Creative Lives — Meet Jane Bowyer, the Manchester-based designer, illustrator and creative studio of one

Posted 30 April 2019 Written by Rebecca Irvin

For Manchester-based designer and illustrator Jane Bowyer, being made redundant from her design agency job a few years ago was the best thing that could have happened to her. Within just a few days of losing her job, Jane had made up her mind to work for herself and began sourcing freelance work. Now an established creative studio of one, Jane works directly with clients like the National Trust, the Pankhurst Trust and the East End Women’s Museum, sometimes collaborating but often taking on the traditional agency roles of art director, project manager and creative all by herself. Here, Jane discusses the things she loves about living and working in Manchester, her ongoing personal project Women in Print, and the problems of elitism and lack of diversity in the art and design world.

Jane Bowyer

Job title

Designer and Illustrator

Based

Manchester

Selected clients

National Trust, Arts Council England, East End Women's Museum, The Pankhurst Trust, Herb Lester, BBC, The Christie, ZSL London Zoo, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Manchester Psych Fest, Yorkshire Sound Women Network, Free To Be Ok With Me

Previous employment

Designer, Creative Spark (2010–2013)
Senior Designer, Raw Design Studio (2013–2015)

Place of study

BA Graphic Design, Cumbria Institute of Arts (2007–2010)

Personal website
Social media

Jane

How would you describe what you do?
Over the last couple of years my practice has evolved from freelance designer to what I’d call a creative studio of one. Essentially, I offer the services of a small creative studio but with one employee. I still enjoy working with other people, so when a project calls for additional skills or an extra pair of hands I reach out to my network of collaborators to help me get the best job done.

My work is split between design and illustration. Personally, I’ve never seen them as two separate disciplines but that’s the way the industry and clients view them, so I’ve had to make a distinction between the two when it comes to pricing. But I approach design and illustration briefs in the same way.

“My work flows between disciplines; I wouldn’t refer to myself as just a print designer or brand designer.”

I work directly with clients such as the East End Women’s Museum, the Pankhurst Trust and the National Trust on various projects. In this role, I wear many hats – doing the design work, managing the project and budgets, liaising with suppliers, commissioning and art directing photographers. I also get to collaborate with some fantastic agencies such as Music, Fieldwork and Edit_ Brand Studio on projects or illustration commissions where my role and involvement in the project is much more defined.

Work for Centenary City exhibition at the Pankhurst Centre

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
A working day always starts with a really strong cup of tea, that is the only absolute. Everything else varies quite a lot. One day I’m working on a report for a local authority, the next day I’m working with a new startup company designing playscapes for children. My work flows between disciplines; I wouldn’t refer to myself as just a print designer or brand designer. I prefer to look at a brief, see if it’s something that interests me and aligns with my values and then work out how I’m going to tackle it!

I usually work standard working hours (9am–6pm) from my home studio or a co-working space in Manchester city centre. The co-working space I use is called The Federation. It describes itself as a community of innovators built on ethical values, which is one of the reasons I chose to sign up. All the people working there have good values built into their practise, or are working on projects around social impact.

Jane's work space

How collaborative is your role?
I work mostly by myself but I do collaborate with other people if the project requires it. I recently worked on a project for the Pankhurst Centre which was very much a collaborative effort.

I was commissioned to design their Centenary City exhibition commemorating all the celebrations and activism that happened in Manchester around the centenary of some women getting the right to vote. I worked with photographers, artists, fabricators, printers and Pankhurst volunteers on the various elements of the exhibition to produce a rich piece of work that benefited from everybody’s expertise.

“With any job there are parts you love, parts you struggle with and parts you could do without.”

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I think there’s a misconception that the grass is greener on the self-employed side – it’s all long lunches and working in your leggings – but as with any job there are parts you love, parts you struggle with and parts you could do without. What I try to keep in mind is that as a designer, my ‘bad day’ in no way shapes up to what a bad day looks like for people in other professions.

Getting a good work-life balance is a work in progress for me. I’ve always been a very conscientious, hard worker and it’s not something I can easily change or necessarily want to. I really enjoy being creative and so I often find myself working on things at the weekends or in the evenings – because I want to, not because I have to. However, what I am learning to do is to pick my projects carefully and not spread myself too thinly. I frequently ask myself, “is this thing worth the resources and energy you’re putting into it?”

Women in Print for the National Trust at Dunham Massey

Women in Print for the National Trust at Dunham Massey

Women in Print for the National Trust at Dunham Massey

Women in Print for the National Trust at Dunham Massey

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What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I’ve worked on a few great projects over the last year. Towards the end of 2017 I was approached by the National Trust to work in partnership with them and my side project Women in Print, as part of their Women and Power programme for 2018. Women in Print was a project I started in 2016, telling the stories of women from Greater Manchester or who had in some way contributed to the area, through print.

