Creative Lives — “The industry’s not a ladder, but a giant playground” – multidisciplinary creative Michael Lester

Posted 26 March 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Forgoing the temptation to follow trends, the visual variety in Michael Lester’s work is testament to his versatility. The freelance animator, illustrator and designer’s client list reflects this, with a healthy balance of agency (Koto, AMV BBDO) and client work (American Express, Bulb). Attracting the right clients, however, is all down to self-initiated work: “Personal projects allow you to steer your career because they represent the kind of work you want to be making,” he tells us. Here, Michael talks about tuning in and responding to personal work patterns, why it’s important to chase your own potential, and how freelance admin offers therapeutic relief from the mental demands of creative work. 

Michael William Lester

Job Title

Freelance Animator, Illustrator and Designer (2014–present); Owner of Beginners (a new agency launching soon)

Based

Norwich

Previous Employment

Creative Intern, Ogilvy & Mather, Paris (2013–2014)
Assistant Art Director (2014)

Education

BA Illustration and Visual Communication, University of Westminster (2010–2013)

Clients

Agencies: Koto, AMVBBDO London, Ogilvy & Mather NY & Paris, Gretel
Publications: Computer Arts, T3, Net mag, Intern magazine

Companies: IBM, Orange County Transportation Authority, Quickbooks, Newton Faulkner, American Express, Co-op, Bulb, This is Ground

Website
Social Media

Michael

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I design, illustrate and animate for a broad range of international clients. I’m lucky to have roughly a 50-50 split of agency work and direct client work, which is a great place to be – dipping in and out of both sides of the industry.

I don’t really have a niche, and that’s something I’ve rooted for from the beginning. I’d much rather be a person to come to for an answer to a problem than a go-to for a particular style.

What does a typical working day look like?
First thing is coffee and a bit of reading. I’ve been using Blinkist and Pocket apps to find articles that gets the brain working. I find it so useful to take something in without the pressure of creating as soon as you wake up. If I’m working from home, I’ll usually work until about 2pm and then give myself a few hours off, as my productivity tanks around 3pm. The great thing about working for yourself is you can adapt and respond to those patterns and make that time up in the evening.

What do you like about working in Norwich?
I currently live on the coast of Norfolk. There are definitely benefits and drawbacks. When I’m super busy, it’s nice to be out in the countryside, it’s calming and balances the hectic workload. When I need motivating or I’m not so buried with work, I do miss London and Paris – there’s something about a big city and being around busy people that’s infectious. Although Norwich has a wonderful growing creative community, especially in animation. It’s been great to collaborate locally for a change.

Michael’s various workspaces

How does your project-based work usually come about?
New clients usually come about from recommendations or seeing my work online (from my portfolio, social media or press). When new clients come through I try to over-deliver on the first project – about 80% of my projects are from repeat business, so that first project is important to get right.

How collaborative is your work?
It’s becoming more collaborative, and I love that. I used to be a bit protective, but now I love projects where I’m fully integrated into a team. Collaboration isn’t as simple as just throwing everyone into a pot and hoping for results. That’s the thing that put me off it for a while; this idea that collaboration should be immediately good. It takes precision, time and the right kind of relationships.

Roles are so important within collaboration; you don’t want to end up with one person having wasted their time because you had two people doing exactly the same thing. But once you crack the curation of this, you will 100% achieve much better results than on your own.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
A lot of freelancers talk about the business and admin side of the job being the boring part, but I absolutely love it. I love organising workloads, writing briefs and compiling my accounts.

The creative side, while being fun, is a hefty mental strain of micro subjective decision-making all day long. The things that are slightly more black and white – numbers and figures – are quite therapeutic.

Wesbite for Newton Faulkner

The music video for Newton Faulkner's single, 'Hit The Ground Running' including Michael's animations

Storyboards for the Newton Faulkner music video

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I designed the campaign for Newton Faulkner’s sixth album, ‘Hit The Ground Running’ which was an incredible experience. I worked with Newton and his team to make the album cover, social campaign, posters and the music video for the first single. I also worked with had an editor, colourist and live action director for the video.

It was such a mammoth project that they let me run wild with it. It made me appreciate the power of collaborative work done in the right way.

What skills are essential to your job?
There are obvious things like Adobe Suite, but having a vision and the ability to see that through is the most important thing. If you’re in this industry, you probably dream of what you want to create – but to begin with – the gap between that vision and what you put out is quite large.

As you get better, this gap tightens and your output will start aligning better with your vision. It should never completely catch up, though, because that’s what keeps you going: that desire to make something better and the feeling that you haven’t quite reached your potential.

“Collaboration isn’t as simple as just throwing everyone into a pot and hoping for results.”

Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
I’m working on a few animated shorts and I keep a pretty lengthy catalogue of ideas going in Evernote, which acts as a huge brain dump. I’ll revisit this list regularly and see if it’s time to turn the ideas into projects.

I make sure these side projects progress by listing actionable tasks – it’s so important that you think about the steps you need to take to actually make something happen. What action can you take today?

