating around a key idea or concept until I arrive in a space that instinctively feels right. So to that extent, the process is largely the same. The challenge is more about how to then create systems out of these aesthetics and sell them in effectively to our clients. We work with some of the most ambitious individuals and brands around the world, so this journey is sometimes harmonious, sometimes challenging, but constantly rewarding as we are always trying to push boundaries and create something that resonates with the world around us and stands the test of time.
It was amazing to see the power of typography in conveying meaning beyond just the words themselves.
EM Of your commercial work, is there a piece you feel most proud of?
JL Tough question, I am proud of all of it! I have loved working with IOM (Identification Of Music) over the past few years. We achieved a strong aesthetic for their brand that really drives home their central ethos. IOM is a community of music lovers, who come together to identify and discover rare underground music. Just as the community goes on a journey of discovery with each new song they listen to, the visual identity invites the viewer to go on the same process of identification and discovery. It was amazing to see the power of typography in conveying meaning beyond just the words themselves, and more how these words and letterforms are designed and constructed. The viewer is invited to look past the words, to try and identify and discover meaning beyond what is visible.
Another project I loved working on was the recent collaboration between Made Thought and our longstanding client Imprimerie Du Marais. We created a series of six handcrafted and uniquely finished prints that honour the last moon before the winter solstice, which went on display at the Made Thought Store in Covent Garden at the end of 2019. The series was about celebrating Imprimerie Du Marais and their unrivalled craftsmanship and printing techniques. The papers, supplied by G . F Smith, were carefully chosen to move from dark to light. The artwork mirrors this idea of transformation through shifts in thickness and density, taking the circle as our central motif and applying different finishes to each print, from perforations to bitmapped pearlescent screenprints, to silver foil micro embossing. It was an absolute pleasure to work on and is a testament to the bravery and ambition of the amazing clients we work with at Made Thought.
EM Can you highlight something you’ve learnt during your time there?
JL Made Thought has pushed me to look beyond just typography as the primary tool for communication, but actually to think in a very holistic way about all of the brands. Often we will think long and hard about the core idea or guiding principle, before considering all the different ways this can be brought to life. This might be through typography, but it also might involve illustration, image-making, colour, art direction, moving image, tone of voice, collaborations, special projects and so on. Thinking about all of these touchpoints and which to give more attention to has been a real learning curve but something that is so useful when working with such ambitious and forward-thinking clients.
EM What does your setup look like?
EM Why is there an absence of colour in the majority of your work?
JL A lot of the work on my Instagram is typographic experimentation. Playing with form, composition, cropping, scale, and so on. It is a space for me to explore typography and its effects on language and the conveyance of meaning. So far, colour hasn’t been a major aspect of this work, but who knows, this could change in the future! Whilst a lot of my personal work is focused on typography, at Made Thought we are experimenting with colour on a daily basis. In the studio, we are always careful not to force any particular styles or aesthetics, always considering all of the different ways that we can bring something to life. This includes colour as much as anything else, and I have had the opportunity to work on some amazing projects that leverage it in a unique and interesting way. Similarly, projects of my own like All Under One Roof and Lockdown Live have given me the opportunity to play with colour and use it in unique and exciting ways.
It’s very loose, very intuitive.
EM In projects like Floating Points All Day, you’re creating what seems like endless possibilities with a very limited toolkit. How do you typically begin a project like that?
JL I think you summed up the challenge nicely! The idea with these sketches is, as you said, to use a very limited number of parts and to try and create as many different possibilities as I can in a short period of time. It’s very loose, very intuitive, constantly iterating and experimenting without any judgement or critique. I love doing it. It feels a lot like improvisation, and I think it is really important that all designers have the time and space to practice like this. Without rules, without critique, approaching content in a free and almost naive manner. This is where the most interesting work often comes from.
EM How do you approach days where you don’t feel so creative?
JL Great question. In all honesty, I struggle. I put so much effort into working hard and delivering work that I am satisfied with, and so I find it very difficult to deal with the days when I’m not quite feeling it. Creative block isn’t resourced into our work. It is something that is difficult for clients to understand, and I don’t think it is given enough appreciation in studio environments. Designers often feel like they have to get through it in order to deliver the work on time, but this can sometimes just make it twice as hard! For me personally, I know that I need to just let it happen and not be too hard on myself. It’s totally natural to have ups and downs, and it is something that should be embraced not fought.
EM Would you like to start your own practice one day?
JL Of course! Right now, I am learning so much in my current role. I’m working with some incredible clients, and am surrounded by a group of incredibly talented individuals. I’m not in any rush to start my own practice, but this is definitely something to aim towards in the future.