Creative Lives — Dublin and Munich-based graphic designer Simon Sweeney on co-founding and collaborating
For graphic designer Simon Sweeney, the key to success in his life and career is people. Not only does he collaborate across multiple disciplines with people like musician Kuedo, he’s also established two graphic-design companies – one, BONG, with close friend Ben, and the other, It’s Okay, with his partner Shauna. Having recently pulled up his Dublin roots and relocated to Munich, Simon works from his home across multiple graphic design projects to produce anything from posters, books and magazines to web layouts, identity solutions, and even sculptural pieces. He talks to us about how his studies in Dublin and his time as an intern, then designer, with Irish design studio Conor & David (now WorkGroup) helped to form the basis of his practice, as well as discussing his collaborative magazine project on graphic design and video games, and the perks of working with your best friends.
Founder and Director, BONG, (2014–present)
Founder and Director, It’s Okay (2014–present)
Munich and Dublin
Jupiter Artland, V&A, Bloomberg, Kuedo, Kingston School of Art, Typography Ireland, Johnny Kelly, Johnson Banks, Brody Associates, Superimpose Studio
Junior Designer, Conor & David (now WorkGroup) 2013–2014
BA Visual Communication, Dublin School of Creative Arts (2008–2012)
Erasmus Program, Kingston University London (2011)
How would you describe what you do?
I guess you could say I work across various forms of graphic design and front-end development via two separate companies: BONG with my good friend Ben West and It’s Okay with my partner Shauna Buckley. Sometimes I’ll take on a project or two on my own but I generally prefer to work with other people – talking is a huge part of how I go about making things.
BONG tends to focus more on the digital. Ben and I haven't lived in the same country for years so 90% of the work we do is done remotely. Originally we were known for experimental web things that were a bit tongue-in-cheek but more recently we’ve taken on larger identity projects that feel like actual projects that actual studios do. The outcome of almost everything we do still pretty much ends up being viewed on screens and that’s how we like it.
It’s Okay, on the other hand, is a bit more of a traditional graphic design studio. Recently we’ve branched out into more sculptural and spatial work, which has been really interesting, but the core of what we do is regular old graphic design – identities and books and the like.
BONG for Manufactory
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
At the moment I wake up around 9 and sit down at my desk in Munich at around 10. If BONG is in the middle of a project I’ll call Ben on Skype a little after 10 and we’ll just get to work. We’ll stay on the call until the work is done or until one of us calls it a day, usually around 6. Most of the time, BONG works on one task at a time and then moves on. We’ll both design something at the same time and then we’ll both build it. We use figma to design and cloud9 to code; both allow us to collaborate in real time on the same document.
“I prefer to work with other people – talking is a huge part of how I go about making things.”
Paradoxically, despite our proximity, if myself and Shauna are working on something we’re much more likely to alternate on a project, one of us picking up where the other has left off, working in separate files and coming together later. We recently finished a poster for an exhibition in Dublin where we each took half of the poster and didn’t look at the combined image until the very end.
It’s Okay for Spectrum Exhibition
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable aspects of my job are often the little moments of a nice idea or solution appearing after blanking on something for hours. Also, I work with my best friends – who do I think I am?
The part I struggle with most is the business side of things. Being our own bosses can sometimes feel like we’re never not working and taking time away from work can often feel like stealing. A client’s deadline is almost always as soon as possible and being able to manage that expectation can be difficult.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
My dumb brain often reads the most recent as the most exciting. A while back BONG made a website for one of my favourite music people, Kuedo. That one feels like a turning point for some reason and I’m really happy with the outcome.
Going back a little further I got to work with the insanely nice man Johnny Kelly on the titles for his amazing short film Fern. Doing anything related to film and typography is the absolute dream. Get at me film makers.
FERN by Johnny Kelly
FERN by Johnny Kelly
FERN by Johnny Kelly
FERN by Johnny Kelly
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
People always assume that someone working for themselves must have a really strong grasp of discipline but I don’t feel particularly well equipped in that area. I maintain that the only thing that gets projects completed is fear. If I’m honest with myself, worrying about what people think has made me do more than almost any other motivation. So being constantly afraid is essential in my opinion.
What prompted your move to Munich? How does it compare to Dublin?
