12 Questions: Meet Graham Smith (United Kingdom) Ross | August 4th, 2008

This is the fourth in a regular series in our blog where we’ll feature interviews with someone (a creative and/or a buyer) from the crowdSPRING community.

We’ll pick people who add value to our community – in the blog, in the forums, in the projects. Plainly – activities that make crowdSPRING a better community. Be professional, treat others with respect, help us build something very special, and we’ll take notice. Really.

We’re very proud to feature Graham Smith (crowdSPRING username: imjustcreative) today. Graham lives and works in the United Kingdom.

1. Please tell us about yourself.

The start of anything like this makes me feel I am being interviewed for a dating show or something, not that I have ever been on TV, but something about talking about myself unnerves me a little. But I have been asked so here I am. For better or worse.

My name is Graham Smith (aka “Imjustcreative”). I live in a small town on the south coast of England. I’m 36 and have lived here all my life (something about that unnerves me as well, but I’m not the only one still here). I stay partly because of the location which is by the sea, with a nice beach, huge white cliffs, a long river, plenty of hills and a big forest to the back. All of this is a maximum of 5 minutes from my house.

I live with my insane Lurcher dog, Dylan, and my wonderfully supportive girlfriend Anna, who has 3 young children of her own, which I seem to be inheriting. Not a surprise in itself, but what it brings is. She is a consultant lawyer, specialising in flexible working issues, representing women who get fired from high-end jobs because they are pregnant, and advising companies and individuals about working from home etc.

My studio has a view of the South Downs and the sea, so I regard myself quite fortunate in this respect; I have worked in some dire hell holes in my life, so am more than qualified to say what makes a great working environment and a not so great one. Being self employed and working from home, poses problems but is far preferable to the problems created in an unhappy workplace. My profile on crowdSPRING really lists my professional life, but very simply, my whole career from 18 until now has been in Commercial Print, Design, Marketing Advertising and High End Drum Scanning & Repro (Pre-Press) Graphics.

I have risen from lowly apprentice paste-up artist, through design agency, through Repro House, through another firm of designers, to a large Commercial Printer, where I worked for 8 years, starting as a designer in a studio of 20. I worked my way up to Technical Manager, responsible for overseeing Apple Mac users, software, staff retraining and solving the myriad of technical problems associated with a busy pre-press (bureau), customer supplied files and the like.

I was tempted not to include this next part but it has been so fundamentally crucial to the last 4 years of my life that I can’t really deny it has happened. Simply, I had a breakdown at work. This triggered many life changing events, including leaving my career, selling the house, travelling and trying to make sense of what was happening. You could say that I have been starting my life over three years ago at the age of 33.

crowdSPRING, has been instrumental in bringing back my sense of self, my self-esteem and motivation to do what I do best, be creative. The success I have had on the projects on crowdSPRING has already spawned more work from the clients, which is just astonishing. To say I am pleased is a understatement. Thanks guys.

I have a blog/website: http://www.imjustcreative.com, which contains my photographic portfolio along with other examples of my work. Since discovering crowdSPRING, I have been working very hard on the projects so there have been no new postings over the past month or so, but I will be integrating my work on crowdSPRING with my own site. Here you can find all the usual social sites that I participate in, together with all my user names should you want to contact me via other ways: Twitter, LinkedIn, Plurk etc.

2. How did you start out as a designer?

Crumbs. Seriously, this feels like decades ago. Oh wait, it is decades ago.

I first starting playing with Commodore 64′s and XZ81′s when they first came out, around 16 years ago, so a serious Crazy Comets fan. This was when public domain software started making an appearance. You know, demo’s, fancy graphics, Rob Hubbard sound masterpieces, so I thought I would get in the bandwagon and start my own PD library. The move from the C64 to the Atari was an emotional time, but the Atari offered true DTP with a program called Cumulus (I think). So I got a A4 monitor and created my very first catalogue of public domain titles. That was about when I was 16 – 20 years ago!

Playing around with those really sowed the seeds for electronic design. I was always creative, and drew pencil illustrations from an earlier age, some of which are on my Portfolio here on crowdSPRING.

I was, and am, also a keen photographer starting from a really young age, so this helps me enormously with design as I see things in totally different ways which helps me explore my creative side. Many of my photosare on my Flickr account (www.grahamsfotos.com).

3. Tell us about the importance of communication with clients and potential clients.

This is my holy grail. It’s the maker or breaker. Having had a career in commercial print, marketing, advertising etc, then running my own eBay business, the one thing that has kept me one step ahead is the time I spend communicating. My own advice to all designers (but especially the new, inexperienced folk) would be to present your ideas in a way that the client will appreciate (i.e. not writing everything in capital letters).

