The Designers: Studio Blackburn’s Mark Jones on freelancing, job titles and “graphic imperfection”
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 twentieth interview in the series, we caught up with Studio Blackburn’s Design Director Mark Jones; discussing their new website and what he learnt from freelancing in London, as well as pondering on whether too many moodboards are making everything look the same.
EM Hi Mark, how have you been over the last few months?
MJ Hi Elliott, not bad at all, we need to go for a beer soon!
EM It must feel good to have the new Studio Blackburn website out in the world?
MJ It’s been an exciting journey. It feels great to have a place online – excluding social media – where we can represent ourselves; who we are, what we’ve done, are doing, and do in a much better way. The idea of the site is not to be a static representation of the studio at the time that it was built but just the beginning of something that is ever-evolving. We are really proud of it.
EM As simple as it seems on the surface, it must have been a challenge to put together. How was the process?
MJ The need for a new look Studio Blackburn has been apparent for quite a while. The first conversations we had about our identity, site and strategy was actually back in November 2020. We had a few late nights, some long conversations, and a tiny amount of debates to get here. Before launch, we took a week off everything client-related, which was a rare, enjoyable opportunity to focus purely on ourselves. We must also give credit to The Workers for helping realise our vision and the time that they’ve put into it, 101 issues inputted into GitHub later, we got there.
I thought I knew it all, I quickly started to realise that I didn’t.
EM How did you find the experience of freelancing before you started at Studio Blackburn?
MJ Freelance had its ups and downs. Letting go of things and not getting caught up in company politics was easier. This had happened in my previous role, not through anyone’s fault other than my own, it was a great team of people but the time had come, I needed a change and I’d always wanted to work in London. I started going to interviews for full-time positions – amazing studios that I really respected wanted to see me, sometimes I even had a second interview but unfortunately, I wasn’t getting that final ‘you’re hired.’
It was difficult not to get disheartened, but London it was. So I packed my bags, got myself a limited company, an accountant, spent a few days typesetting an invoice, contacted some recruiters and off I went on my merry little way as a freelancer. I thought I knew it all, I quickly started to realise that I didn’t. I was fortunate enough to work for some exceptional design studios alongside the designers, managers and directors that make them. I learnt loads and I would recommend any designer gives freelancing a go, it’s stressful but enlightening.
For the most part, finding the work was ok. I do remember having a few sporadic days lying on the sofa in my flat feeling useless when I wasn’t able to get something that week. Luckily it was those weeks that spurred me on to contact other studios directly which is how I landed in Studio Blackburn.
It taught me that there is more than one way of doing things.
EM Once you’d started in London, what was one of the first things you realised you weren’t as good at as you’d thought?
MJ When I first came to London as a freelancer I was considered a middleweight designer, going into slightly bigger studios than I was used to. There were a lot of new thoughts and ideas going on that I had to take on board and new people to impress. It taught me that there is more than one way of doing things and no matter what try to make everything look the best that it can. If a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing properly and all that jazz.
EM Why did you decide to stay on at Studio Blackburn permanently?
MJ I freelanced at Studio Blackburn for some time before taking on a permanent role. My plan was that I wanted to work with a wide variety of different studios, to continue learning new things and growing as a designer. Whilst freelancing at SB I’d been involved in a fantastic array of projects with a brilliant team – in the end taking a permanent role just felt right. I realised that I didn’t need to keep going to other studios to develop as a designer. Although working with some world-class studios and people was brilliant, I’ve also really enjoyed the prospect of developing within a company that I love too.
EM Do you have any favourite projects that you’ve worked on during your time there?
MJ There’s actually quite a lot that I could mention but the two that I’ve had the most fun on are –
A live poster event hosted by Studio Blackburn for Shoreditch Design Triangle around the theme of Love & Hate. We invited 24 leading graphic design practitioners to take part in sessions throughout the week. Each session contained around four designers sitting in the middle of an open space at Protein Studios, in which two would compete with one another. At the start of a session, we had to draw a subject out of a hat, one designer picking whether they loved or hated the subject. We then had three hours to create a poster. All the posters were printed on-site and throughout the week were all added to the walls around us. On the evening of the last day, we had an exhibition of all posters created, with the one-offs available to buy. All money raised going to the charity Love Music, Hate Racism. It’s quite hard to explain, you can check it out here. I was involved in the branding for the event and also produced a poster during one of the sessions that I still like a lot (Love Symbols).
