Jason Little: The Physical Act of Creation

Design isn’t a career for Jason Little, it’s a calling. Which means that he doesn’t leave his work at the office. Says Little, “If I’m not rabbiting on in the studio, or with clients, I’ll be speaking about design or ideas with friends, a taxi driver, or anyone who will listen.” And his urgency and enthusiasm seem to be paying off. In the last two years alone, Little, who serves as the Creative Director of Corporate Brands in the Sydney office of Landor Associates, has won 48 awards from the likes of D&AD, The NY Type Directors Club, Graphis, and Wolda.

He’s also one of the most appreciated members of the Behance Network for projects like his stunning, shape-shifting rebrand of the City of Melbourne or the elegantly simple integrated campaign for 1 Degree. To dig into the mind behind such memorable branding solutions, we tracked down Little for a conversation about the importance of stretching (and sketching) ideas offline, the benefits of a messy desk, and why you shouldn’t blame the client.

What do you think makes a person creative?

Some people will tell you creativity is part of your make-up. That you can’t learn it. I disagree. I believe that there are different levels, and natural talent for sure, but I strongly believe that creativity can be learned, or at least manifest itself in people who are exposed to passionate, inspiring people, or exposed to environments and opportunities that can help bring it out.

Passion takes a person to greater heights. In design, the most passionate never stop thinking or solving problems. They work on a project after the budget has all but gone, with an aim to get it perfect. They do personal projects; they talk with a fire in their eyes about a piece that inspires them. They see opportunities where others see restrictions or walls. I nearly always take on designers who show a passion for their own work.

You can’t fake passion, I will say that. Although passion in design isn’t always an easy thing to maintain. Most of the designers I know have lost theirs at one time or another. I’ve always felt that to get the most out of being a designer, you have to have an interest in something else as well, away from the world of design. It can provide an outlet for frustrations, or act as a reality check, when work can become all-consuming.

Living by the beach in Sydney has afforded me the chance to surf on a regular basis, if not daily. That feeling of satisfaction before the work day has even started goes along way. I think the studio and clients notice the difference if I haven’t been for a while. The difficult part is to not be thinking about a project whilst out in the water.

On a daily basis, what do you struggle with the most when it comes to making ideas happen?

As a designer there’s often a struggle to come up with fresh ideas, but this is a big part of enjoyment as a designer – the accomplishment. Many a time I’ve hated a project, despised my ideas the whole way through…until the right one came along.

I find it amusing that across the globe I hear the same frustrations about clients. Designers often blame clients for their own limitations. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been told that the reason the work is bad is because clients in (insert country) aren’t as open to great creative work as they are in the UK, or (insert alternative country). Often the truth is that the designer is failing, showing sub-par work to the client, or just plain unconvincing and bad at selling the concepts. It can also [boil] down to having conversations with the wrong person in the organization or getting stuck on the small stuff. It’s up to the designer to take some responsibility for the outcome of a project. Create a good relationship with the client and good results should follow.

Some people will tell you creativity is part of your make-up. That you can’t learn it. I disagree.

Do you have any tricks or routines that help you get started – or keep going – on design projects?

I always encourage working on a sketchbook first, no matter what the project. Mapping out, stretching ideas, moving beyond the obvious – this all happens when your brain is focused on the problem. Rarely have I seen the best ideas come from moving elements around on the screen.

We do regular pin-ups and reviews. Everyone has a say. I expect responses based on creative instinct balanced with critical judgment. There needs to be that leap from reality to vision. I often ask my designers if they can imagine their work in a book, in an awards annual or in a blog that they would bookmark as inspiration. If the work doesn’t fit this description, then I tell them to push their divergent thinking. It’s amazing how simple yet productive this question is.

Do you ever find it challenging to be both a leader and a creative?

When you become a designer it’s usually for one sole purpose – to design. The shift from being hands on to that of directing poses a series of issues and inner struggles that don’t go away. Initially I believed I could do both, all the time. When this didn’t happen due to meetings, both internal and external, or the many other tasks at hand it used to frustrate the hell out of me.I’ve since resolved this, and found a happy medium. Much of my design now happens in conversation and scribbling and I’ll regularly work with the team early on to establish the big ideas and creative territories to explore. There are continual forms of collective problem solving – brainstorms, idea generation and sketching sessions, regular crits and discussions. I doubt I’ll ever disassociate myself enough that I won’t want to be involved in the physical act of creation.

What’s your approach to managing your creative staff?

One of the driving forces for me in the studio is the idea that it should be fun. When I think of when things have been at their best, designing has never felt like work. It was simply turning up to the same place every day, dressed in your own personal style, to chat and joke with friends, learn continually, listen to music and all the while do this thing we love called design. Isn’t that fantastic! One of the best careers in the world. I try and maintain this sentiment with all the people I work with and manage.

I was in London recently, and on two occasions I was told by different designers how they have the best jobs in the world. It was really inspiring to hear that, despite the uncertainty and focus on survival that many firms are experiencing of late.

In what setting do you feel you do your best work?

The messier your desk is, the more creative you are. I used this to my defense many a time when asked to tidy up my desk and surrounding space in the studio, way back as a young designer. Times have changed, yet I think this still holds true for me. At the start of a project I like to clear everything away, start with a clean slate. Once things heat up and ideas are flying, chaos breaks loose.

Like many designers I find I’m most productive after office hours – when there are fewer distractions, no meetings, no ‘can I just ask you something?’ Generally I like to have music and talking in the background – if there’s silence it feels like something is missing. I find it puzzling in a studio where everyone is wearing headphones and the place is like a morgue. If I wanted that I’d work in a bank or insurance company. The music, banter and laughter, intermingled with a focus on generating ideas are what I like to see and hear.

Any advice for young designers?

I always say you make your own opportunities and luck in design. I tell all the young designers this. How do you get to work on the most exciting projects in the studio? Make yourself invaluable, find the enjoyment or reward in every task no matter how menial it seems, show initiative and throw everything into a project. Do this, and success will follow.

More insights on: Clients, Interviews, Leadership
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