With grit and determination, many people manage to carve out a successful career in design. Not many, though, manage two at the same time. Gavin Strange is one of those people.
By day, Strange works as senior designer for the Interactive team at Aardman Animations. By night he goes under the name of JamFactory and experiments with different types of creative work, from filmmaking to toy design, illustration to photography, and much more in-between.
A popular speaker on the creative conference circuit, he’s also just released Do Fly, a book encouraging you to ‘Find Your Way, Make a Living, Be Your Best-Self’. We spoke to him about the joys of working at Aardman, the secrets of juggling several side projects, and where he gets his “fuzzy, fizzy energy”.
How do you find time for so many side projects?
I think you have to make the time. For me, I find a routine that I try and stick to during the weekdays. I finish work at 6pm and then come home, eat dinner with my wife, watch a 30mins TV episode and then get cracking on Round 2. Sometimes, when things get really busy, I get up an hour early before work to squeeze in an extra passion project, or get cracking on my lunch hour.
It’s about finding the right pattern for you, or adapting how you already work. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Just approaching everything you do with a positive mind state will work wonders. It presents obstacles as opportunities, which helps immensely when it’s 1.30am and you’re not sure if you can succeed.
From filmmaking to toy design, illustration to photography. Is there an underlying theme to your side projects, or do you just like trying things on a whim?
I think it’s actually just ‘beauty’. I get so excited on visuals, and that can be anything from a photograph to a skateboard design to a motion picture. I get this fuzzy, fizzy energy inside me when I’m inspired by it, and it makes me want to just pursue it, whatever it is, instantly.
I’m someone who likes to learn by doing. I love figuring it out as it happens, and the best way to do that is to turn your inspiration into goals. Sometimes that’s as simple as being excited about a newly discovered typeface and designing a poster as an excuse to use it.
Other times it’s a single idea that grows and grows into a multi-strand passion project. I love that, especially that feeling where your excitement level and brain activity is going at 100mph, stumbling over each other, thinking of ideas and designs and creations.
So would you recommend this approach to other creatives?
It’s different for everyone. I work best when I’m spinning lots of plates. It makes my brain go into overdrive and I love hopping from idea to idea. Stripping the financial pressure away from passion projects lets you really fall deep down the rabbit hole.
Wouldn’t that kind of approach confuse people looking, say, at your portfolio?
The thing is, when people look at your portfolio, they don’t care when or how you created a piece of work. So from my early days in design, my photography or characters sat next to my client-paying website work, and I purposely didn’t make a distinction between what was paid for and what was a passion project.
That meant that sometimes I would get those random jobs for T-shirts or skateboards or characters, and then it only helped strengthen that image I was trying to portray.
Back in 2008, you helped pioneer Aardman's web presence. How difficult was turning plasticine into pixels?
Bringing a company known for its tactile natural into a digital world was about identifying the heart, story and humour, and bringing that into the pixels. Everything Aardman does, regardless of discipline or technique, is about character. With every venture into the world of digital, we had to make sure those core values were at the foundation for the project.
I started as a lifelong fan, having grown up watching Wallace & Gromit, Morph and Shaun the Sheep. When I first got there we were a small team of just eight, in the corner of one of the offices. We started creating and maintaining digital homes for all the characters and films, whilst simultaneously creating games for fans. This was when Flash was in its prime.
Those times where you feel down and frustrated, it's good to use them as a catalyst for bouncing back better and bigger.
So what's it like at Aardman Digital today?
Now we’re a team of 20+, working in everything from HTML5 to Unity and Virtual Reality. Aardman is known for Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, but there’s so much the company does that not everyone knows about. We do a lot of CG and live action work that forms part of our commercials and short films, so the expansion into the digital world felt only natural.
How important was it to you that Aardman let you continue with your side projects?
I love a side project. Love, love, love them! Luckily for me, Aardman has always supported my side projects and actively encouraged them, right from the get-go.
One of my proudest moments is from back in 2010; I had the launch event of my second series of vinyl toys called ‘Droplets’. There was a queue up the street to get in, and I saw Pete Lord (co-founder of Aardman, creator of Morph, co-director of Chicken Run) in the line.
I couldn’t believe it. It meant so much to me that this man, whom I respect so much and who’s also my boss, took the time to come out.
What's your proudest achievement so far?
I’m really proud of the OFFF titles I made with my friend Merlin and rapper P.O.S. last year. I’m also so proud of writing my first book ‘Do Fly’ for The Do Book Company. I never thought I’d write a book, so it means an awful lot to me.
But what I’m most proud of is the work I’ve done with the charity Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Appeal, which raises money to help sick children and their families in hospitals.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a creative?
Overwriting a building society’s website with incorrect and therefore illegal information in my very first job when I was 18. That was not fun! I learnt then to check, double check and triple check before doing anything.
I continue to get things wrong all the time, but they’re more like smaller stumblings, which I analyse and correct going forwards. Those times where you feel down and frustrated, it's good to use them as a catalyst for bouncing back better and bigger. That’s just the creative journey, isn’t it? It’s just what you do with those emotions that counts!
What's your book Do Fly about?
I’ve been doing creative talks for about seven years now, and over those years, the talks have evolved from sharing specific projects to more broader learnings and takeaways of living a creative life, interspersed with projects used as examples.
The book is really a continuation of that way of thinking. Analysing and looking back on the things you’ve done and then learning from it all to apply to future adventures. I wanted to share those ideas and elaborate on them; that’s the core.
What are you working on right now?
I can never really share what I’m working on at Aardman, as it’s confidential. But in my own time I’m working on a music video, a mixture of live-action and animation. As well as that, I run a company called STRANGE with my wife, Janey. We design, produce and stock beautiful products; from homewares to jewellery, design pieces to furniture. We launched last August.
If you could have a conversation with your younger self, what would you tell him?
I cringe when I think of younger me, but in reality, I wouldn’t do anything different. I think you have to have those awkward times, confusing times, times when you get everything wrong, to shape who you are.