Myself and Shauna moved over to Munich late last year so she could spend some time in Bureau Borsche. I’m from Dublin originally and have lived and worked there pretty consistently for my whole adult life. I’ve said it before, but the design community in Dublin is truly something else – the sense of camaraderie and openness is second to none. The only problem is that there is huge housing crisis in Dublin at the moment and renting there seems less and less like a smart move.
The nature of our work means we’re lucky in that we can pretty much live anywhere. Our time in Munich is up in a few months and after that we’re not sure where we’re heading.
“The design community in Dublin is truly something else – the sense of camaraderie and openness is second to none.”
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
I actually just launched a group exhibition and magazine about graphic design and video games called Raid. I asked a bunch of my favourite designers to come up with an idea for a game and then design the logo for that idea, then I put them all into a publication.
I took some time to interview Ben Sifel and Cory Schmitz and was lucky enough to get the amazing bo en to write about some of his favourite video game music and next thing you know I had a proper magazine in front of me. It’s honestly baffling that Raid exists – it feels weird to finish something that doesn’t have a deadline driven by a client.
What tools do you use most for your work?
One 15-inch late 2013 MacBook pro. Figma, cloud9 and indesign. I’ll dabble in everything else but the above is standard loadout.
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
Is it weird to say people? People know so much. There’s been a few core people throughout my life (including Shauna and Ben obviously) that have really helped to form my thoughts on things. In college it was Michael McCaughley and Steve O Connell, after that it was Oscar Torrans and Sean Mongey. Feels like I’m sucking the knowledge out of peoples brains sometimes – I’ll corner you in a pub and just talk until you've helped my brain realise things.
At the moment the best resource I can think of is this one Slack thread I’m in with honestly some of the best designers and people I’ve ever met. Sometimes reading that Slack feels like I’m learning for free. Other times it’s full of nonsense obviously, but thats a valuable resource too. So I guess I would recommend finding people and learning from them!
BONG for Kuedo
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up? Do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
I don't think I had any plans if I’m honest. No defined path. My parents were particularly good at letting me decide how I spent my time, which meant I was often drawing, playing video games or messing about on the computer. Which is pretty much what I chose to do for my career I guess.
How useful have your studies been in your career?
I definitely don't think enough about how much my time at college in Dublin formed my work ethic and how I structure my life – that was all vital even though I didn’t realise it then.
Meanwhile the six months I spent at Kingston during my Erasmus programme feels like the most formative decision I could ever have made. Not only did I meet Ben and a lot of other amazing people there but the course and community at Knights Park at that time was honestly baffling to me. In many ways it still is. People were just constantly making and looking at things in these ways I couldn’t understand, at that time there was truly some utter genius walking about.
A lot of BONG’s first clients came from connections to Kingston and a lot of our work still comes from London, despite both Ben and I not having lived there for years. If I chose not to participate in that experience I’m pretty sure my life would've been drastically different.
“Inside a more traditional work environment, that fear of what people thought became a crippling issue that affected everything I made.”
After graduating, what were your initial steps?
I was really lucky actually – before my last day of college I managed to get an internship at one of the best studios in Ireland, Conor & David (now WorkGroup). I left college and I think the next week I was in the studio working away. I learned a stupid amount there in an extremely short time. I had never properly built a website before and one of my first tasks was to learn, which was obviously extremely formative for me and the rest of my career.
What particularly helped your development?
For some reason, in the early years of BONG the website Hover States was a huge part of our success. We would finish a site, submit it to Hover States, it would get featured, and then we’d get some emails for the next site. That was our only form of advertising. The most up-to-date version of our portfolio was our Twitter timeline where we would just retweet our Hover States entries.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Finding out I wanted to work for myself was a real struggle and I still contemplate it often. Inside a more traditional work environment, that fear of what people thought that I mentioned earlier became a crippling issue that affected everything I made. It pointed me into a spiral until working for myself became the only option.
It’s Okay for Spectrum Exhibition
What would you like to do next?
No idea, still figuring it out to be honest. I just put out a magazine about video games which is something I never planned on doing. You can literally do almost anything and no one will stop you.
Could you do this job forever?
For sure. It has its bad days but then there's Mondays where me and Shauna go sit by the Isar in the sun or a Friday where me and Ben drink beers together over the internet and play Fortnite. Shouldn't be allowed really, living like this.
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Talk and get to know all sorts of people. If someone seems sound to you, they probably are, and they’ll be the people in two years who have a thing and they need a thing and they’re wondering if you have time to help with the thing. They also know things you don't and you can take that from them.