For the first blog post on our lovely new site I wanted to share a very personal account of how, and more importantly why, Working Progress came to be. It’s a chronological account of the key moments that got me inspired to head in a new direction with my work, written from the perspective of an old dog still learning new tricks!
I had been a designer in various guises since graduating with a graphic design degree in 1997. I’d worked in many disciplines from digital design to record covers to animation. My work evolved to focus on animation and moving image around 2003 mainly because it’s what I enjoyed doing the most. The visual element of design combined with storytelling and sound is still an intoxicating mix for me. After lots of hard work, some good projects, some disasters, and a few awards, the lure of seaside air and the Sussex Downs on your doorstep became too strong and I moved out of London back to my hometown of Brighton. My intention was to realign that old chestnut: the work - life balance. After the frustration of 6 months commuting (it really wasn’t for me!) I started up a new moving image studio in Brighton with a friend.
So far so good. Kind of...
We were working with some high-end clients doing some interesting projects but it wasn’t always easy. It’s a hugely competitive industry where our little studio in Brighton was often up against the biggest and best in the world to win new projects. Sometimes it worked but it could also be demoralising to be constantly battling for new work. That competition is the reality for many industries of course, but the real issue was one of being increasingly disillusioned with the kind of work I was doing. Essentially we were helping large corporate companies sell more things to people that probably didn’t need them. Which is fine if that’s what you want to do, but it was getting harder and harder to see a future where this work made sense on a personal level, I mean deep down in my soul! I had, up until that point, got my job satisfaction by making beautiful things. And getting paid to do that was great, for quite a while. But the primary driver for my career was never money and my job satisfaction was ever decreasing.
At the start of 2016 I was in London for a photo-shoot for a well known sportswear manufacturer (yes, that one). We had created 3D graphics to be projected onto football kits for the Euro’s. The evening before the shoot I went to a talk by Greenpeace hosted by D&AD https://conwayhall.org.uk/event/brands-for-the-planet-with-greenpeace-2/ Where Mel Evans and Elena Polisano took us through the recent efforts of their long-running Save The Arctic Campaign. At the talk I saw footage of six women scaling the Shard in London, (the tallest building in western Europe) to protest against Shell drilling for oil in the Arctic as well as the ‘Everything is not awesome’ campaign film made with lego of course.
On a personal level it was the most inspiring thing I've ever seen. And from a professional perspective I was captivated by how Greenpeace combined hard core activism with well executed media communication, to successfully stop Shell drilling for oil in this pristine environment. I’d always been a fan of Greenpeace having been on save the whale marches as a kid in the late seventies (clearly I had hippy parents, just look at my name!). Conservation is hard wired into my beliefs so they were preaching to the choir sure, but my interest was piqued from a creative and professional point of view for the first time. And the combination of the two was hugely inspiring.
The next day I got up very, very early, travelled to the outskirts of west London and arrived at the photo shoot to sell football kits.
For years I had been thinking about using the work I do for some kind of positive benefit. At our previous studio I wanted to produce side projects to this end but it was so difficult to find time. If we weren’t doing the client work itself then I was trying to generate new business opportunities. But it was becoming increasingly obvious to me that I had to somehow align my personal beliefs with what I do every day/most days to earn a living.
Around this time I saw a post on the Wired Sussex (a Brighton-based organisation for the digital, media and technology sector in Sussex, UK (link) newsletter calling for digital creatives to use their skills to help the refugee crisis in someway. There was no more of a structure to it than that. This felt like serendipity so I went along to the first meeting not knowing what to expect. I heard some amazing stories of people volunteering to set up libraries in the jungle camp in Calais amongst other brilliant efforts to help refugees. At the first meetings I met Dominic Port a digital designer at a studio called Wolfcub in Brighton. We had very similar motivations for wanting to be involved, we wanted to help somehow but had no idea how, but we got involved and got inspired and got to work.
After a few discussions, the idea for a website came about - a site to help raise awareness of the ongoing refugee crisis by sharing various stories from refugees over time. And to attempt to help to re-frame the issue as humanitarian and not political. Which is how the name of the project came about. It’s not them it’s just us.
A few meetings later we met Clare Struthers from a volunteer from Calais Action who was running photography workshops in the Calais jungle camp at the time. She had also been collating the stories of lots of people in the camp from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, the list goes on. Again this was serendipity at work as we had the idea for a website project but virtually no content with which to build it.
Clare had met two young sisters and their family at the camp. When their father, a journalist, had gone missing after writing about the Taliban, their mother had taken them out of Afghanistan and all the way to the jungle camp. This felt like a story that animation would be perfect for, obviously this is something that had already happened so I would need to create the elements to bring it to life visually. So I set about trying to tell the story.
The hardest thing I found about this project was doing it justice. The children had endured unspeakable hardships and here I was sat in my nice studio in this amazing town with all our freedoms and privileges, trying to convey a story that I can’t really comprehend. But that’s not going to get anything made so you have to just trust your instinct and do what you think is right at the time.
I’m not sure I’d approach the project in the same way if I were to do it again. I chose a very labour intensive 3D animation route but the idea was to tell the story through suggestion, not to depict it literally and to inspire the viewer’s imagination to paint a picture in their mind. It also felt potentially very patronising to tell the story in a more literal way and actually represent the sisters and their families. SO maybe I would do it the same after all!
You can visit the website by clicking here.
The sound design is by electronic artist, Si Begg, who went on to release an album with the proceeds donated to the Refugee Crisis.
So things certainly seemed to be moving in a particular direction and the idea for Working Progress as a studio started taking shape. With an ethos born out of a growing sense of duty to use my skills to do something more altruistic it was time to use those skills for causes I believed in.
Around this time I began discussing plans for a new animation studio with the co-founder of Working Progress, Fiona, and her extensive experience in the charity sector (she can tell you that story far better than I can) was the missing piece of the puzzle.
And here we are just over a year down the line. We’ve done some projects that we’re really proud of (including fulfilling my ambition to work with Greenpeace, yay!) and more importantly had some great feedback from the intended audiences of our work and clients.
(Massive thanks goes to Studio Makgill for devloping our beautiful identity. You can see more of their examplary design and branding work here.) Take a bow Laura Darby.
I’m a big believer in regularly taking incremental steps to evolve your life, to always be calibrating what you’re doing and trying to improve on it. If things aren’t working start making changes, however small they may seem now, put yourself in some new situations, you never know what might happen!
I hope you’ve found this story interesting in some way, it’s been good to share it as revisiting why you made certain choices and seeing where they’ve led I find to be a healthy undertaking, a little personal review of the last few years! It’s very much still the start of the journey with lots more to learn. Thanks for reading and all the best.