I see so many entries on crowdSPRING where the only detail a designer has left is ‘my logo’. This will not help people sell their idea. If the designer can’t think of anything to write about their own logo then I don’t believe that any potential paying client would take the proposal seriously. To then ask for some feedback on a logo with no supporting communication about the idea is simply astonishing!

Even if a designer can’t write anything about the logo design, perhaps because it’s utterly random (I love random logos, but you can still talk about why you like it) you can write a few words about why you wanted to participate. Just a few kind and informative words can make all the difference. By researching, reading books, experimenting with language you can help to perfect your communication skills, but I’m not about to give away all my tips here! Reading up on Branding, Corporate ID and as many Logo books, marketing and advertising books is incredibly useful in seeing different aspects of logo design. Many of the books are quite short, but nonetheless provide really useful insights.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not an expert, and I don’t want to be condescending and ‘all knowing’ because I am far from it, but my aim is to ensure that I treat the customer/client with respect and with interest in helping to ensure that they get the best service I can offer.

4. Who/what are some of the biggest influences on your design work?

I don’t have many names to give! Even if I had a list of designers I admired, I would not be able to tell you their names; I gave up trying to remember details like song names, people’s names, birthdays, etc. a long time ago as it’s just not something I’m good at. Frustrating.

If there are any designers I find truly inspirational, it would be Apple as mentioned by the previous designer, Chrissy, in her article. Seeing the Apple brand evolve from the Mac Classic has been such a wonder.

I try not to get too bogged down with someone or a group of ‘someones’ in particular as I find that it can limit my creativity if I were to be seriously influenced by someone. I don’t want that ‘cap’ on my creativity. I like what I like basically and I know what I like when I see or hear it, like bands or songs as well as designs.

I may take a photo of some image or design that I like, bookmark it, copy it, reference it etc. It’s basically a visual reference, devoid of any specific detail.

On crowdSPRING, the biggest influences are the other graphic designers; you can’t ignore the talent here. I find it becomes quite insidious at times as I can’t help but get drawn in by other people’s take on a brief. How far a designer can take that ‘influence’ is open to massive debate and who you are debating it with.

My viewing scope has widened through seeing all the talent. I think the strength of some of these talented designers will influence many designers, who in turn will become more creative on sites like crowdSPRING. My own skills have grown tremendously through entering these competitions by seeing how other designers use their talents.The competition certainly draws talent from within, talent you may not know even existed. Some of my best work has been through the work I’ve done whilst competing on this site. The competition is fierce and the high standards will make the market more competitive for sure, thus making it harder for everyone to compete. But that’s how it goes, you can’t have this kind of benefit without the downside.

My confidence is growing (and getting knocked) on a daily basis. I can’t believe how many logos I have submitted in total, not all of which I’ve been proud of! Surprisingly, some of the designer’s worst logos can be chosen by the client as the best in the competition – remarkably odd.

It’s rare for my personal favourite or favourites to be chosen by the client which leaves me constantly drop jawed.

For me, submitting my designs on crowdSPRING has been a hugely positive experience, one that is really bringing out the best in me.

5. What’s the very first thing you do when approaching a new design?

I research primarily, not as much as I would like given the unique constraints with deadlines but I read all my Logo books for inspiration, and to see what the trends are. I research any possible appropriate new fonts, which are often the key to a good or bad logo. Even if you have a good logo mark, get the wrong style font, or daft typography and you can kiss it goodbye.

It’s hard to come up with something truly unique nowadays, so I find it helpful to know what’s out there and how it can be altered or enhanced.

Often I will initially submit a generic logo, with some fonts and a icon just to get the ball moving; almost a naked version of what I think the client might want, but with a written explanation of why I think it might be suitable. I find that it’s like a benchmark from which to progress.

I like to start simple, or maybe just submit a concept. This might not look great, but I see no reason spending ages on a design or idea when you have no idea if the basic concept is on the right track. So I submit a concept, explain some stuff and take it from there.

I’ve found that deciding when to join in the project has a bearing as well. If I feel I have a new novel idea, not yet submitted, I have to decide whether to go ahead and submit it early, or wait until nearer the last minute. I think it’s something many of us think about; there are pros and cons to that approach either way. For me, it’s often a gut feeling.