Another project that I have enjoyed is for a client who we still have an ongoing relationship with called Pinter. I’ve been involved in the project since they first approached SB, having the opportunity to look at their entire brand, packaging, website and everything in-between. One aspect that I liked about their offering was that you can essentially get ten pints delivered through your letterbox. The key thing that we had to achieve was avoiding the stigma of ‘home brewing’ often considered to be cheap, poor tasting beer. For me there’s nothing not to like, it’s sustainable beer that you brew at home.
EM What does your setup look like?
EM What tools, both physical and digital, do you use to aid your working day and creative process?
MJ A lot of what I do involves trying to stay organised and I use Apple Notes quite a lot. I also try to stick to a rule of keeping a pen in my pocket, it’s always good to sketch ideas out on paper. As a studio, we are using Slack quite regularly to stay updated with projects and connected. For the most part, It’s usually the tools relevant to the job at hand which often involves a Mac and some sort of Adobe software, although I have dabbled in Figma for a recent web project. That said, I'm still keen on getting away from the computer where possible.
EM How do you deal with days where you don’t feel the most creative?
MJ In a job where you are paid for your creativity, working 9-5 doesn’t really work like that. There’s probably not a day that goes by where I don’t need to have a creative thought. I think, ultimately it comes down to time. There’s a lot of time to be creative in a day and also there are days that involve you needing to be less creative. I find it’s always important to leave a project alone then come back to it, get different minds involved and have conversations about it. Talking things through can spark something even if you disagree. Not all projects allow for time but that’s another story.
Don’t be a wanker but pick your moments.
EM What do you think is the most important skill a designer can have that isn’t design?
MJ Don’t be a wanker but pick your moments, do be a wanker. Be passionate. Nothing is important and everything is important. Empower those around you, be better than others, sometimes you’ll let people down, do more than is expected, cheer people up. Learn new things, don’t try too hard, stay up all night working. Have a break. Get comfortable. Find interests outside of the world of design. Read Josef Müller-Brockmann’s Grid Systems. Research Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Don’t be afraid. Get scared. Try and understand the movie Tenet.
For me, the most important thing is learning how to navigate a lot of different situations. What you bring to the table as a designer can be much more than just understanding how to use some software. Being a good designer is much more than just designing.
EM As you’ve transitioned through to senior design positions, what have been the pros and cons of how your role has changed?
MJ The main change is more responsibility for the output and creative vision of the studio and the people in it. I’ve worked hard to get to this point but coming into the studio one day and hearing ‘I now pronounce you design director’ (I’m paraphrasing) is daunting but I’m enjoying it. It’s not just about me anymore. There are a lot of pros to being in a higher position, chatting through and developing ideas with people, helping lead the team. The real con is worrying if the con is you. One thing I’ve learnt over the years in the design industry is that a title doesn’t mean respect and you’ve got to make the team believe in you as much as you do in them. I guess that Anthony Burrill poster – something about working hard and being nice (you’ve seen it), gets it right.
EM What irritates you the most about the design industry?
MJ I think it’s easy for us as an industry to exist within realms of the same, we can all be guilty of looking at what others are doing. Swipe after swipe of the finger. Saving for later. Filling boards with mood. This is mostly to do with branding but I see so much that comes out that looks like that other thing that just came out. The world of brand could do with a bit of a shake-up, in the age of digital branding, everything looks so slick and polished, but is that always good? I’d like to see a bit more graphic imperfection also, not just mockups (although, big-up @thetemplates.ig) and just because our friends are jumping off bridges, doesn’t mean we should be.
EM Lastly – the question of all questions – what typeface do you love? And what typeface do you hate?
MJ I love the graphic harshness of Akzidenz-Grotesk, as the late, great Weingart would say ‘Akzidenz-Grotesk has a certain ugliness to it, that’s why it has character.’ There is something about it that I have always been drawn to. I’m a grotesque sans serif kinda guy (great fun at parties) and for me, it’s the one. If you had to pin me down on a font weight I would say Medium. For my typographic hate, I’m going to refer back to the days when I would open InDesign, draw out a text box (before I knew the standard presets could be changed) and there it was. I’m aware that Apple used it for quite some time but Myriad. Myriad can fuck off, for me, it’s not a good ugly.