Creative Lives — Chris Chapman, design director at Droga5

Posted 17 March 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Starting out as a science, accounting and marketing student, Chris Chapman followed a somewhat unconventional route into the world of design. A ‘quick’ diploma in graphic design eventually led to design positions at advertising agencies Grey and Wieden+Kennedy where he worked for clients including Volvo, Puma and Belstaff before joining Droga5 as design director in 2016. When he’s not making dance dictionaries or putting together collages for will.i.am, Chris is busy working away on personal projects. With a bold, quick-witted and cheeky creative approach, he’s made board games, illuminated seances and most recently used loose change to explain why men need feminism too.

Chris Chapman

Job Title

Design Director, Droga5 (April 2016–present)

Location

London

Clients

Volvo, Puma, Belstaff, will.i.am

Previous Employment

Lead Designer, Wieden+Kennedy (2015–2016)
Head of Integrated Design, Grey (2014–2015)

Education

Diploma of Computer Arts, Media Design School (2002–2003)
Bachelor of Commerce & Administration, Victoria University of Wellington (1999–2002)

Website
Social Media

Chris Chapman

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job?
As design director I lead the design department here at Droga5. We are quite a small agency so I am very much a hands-on designer too.

Ad agencies don't exist just to make design work. They write comedy scripts and rousing brand manifestos. They partner with celebrities. They make ‘industry first’ VR experiences and old fashioned radio spots. They strategise. They do weird things to get brands on the news. They mediate between nervous clients and famous directors. And sometimes they design things. So design – and the perfect design process –isn’t always at the forefront of everyone’s minds. In this environment I see my role as being an advocate for design and designers. There are great opportunities for anyone who can make their ideas relevant to the agency.

What does an average working day look like?
I typically start with a cup of tea around 9am. Agencies are noisy places so, if I can, I get in earlier than that to work without distraction for a while. My days are normally quite fragmented because I am working across a range of projects. The day goes fast and finishes anytime after 6pm, depending on how busy it is.

How did you land your current job? 
I had worked with Bill Scott (CEO at Droga5) and a few others before in other agencies. I think advertising is still a small world and people tend to hire people they know and trust. I suspect someone once said something nice about me or my work.

Where does the majority of your work take place?
As I’ve become more senior I have been spending a little less time in front of my computer, but it is still my main place of work. 

“Ad agencies don’t exist just to make design work, it isn’t always at the forefront of everyone’s minds.”

Meritocrazy

Meritocrazy

Meritocrazy

Meritocrazy

Meritocrazy

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How collaborative is your role?
Working in advertising is extremely collaborative. I work with other designers, art directors, copywriters, creative directors, CGI artists, UX designers, strategists, producers, photographers, artworkers, animators, illustrators, account people and clients.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
One of my least favourite tasks is ‘comping’ visuals together in Photoshop to help sell an idea. Art directors used to present ‘scamps’ or hand drawings of proposed visuals, but agencies seem to have lost this skill and designers are expected to work their magic using images found online. The result is that the client takes what they are seeing too literally and sign-off too quickly which means we miss out on the opportunity to create something unique. The positive side to this is that I am often able to get involved in the art direction of photography of the image I will be designing with. 

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
About a year ago I went with the creative team Max Batten and Ben Shaffery and the photographer, Daniel Sannwald to Mexico City to shoot will.i.am and his new watch, The Dial. We were making a series of collages so I was there to help make sure that everything would work together. Timings were crazy so I had to put the collages together on the flight back to London.

“There are always petty barriers my ego is putting up. I’m more conscious of it now – if I feel defensive I know I’m not doing my job well.”

What skills are essential to your job?
Flexibility. Layout design. Typography. Communication.

Would you say your work allows for a good life/work balance? 
Everyone cares about the work they are making and emotions can run high. It gets stressful sometimes. People work too much – and expect others to do the same. But equally, ad agencies are energetic and fun places to be in. I find the people I work with really inspiring and have made many good friends through work. 

Do you run any self-initiated projects alongside your job?
I like to, yes. I love the collaborative environment at work and the scale of the projects. But sometimes it is nice to have some control and try something different.

What tools do you use most for your work?
A Macbook Pro and display screen; Illustrator; InDesign; Photoshop. There's often some design books around, too.

The Dial for will.i.am in collaboration with Max Batten, Ben Shaffery and Daniel Sannwald

The Dial for will.i.am in collaboration with Max Batten, Ben Shaffery and Daniel Sannwald

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
CEO (I was a horrible child).

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied science and then accountancy and finally marketing at university. Then I did a quick diploma in graphic design figuring I could worm my way into a marketing job that way. Obviously everything would have been a lot easier if I'd just studied design at university. 

What were your first jobs? 
My first design job was in-house at an independent liquor company in New Zealand called, um, Independent Liquor. It was a great experience. I did everything. The owner even let me launch my own product – a chilli-infused tequila I named Del Fuego. I put the fact that it sold poorly down to it only having a part-time marketing manager (myself) – and it's unfortunate visual and flavour resemblances to petrol. But I still have a bottle somewhere. 

Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career? 
After a difficult period of being unemployed after moving to London I was hired by the then design director at Saatchi & Saatchi, Steve Davies. (He also hired me a few years later at Grey).

I think there are people in design leadership positions who see other designers as a way to leverage their own ideas and work. They think ‘I’m the boss so my ideas are always the best ideas.’ Steve is an incredibly talented and experienced designer and had every right to think like this. But he inverted the hierarchy around and used his status to help support me and my work. 

“Designers are finding it more difficult to remain relevant within agencies; being good at traditional design craft alone isn’t enough.”

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Meritocrazy is a board game I made as a personal project. I came up with the concept, wrote the copy and designed it. When people told me they liked it I think I started to enjoy being a designer a bit more. 

What skills have you learnt along the way?
Designers are finding it more difficult to remain relevant within agencies; being good at traditional design craft alone isn’t enough. I think we need to try and take ownership of whole brand worlds. What things look like across campaigns is traditionally an art director's job, but as the range of work creatives do has expanded over recent years, I think this is an area where designers can add value. 

What’s been your biggest challenge? 
My worst trait as a junior designer was possibly aloofness. I think I’ve mostly grown out of it now my job title has caught up a bit with my horrid self-regard. But there are always other petty barriers my ego is putting up. I’m more conscious of it now – if I feel defensive I know I’m not doing my job well. 

Is your job what you thought it would be?
New jobs are never quite what you think they'll be. You know what your job title and responsibilities are and what the agency’s reputation is. But how well you do there is partly determined by what it’s like to work with a group of people who you probably won’t get to know until the days and weeks after you start.

Volvo XC90, Grey London, 2014

Volvo XC90, Grey London, 2014

Volvo XC90, Grey London, 2014

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Thinking Ahead

Could you do this job forever?
I think even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. I don’t think getting old makes you a worse designer – there are way too many examples of people doing great creative work much later in life, but you need to keep trying new things and learning new skills. Basically you need to keep making mistakes but that’s something that gets harder when you’re in a senior position and other people are relying on you.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a designer?
Take advantage of your situation. Use it as an excuse to ask people you respect for their help and opinions. Keep finding a way to make better and better work and your career will take care of itself.

Posted 17 March 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Advertising, Design
Mentions: Droga5, Wieden+Kennedy, Grey London
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