6. Which of your designs are your favorites and why?

I really like and enjoy clean, fresh and often very minimal designs. If I can get away without using any images in my logo then I will do so. Often images are not needed if the name is obvious, unless the client requires it or you just want to have a visual clue or reference. Often though, some clever or subtle typography or text manipulation can often be the best idea. Many designers place more importance on the visual icon/symbol/logo mark, but I feel the opposite.

I love creating brochures, magazines etc. Generally, the more prestigious publications allow you to be more creative, it’s just how it is. QuarkXPress has always been my speciality since around the age of 20, so typographically I have sound skills, as well as layouts, grids and styles, continuity would sum it up. It’s not just about logos for me, far from it, it’s everything in design.

My own “ImJustCreative” logo is text only in black and orange. The logo on my website header is a more lively version, integrated into the photograph. Creating your own logo can be such a headache, especially when you are creative, and you call yourself ‘ImJustCreative’! Some people may have expectations of a truly unique logo, maybe some people see it as ironic – in fact I know they do. For me that’s good as it’s got people thinking about ‘ImJustCreative”. Nothing earth shattering as all they get is a text only logo. But actually, I really like it: it’s subtle in meaning, but bold and confident at the same time. I still like it many months on from creating it. My only change maybe would be a font update as that’s one thing that really appeals to me.

One logo I love for its simplicity and uniqueness is the London Tate gallery. The viewing figures for the Tate shot up the Tates’ viewing just down to this logo and it’s rebranding. I love it.

I think the simpler the logo, the better really. I love experimenting with type, trying to encourage a client to go ‘wild’ with some creative typography, rather than the same old mundane logo that we see time and time again. Hey, let’s use a logo where one of the words is upside down, or spelled incorrectly, or something imaginative like that. Styles like this, incomplete characters, missing letters, irony, humour in logos is so seldom used, yet it’s a perfect way to create a truly memorable logo. Otherwise they just generally follow the same format and blend in with all the other non-descript logos.

Yes, I do like to be different.

7. When designing a logo, what do you think are the biggest mistakes a designer can make?

The main one is not reading the brief and, in the case of crowdSPRING, not reading any/all of the comments previously left by the client. Obviously if the client is saying ‘free range, give me what you’ve got’ then fair enough, but you still have to read previous comments to know specifically what is not and what is liked.

Also, taking too much on, too many projects and spreading yourself too thin. It is a balancing act for sure, but it’s hard to be truly 100% focused on say 5 projects, especially if they end roughly at the same time. At the end of the day, I ask myself if it is worth entering a project if I know I may not be able to stay the course and evolve the ideas already submitted especially act on the comments left by the client.

Typically, once the project is over, there is also the time needed to tweak it and wrap it up, so this can encroach on some new projects you just started and before you know it, you have just a few to many things to do. I still weigh up whether some projects are just beyond me, if I don’t have the skills or software, or the right fonts. So I will wait until I find a project that I feel I can contribute as much as I can.

Obviously some client projects offer only a minimal pay-off, or may not have provided a decent brief and/or don’t comment on any submissions. If this is the case then, arguably, it’s fair enough to submit basic work. I think the phrase, ‘you get what you pay for’ is somewhat applicable. Designers though are a unique breed, and typically always give more than we get! Clients can’t always expect people to really bust a gut when they themselves don’t seem to have placed much importance on it themselves.

8. How has technology affected your work?

Just after I finished my 3 year apprenticeship in manual paste-up and platemaking at a commercial printers I was made redundant. Apple Macs were just starting to make an appearance in commercial printers, replacing traditional typesetting machines. So this was the start of the end of the manual, not technological part, of the printing and design industry.

With my small redundancy, and a determination not to give up, I purchased myself a second hand Mac LC and started my 6 month self- training mission to learn Quark, Illustrator, Photoshop and anything else useful. The first Macintosh Bible I read cover to cover in a few days, and then spent day after day sitting in my bedroom reading book after book on the wonders of DTP, EPS files, Mac OS etc.

Technology, despite being massively more powerful and sophisticated than in my early days, has not in reality changed how I work or design a logo, or work in Quark as the basics are the same really. I still sit at my Mac as I did with my C64, Atari and Amiga and Mac LC and work away. You still need to learn, research and study. You still have to think and create. What has changed, however, is the speed, performance, features and accessories so some things are made easier or quicker, but that just means you end up taking more on and so on and so on.

The greatest technological advance for me is the laptop, which has made the biggest difference to my life. It has given me the ability to be considerably more fluid in terms of where I can and cannot work. You could argue it makes me a slave (see the illustration I had done of me for my business) as I can’t really get away from it, but working from home allows me to just get on or tor take the laptop to a coffee shop and write this interview. That’s one technological advance that I would say has changed that’s made the biggest difference… portability.