What tools do you use most for your work? 
Adobe Illustrator for illustration and animation assets; Photoshop for physical mock ups, photo editing, texturing illustrations, GIFs and frame-by-frame animations; InDesign for PDF presentations, pitches and print work; After Effects for animation.

In the studio I’ll use my Mac Pro, LG 5K Monitor, Apple keyboard and Wacom Intuos Pro tablet. Out of the studio I have my MacBook Pro and Bamboo tablet. I use productivity apps such as Google Drive, Evernote, Figma, Trello, Slack and Dropbox Paper; and This is Ground Mod, Midori Travelers and Smythson Panama notebooks. I get my stationery from Delfonics.

Proximus Towers, as part of personal project 'Character Building'

Nou Camp, as part of personal project 'Character Building'

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
An artist. Then a footballer. Then an artist. Then Spider-Man. I kept coming back to the idea of an artist, and it stood the test of time.

What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
My dad used to draw a lot. As a kid, I would go to bed and he would ask me if I wanted a surprise drawing or something in particular. It was kind of magic to never see the process, it fuelled my intrigue – how was it done, how could I do it? It definitely had a huge influence on my career choice.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
In college I studied fine art, which led onto illustration at university. These two steps helped me progress more naturally into animation. If I’d have gone straight into animation I’d have missed out on improving my visual style and writing skills.

Waiting to start anything is often seen as negative, but as long as you eventually start, a little time can actually do some good. When I finally started to animate I had a strong illustrative style to work with and better writing skills to approach the narrative.

“[Interning at] Ogilvy & Mather Paris was the single most important year of my career. To this day I still get work from [them].”

Animation work

What were your first jobs?
Before going freelance, my first job was at Ogilvy & Mather Paris where I was an intern and later an assistant art director. It was the single most important year of my career. I went into it straight from uni, but being thrown in the deep end was exactly what I needed. I beat my fear of working in front of people, learnt about the importance of ideas, and left with some of the best contacts I could wish for. To this day I still get work from people I worked with at Ogilvy.

Who in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
At the time, Chris Rowson was the studio manager at Ogilvy Paris (now at TBWA\CHIAT\DAY in New York). He was at the D&AD New Blood festival in London when he saw my work and left his details on our stand. I called him straight away, had an impromptu meeting at a nearby café and the next month I was off to Paris. At the time I had no work experience at all, and a fairly limited portfolio, but he saw something and took a chance on me and I’ll be forever grateful for that.

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
There are two personal projects that stand out – The World’s Smallest Portfolio and Character Building. These were done early on in my freelance career and the press they picked up accounted for so much of the new business I brought in. It’s the best marketing you can do.

If you have a few quiet weeks while freelancing, instead of cold-calling studios begging for work, do a personal project that represents the kind of work you want to be making. If you get a few publications online it will not only drive new clients, but the right kind of clients. Personal projects allow you to steer your career; it’s much more difficult to control where you are heading if you only do client work.

“Personal projects allow you to steer your career because they represent the kind of work you want to be making.”

Personal project: The World's Smallest Portfolio

Personal project: The World's Smallest Portfolio

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Personal project: The World's Smallest Portfolio

Personal project: The World's Smallest Portfolio

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What skills have you learnt along the way?
Versatility. Design trends come and go but communication is always at the core of what I do. If you try to latch on to a current style too much, you'll get left behind. The best thing you can do is focus on the ideas in your work. 

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Managing work with life has been a tough one. Since being freelance, I’ve struggled to achieve a good balance and end up overworking. I travel quite a lot and this has helped somewhat because when I’m out of the country I’m much more inclined to say no to things and have some down time.

Learning to say no is even more important than what you say yes to. It’s also less talked about: there are a hundred books on how to get more clients but not so much on how to manage a full workload, and it doesn’t take that much to fill up your time as a freelancer.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
It’s so much more, over the years you realise how many options the creative industry offers. It's not so much of a ladder to climb but a giant playground to get lost in.

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
I am starting an agency that will be launching really soon. It will be a remote agency that will put together flexible teams to create work. It’s a big jump for me but I’m going to give it my all and see where it goes.

Could you do this job forever?
Absolutely.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I’ve definitely had a shift in perspective: there was a time when I wanted to do everything and I couldn’t imagine ‘overseeing’ work or not producing the final animation. Now, I see so much value in creative direction, you can achieve much greater things when you work together, maybe it’s something that comes with age.

Personal work

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Put the same amount of time into thinking about what you’re doing as you put into doing it. This is what sets a passion apart from a hobby.

You might look back at your work from three or four years ago and laugh because you thought you had it all figured out at the time, but you’re doing just fine.

If you want to be successful at anything, you have to work at it for years. It will take time to get anywhere close to where you want to be, but you should wholeheartedly believe that it might just happen overnight.



Header illustration: 'Postcards from Hawaii' (postcardsfromhawaii.co)

Posted 26 March 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Illustration, Animation
Mentions: Michael William Lester
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