Interview: Jon Shirley on Life, Love and Graphic Design
Jon Shirley is Blue Clay’s Senior Graphic Designer, and with over 10 years experience in business and design, he never fails to impress clients. Graduating from the University of Canberra in 2006 with a Bachelor of Graphic Design, Jon takes the time to understand the needs of his clients, and help them to identify their purpose, realise their vision, and achieve their business goals. Jon is our featured creative for April, so we decided to ask him a few deep and meaningful questions about life, love and Graphic Design.
1. What do you do fun? Or what does your ‘me time’ involve?
I have a 15-month old daughter, so a lot of my free time is spent having fun with her and my wife. Aside from spending time with my family and friends, I like to get to the gym as much as I can and I enjoy getting outdoors and playing golf too.
2. Has graphic design been a lifelong interest? Can you describe your professional journey up to this point?
From an early age, I was really into drawing and art, and people always told me that I was good at it. I didn’t actually know what a Graphic Designer was until my mum mentioned it one day and organised some work experienced for me. I knew it was for me, and went straight from high school to study Graphic Design at university. In 2007 I worked for a local IT company straight out of uni, before starting my own creative studio with a business partner in 2009.
While I was proud of what we had built, after 5 years of working really hard my work-life balance wasn’t right, and I was simply burning out. After getting married, I decided that I really just wanted to work on my own, and now I’ve found a really good balance. These days I can focus more on client relationships, and spend more time on the creative side of things. I wonder whether I should have left Canberra to work for a big agency in Sydney or Melbourne, but I believe I’ve developed an extra set of skills through starting up and running my own business. I haven’t had the nurturing that a lot of Graphic Designers get when they work for a big marketing agency. I’m used to figuring everything out for myself.
3. What are the main steps in your creative process?
I’ve always been about listening and understanding what the client is really trying to achieve, BEFORE I start thinking specifically about what they want me to do. My first step with any new client is to develop trust and align myself with their way of thinking. This naturally flows into understanding the strategy and visual direction. A lot of work goes into it the initial consultation, so that I’m able to interpret their needs in a visual sense. Once I feel I have a good understanding of the client’s needs, I go off to my space and do my own thing. After the first draft, I continue working with the client’s feedback in mind.
Sometimes a client isn’t as ready as they think they are, because they aren’t fully invested in where they’re going. It can be challenging working with a client who isn’t sure, but it’s important to ask the right questions to help them get there.
While I’m working on a design, the voice in my head is always being critical. I have to put myself in other people’s shoes and ask myself the right questions. Because I work in isolation, I’ve learnt to be decisive when it comes to my work.
4. Would you say your creative process is the same for each client? Or does the client have an impact on your approach?
My process is definitely dictated by the customer I’m dealing with. Some clients want to be really hands on and immersed in the project, while others are the complete opposite. There are even some clients I’ve never actually met in person, so I’m pretty adaptable to different levels of client involvement. However, I do prefer to limit the ‘over the shoulder stuff’ as much as possible. I’ve developed my own unique ways over time, but I try not to get bogged down too much in the process, and just stay open to different styles and personalities.
5. What is it about Blue Clay that resonates with you as a Graphic Designer?
With BlueClay, I’m collaborating with an agency that values good design, so it’s really easy to work as a team. There are shared values and work standards, and it’s great to be part of such a high level team because it pushes me to go further and do my best. On top of that, Laticia and I get along really well – we just clicked when we first met.
6. If you could create for any client in the world – who or what would that client be? (Or can you describe what that client would be like?)
I’d love to work with Nike’s Air Jordan brand. I was a huge Michael Jordan fan as a kid, and I always used to draw the logo. To me, Michael Jordan epitomises greatness, and it’s a huge brand that I’d love to be involved in. It’s urban… it’s sport… it’s fashion… and it’s iconic. I would love to get inside and see how they do things in a massive brand like that. Maybe one day!
7. What would you say is your motivation behind what you do? Obviously, making a living is a great motivation – but do you ever feel there is something greater, which drives you?
Making the most of the talents and opportunities I have, because life is short and I don’t want to waste my time – especially now that I have a child. Whatever you decide to do, you may as well give the best of yourself to it. I still have a long way to go, and I like to get out of comfort zone – not just as a designer, but as a person too. It would be great if I could do exciting things all day, every day, but there’s value in doing the mundane tasks with a good attitude – because in the end, it’s all the little things that matter. It’s about having fun and enjoying life, but always aiming to improve and making a difference.
