Jim Sutherland is one of the most prolific designers of his generation. For 25 years or more he’s managed to balance creating award-winning design work in his day job, with a host of self-initiated projects in his spare time, that are always brave and original. He’s recently left his highly respected agency hat-trick design to follow his own passions as Studio Sutherl&. And it’s paid off, as he’s already bagged himself a yellow pencil in the first year of his new venture. Here Jim talks us through his career and how his two (now grownup) daughters have helped shape his design work and approach. It’s a joy to read.
D.A.D: How many kids do you have and how old are they?
Jim: Two girls – 26 and 22
D.A.D: Tell us a bit about yourself and your career so far.
Jim: I studied at Norwich School of Art, then worked at The Partners, before joining HGV. I then set up hat-trick design in 2001 with two friends. I left in 2014 to start Studio Sutherl&.
D.A.D: You left your well-respected and successful agency hat-trick a couple of years ago to go solo. Was the decision partly one about family and work life balance?
Jim: It was really a question of wanting to enjoy work more. I think you do joyful work when you’re joyful yourself. I was keen to pursue more of my own projects whilst continuing to do corporate work. I also wanted to work with interesting people in a more collaborative way.
Work life balance is an interesting phrase – I see little distinction between the two. I love designing things and don’t see it as work.
D.A.D: In your hat-trick days you worked on quite a few projects that were aimed at kids, for clients like British Heart Foundation, Natural History Museum and also your Hide & Eek book project with your wife Becky. Do you think being a parent informed those designs and made them more effective?
Jim: I think being a parent has informed all the work I’ve done – not just the children focused projects. I have pretty much had children since I started work. I loved coming home from The Partners to small bundles of energy and joy – how can that not affect your work in a good way.
It’s interesting that two recent projects for corporate clients have a childlike approach. Boxes in boxes uses a kid’s song (‘There was an old lady…’) and the recent Agatha Christie stamps that use visual illusions and clues.
D.A.D: These days you talk a lot about ‘joy’ in your work. Designing for kids must be one of the most joyful design experiences you can have right?
Jim: Absolutely. But I do like to bring a childlike (not always childish) approach to all projects. In terms of working for children – I find working for a ‘client’ with the same mental age, and sense of humour, as you really helps.
D.A.D: Your daughters are adults now – have they taken creative career pathways like their parents? Do you think this is inevitable growing up with designers as parents?
Jim: Lucille did a degree in film at Falmouth university and now works in the industry as a script editor. Jessica studied at Norwich University of the Arts – she is a now designer working at Magpie Studio. Both are very interested in creative things. I can imagine growing up around me and Rebecca (a fabulous illustrator) is going to be infectious.
D.A.D: Were your parents creative too? Or were you the black sheep?
Jim: My parents weren’t creative. The main influence my dad had was to instil a ludicrous work ethic in me and my brothers. He thought things should be done, and done properly. I really thank him for that.
My brothers are both very musical – but I was the only one who pursued art as a career. No one in my wider family really has any idea what I do.
D.A.D: Are you working on any more projects like Hide & Eek aimed at a young audience?
Jim: Yes there are. ‘Eeormoo?’ – a menagerie of wishful thinking. A book about animals making the wrong noises, as they want to be somebody else. Out in October I hope.
‘There are no elephants in this book’ (working title) – with writer Nick Asbury. A book with tiny text and a magnifying glass. ‘Squid Ink! – a lonely squid who draws some friends with his ink, all done as rorschach tests. I’ve also just bought some plastic animals which I am repainting with the wrong colours for Eeormoo? part II.
Lastly I’ve got a rubber band book on the go – which I am very very excited about (working title ‘ The Rubbery Jubbery Shrubbery’).
It’s not all children’s stuff. I’m also working on a big arts project in Brazil, a national arts charity and for Royal Mail. I find all the work creatively feeds into each other.
D.A.D: You mentioned you don’t see a much of a distinction between work and life as you love what you do for a day job. What do you do to switch off – or are you always thinking about projects?
Jim: I do a lot of other things – cycling, walking, drinking, travelling, visiting galleries, watching films, listening to music etc – but I’m not sure I switch off when I do them. I think you remain open to all influences. Most of my best stuff comes from doing other things. I tend to fill notebooks with mad scribblings of things I could do in the future.
D.A.D: You’ve started running Work(&Play)Shops for D&AD as part of their training courses. It seems to be a course very much about rolling up your sleeves and getting away from a computer, working in a simple child-like playful way. Do the creatives on the course find it hard to let go of their ‘grownup’ ways of doing things?
Jim: It’s early days yet – but I think people enjoy going back to playful art lessons. Some of the exercises seem childish, but I think it’s more childlike. It gets your brain working in a more inquisitive way via your hands.
D.A.D: It seems like you’re a prolific designer of self-initiated projects. What’s your secret to juggling all of these with client work?
Jim: I’ve always liked lots of projects on – and I feel they all feed into each other. I think I’m a prolific designer of personal and client work. I think you get better in some way every single project you do – so I try and do more.
D.A.D: It’s interesting that you’ve had kids almost your whole design career. Did you have a playful approach to design before being a dad – or has being a parent opened your eyes to this way of working?
Jim: I think I’ve always been like this – but having the kids young let me play for longer – without anyone telling me to stop.
D.A.D: A lot of people these days have kids later in life – you had yours earlier, so are you experiencing a new sense of freedom now your kids have flown the nest? Do you think this has contributed to you making the decision to go solo?
Jim: I do have a lot more freedom now – and in some ways it made the decision easier – but the decision was easy anyway. It was hard building a career with young children – and for me having a very supportive partner at home was key. We both now have the time to work in the areas we love.
D.A.D: And finally – do you have any advice for any Dads out there who are thinking of taking the plunge and starting an agency?
Jim: I think you need to make a conscious effort to enjoy your children, your relationships, your work and your life. All of this is hard work, but so rewarding.