Being fearless has many advantages, but we’re living in increasingly fearful times. It’s an attitude that can only really prove fruitful with no small amount of confidence and, perhaps, talent. Having created a universally loved ‘zine and embarking on numerous exciting projects as a design collective, the four emerging talents who make up OWT Creative are less concerned with the fear that further success could desert them, but how failure might be a better option.
Three quarters of the collective are gathered in a moment of reflection – Jon Hannan, Ben Kither and Sarah Stapleton - with Ste Beed being otherwise engaged elsewhere. Amidst the cosiness and reclaimed furniture of their studio, housed within the drafty brickwork and temporary walls of Hope Mill studios in an unloved corner of Manchester, the trio discuss their united vision.
Ben, who classes his contribution to the collective as ‘classic graphic design’, reveals a vague plan for self-detonation by saying: “I think we’ll keep on experimenting and work our way up to some huge project, which will probably completely fuck up and then nobody will ever hire us ever again. Then just spend the next five years doing exactly the same again. We’ll aim to do something that’s definitely bigger. So, if it does all blow up in our faces we’ll go crawling back to all of those agencies we said we’d never work for.”
Those agencies that they said they’d never work for are left tactfully nameless, but it is the ‘production line’ of commercial design that provided the impetus and inspiration for OWT in the first place. Coming through the Art School at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2010, the five original members of the collective found themselves with an expanse of summertime in which there would be no ready employment, no tutors and no limits. Despite admitting to never really knowing each other intimately as friends during their degrees, they found themselves drifting together on the basis of mutual respect to create an outlet for their talents, taking advantage of the time and skills that were suddenly apparent to them.
Sarah, whose interests lie in 3D disciplines such as set design, recalls: “It was the summer before we started our masters, and knew that we couldn’t necessarily get a job. But, we didn’t really want the summer off and become complacent. We wanted to carry on with something we enjoyed, and without having to worry about a tutor marking it. It wasn’t necessarily to get people’s attention really; it was just to do something over the summer. We didn’t want to chase agency jobs like everyone else who was graduating, but we did want a way of getting attention for our work. The ‘zine was the first thing we thought of doing really.”
The ‘first thing that they thought of doing’ has defined OWT Creative’s first 18 months in existence. The first issue of the OWT ‘zine hit the shelves of independent bookshops in Manchester, featuring higher than average production and design qualities, but retaining the DIY aesthetic that still endears them with like-minded creatives. It started appropriately enough with the theme of ‘Beginnings’, providing the six of them with multiple pages in which to express themselves. It was an opportunity that became attractive to others fairly quickly.
Jon, whose main focus is illustration, says: “We had no idea that people would be up for submitting work to the ‘zine, we just assumed that we would end up doing all of the work for it. It wasn’t part of the plan to get more people involved. But, the reception for the first one was so good that we were able to open it up. By the second issue we had another six people get involved and the contributors just kept multiplying. Now there are about 20 people involved in each one, which is a good maximum number to keep it to.”
The ‘zine has continued to provide them, and others, with the freedom to create and collaborate, whilst also acting as a proving ground for their industrious and enthusiastic approach to a brief. The brief, albeit a loose one, is set by the collective through simple, one word themes. ‘Reflection’ followed the first edition, aptly offering them the space to consider where they were heading as professionals and where they’d come from as students. ‘Reality’, ‘Differences’ and ‘Atmosphere’ provided similarly ambiguous starting points for contributors. That their reputation spread so quickly, and work is submitted in apparently great quantities for their consideration, means that there has already been an expansion in what OWT can offer.
Ben says: “We’ve got OWT the ‘zine, but also OWT Press and the design agency, as four freelancers who work under that umbrella. We can do smaller jobs individually, but bigger briefs get all of our attention. The reason why we set up together is because we can all do such different things and support each other.” When considering why people would choose to work with a new, relatively unproven outfit, he continues: “People are generally quite creative in themselves, and I think people want to feel as though they’re getting something interesting, rather than working with people who will sit on the first idea that comes to them.”
Discipline can come to anyone, let alone a group, far less easily than fearlessness, but the OWT team appear to have that coming easily to them as well. Telling stories of how they started off working around Jon’s kitchen table after working day jobs, a shared studio appears to be the icing on the cake when it comes to their short existence together and committing more time to winning work and executing it professionally. Recent examples of their non-zine work includes the single artwork for Patterns, a band on the long road to success via local acclaim from Manchester’s music lovers. However, a striking outcome of their ingenuity and independence is that they are teaching. It’s quite some feat that they’re already bestowing knowledge on students so soon after leaving the education system themselves.