I have always used Mac’s but also use PC’s, having worked in IT for design agencies with Mac’s and PC’s, so am used to the interactivity between the two. Currently, I have a 24″ Intel iMac and 17″ MacBook Pro plus some old PC laptops.

Software is a real nightmare for any freelancer as it’s just so insanely expensive which just encourages people to copy it and be pirated. It’s not right, but neither are the price tags they put on some products.

A lot of creative talent is with the youngsters, fresh from College and they could really power this software, but how can they afford close to £800 for Quark? Then the Adobe bundle? Then the utilities, the fonts and so on.

I use QuarkXpress and always have done since the first version but InDesign is taking over for me.

Photoshop and Illustrator are my mainstays although I always preferred Freehand when that was around; I was insanely upset when they abandoned Freehand as I thought it was so much more intuitive than Illustrator.

9. When working online, how do you decide whether to participate in a project?

This entirely depends on what work I’ve got on at the time. Often I want to enter a project, but am too committed to more than I can handle already, which is frustrating. It’s rare for me to just submit a last minute logo, but I can see that late submission has merits on some projects. The 86 Mosquitioes was one such example; I only submitted a couple of logos on the last day, yet this was a positive move and ended up with the project in hand.

Other projects simply just don’t interest me. It maybe that the subject is just a big turn off, which means I can’t get motivated. This is the best thing with crowdSPRING and self employment – I can pick and choose, instead of having to work on designing a logo when I just don’t like the subject of the logo.

One thing will really put me off entering a project – no client feedback. If I see an interesting project with some good entries but no client feedback then I usually leave it alone despite the fact that there may be a good award. I may re-visit it after a few days to see how the project is progressing. When I see that, despite some fantastic entries, there has still been no client feedback then I will walk away – it’s too risky. You can spend a great deal of time, energy and creativity on a project but, without that vital feedback, it can be time wasted.

I will walk away from an interesting project if, after several days. I think I can’t add anything of value. For example, if the other designers seem to have it wrapped up, maybe a sprinkling of 5 stars and a really keen client with established communication, then I will not enter. If I have a great last minute idea then maybe, but generally it takes me a while to get going, so I simply leave the project alone and think ‘good luck’ to the designers who have been contributing hard.

I don’t like to spread myself too thinly; I would rather concentrate on some interesting projects, ones that I have a good feeling about, than taking on more than 2 or 3 projects at a time. I find that I get reliable gut instincts about some projects and clients, so often go with my instinct. go with this often.

I usually like to get in earlier than later with a project, for various reasons. There are risks to this approach, especially if you are submitting many ideas. One thing I sometimes do is just swamp a project with ideas and variations, which has probably been noticed. It’s just me thinking out loud. The more designs I submit, the greater the chance that one of them will hit the right mark. Although this is not always the case, if you feel the client is pretty open then it can be a useful strategy. It demonstrates that you are keen and interested. It takes more energy and time and I often don’t get financially rewarded in equal measure to my efforts but sometimes I just like the client, I like the project and I like the idea of the logo in my portfolio. So I will often follow this strategy, not for the money, but just because.

“UrbanMelt” was a classic example of this strategy paying off.

The “TenTwenty” project was a classic example of this strategy NOT paying off!

The “Ten Twenty” project attracted a crazy 80 plus submissions, but each one was liked, disliked or positively encouraged by the client. This of course encouraged me to continue submitting ideas but someone came into the latter stages of the project and just totally derailed me. That’s the risk. Just about got over that one.

If another designer seems to be on obvious ‘good terms’ with the client and has already established him/herself with some great designs, that’s another cue for me to maybe walk away. I look at the odds and think, ‘really, why take that risk and spend all that time’ so generally I don’t.

Obviously the bigger ‘pay-outs’ naturally attract more attention, but I still like doing the smaller ones. From my perspective, however, it’s better for me to spend more time researching a more profitable project that meets the above criteria than entering a project that isn’t going to be profitable for me. Graphic design is my living and, as such it’s not a side thing or a hobby.

