Creative Lives — Discovery is not desk-bound for TEMPLO’s intrepid creative director, Pali Palavathanan

Posted 18 April 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Discovery is not desk-bound for intrepid creative director, Pali Palavathanan. After stints at both IDEO and Johnson Banks, Pali co-founded branding and digital agency TEMPLO in 2013. His belief in using creativity for change is matched with a desire to tread new ground – whether that be coming up with new ways to tackle world issues or wracking up 20,000 steps on walks – a technique that fast sees inspiration turn into ideas. His passion and proactive attitude has led him to work (often in unconventional ways) for clients including Amnesty International, Plymouth College of Art and The United Nations. We caught up with Pali as he talks us through his journey so far.

Pali Palavathanan

Job Title

Founder & Creative Director, TEMPLO (2013–present)

Based

London

Clients

United Nations, London School of Economics, Plymouth College of Art, Global Witness, Amnesty International

Education

BA Graphic Design, Kingston University (2002–2005)

Website
Social Media

Pali Palavathanan

TEMPLO's working space at Protein Studios

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Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I’m the Founder and creative director of TEMPLO, a branding and digital agency. We specialise in creativity for change and are currently working with The United Nations, London School of Economics, Plymouth College of Art, Global Witness, Amnesty International and The Sorrell Foundation.

We also spend studio time creating self-initiated projects to highlight issues we are passionate about whether it be climate change, education, human rights or diversity. The aim of our work is to have real-world impact. For instance, we have helped swing countries’ votes at The United Nations and reach government officials and policy makers. 

What does a typical working day look like? 
I usually wake up early at around 4am and that’s when I do my best thinking. I’m in the studio for 7.30am and finish by 5.00pm. But running a business is a 24/7 job so I never really switch off. 50% of my time is away from the desk – either walking, coming up with ideas, meeting clients or presenting, and the other 50% is in front of a computer. As the creative director I have to have a bird’s-eye view of all the projects in the studio. 

Where does the majority of your work take place? 
I rarely have an idea at a desk. Most of my ideas come whilst I’m walking, in a dream or during meditation. Walking an average of 20,000 steps a day seems to work best for me – I could literally plot on a map where every idea I’ve had has come from. I encourage other designers to get out of the studio and get inspired. I remember what it was like to be sat in front of a desk day-in day-out and it is such a counter-intuitive way for designers to work.  

“Most of my ideas come whilst I’m walking, in a dream or during meditation. Walking an average of 20,000 steps a day seems to work best for me – I could literally plot on a map where every idea I’ve had has come from.”

How does your project-based work usually come about? 
Clients find us through a mixture of word of mouth, recommendation, repeat business and us approaching companies or organisations that really fit with our ethos. It has to work both ways; we need to be right for them but equally they have to fit with our philosophy.

We’ve turned down work because there was a conflict between our ethics and those of our clients. For example, we were recently approached by a potential client who, after some digging, we discovered had an offshore account in a tax haven. Having done a lot of work with Global Witness to help them expose such companies it just didn’t feel morally right. Which was a shame because the budget was great! 

How collaborative is your work? 
Our best projects have been born out of a genuine collaboration between us and the client. We tend to find that the more collaborative we are, the more interesting the outcome. One of the best examples of this is our #StopTorture campaign, which was co-created by TEMPLO, some of the world’s leading human rights lawyers, journalists and investigators. A very rare scenario. Usually designers come in at the end of this kind of project but we were heavily involved right from the beginning, which meant we had a lot of influence and the ability to push unusual outcomes through. 

I also like to collaborate with other creatives, animators, illustrators and copywriters. It’s about them taking ownership and showing me something that I would never think of. I don’t have all the answers so I want to see how other creatives put their spin on something.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
Running my own studio allows me to spend time with my wife and daughter and gives me the freedom to work whenever and wherever I want, which is the ultimate reason why I do this. The downside is finding new business and the energy it requires. Luckily our managing director keeps on top of that side of things.

“I’ve heard countless stories of graduates taking the first job offer they receive, having had little intern experience and ending up unhappy.”

The ‘brother and sister’ logo, fusing the Sinhala and Tamil words for ‘stop’ with English, 2014

Rapper M.I.A. at celebrity event for the #StopTorture campaign, 2014

Campaign for Amnesty International, 2014

Work for Global Witness on Africa's natural resources being drained, 2014

ITJP (International Truth and Justice Project) rebrand at The United Nations, 2017

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What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
We’re working with Plymouth College of Art to help them attract more students. We wanted to convey the amazing creative energy of their campus and avoid clichés of other seaside colleges and universities. So we looked deep into the ocean for inspiration and based the final campaign creative on the ever-changing, pulsing, adaptive nature of octopus skin. This was the first time PCA had a cohesive campaign that joined up all their marketing materials. 

