Creative Lives — Artist and sound designer Karl Sadler on how he went from graphic design to founding his own ‘sonic experience’ studio, Obelisk
Switching hats between creative director, sound and experience designer, artist and music producer, Karl Sadler has developed a vast skill set that defies a singular job title. Guided by an ever-evolving stream of interests, he’s already lived many creative lives, including as a filmmaker, graphic designer and creative at agencies Wolff Olins and Wieden+Kennedy, end even set up his own mobile bike repair company. As creative director of Obelisk, the ‘sonic experience design company’ he founded in 2014, Karl now spends his days creating scores and sonic backdrops across tech, film and events for clients such as Google, Channel 4 and Vogue magazine. Drawing on his experience of both commercial and self-initiated practices, Karl has been able to set a pace and environment completely tailored to his own preferences.
Artist, Sound Designer and Founder of Obelisk Music (2014–present)
Creative, Wolff Olins (2011–2015)
Creative Researcher and Inventor, Wieden+Kennedy (2010–2011)
Filmmaker, Creative Director and Co-founder, Kandle (2003–2009)
BA Graphic Design, Camberwell (2000–2003)
Google, Hackaball, The XX, DAZN, Ritz Carlton, Visa, Channel 4, Vogue
How would you describe what you do?
Creative direction, branding, experiential marketing, sound design, music production, interaction design and UX, film direction and scriptwriting. I call myself many different things according to who I’m trying to impress. My business card for my music business describes me as a ‘sonic experience designer’, but I also call myself an artist for project work, and as a creative director for regular creative consulting. My clients range from other creative and branding agencies who are looking for creative tech led problem solving, tech companies like Apple and Google, and smaller hardware startups who might be looking for specialist audio and interaction design.
What does a typical working day look like?
I don’t really have typical days; I don’t do masses of business travel, so I have a fairly relaxed approach. I’m pretty organised with scheduled emailing periods and zero inboxes. I try to go for a half-hour walk somewhere everyday, and I recently bought a folding Brompton bicycle which I love taking on a train with some mics and field recording gear to go and record content. I spend less time in the studio these days and I’m doing more writing on my laptop; creating scripts or splicing together things I’ve collected or created over the years. With music, I’ll do about an hour of creative output and then need to stop and do something else. With consulting, I can be sat in someone else's office writing proposals for eight hours straight and trying to knock fifty concepts or solutions out, so there really can be huge differences in my days.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I have an office and recording studio below my flat where I’m based in Brixton. If I’m working on sound or music production I’m usually here, but I’m fairly often out in the field recording, or in client meetings and workshops. I’m not really sat at a computer much unless I'm editing something. I can’t really work in coffee shops – if I’m going to work alone like that I’d prefer to take a notebook to the park. I think a lot of my work happens in the pub too, where I feel naturally more relaxed and less like I’m at work.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
Honestly, for someone in branding and marketing I think I’m terribly lazy at this side of my business. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to rely on word of mouth and friends I guess. I’ll talk about things I’m working on or excited about at parties or events and stuff tends to happen. Prototyping stuff quickly or outlining ideas makes it easier to communicate them to others simply.
How collaborative is your work?
Last year I think I took on too many simultaneous projects. I work with a handful of talented engineers and designers, but when you’ve a lot on, I tend to end up project managing other people and businesses, which is normal for someone of my age and experience. But I love what I do, so I try to be much more hands on and practical with projects. This means that I end up working mainly alone with a couple of others for specific bits and bobs, but I can be much more flexible and have the headspace to do other things completely unrelated to work.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable parts of what I do are seeing people using the stuff I’ve made. I also love researching and talking to people – understanding what makes them tick. The stuff that frustrates me is unnecessarily complicated strategy and briefs. Accounting also does my head in.
“I call myself many different things according to who I’m trying to impress.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Working on Google Home and Alexa Skills has been really interesting from a practical learning experience and seeing how different studios are approaching the UX design and interaction design with voice. I think the most exciting project I worked on last year was a 3D sound installation for Vogue. It was a bit of a production beast, involving taking location recordings of ice melting in Iceland, recording string arrangements and jazz parts. We had quite a big team here at Obelisk working on sound design and arranging. I worked with Adam Lewin and visual FX guru Bernardo Varela to create an immersive theatre event with projection-mapped walls and live ambisonic surround sound.
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
I'm developing a new podcast series at the moment, based around places and soundscapes.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Post-its, Pentel sign pens, Layout pads, a Macbook Pro running Ableton Live, a Push2, a Teenage Engineering Op1, various field recorders and miniature microphones, a 6U Modular synth; homemade bags and carrying kit; MindNode and Trello and Keynote or Google Docs for proposals and presentations.
Recording live music in the studio
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a product designer; I always loved sketching and marker rendering. I concentrated at school and learnt Photoshop and Quark Express. My dad’s a graphic designer and my mum’s a painter, so I was heavily encouraged to draw and be creative. That’s why I think I was encouraged to do a graphic design degree – I just listened to the people around me. But once I was there I was much more influenced my the electronic music scene, and my dream of making and playing music was just too tempting.
I can’t imagine not working in something creative to be completely honest, though I have. I worked as a bike mechanic for years before moving to London. I even set up a mobile bike repair company a few years ago when I wanted to concentrate on my art installations and move away from commercial creative projects.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Graphic design taught me how to follow and answer a brief. I also learnt how to develop and stick to a self-initiated brief too. I specialised in animation and learnt how to work with video and animation software. That was a stepping stone to producing tour visuals and then hopping again into music videos and TV commercials. One influence influences another. It’s hard to pick an exact thing I did in my subject that helps my current role.
