Chris Shuttleworth on how poking fun at graphic design secured his first job & the secrets to career progression
Chris Shuttleworth, design director at Leeds-based branding agency Robot Food, is hands-on at delivering bold creative ideas and strategies for global clients, including Brooklyn Brewery, Cadbury's, and Carlsberg Group. But he had an unusual start to his career, having a good old laugh at the world of graphic design.
Hoping to get his foot in the door back in 2014, Chris daringly sent Robot Food a book he'd made titled Why Bother? – a collection of satirical charcoal sketches that poked fun at the design industry. Within its pages, it essentially looked at the value of design and satirically asked, what's the point of paying a lot for it when many websites crowdsource designs for a couple of quid?
These, along with a playful business card, immediately caught Robot Food's founder Simon Forster's attention, and he got straight on the phone to offer Chris an internship. Although his design skills did need some finessing, he was impressed with his creative mind and enthusiasm. Chris then grew his skillset to professional industry-wide projects. And now, almost a decade later, he has climbed the ranks from intern to design director in the same agency – an unusual outcome, as most people move on.
We wanted to know what Chris has learnt during his time at Robot Food and any insights he can share about his journey so far. With many graduates seeking their first role after the summer break, we sat down with Chris to discover some tips and tricks of the trade.
Based on the theme of your application eight years ago, is it an insecure life being a designer?
I think it depends on the 'design' you do. That publication explored the value of design and ultimately concluded that a brand's more than just a logo. There's a big difference between 'drawing for a living' and 'ideas for a living'. As long as you can rationalise your design with 'why' it's right for the brand, then you're starting with a solid foundation.
One of the biggest differences I noticed between uni and working at Robot Food is the time spent on strategy. At uni, we probably spent a week or so doing some light research and then six weeks on design concepts, whereas now we will spend most of the job time understanding the consumer, the problems that need solving and what the brand stands for before we even open Adobe.
You've been with Robot Food for all this time, from intern to director. People usually move around. What have been the reasons for staying?
I gelled with the Robot Food team very quickly, which is always a big bonus. Aside from the team itself, I've always enjoyed the variety of work that comes through the doors. Each project brings its own challenges. Whether we're working on beer, dog food, nappies, cannabis, or cakes, it's always fun to go beyond the brief and push the creative.
Things might feel a bit bleak right now for graduates. What advice can you share that helped you?
I guess the three things we'd be looking for in a portfolio would include understanding the category you're designing for and how you can best disrupt and stand out in that field. We'd also look for branding that has substance – is it just a logo on different formats, or are there multiple flexible assets? Is there a tone of voice to the brand that can be used for social media and marketing? Finally, a little bit of out-of-the-box thinking – something that makes us stop in our tracks and kick ourselves that we'd never thought of it.
What have you learnt the most about reaching the director level? What tips can you offer to help those looking for a promotion?
Always question the brief and push it beyond its breaking point. Gather inspiration from anywhere and everywhere and see what that style or approach looks like in the context of the brief you're working on. Granted, the first exit idea may be the best solution, but there's no harm in getting a little freaky with it just for fun, is there? Your brain needs to keep wet to keep working, so let those creative juices flow.
What have been your favourite projects to work on?
There have been loads of projects that have been fun to work on for various reasons, but a couple that spring to mind includes Urban Eat, which was a real opportunity to disrupt a category that has grown bland and tired – we had the task of injecting a bit of excitement into a range of convenience food. Anchored with the bold 'U' logo, we're able to go wild with the backgrounds and patterns creating a really eclectic and eye-catching range that really stands out on the shelf. I really enjoyed the creative freedom of this project – exploring different styles and seeing how far we could push the design whilst still ensuring it all ties together as a range.
Here & Now was a great project that involved flipping the narrative of a category – iced coffee is very much seen as fuel to give you a caffeine boost to keep you going, ultimately accelerating feeling burnt out and tired. We wanted to introduce a bit of calm and mindfulness to this mindset, so we focused each product around a mini moment of peace – encouraging you to take a moment from your busy day and enjoy the drink. It was great to see this project develop from initial workshops with the client through to naming, concepts and development.
And last but not least, Doggy Doggy Yum Yum was just fun from the get-go – it's ice cream for dogs, what's not to love? We had the joy of creating a host of doggy characters to accompany the fun and flavourful ice creams.
How do you feel about the rapid development of AI? Is your job at risk, do you think?
I think the right answer is something along the lines of 'AI will never be able to replicate the creativity and human spirit of a designer'. Still, after seeing the kind of imagery Midjourney can spit out, I think any creative job is at risk to some degree – maybe not soon, but at some point in the future. I might start learning how to maintain machinery in my spare time, so I've got a better chance of getting the job of 'person who maintains the robot designer'.
It's certainly more of a challenge to stand out and disrupt in ever-evolving categories. Ultimately it all comes down to having reason and meaning behind any creative idea rather than looking cool for cool's sake.
I guess it comes back to your original submission, Why Bother? We all have to continue considering the value we offer that cheap logo websites and robots simply couldn't replicate.
I guess, in reality, the execution of the design is only a small part of the whole process. There are interviews, workshops and conversations that are essential in getting the right outcome. So I think we'll be okay until they perfect a humanoid robot capable of independent thought, and at that point, any kind of creative service will probably seem insignificant compared to the inevitable robot uprising, so I'm sure it'll be fine.
How else do you feel the design industry has changed since you entered it?
Eight or nine years ago, it seemed like there were "trends" that would come and go that were easy to identify. But nowadays, there is such an abundance of cool designs and new products emerging in a wide range of categories; everything seems to be heading in a similar direction to where craft beer's been going over the last ten years – in that there are no rules.
It's certainly more of a challenge to stand out and disrupt in ever-evolving categories. Ultimately it all comes down to having reason and meaning behind any creative idea rather than looking cool for cool's sake. It's probably why Yesterday by The Beatles can remain relevant for 50+ years, but Crazy Frog is slowly fading into the ether. But then again, Scatman still slaps, so maybe that's a bad analogy.
It's a valid point. Many designers will be feeling anxious right now, given the current economic climate. How do you stay focused and positive?
Listen to music, avoid too much news, draw a picture, write a song, watch the US version of The Office, get plenty of sleep and drink tea. We're all doomed, so have fun and enjoy the ride.