Creative Lives — We talk empathy and emotive photography with Rapha’s art director, Jack Saunders

Posted 22 November 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Growing up with a love of both design and sport, Jack Saunders has found the best of both worlds in his role as art director at cycling apparel brand Rapha. Originally founded in 2004, Rapha has grown to include everything from roadwear and accessories to physical locations and their own print publication, Mondial. Now in his sixth year at the London-based company, Jack comes up with brand campaigns for events like the iconic Tour de France, alongside a multidisciplinary in-house team. But before taking up the position, he did his very own tour of the north. Originally from Birmingham, Jack studied in Leeds and lived in Manchester before finding his way to London, working in-house at the Tate prior to joining the team at Rapha. We catch up on why he thinks photography is an essential skill, and how following a friend into higher education changed his outlook on studying.

Jack Saunders

Job Title

Art Director, Rapha (2014–present)

Based

London

Previous Employment

Lead Graphic Designer, Rapha (2012–2014)
Graphic Designer, Rapha (2011–2012)
Graphic Designer, Tate (2011)
Graphic Designer, UHC Design (2009–2011)
Education Workshop Assistant, Whitworth Art Gallery (2007–2009)

Education

MA Brand Development (Goldsmiths College, University of London, (2011–2013)
BA Visual Communication, Leeds College of Art (2004–2007)
National Diploma in Visual Communication & Photography, Birmingham City University (2003–2004)

Website
Social Media

Jack and the team at Rapha

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I work as an art director at Rapha, which is a cycling apparel brand based in London. It’s a really interesting role and I’ve been doing it for three years now. I collaborate with a team of in-house graphic designers, illustrators, photographers, and digital designers to create content for the brand. This could include new graphic identities for events, helping to commission films and photography to launch new clothing lines or to guide the look and feel of our magazine Mondial. Essentially, I lead a small creative agency inside a bigger company, that is responsible for guiding the visual representation of the Rapha brand.

What does a typical working day look like?
An average day at Rapha is kind of hectic. It’s a fast-growing company so there’s always a lot going on — unless its Wednesday morning when it’s practically silent because everyone uses their flexitime to go out riding... We cover quick-fire commercial needs – if a product’s going to market, we might need to artwork visuals for an online email piece or product page, to get it out to our customers fast. We also work on long-terms projects based around various activities throughout the year. So we might be working on campaigns for the Tour de France, or on promotions for gifting in six months’ time. Campaigns can cover anything from print to online pieces to in-store; so once we’ve got an idea roughly into shape, it’ll get signed off and we’ll start work on it as a team.

How collaborative is your work?
As an art director you work with many different individuals who specialise in different areas. Our creative team has grown in size a fair amount since I started and now includes graphic designers, photographers and digital designers amongst others. We tend to split jobs based on who’s most suited skills-wise but also ask different creatives to own certain key aspects of the business, be it Rapha Travel, our Cycling Club or graphics for product. I think it's important that people feel a sense of ownership over key parts of their daily work whilst also having the opportunity to work on a selection of other creative projects that offer a fresh set of challenges with different teams.

“You learn to understand what makes an image engaging, not just what makes it look ‘professional’.”

Mondial magazine

Mondial magazine

Mondial magazine

What are the most enjoyable parts of your job?
The thing I enjoy the most is the friendship network that the company has given me; I’m surrounded by young and enthusiastic people that are passionate about both design and cycling.

What’s been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
It has to be Mondial magazine. It’s been a labour of love. As someone that loves magazines, print and editorial design, it was always going to be the ideal project for me. Plus it’s given me the chance to work with some of the most amazing photographers, illustrators, designers and authors – people I never thought I’d work with.

Radha product shot

Radha product shot

Radha product shot

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What skills are essential to your job?
As an art director, there are lots of different skills that you need. A strong knowledge of typography, UI design, illustration, photography and print production all stand you in good stead, but more broadly an openness to new ideas, an ability to communicate your creative ideas and a strong sense of empathy. As an art director, it’s all about understanding the person you’re talking to. Ultimately you are trying to craft communications and messages with a broad team of individuals that cuts through and talks to a specific person or group. At Rapha we talk predominantly to cyclists at all levels (from beginners all the way through to experienced cyclists) so it’s all about having the empathy to understand how they see the world from the saddle and moulding your ideas to best inspire and appeal to them.