8. What are some of the less obvious skills and qualities that you think are essential for a great graphic designer?
To be a good listener, and stay humble. Simply being NICE is so important in any business. It’s equally important to leave your ego at the door and not take things personally. Graphic Designers also need to be really confident – and that’s totally different to ego. Confidence is more to do with trusting your intuition and instincts and not worrying about what others think. I’m don’t consider myself religious, but I’m definitely spiritual, so I find great value in being in tune with myself and paying attention to my intuition. When I do, creativity and inspiration just flows in, seemingly out of nowhere.
9. Have you ever received hard criticism on your work – perhaps that you didn’t agree with, and what has been your approach to dealing with it?
In the past 10 years I’ve had my fair share. Whether I’ve misinterpreted the brief, or just had a difficult client, I’ve learned to not take it personally. Rather than resisting the negative feedback, I take the time to listen to them, try to understand their perspective, and work on finding solutions. Perhaps I need to start from scratch or just spend more time, but I’m always prepared to understand the problem without seeing it as a personal attack. Honest communication is important.
I have a lot of patience, but I’ve definitely dealt with difficult personalities in the past, as well as people who are just going through a hard time – but nothing can please them. Early on in my career, I’d try to make people happy at the expense of my own happiness. Over last 5 years, however, I’ve prioritised my own needs. I’ve been much kinder to myself, and when it was necessary, I’ve cut ties. Sometimes you just have to take a loss to conserve energy. Of course, I always aim to please a client, but no longer at my own expense.
The bad experiences helped me learn and grow. I needed to go through it, because it has helped me define and clarify what I do and don’t want in life.
10. What are you currently fascinated by, and has it had any influence on your work?
I’m really fascinated by the stories of people who’ve overcome adversity or struggles to be leaders in their chosen field. We’re brought up with the idea that ‘you can do anything,’ but when we grow up we’re forced into systems and limitations. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking outside of design, and have begun exploring new ideas and potential business opportunities, particularly in technology. I’ve been considering my own potential to do completely new things, find opportunities in other fields, and even start something new outside of current skill set.
I’m enjoying my Graphic Design career, but my 30s are about being totally open to every possibility – and I’m lucky because the creative field allows this. The biggest challenge is to be myself and not worry about what people think. I guess you could say I’m fascinated by the concepts of authenticity and confidence. I believe you can do whatever you want throughout your journey, but you have to be true to yourself.
11. How do you measure the success of your designs?
Firstly – does it connect with the client? Do people get it? I measure the success of a design by how it’s received by the audience. When working on a concept, I’ll usually have a favourite design, but if that one doesn’t resonate with the client, then that one’s not the successful design. For this reason, I need to separate myself from my work so I don’t get attached. Everyone will have a different measure of success – so I just move on. I don’t like to force my opinions, and prefer to allow clients to take part in the process.
12. Professionally, what are you most proud of so far, and why?
I’m proud that I’ve been able to do this for over 10 years, and still have some of the same clients from when I first started. I’m proud of the long-term friendships I’ve developed through my work, as well as that mutual respect, which comes from working with genuinely good people, like Laticia. Not everything I work on is major – sometimes I work with government, small businesses, and private companies – and it’s the feeling that I’m valued, appreciated and I’m making a difference in some shape or form, which makes me most proud.
13. Outside of your work, what are you passionate about?
My family is my everything. Right now in my life my biggest passion is watching my daughter grow up. But I also love being at the beach and travelling. I definitely want to travel more. My goal is to create a lifestyle that enables me to explore the world, enjoy the important people in my life, and stay open to discovering new passions. I just want to enjoy the world, be happy, and feel like I’m making a positive difference.
14. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve heard and like to share with others?
I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called, The Defiant Ones, following the stories of music industry leaders Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. When I was watching it, I wrote down a bunch of quotes that really resonated with me and what I do, which ranged from, ‘be true to your art,’ to ‘quit f@#!ing around.’ My take on all of it, is to just be yourself, trust your instincts, and never worry about what other people think. Project your higher self across everything you do, and use fear to your benefit, rather than let it stop you from doing stuff. Most importantly, always be kind to yourself.