ALWAYS A STUDENT, NEVER A MASTER, HOW TO NEVER STOP GROWING AS A DESIGNER, with Marc Donaldson, Head of Art and Partner at The & Partnership

Marc is a London based Graphic Designer with over 20 years experience.

His career started as a 15 year-old on work experience. Marc would ‘paste-up’ in a screen-printing studio in Darlington. He’s since worked in some of the biggest advertising agencies in the world.

Marc’s work includes branding, creative/art direction, design, illustration and even custom typography. He’s picked up a nice host of awards along the way too. Although, as he says in his own words; “we don’t it for that, right?”.

Marc sat on the board of Creative Circle and recently helped launch the independent record label RAFT Recordings.

Marc spoke to me about jamming his foot in the door of a design company. But also about slowly sliding the rest of his body through said door and staying there.

You can see Marc’s brilliant work here.

Business

Tell me about the first hour of your day, what does it usually look like? Specifically any habits or morning routines that you have.

I’m usually woken by my 2 children at around 6am’ish. From then on it’s a bit of a madhouse trying to get ready to get out of the house. I’ll cycle to and from work everyday so the early morning ride is really go for de-stressing and getting the blood pumping.

Tell me what do you for a living, without using your job title?

I solve problems and create things that look nice (most of the time).

What did you do at work yesterday?

Made a problem look nice.

Tell me your career history in three, 1-sentence bullet points.

• I did a leaver pack with some friends for my final year show at Croydon college.

• The Head of Design at Lowe Howard Spink saw it and offered to pay me to do my hobby.

  • I still do my hobby.

Why do you do what you do? What need (other than paying bills etc.) does your job fulfil?

I’ll do what I do all of my life. It’s my passion and I think I’ll always have a need to create something.

Tell me about a day in your career that you’ll never forget and why.

I started what I thought was my dream job at W&K after moving over their with the Tesco business. I lasted just over a week. I wanted to like it but it made me miserable. I still can’t put my finger on why that was. My wife, who saw the instant change in me, sent me a quote of Charles Eames, it read:

“take your pleasure seriously”.

I went in the next morning, I handed my laptop and phone, told them I was leaving, and went to the design museum for the day. I have that quote on my stickies app, on every computer and live by it every day.

What was your first real experience with what you do now for living? When you thought — I’d like to do something like that?

My brother was heavily into the Manchester Club/house music scene. His wall was covered in rave flyers and club nights. Most of them had ‘borrowed’ images from famous pieces of art and design. I didn’t know that then, but thought they looked really interesting. Lots of typefaces, logos and colour. I always loved drawing as a child but this was the first time I thought I wanted to be a designer.

Tell me the the journey from that moment to it being a reality.

I just really applied myself in art at school. That’s all I ever wanted to do.

I left school and went straight to Art college. After that I moved to London and did a BA hons in graphic design. After working various night shifts throughout and after college I eventually got a job at a snowboarding magazine.

The first couple of weeks really opened my eyes to the professional world and real deadlines. Shortly after I got a call from the Head of Type and Design (Lynne Mckintosh) at Lowe Howard Spink.

I went for the interview with mostly made up work that I’d done after I left college, flyers and album covers. I managed to get a job and that was the start of it. I was really lucky to get in and worked with some of the biggest names in advertising. From that day on I’ve just grafted and kept my head down. I still love it.

Where did the drive or the confidence come from to do that?

I think just the passion for the job and the desire to create some beautiful work has always pushed me. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now and I always approach every job with the same enthusiasm I did on my first day in the job.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven 18-year old trying to get your job?

Never believe your own hype. Never think you’re better than anyone else. And if you do, prove it with grace.

Be accountable for your work and never expect anyone else to get you out of the shit.

And most importantly, make sure you love it. When you really love what you do, you never look at the clock, you just keep on going until that problem is cracked.

If you could put your brain in the body of an 18 year-old who can’t afford to attend higher education, but wants your job… what might a rough plan look like for getting in?

Do some research on the type of companies you think you want to work.

