Alex Fowkes is a rising star in the design world. Best known for his impressive typographic murals, his bold, retro style has found a home at the head office of Sony Music and in Olly Murs’ music room. We caught up with him to talk about the power of procrastination, getting his hands dirty and the pitfalls of working with large companies.
Can you give us a little background about yourself and your work?
My background is nothing special, really. I studied purely art and design subjects as soon as I had the freedom of choice. So from A-levels all the way through to my Graphic Design course at Nottingham Trent University, which I graduated from in 2010. I’ve always been quite self-motivated, not only in work but in my hobbies and interests too. My three main hobbies are skateboarding, snowboarding and cycling; they all involve bettering yourself and building yourself in stages to become better than you were before. I use this attitude for everything in my life.
Where/when do you find most of your inspiration?
For me, procrastination is a key part of the process! Firstly you must understand a brief, collecting images and then just sitting on it for a day or so, leaving it alone. I think this subconsciously allows you to digest what is needed and come up with possible ways to solve the problem. It also allows totally random inspiration that you may see on your daily travels to subconsciously influence you, because you already have the subject matter and problem in your head. Maybe procrastination is a negative word, but I feel that allowing creativity to breathe is a very important part of the process.
Typography is a major influence in your work, where did your passion come from for this?
I didn’t really even know what typography was until my first year at university. Then I didn’t really start practising it until my 3rd year; I kept getting feedback like ‘your type feels a little unconsidered’ which really drove me to create a few type projects to help me get back to basics and gain a deeper understanding of typography.
I’d class my type work as playful or explorative: I’m not the kind of designer who is really, really meticulous and precise, I like to think of myself as a bit more open and expressive than that. I think that’s why the typography mural work I do is starting to take off, it allows me to be creative with type and I’m really excited to see where it goes.
What is your personal favourite piece of work to date?
To see it in person it has to be the Sony Music Timeline, the scale and impact it has is really quite something to behold. I never quite imagined it would be as successful as it was. In terms of learning and bettering ones self, the Pin Up Bowling work I created with the guidance of Timba Smits is another of my favourites. Timba really helped me break out and push me to create something I never thought I could really do, especially as I was only just out of university. He is a big inspiration and good friend.
As I previously mentioned, working alongside Timba really set this style for me. Another big inspiration to me is Norm from Waste Studio, I worked for him straight out of uni, a lot of the work we did was t-shirt graphics. These all used very retro and vintage led typography, so this was another seed to the retro tree. Finally, I love getting my hands dirty and being as analogue as possible: I prefer working with tangible objects. Although most of my work recently has been digitally created, I think the fact I use vintage inspiration still keeps me in touch with what I really love.
What is your ‘weapon’ of choice?
It depends on what job I’m doing. I love drawing on paper when it’s illustration based work, but I love the flexibility and speed of working on my Mac. Often my illustration work starts on my mac with image collecting and key lining so I would say my iMac wins there.
You have had the chance to work with a range of large clients, did you ever feel the pressure?
Massively. The timeline for Sony Music was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever undertaken! I quit my very enjoyable full time job with the lovely people at The Late Night Salon in London to take the Sony brief on alone. It was very daunting for me, so I went into organisation mode and had my plan and timings perfectly planned out in little, achievable deadlines. This really helped me keep on top of it and not freak out. Also Sony Music as a client are amazing: very supportive of creativity and innovation.
I’ve run in to some pressure for large clients and I think this is always down to having ‘too many cooks’. I realise that with bigger companies you have to clear work up the chain of command. But the more people involved in the process the more diluted the creativity becomes and the more pressure I receive as a designer to jump through as many hoops as possible. The best work and best outcomes for me are when small groups work together seamlessly to solve a problem. Design can be so subjective that you could have meetings all year about something as little as a poster, but at the end of the day the only question you need to ask: is does it solve the problem? The great clients are the ones that trust their designers to deliver.
If you weren’t a designer, what would you like to be doing now?
I love logistics, planning and problem solving, so anything that involves those three things really!
Photography by Rob Antill