What were your first jobs?
My first job was as a bike mechanic in Loughborough where I grew up. I worked in shoe shops, Millets, I learnt basic customer service and sales skills here. I then worked in Magma bookshop for three years whilst I was making music and doing tour visuals. My first job was as a graphic and motion designer for Peter Anderson – well, freelance really. I then started getting my own clients through word of mouth, kind of by accident. My first ‘real’ job was more recently, for Wolff Olins in the design department for a few years, with a bit of an ambiguous role too be honest – that was ultimately why I left. It was great to wear lots of hats, but not that great for career development for someone of my age.
“I was in the design department at Wolff Olins for a few years, with a bit of an ambiguous role. It was great to wear lots of hats, but not that great for career development for someone of my age.”
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
I think it has to be Peter Anderson. I actually got a break from him after DJing and doing some projections and lighting for his wedding. When I decided I wanted to get into moving image, he helped me develop my After Effects skills, working on creating TV title sequences with his typographic design. I also met my then business partner Lewis Kyle White at Peter’s studio, and we set up our company Kandle (a image and production company, now defunct) together.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Lewis and I did a big interactive stop motion TV commercial for Orange which got us represented as commercial directors, and really put us on the map with large-project production. I think that allowed us to prove to people with bigger budgets that we knew what we were doing.
How has your career changed since you started out?
My career has changed over the years, from design to film to interaction design to sound. I enjoy learning and understanding different creative mediums, so – as a creative generalist – I can solve a brief in any number of ways. I quite quickly realised I wasn’t great at basic graphic design layout and really struggled, so that was why I started exploring animation. I’m also a massive geek and gadget fan, so when digital video gear came out it was shiny and appealing to me.
Interaction design just became a skillset I developed as I started to take creative thoughts and look at how they would work for users. I wasn’t in a situation to hand over ideas for someone else to make, so I had to prototype them, and this is where my skills in essentially making science fiction films that demonstrated made-up products came from. After a while, the ‘speculative films’ convince people to actually start exploring stuff for real, and that’s when bigger teams get involved with more specialisms.
My sound business took off when I started looking at how these bits of hardware I was working on needed to be heard. Also people are now coming to me for more experiential marketing campaign ideas where they can give me more freedom as an artist too.
Creating natural drone acoustics in Sherwood Forest in Nottingham
What’s been your biggest challenge?
My biggest and toughest learnings have been around legal disputes. I had what I thought was a friendly collaboration bite me on the bum, when the photographer involved believed an idea and assets belonged to him, and that ended in a three-year legal dispute and cost me so much money and emotion. It took me a very long time to get my confidence back to work with people again, and was the reason why I took a full-time job at Wolff Olins to try and regain some financial stability. I’m now much more aware and explicit about how I work with people and use contracts and license agreements, which is an important and necessary set of skills to have in any creative business.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
When I’m in control creatively and doing my own thing, working with lovely ambitious clients, it really doesn’t feel like a job. It’s just me trying my hardest, doing what I love and trying to do good things in the world. I’ve been freelancing as a consultant a bit more recently, and I’m just not feeling the 9–5 mentality, sat at a Mac all day and running out to Pret for a 15-minute lunch break every day. Once you design your own business, and keep it lean, it’s really hard to get back into the workplace mindset.
“I’m just not feeling the 9 to 5 mentality. Once you design your own business, and keep it lean, it’s really hard to get back into the workplace mindset.”
On location to make field recordings of ice with underwater microphones in Iceland.
On location to make field recordings of ice with underwater microphones in Iceland.
What would you like to do next?
My immediate plan is to start a podcast series; I think I’ll learn a lot of general skills from doing this, and I love talking to people and research, so it’ll be a sort of soundscape documentary series. I think mixed-reality technology is going to need more procedural sound design, and that means interactive audio, so things can be more immersive. I’d like to continue exploring emergent tech and programming that can help with that. I’d also like to slowly get back into some longer-term installation art pieces. I want to look at more research and development projects too, especially around tech education and sound.
Could you do this job forever?
Probably not, based on my history of hopping around! But my work at the moment is based on creating smarter sound design for products and places. If technology becomes more artificially intelligent, or some awesome new platform that makes it easier for non-specialist designers to make sounds for things happens, I’ll likely be out of a job anyhow. I’m still thinking I might retire and open a bike and coffee shop. Perhaps I’ll call it ‘Re-Tire’ or ‘Sadler’s Wheels’… Either that or I’ll be running a little campsite somewhere with a music studio, doing some obscure sound design.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Everything I’m doing now is related to the game audio industry I think, for sound design at least. I think if you’re a young person interested in sound and technology, I’d suggest looking at the career ladders here – it’s an established and large industry. What I’m doing is uber-niche and I struggle getting clients. But I’d suggest always having a side project that challenges your learning and creativity in other spaces too.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a sound designer and artist?
Learn people skills and how to run your own projects; go out and talk to users in the discovery stage of a project to determine what you’re going to make; learn enough code to understand how stuff works; always listen first before talking; creatively, you need to be constantly learning (never act like an expert); collaborate with others, don’t be maverick. Learn your favourite tool inside out so you’re a pro.