My role was to get the ideas started at the beginning of the project and then take the client on the journey with us, selling in the concept and helping it evolve over time. The project team included an account manager, copywriter, animator and designers. So far new student applications have tripled on last year and we are about to start the campaign for the next academic year. 

What skills are essential to your job? 
Being able to juggle lots of moving parts. Having the leadership to steer the direction of the company. The ability to listen and really hear the client out. Being on it with timings and meeting deadlines. Being humble and able to know your limits. Bringing the right people onto a project when you need them. Having a thick skin and rolling with punches (I’m still working on this!)  

“Sometimes the nature of a client’s work brings about a unique set of challenges. We had to adapt our process when helping The United Nations – often working completely offline, erasing meta data and only doing face-to-face meetings.”

Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
Always! Lots of our work is driven by personal experience, whether it’s being stopped at a border crossing because immigration didn’t think I looked British enough (see our Brit-ish initiative at Somerset House) or being frustrated that the world was ignoring the brutal sexual violence and torture in conflict areas like Sri Lanka (#StopTorture). These experiences have become a key driving force for our work and have really helped to attract the kind of client we like to collaborate with. 

We currently have a couple of things bubbling away. We are trying to raise awareness about the Armenian Genocide. Our managing director Anoushka Rodda is half Armenian Lebanese so it’s an issue that’s close to our hearts. We are also working on an exciting project to help children learn to code. Watch this space…

What tools do you use most for your work? 
Apple iMac; MacBook Air; iPhone 6; EOS 7D Camera; Illustrator CC; InDesign CC; Photoshop CC; Animate CC; Keynote and Sketch Up. Along with Staedtler triplus colour felt tips, Prang charcoal pencils, yellow Moleskine notebooks, A3 draft paper, paint brushes, Indian ink and loads of Post-It notes. 

Brit-ish™ initiative flags with The Sorrell Foundation, 2016

Rebrand for the London School of Economics Climate Change Institute, 2016

Creative Journeys logo for The Sorrell Foundation, 2016

Work for the The United Nations Syria mission, 2015

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
An artist.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied BA Graphic Design at Kingston University so of course there is a direct link. Heavy research, conceptual thinking and an unorthodox approach flows through my work to this day.

What were your first jobs? 
I did internships at The PartnersJohnson Banks and IDEO. I loved every minute of it. It was vital to experience different types of companies and see what suited my style and personality. I often recommend to graduates that they avoid taking the first job offer they receive and really try to take the time to find the right job for them. I’ve heard countless stories of graduates taking the first job offer they receive, having had little intern experience and so end up unhappy very quickly.

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career? 
After a series of intern stints I had three dream job offers at the same time including IDEO and Johnson Banks. As much as I loved being at IDEO and working in an interdisciplinary way, I chose the Johnson Banks job to really focus on my main passion; branding. At Johnson Banks I gained a lot of experience working on different types of branding projects, which has helped give me a broad understanding that feeds into my work at TEMPLO. 

Animation for Plymouth College of Art #YourEnergy campaign, 2017

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
At the age of 25 I got to work on the Virgin Atlantic rebrand and had to learn very quickly how to handle a project of such scale. It was steep learning curve! 

What skills have you learnt along the way? 
When I began my career my role was design and design only. As I’ve grown in experience, the strategic side of things and taking the client on the journey are more and more important. 

What’s been your biggest challenge? 
I’ve made the mistake of being too pushy in the past. When TEMPLO first began we were desperate to work with The United Nations because we knew we could help them. After two years of knocking on the wrong doors repeatedly, they approached us. I can now see that everything happens when it’s meant to and you have to wait for the right opportunity to come along. It’s not worth investing the time in trying to convince the wrong people that you’re right for a project. 

Sometimes the nature of a client’s work brings about a unique set of challenges for us. We now help The United Nations with some of their top secret missions and investigations. Because governments were hacking into emails, we had to adapt our process, often working completely offline, erasing meta data, only doing face-to-face meetings and sharing of digital files in person. I genuinely I feel like I’m learning and making mistakes everyday but that’s all part of the process! 

Is your job what you thought it would be? 
Yes and no. You can’t underestimate the burden of ‘going again’, finding new opportunities and new clients. I always feel like a farmer, planting seeds and waiting for crops to grow but you can’t guarantee the good weather!

Invitations for Kingston University, 2015

External banners for the Plymouth College of Art #YourEnergy campaign, 2017

Logo for Private Members Club, The Union, 2017

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Thinking Ahead

Could you do this job forever?
To some extent yes, I don’t want to stop trying to help expose the truth. There’s so many issues around the world that need a voice. 

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a creative director?
Get experience and put in the graft. Don’t try and do everything yourself. Work with people better than you. Get comfortable with presenting and steering meetings. On my travels I came across a brilliant quote “your ego is not your amigo” and I think that’s good advice to live by. 

Posted 18 April 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Design
Mentions: Johnson Banks, IDEO, The Partners, Pali Palavathanan, TEMPLO
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