In March 2018 we launched Women in Print at Dunham Massey, a National Trust property just south of Manchester. I commissioned five artists to create a piece of work about five women who had lived and worked at Dunham Massey. I designed and curated the exhibition and a programme of events for the year including a collaboration with the People’s History Museum to a host a free event in Manchester which included talks, film screenings and an experimental sewing workshop with one of the exhibiting artists, Lucy Ketchin. We wanted to make the history and art at the house accessible to a wider, more diverse audience to help grow Dunham Massey’s reach beyond its current National Trust members.

On this project I got to work with some incredibly talented people; Helen Musselwhite, Deanna Halsall, Joanna Houghton, Lucy Ketchin and Nell Smith. Through the artists’ work we were able to go deeper into these women’s stories beyond the typical, flat narrative of “this is how this woman was related to the man of the house”.

Another project I am also incredibly proud to have worked recently was with Music Agency, creating supergraphics for the Christie’s new Proton Beam Therapy Centre. I illustrated jungle and underwater scenes that have been used in various rooms around the centre to create a calm and distracting environment for young children receiving treatment. We’ve already had really positive feedback from the staff on how the graphics have transformed the space, which is wonderful to hear as it means I’ve done my job properly.

Work for the Proton Beam Therapy Centre

Work for the Proton Beam Therapy Centre

Work for the Proton Beam Therapy Centre

Work for the Proton Beam Therapy Centre

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What skills would you say are essential to your job?
It’s important to not just do great work for your clients but to also build a good relationship with them, one that is built on honesty and trust. If you’re struggling to deliver something, be honest and work out a more realistic timescale. If something feels ‘off’ about a project, raise it with the client as soon as you can. Having an open dialogue is essential for any project to run smoothly.

“If you’re struggling to deliver something, be honest and work out a more realistic timescale.”

As a designer, an essential skill is being able to listen. I’ve been in a few meetings where I’ve witnessed a designer tell a client off for having bad design or bad branding and not once ask them what they need – they know they’ve got less than adequate design, that’s why they’ve called you in for a meeting!

Finally, being able to tell a good story – isn’t that the bedrock of any culture? People engage with a good narrative and, for me personally, it’s what turns shapes, colour and type into works of art.

Work with Edit_ Brand Studio for ZSL London Zoo

What do you like about working in Manchester?
I was born in Salford and grew up in Atherton and Bolton (towns in Greater Manchester) so I’m very familiar with Manchester and the surrounding areas. The region has produced some of the country's best talent – as my dad says, Bolton is responsible for 50% of the nation’s light entertainment. There’s an exciting mix of creative people living and working in Manchester at the moment and the city is constantly changing (for better or worse, only time will tell).

What I love about living and working here is how approachable people are. People are very willing to give you their time – that’s incredibly valuable in a busy, click-happy world. I think as northerners a lot of us come pre-packaged with this self-deprecating sense of humour which means that people give very honest advice and down-to-earth accounts of their experiences. This has allowed be to build strong and genuine relationships with people in the community here.

Are you currently working on any personal projects?
I started Women in Print three years ago and it is always ticking away in the background. Over the last three years, Women in Print has showcased the work of 24 artists, told the stories of 27 women from Greater Manchester, created 27 unique pieces of work, exhibited in six venues across Greater Manchester, raised money for Manchester Women’s Aid and Smartworks GM, run workshops and events across the region, collected donations of sanitary care products for The Monthly Gift and worked in partnership with National Trust.

Now my ambition is to find a way to archive all this work online and perhaps in print too. There are a few other potential collaborations and projects in the pipeline but nothing I can discuss yet. My focus this year is to work on updating ‘my brand’ and my website – an endless project. I’m tempted to have the words “I need to update my website” etched on my headstone because I feel like it’s something I’ll be saying for eternity.

Work for Manchester Psych Fest

What tools do you use most for your work?
I work predominantly in Adobe Illustrator and InDesign. Last year I invested in an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil which I’m getting to grips with gradually and have used for a couple of illustration commissions recently.

I still love drawing things by hand, even if it’s very crudely done. I find it easier to sketch and write ideas down on the physical page, I can’t plug into my Macbook at the start of a project and off I go. I can’t contemplate designing anything until I’ve worked out that core idea on paper.

Is there a resource that has particularly helped you? And which you would recommend to someone else?
When I first graduated, How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy was the best resource I found on giving practical advice on getting into the industry and I still recommend that book to students now.

“There are plenty of ways you can be a designer outside of the agency environment and success doesn’t need to be defined by such narrow terms.”

When I graduated I felt like the industry wasn’t very accessible – everything seemed to be in London and I couldn’t afford to live there. It felt as if the career path on offer was very narrow; intern, get a job at an agency, work your way up, become a creative director.

There are plenty of ways you can be a designer outside of the agency environment and success doesn’t need to be defined by such narrow terms. At the end of the day, the structure of a traditional agency was designed to allow a small group of people to thrive and until it changes we’ll continue to see a lack of diversity at the top.