My strategy has to be one which works financially as well as involving creative satisfaction but may change over time as I continue learning and trying out different methods

10. What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of being a graphic designer?

Challenging

1. Finding work.

2. Keeping clients happy.

3. Cash flow.

4. Lack of creativity.

5. The competition.

6. Insane cost of equipment and software.

Rewarding

1. Seeing my creation in print, on the shelves etc.

2. A client loving what I have done.

3. A client loving what I have done over someone else’s work. Nice.

4. In my case, working for myself, finally after 20 odd years of working for other people.

5. Relative freedom to work my own hours, when I want, sometimes where I want and for whom I want.

6. Just knowing that I am actually leaving my mark on things, in the same way that painters, architects and writers do.

Being a designer allows me to have some sense of longevity and an enduring creation. This may not be for as long as a classic painting or a building, but a logo maybe around for years, a brand just as long and a brochure possibly several years or longer if someone collects. It’s just nice to know that you have made a visible mark on peoples’ lives, big or small.

11. What advice would you give a young designer just starting out?

I can only emphasize research and reading. It’s not just about creating nice images, it’s about the reasons ‘why’ you are creating these images, and these reasons are not to do with you but someone else. So knowing about how minds work, seeing things from different peoples’ perspective, trying to better understand that our ideas are only a fraction of what is possible. Delve into some psychology – it all helps, it really does.

Design, art, etc., are all subjective. You need to understand why this is the case in order to be more flexible with your own designs and not to limit yourself to what you personally like: this includes allowing yourself to appreciate the positives in someone else’s view of creative excellence when you find it dog ugly.

At heart you are trying to interpret someone else’s’ ‘dream’ or ‘idea’, something that will be very important to them either emotionally as in a personal logo or brand, or professional as in a product or large company.

If you struggle to see other peoples’ views, then it will be harder for you to interpret or understand why someone else does not like your work.

The worst thing you can do, which I have seen here on crowdSPRING a few times, is to get, how shall we say, ‘annoyed’ with the client because they don’t like your work or you feel you are being singled out and reacting negatively to this by leaving curt messages. This is something best avoided as it’s not something you bring to a professional environment. If you feel the client has been rude then just leave the project or complain to crowdSPRING, but don’t take the bait and bite back.

We are all pitching for a job here, so treat it with utmost respect. crowdSPRING has made it easier for us all to get work, to explore our creative needs, the work comes to us. We can pick or choose, stay or walk away. This is something that is just so amazing. We don’t now need to go out, make phone calls, write letters, try to get that foot in a door just so we can get turned down.

12. What do you do with your free time?

Pardon? Hmmm.

At the moment I really don’t allow myself much ‘free’ time as such. I love what I do, and my personal circumstances are such that I have to focus more on my life than I have had to at any other point. Because of the time difference of different countries with crowdSPRING projects, the variety of project end times means that often I am focusing on work rather than my free time out of the house. I like to see the end of a project through, especially if the client has been asking for tweaks.

But I run and regularly mountain bike and I love reading. I do enjoy the odd drink in town at the weekends.

I enjoy reading and drinking coffee in Starbucks or somewhere similar whilst people- watching when my head is too fuzzy to concentrate.

Mostly I enjoy walking the dog along the seafront or along the hills and in the forest. My dog is brilliant and makes me get out when otherwise I would probably stay in and continue working.

Thank you, Graham!

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  • estremke

    Graham,

    You’re a talented designer, man. I admire your work, and I’m jealous of your apparent surroundings.

    -Evan

  • Typecast

    Great read Graham, lovely part of the world you live in, nice to find out about the most prolific designer on here! good luck.

    Regards

  • angrypuppy

    DUDE.. yes, i said dude. lol
    Your photos are amazing! I wish i was able to travel to the places you have been. But i guess in a way.. I just did! The B&W are my favorites. I have to say you have talent behind the camera. I know the scenery is already there for the taking. But you had to see it in a way that captures the best it has to offer and at a certain time. Loved reading your site.

    I feel inspired to go lose a contest now! :)

  • Aloha_Em

    Hi Graham,

    Great pics and really like the picture with Dylan. You seem like a pretty neat dude. Full of like and living in “the moment”. Since you love what you do, you are not working but playing. That’s what life is all about. I should learn form you!

    Love the comments from all over the world. Now, you have one from Hawaii. Hey, when you happen to vist the island (Oahu) let me know.
    Aloha.

  • UrbanMelt

    So good to know more about the man beyond the brilliance. It was great working with you on our project, Graham. In case I haven’t mentioned this to you before, you are AWESOME! Would recommend you to any…everyone. We’re glad you like us :)
    Cheers from Chicago,
    Emil

  • Kevqtmn

    Great idea by CrowdSpring to interview the designers. I had the pleasure of working with Graham in our logo design contest. Graham’s strength is not just on a technical level. He really understands what the client’s needs are and is able to make suggestions. His work ethic and professionalism are top notch and I would highly recommend him.

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