In terms of craft, it's also essential you have an eye for photography. That’s a hard thing to train for but you learn to understand what makes an image engaging – not just what makes an image ‘professional’. We can all tell if something is pixelated, or badly-lit, but you need to understand what makes an image emotive. In the sports industry I see a lot of work that is overly-staged or directed and I think it suffers for it. What we look for at Rapha is not a perfect representation of our product or a graphically pleasing composition, but a sense of the character behind the eyes. We work with friends and cyclists that understand the sport inside-out and photograph them on location during long-distance rides, avoiding staged scenes at all cost. I think this authenticity shines through and makes for some inspirational photography.

“I was always interested in art and design, but I was also passionate about sport. Initially I found that they weren’t two things that necessarily went together.”

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
I’ve always wanted to be involved in creative pursuits. I was always interested in art and design, but I was also passionate about sport. Initially I found that they weren’t two things that necessarily went together; I’d hang out with friends who were into sport and didn’t care for art, or with friends that wanted to go to art school but hated sport. And I was always sat in this kind of hinterland. Fortuitously for me, where I’ve now found myself is spot-on in the middle. Rapha makes sports apparel but I’m in a creative team. 

“When you have a sense that you want to work in a certain area, you’ve just got to get yourself around the people involved in it.”

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Studying, for me, has been a bit of a journey. It wasn’t something that came naturally to me. I remember vividly being sixteen and not wanting to go to uni or even college. I didn’t have anyone around me that wanted to do anything in terms of higher education – apart from one friend. He went off and applied, and I simply followed him to Birmingham University (Aston University back then) to do a course in visual communication. I didn’t really know what it was all about, other than the fact that I had this interest in creativity, photography and art. But I was at a loose end, so I did that course and it completely changed my outlook on education. I then went on to do an art foundation before going to Leeds College of Art and Design to do another BA in visual communication. That gave me a fairly broad understanding of creativity and all the different crafts within in.

Rapha Works

Rapha Works

Rapha Works

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Rapha Works

Rapha Works

More recently, whist I’ve been working I’ve also managed to complete a MA in brand development at Goldsmiths University. It’s was hugely stimulating and gave me a chance to look more broadly at branding. The course was also more academically-orientated than anything I had previously studied, which pushed me completely out of my depth. It taught me more about the business side of brands and creativity, which is really important – particularly for any creative that works in-house. You need to be aware of the broader business environment you work within.

RCC Canyon Bike

RCC Canyon Bike

RCC Canyon Bike

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What were your first jobs?
My first job was working in a garage with my dad, where I’d mop the floor for a fiver every Saturday. I enjoyed it because it was just hanging out with dad at the weekends and keeping myself busy. After that I did all sorts of odds and ends. After university, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my BA. But I knew I loved arts and culture more broadly, so I found work at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. I was invigilating and was essentially asked to turn up on time, wear black and not say a word — easy.

I managed to work myself into various other galleries as a graphic designer, before I was lucky enough to come down to London and work at the Tate gallery. I worked in-house there at the design studio on lovely bits of print collateral and exhibition design. I joined Rapha after that, and have progressed from a midnight graphic designer to my role now as an art director.

When you have a sense that you want to work in a certain area, you’ve just got to get yourself around the people involved in it. I didn’t have any good contacts in Manchester, but working at the gallery provided me with a network of people – just by being at exhibition openings and talks. Some of those connections were artists who might have needed work doing for them, some were people starting up their own independent businesses. Others were creative types with side projects on the go. In that kind of environment, things just crop up naturally. You might be a student with no portfolio, but if you’ve got a hunger and a willingness to work with these people, things gather momentum.

T-shirt designs for UK band Basement

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career? 
I had good friends that pointed me in the right direction. Rapha’s known in the cycling industry, and I had friends that rode. It was a lesser-known company back then; you had to be fairly into road cycling to have heard of it. There was an opportunity there as a graphic designer, similar to what I was doing at Tate. And given my past background, with interests in both sport and design, it seemed like a perfect match.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an art director?
Find the things you love and pursue them. If you’re passionate about cycling, you need to be out watching the sport, participating in it, and reading about it. But you also need to be engaged with photography and graphic design. There are all of these worlds that you need to try and get under the skin of. Without drowning yourself in information, you’ve got to be proactive in inspiring yourself. 

Be inquisitive. I love graduates and people who come in and ask questions. Don’t be scared to ask why things are done in certain ways, because you learn so fast. I always wish I’d asked more questions. 

Posted 22 November 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Publishing
Mentions: Jack Saunders, Rapha, Tate
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