Jon, who also spends time teaching away from the OWT set up, says: “We have groups of students from Manchester Metropolitan University here every Wednesday afternoon. They come to us with publishing ideas. They get to work at one end of the studio and us at the other, and just help them to make their ideas come to life. We’ll set them some goals at the start of the day and they’ll get on with making them happen. There is one publication nearly ready by them actually, which we will publish, and then it’s up to them to decide what they want to do with it.”
For a collective made up of fairly recent graduates, a cynic could see taking in a gang of students on a regular basis as having numerous drawbacks. For one there is the distraction from developing your own practice and then there’s the simple loss of valuable time when you should really be thinking about generating ideas and, more bluntly, creating a viable business. The suggestion is easily dismissed by Ben, Sarah and Jon, who eagerly explain that it’s a two-way, educational arrangement with them learning plenty from their visitors by return. They say it’s better to work in a studio full of people with fertile minds than it is to shut the door on them. It does make complete sense on those terms. Do they think that the level of trust and responsibility they’re being given in playing a part in other people education further validate their decision to go it alone instead of chasing jobs?
Sarah says: “Well, if we’d not struck out on our own then we’d be stuck in jobs, and because of the route we’ve taken, we’re a completely different experience for students. We can provide an alternative to the other, more traditional internships. We’re offering them an experience of something different to the agency treadmill. They do offer us support in return though, with last year’s third year contributing so much to the ‘zine, and loads of them also came along to our exhibition. It’s an arrangement that works both ways.”
The theme of avoiding the traditional route into employment comes round frequently during an hour in the company of the three, fiercely independent individuals. When talking about the experience they offer their visiting students, it’s perhaps Jon who puts it best in a single sentence by saying: “It’s not realistic to give them experience that’s based on getting a job, because there are no jobs.” It sounds bleak, but they are living, breathing examples of what can be achieved if creatives who have belief in themselves exploit the weakness in the ‘normal’ models of service/provider and employer/employee relationships.
Their experience of education is apparently a good one. They smile rather than grimace when they say that their tutors told them to enjoy their coursework, because the real world wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting. Maybe they can smile because they’ve worked so hard to prove them wrong, by not giving them a chance to be right. Not only are they now actively passing on their knowledge to people still studying, but they have also become accustomed to accepting work for the ‘zine from their former tutors. Many of them are well established and well respected image makers.
However, it was one visiting lecturer that gave them more impetus to make a success of themselves than most.
Teal Triggs, a fanzine archivist and Senior Lecturer at London College of Communications, took the fledgling OWT collective under her wing and talked them up to her peers at every opportunity. Jon recalls: “She started blogging about us and talking about us to other people. She was really helpful, gave us some good advice and put us in touch with some really helpful people. Through Twitter we started speaking to them all and they started putting us on blogs and that kind of thing. From there, people were e-mailing, expressing interest in what we were doing and asking if they could contribute.”
The ‘zine has a finite existence as it will be retired after twelve issues, which is the limit they all agreed would be enough before needing to do something else. The ‘zine also has rules, in that it only ever features creatives from the north west of England. It makes it difficult for them to reject people, but they hope that more flexible ‘OWT Press’ venture will increasingly accommodate that overspill. They admit that the decision to keep it local was a reaction to London’s dominance of their industry, specifically taking the opportunity to repeatedly stick the middle finger up at the capital and bemoan the notion that you can only find a future by flocking south after graduating.
They’re keen to impress that they’re not against people who have made that choice, but Ben clarifies their point by saying: “People graduate and think they have to go to London. We don’t like the idea that we have to go down there for a design job. Especially in these days when the internet is so good, it’s just not necessary. So OWT is a way of highlighting those people that haven’t made that move.”
The OWT way of doing things in the regions certainly proves that there is creative fulfilment and professional progression available to those who are willing to go out there and beat an otherwise unfamiliar path into the creative sector. The path that Ben, Jon, Sarah and the mysterious Ste have chosen for themselves is one of self-generated opportunity and non-compromise. They’re ready to change things, even the things that make them popular. Hence the changing format of the ‘zine, which reacts to people’s positive feedback by changing direction, avoiding predictability or comfort. Another thing they’re not comfortable with is deciding on a future direction for OWT, and Sarah explains why it’s not an attitude thing, but more of a practical response to their constantly evolving situation.
She says: “It’s literally growing every week; people keep coming to us for various different things. Things pop up out of nowhere, things that we could never have even dreamt of. It’s only been around a year and a half that we’ve been doing this, so it’s nearly impossible to say where we’ll be in a year from now.”
Info: OWT creative is a four strong design collective based in Manchester, comprised of Sarah Stapleton, Ste Beed, Ben Kither and Jon Hannan. They work collaboratively through print and digital including publication design, web design, curation and art direction.
Copies of OWT, editions 7 to 11 are available at £5 each via the website.
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