Creative Lives — Designer and columnist Daniel Benneworth-Gray: “I’m paid to enjoy my hobbies; I will never stop finding that strange”
After being made redundant from a job in government, Daniel Benneworth-Gray set out on the path to self-employment, “Basically I was pushed off a cliff and I decided to flap my arms. I haven’t gone splat yet.” Since then, the York-based book designer has worked for clients both big and small, real and imaginary. When he’s not designing for the likes of Bloomsbury, Verso Books and Monotype, he’s writing about freelance life in a regular column for Creative Review. We meet with Daniel to find out what he would do differently if he had a time machine, as he talks childhood influences and starting out.
Book Designer and Columnist
Designer, The Higher Education Academy (2006–2011)
Various freelance odds and ends, writing for anyone from the BBC to MacUser
BA Film, TV, Theatre and Literature, York St John (1996–1999)
Bloomsbury, Creative Review, Head of Zeus, Monotype, Pluto Press, Restless Books, Verso Books
How would you describe what you do?
I mostly design book covers, working with art directors at various publishers, big and small. Plus I have a column in Creative Review, where I ponder life as a designer and invent new words.
What does a typical working day look like?
I’ve yet to find a typical working day! I work from home and I have a four year-old son, so it’s basically very carefully managed chaos. Somehow we make it work.
“The most fruitful methods [for getting work in] are generally the most unexpected – you just have to keep your eyes open for opportunities.”
Where does the majority of your work take place?
Mostly at my desk, although I find writing assignments work best when I’m tucked away in a quiet corner of a library or bookshop or café. As long as they can make coffee, I can make words.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
Generally speaking, you can’t beat good old-fashioned hobnobbing and word of mouth. Occasionally I’ll put aside a bit of time to contact art directors and publishers I’d like to work with, and a few of those might get back to me, but the most fruitful methods are generally the most unexpected – you just have to keep your eyes open for opportunities. I landed one client simply because we happened to like each other’s Instagram posts at the same time and we got chatting!
Work for Bloomsbury, 2017
Work for Head of Zeus, 2017
Work for Bloomsbury, 2015
How collaborative is your work?
With book covers, I’ll bounce ideas back and forth with an art director, but mostly I’ll be working on my own. It’s probably for the best – I’m not sure anyone else could tolerate my singing.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Accounting is exceedingly dull, but I think perhaps mundanity is underrated – it’s actually kind of nice to be using a completely different part of your brain. Numbers, just numbers, can be really calming. The one part of my job I can’t stand is dealing with simple things that break in unnecessarily complicated ways (like printers). It’s infuriating when I can’t get on with designing because of something else that has been designed poorly.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Every new title I work on is exciting in its own particular way! Working on the launch of Masqualero for Monotype enabled me to collaborate with other designers, printers, photographers and writers, so I got to work far more collaboratively than usual. Plus, one aspect of it was producing physical samples of the typeface in use, so I got to design book covers and record sleeves and stationery for entirely imaginary clients, which was great fun.
“Never settle on any particular skill set, just keep learning every single day.”
Work for Bloomsbury, 2016
Work for Bloomsbury, 2017
Work for Pluto, 2017
What skills are essential to your job?
All of them! You must never settle on any particular skill set, just keep learning every single day. Maybe a better answer would be curiosity.
Are you currently working on any side projects?
I’ve been toying around with the idea of publishing a film-design zine for absolutely ages, but it keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the pile. Plus I’m perpetually working on some nice promotional mailers that will never, ever be good enough. Being your own client is just horrible.
What tools do you use most for your work?
A pretty standard setup of iMac, various Adobe applications, pens, pencils and way too many half-full, over-priced notebooks. Plus I’ve recently been eyeing up the iPad Pro/Pencil/Procreate combo – I’d love to do more digital sketching. For writing, it’s simply iA Writer.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A cartoonist. Lew Stringer was my absolute hero when I was a kid – he did this little strip in Marvel’s Transformers comic called Robo-Capers, and various strips in Oink! He drew robots and he told jokes – he was everything. I still haven’t let go of that dream; I’ve often toyed with the idea of putting my own web comic out there somehow.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied film at university, so…I guess it’s all about making words and pictures fit into a rectangle, isn’t it?
Work for Zed Books, 2016
Work for Bloomsbury, 2014
Work for Peter Byrne, 2017
What were your first jobs?
I managed to get myself a few months of intern work as a researcher and art-worker at Revolution Software, the people who made the Broken Sword games. I mostly had to create textures for 3D models and set designs, so I got to traipse around York with a clunky ’90s digital camera and take pictures of rusty boats and interesting walls. I'd never used Photoshop before, but knew my way around on the Amiga, so understood the basics and just kind of taught myself from there.
What one thing in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Being made redundant. I’d been working in-house for a government quango for a few years – it wasn’t thrilling work, but I knew I was being paid every month, so self-employment seemed like an unnecessary risk to take. And then the job vanished and I thought, why not go for it? Basically I was pushed off a cliff and I decided to flap my arms. I haven’t gone splat yet.
“People pay me to enjoy my hobbies. I will never stop finding that strange.”
Personal work, 2016
Work for Zed Books, 2016
What skills have you learnt along the way?
So many, nowhere near enough! Learning to run your own business is thrilling and exhausting and expensive; as is keeping up to date with all the new bells and whistles that Apple and Adobe plonk onto your desktop every few months. It turns out I completely took for granted how much money was spent on my training when I was an employee.
“Starting out, there was this desperation to pick up every little thing that looked like work. It took a while to learn how to identify the time-wasters and build up some confidence.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
If I ever get my hands on a time machine, I’m going to go back and give myself a damn good slap for taking the ‘this will be great exposure for my work’ approach. Starting out, there was this desperation to pick up every little thing that looked like work. It took a while to learn how to identify the time-wasters and build up some confidence.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Good lord no. People pay me to enjoy my hobbies. I will never stop finding that strange.
Daniel writes a column for Creative Review on freelance life
What would you like to do next?
All sorts of things. I have very few fiction covers to my name – I’d love to do more of those. Plus I’d like to work on more large-scale pieces, particularly film posters.
Could you do this job forever?
Yes. Or something like this. This job will have changed in all kinds of weird and science-fictional ways over the next few years. I have no idea what design will look like in the future, but I definitely want to be part of it. And if not, well at least I can write about the good old days.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I’ve specialised to such a particular field now, I feel like my next step will be branching out again, exploring new areas of design and writing. I hear record sleeves are a thing again...
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a designer?
Your graduation means nothing at all. Never stop learning. Don’t take for granted the fact that you’re entering an industry where people are passionate about sharing what they’ve learnt – read everything, and then read some more.