Work for the Monthly Gift Campaign

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
I think I knew from a young age that I wanted to do something in the arts and I’ve always felt more comfortable working behind the scenes than standing centre stage. It was actually my high school art teacher, Mr Lee, who suggested graphic design as a career option. He sold it to me as “being able to make posters for a living”. I’ve always said if the design thing doesn’t work out I’d make an excellent wedding DJ.

How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
Nobody in my family does anything particularly creative for a living but I grew up in a matriarchy and a lot of the women around me were into craft, which perhaps sparked my interest in drawing and making things.

My mum has always encouraged me to find something that I love and do that for a living, which was handy when I was under pressure from my school to go down a more academic route. I had no interest in going to a red-brick university just to make the school look good and get my face in the local paper. I was told by one teacher that I would “massively regret” choosing art and design subjects for A Level. I don’t regret my choice. Not one bit.

In terms of my upbringing influencing my style, there’s a simplicity and humour in my work that I think has been influenced by the things I watched growing up – The Muppets, Pixar, The Simpsons and musicals like Little Shop of Horrors. I think you can see those influences particularly in my illustration work, which is often very character driven.

Work for Before I Could Draw

How useful have your studies been in your career? Were there any transferable learnings that you took with you?
At high school, I was fortunate to have amazing art and graphic design teachers who were very talented and progressive. I was successful at university and left with a First Class BA Hons but I found it frustrating.

This was when I first felt like I saw the elitism within the design and art world that I was previously very naive too and I didn’t like it. I didn’t have time or energy to waste on it so I saw university as a means to an end; I wanted to get the piece of paper I needed to do the job I was eagerly waiting to do.

That being said, while I was studying I did a lot of cheap jobs, working on posters for local theatre groups and gig venues, which I really enjoyed and which helped me build up my experience working with the software and with print. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from going to university as I think you get a lot of life experience from it, but likewise I don’t think it’s the be all and end all. You can always find ways to express your creativity and build your experience if you’re driven enough.

Work for Hope Mill Theatre

After graduating, what were your initial steps?
After graduating I immediately quit the part time job I’d had for five years working in retail. I then embarked on a few internships in London and Manchester before realising I was skint and five months later got another job working in retail. I did that job while living at home and interning at an agency in Manchester, which fortunately led to my first job and the end of my days selling knickers to the general public.

I learned an incredible amount in the first six months of working as a junior designer and was thrilled to be working on real projects for real clients. The job was tough – a lot of late nights – but I gained some valuable experience and I left with plenty of good stories to tell.

I think I really found my feet when I started to put my work out there and get involved in the design community by taking part in exhibitions and other events. I still really like a piece of work I made with Textbook Studio for Design Manchester in 2014 called The School of Imagination; a school where you write the rules. One of things we made was our manifesto laser-etched onto a piece of slate.

The School of Imagination

Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break? Or has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
Being made redundant a few years ago was a big turning point for my career. I don’t know if I’d describe it as a ‘lucky break’ but it certainly changed things for the better.

“I thought instead of working hard for someone else’s vision, I should be working towards my own.”

At the time I was single-mindedly sprinting down this agency career path without questioning it. I put a lot of time and energy into my job and when I suddenly found myself jobless I was genuinely heartbroken and wondering how I was going to pay next month’s rent. Then, I thought instead of working hard for someone else’s vision, I should be working towards my own. Within days of being told I was being made redundant I made up my mind to work for myself and started looking for freelance gigs.

Posters for the East End Women's Museum

What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
I’m sure I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way and will continue to. I’ve had my fair share of challenges, some big and some small, but they’ve helped to shape the designer and person I am today so I wouldn’t change a thing.

I’m quite an open and optimistic person, so I think in the beginning of working for myself I was perhaps a little too quick to get excited about projects and maybe a little too generous with my time, so there have been times I’ve worked on projects for next to nothing. You live and learn.

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
Something I am keen to do is to play my part in helping our industry to grow a more diverse workforce through better accessibility. I work with the Encounters programme in Salford which works with local creatives and art organisations to educate secondary school pupils on the career options available if you study a creative subject.

Could you do this job forever?
The short answer is yes, I can see myself using creativity in my job for as long as possible, but it’s difficult to predict what our jobs will look like in ten years with the way that the world and technology are changing so rapidly. I hope that, for as long as possible, I will be working on projects I care about and using my skills to give a voice to people, organisations and movements.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
My advice to people trying to make a living from design would be ‘know your worth’. When I left university, I felt like I was standing at the bottom of a mountain looking up at these big, polished industry giants. But don’t forget you’re the potential future income for that agency. You have a completely unique insight and fresh ideas that will have financial and commercial benefits for that agency or client.

‘Knowing your worth’ will also help you establish clear boundaries for how you want to work. There have been times when I’ve said ‘no’ to projects because they didn’t align with my values.

Posted 30 April 2019 Written by Rebecca Irvin
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Illustration

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