Interview with Brendan Dawes

1.When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

I don’t think I ever did. To be honest I never really thought about what I wanted to do, though maybe something creative or involving making things in some way. I really got into design as a side-effect of being into computer programming and how it allowed me to make things.

2.How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

Well I guess it was way back when I was given a Sinclair ZX81 for Christmas in 1981. This was a black box that I could type into and make it do things. Very simple things of course, but still, I was fascinated by what this box could allow you to do, just by typing some code. At the same time I was making rubbish mini sci-fi films in the back garden of my Mum’s shop on Super-8 with my mate Ken and brother John. We would make props out of cardboard, such as the communicator bracelets from Blake’s 7 and do chessey teleporting effects, or I would scratch ‘lasers’ onto the film negative and then colour them in with felt-tip pen. It was very lo-fi but very exciting to to see the results of your efforts after getting the film back a few weeks later.

Of course non of that was an actual career. That eventually came about after working in an electronics factory for eight years. At the age of 29 I needed to get out and do something creative. At night I was learning about the world wide web and teaching myself JavaScript, mainly around making a fan website about The Outer Limits TV series. In 1996 I contacted a new web design company in Nelson, Lancashire, asking if they were looking for anyone. They took a chance on me and I would then find myself making early websites for Disney, Kellogg’s and Coca-Cola. Somehow I now found myself in the design field and I loved it. The biggest hurdle — and it still is — was my self confidence.

3.What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

Trying to do the best work I can, be that for clients or myself. I find putting stuff into the world that you feel deserves to exist — things that get people talking — is the best way to get new clients.

4.How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

Don’t be a dick. Take time responding to emails — something I’ve not always done. Consider things. And of course over delivery — going above and beyond what is expected. I once had a client say to me “we’ve never worked with anyone before who cares so much”, which is a little worrying. The whole process of working with me needs to feel good, not conjure up memories of something from hell. Nobody is going to come back to you if you were a pain to work with. I also send clients think you gifts after the work is done — something pertaining to the work, so it maybe a print or something similar.

5.Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

I have to say I’m very lucky in that regard. I’ve even had clients pay before the work was done! The worst payers are Universities and I hate to say the smaller concerns — who should know better. I find large corporates are very good payers, but then again maybe they have the systems in place. I’ve never yet had to get legal on anyone to recover money. I also of course have a contract and get 50% payment up front before the work starts, plus I have what’s called a “kill fee” — an agreed percentage of the total fee if the work should get cancelled. I find with money you have to remove ambiguity — be clear and straight forward in what you’re asking for and know your worth.

6.What does your typical work day look like?

I go to a spinning class in the morning. It’s like groundhog day — same faces, same social situations, but I like that. Starting the day away from a screen is a good thing. Then when I’m back I usually write in my notebook and then work out my day, via a series of restaurant style chitties that I put above my desk on a restaurant grab-tab thing I bought off Amazon. Then it’s answering emails and then getting on with the work. I try and take regular breaks and tend to work in fifty minute bursts, stepping away to think about other things. I often leave the work on screen so when I come back into the room I see it anew, from a different angle. Is it still OK? Is it crap? Does it look better another way? In the afternoon I’ll take time out to fulfill any Produced for Use orders — love sending things in the post — and always take the time to write a handwritten note with each order. In the evening it may be conference calls with international clients. I’m lucky in that I can choose how and when I want to work. I know I could never go back to working for others.

7.Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?

Don’t believe your own publicity. Don’t get complacent. Learn new things everyday. Get out away from the screen. Find a park bench and just sit and observe. Turn off every single notification. Put yourself into the work.

I’ve also written a few guiding words in my Manifesto for Myself.

Brendan Dawes is a UK based artist exploring the interaction of objects, people, technology and art using form and code with an eclectic mix of digital and analogue materials. Author of two books on interaction design, his work is featured in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, has been 3D printed on the International Space Station and honoured in awards including Fast Company Innovation by Design, Information is Beautiful and D&AD. Clients include Airbnb, Google, Twitter, The Royal Shakespeare Company, Intel, Cancer Research UK, Mailchimp, M&C Saatcci, EE, PWC, The Atlantic, and Trend Micro.

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Interview published on: Sep 18, 2019

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