Contact them and try and arrange a chat with the department head.

Show them some work or some sketch books. I always see people who want a chat, and try arrange for them to come in and get some studio experience.

We had someone who came in recently for a chat who was an amazing illustrator. He wanted to work in the studio to get an idea of what it was like. He sat with us for a week and his attitude was spot on. He did some great work whilst he was there and I think if I had the budget I would have hired him.

So, in a nutshell, go see people, show them how hungry you are and how talented it you’ll get in somewhere!

Tell me about your first year of trying to get into the industry. What did you do right, wrong? What did you learn?

I did too many things wrong. I learnt that process (in design specifically) was important.

Describe the plan, dream or desire in your head at that time.

Just creating some work I would be proud of.

How do you measure the size of a person? What’s your measure of whether or not someone is going to be good to work with?

It’s hard to tell. I always look for a person who is not only talented, but has the right personality to mix with the rest of the department.

It’s really important that as a team, you spend a lot of time together, especially when pitching for new business. That’s when you get the real measure of a person. Someone who can help lift a department when the majority are tired and stressed.

What three character traits do you think people who are good at what you do, have in common?

Drive.

Passion.

Stamina.

What is bad advice you hear being given about your job or your industry? What advice should people ignore?

I heard an ECD once say they could use everyone else’s talent to get where they wanted in the business. True maybe, but a crap way of putting it.

Tell me about a time in your career that you’ve struggled? Or felt lost?

See question 3.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?

Not really, I would just say I’m not afraid to fail.

I see far too many great pieces of work get destroyed because of fear. Fear of losing a job, fear of being wrong of making a mistake. Not one person that I admire has ever been afraid of failure, and all have made monumental mistakes creating great work.

What irrational fears do you have about your job or your work?

Becoming comfortable.

What haven’t you achieved yet, that you’d like to?

Work for myself.

If there had to be an enemy of your job, what would it be? What bugs you?

Fear. Laziness. Ego.

How do you stay disciplined in your work?

Make sure I enjoy it.

What’s your personal approach for making proactive projects happen and choosing what to focus on?

Don’t do it for the money. You’ll never get paid enough.

What does “networking” look like to you?

Having a pint in the Star on Poland Street.

What is your most treasured professional memory?

Meeting Alan Fletcher.

Leisure

What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

My wife and children.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why?

Essays on Design 1: AGI’s Designers of Influence is a book that was on my reading list at college. It has lots of short essays by 100 or so people from the design world. My copy is full of notes and underlined paragraphs. I find it a useful tool in my day to day job. Some great design thinking put very concisely.

What book has most made you question your life decisions?

Nothing has really made me question my life decisions. I treasure all of my art and design books. They are a constant reminder that I need to try harder and think differently. Easier said than done!

If you had a gun to your head and had to have one phrase tattooed on yourself, what would it be?

END GUN VIOLENCE.

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?

Working after hours.

Anything you’re currently struggling with or trying to learn or improve?

Cinema 4D

If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

I wish I was taken to more art galleries.

Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

Working for myself. I’ve still got another 30 years to do that.

Tell me some things on your bucket list.

Grow some facial hair.

Learn the didgeridoo.

If you could enter a time machine that guaranteed return and also made you invincible in the time period you’re visiting, where would you go?

The start of the universe.

Tell me about a fun thing you’re currently saving for?

A house.

What do you miss about being a kid?

No responsibilities.

What constitutes a perfect day for you?

Leaving work feeling like I’ve done the right thing.

What was the last song you sang to yourself or someone else?

Probably something from a children’s film!

Your house is on fire and no person or animal you love is in it. What one object do you save.

My Yusaku Kamekura design book or maybe my Alan Fletcher’s ‘Designers Saturday’ poster.

Or my records… Oh dear, I think I might get burnt.

What’s your one paragraph idea for saving the world?

Stop eating meat. Stop using plastic. Stop making weapons. Stop making things we don’t need. Stop our disposable culture.

Marc Donaldson is Partner and Head of Art at The & Partnership.