Interview with one of my first mentors – Jim Antonopoulos

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This weeks post is a special one. I’m planning on doing a series of interviews with designers, founders, directors and people that I admire, to share with you lessons and stories from a different perspective. Verse has always been about design, making things and entrepreneurship, but beyond this I wanted to tell personal and very human stories. Stories that could not only teach lessons but also inspire.  

At the start of my career more than 10 years ago, I had 2 great mentors, one was Tony and the other was Jim. He was the one who first interviewed me and gave this scrappy asian kid an opportunity. Truth be told I really didn’t know what design really was at that time. We were told what to do in school. (Some of the technical aspects) But not why were we doing it. So I learnt a lot in those early years and am very indebted to these two because it kickstarted a very meaningful career. 

Looking back I only worked with Jim for a little under a year, but since it was my first job, everything was brand new.  So it felt like a lifetime of lessons in that moment. I learnt a ton from him, what it meant to be a designer, how to think strategically (I didn’t fully grasp this until many years later, and realised to myself oh.... that’s what the fuck Jim was talking about back then) and many valuable life lessons. It’s funny because I was just a passive learner. I learnt by observing and listening. Too shy to speak too much, and just tried to put my head down and do the work. Get to the standard that everyone was at. So that’s the back story.

So it’s my great honour to be able to interview Jim as the first person for this series. I believe the work means everything, so let’s start with what Tank (Jims’ co-owned agency) did for Bank Australia. A customer owned responsible bank.

You can view more of their work at www.wearetank.com.au. So that’s my little intro there, so let’s get on with the interview. 

 

Hey Jim. Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Ok. I'm 43, I have three children, I own a creative agency in Melbourne, Australia, I write a weekly journal for Designers and Strategists; and I have a couple of online businesses which I run on the side.

My career started in the early 90s and I worked through the early Dotcom era and learned a fuckload about how people use technology in our lives and why we as Designers have an enormous responsibility not to put junk out into the world.

I'm passionate about mentoring young Desigenrs and I mentor a number of them at any given time via Skype, email and meeting one on one.

 

You’ve mentored a lot of different designers over the years, myself included. What common qualities do you think great designers exhibit? From those who are starting out to even those who have a lot more experience.

I remember the first day you walked into our studio — I think it was 2006-ish. Shall I write about that? (OK. I'll take that as a ‘yes’)

You were wide-eyed and full of expectation as most younger Designers are. You were open to learn, humble yet confident in your own ability to smash a great design out of the park whenever you needed to.

What really caught my eye (apart from the ‘very white’ tennis shoes you were wearing) — you were an entrepreneurial thinker, a sharp-fast mover and you were all-in on experimentation.

You brought with you, not only a great set of design skills, but also you spent your time teaching yourself, learning new things and experimenting with your ability.

These were the qualities you demonstrated which pushed you in the direction of being a great designer and separated you from the pack.

You also had a heightened self-awareness. You knew yourself well, you were in touch with where you came from, why you do what you do and where you were going.

Not many people, let alone Designers, have this.

Most young Designers feel that all the learning they've had in school is all the learning they’ll ever need. This is their first mistake.

Those that invest heavily in themselves; are paving a way towards being great.

I wrote about skills Designers need to stay relevant last year and when I thought about that question back then, for me it boiled down to these skills:

  • An entrepreneurial sprit. A pioneer that isn't afraid of staying close to the edge, launching new things and having many things on the go, simply because they're a self-starter, a self-learner.
  • Design research. An ability to find simple, human insights when faced with a design problem, because at the end of the day if we aren’t solving human problems, what are we doing?
  • Positive social impact. Basically giving enough of a shit to make this world a better place through the work you do.
  • Prototyping. Making stuff. Too many Designers like to conceptualise (which is fun, don't get me wrong) and not enough want to make stuff and put that stuff out into the hands of humans.
  • Facilitating and selling. Creative leaders know that they need to command a room and that they don't ‘present and idea’ they ‘sell an idea.’

Google: ‘Don Draper, Carousel, Presentation’

Most young Designers I meet have a look in their eyes which shows me that they just want to get everything right — that everything must be perfect.

This is so far from reality it’s not funny.

As Designers we are so fucking lucky that we can experiment, try new things, fail and learn from those failures to make our work better and more meaningful.

We have a set of skills and a profession that embraces this.

When I first met you, you weren't afraid to get something wrong because you trusted in yourself — you knew that failure was simply part of the process and you embraced it. In fact I recall that we ran straight towards it.
  
We failed forward.

 

Nguyen’s note: Haha that’s Jim’s perspective. The reality was I just sucked so bad that I failed a lot. (At the time I didn’t want to, trust me haha.) I got pissed and I didn’t want to be shit so I kept working at it. Tried to be positive even if I was shit scared, but rather than complain I just kept quiet and kept working to get better, even after hours. 1 piece of code at a time. 1 piece of experimentation that might impress people when I showed them. And 1 shitty design after the next.  It was tough, but looking back it was a great learning curve and time for growth. End note.

 

What was your design path like, from being a young designer to becoming an agency owner? 25 years is a long time haha so you can condense it down to key turning points.

Yes it is a long time! I basically started working straight out of high school. Pretty much out of necessity because the design degrees here in Melbourne, Australia didn’t accept my application. So worked to make money.

In those first two consecutive years of rejection from Universities I:

* Did a TAFE course in Art and Design
* Worked as an Illustrator
* Did some design work experience (I fucking hated it)
* Worked as a Designer

I was eventually accepted into an Advertising degree and through that I realised that although I loved the dedication to creativity and the idea that the advertising world had, I didn’t see myself working in the slog of the advertising agency. 

I just didn’t want to put bullshit ads out into the world. We have enough of them in my opinion.

After this degree I landed a job in a digital agency called Sausage. They advertised for a Flash Designer (it was the mid-90s) so I applied for the job, got an interview, went out and bought a book on how to design in Flash and taught myself how to design in Flash. I learned Actionscripting and built my folio website which I presented at the interview.

I got the job.

Working in this large digital agency opened my eyes to a whole new world. In 1996 most of the world thought the internet was a fad but I was so excited to be working on something so pioneering that as a key marker in my career, projected me forward in a big way.

I learned about designing for screens, prototyping, working in cross-functional teams, experimenting (!!) and strategy.

It blew my mind and was a key moment in my career that made me realise that I didn't want to work within the status quo, mundane world that everyone else was working in. I wanted to push my design ability in a more pioneering industry because that was exciting, fulfilling and continually kept me interested in the work I was doing.

In the early 2000’s I read Naomi Klein's book *No Logo* which once again blew my mind. It showed me that as a Designer I could actually influence brands in a positive way. Before this book I didn't really see myself as a 'cog in the machine' of the marketing world — but I was. 

I was part of a fucked up system that allowed big brands to behave badly. It really opened my eyes as to the role I played as a Designer.

Over the course of my career, I've been made redundant five times. This was also a key marker for me. It shaped the way I saw my role, and definitely taught me that nothing was forever!

Redundancy is a fact of any career. So much so I swore I’d never be made redundant again so my radar was attuned for business opportunities.

When I was offered the role of Creative Director at Tank in 2007, I turned it down, as I was happily employed. But I was open to a partnership. I put that offer on the table and now, ten years later, I'm a 50% owner of Tank.

 

Knowing what you know now. What key lessons would you tell your younger self, when you were at the start of your career? 

I think about this a lot actually. I have a young son and I see myself in him so often that I sometimes feel like I'm imparting lessons onto him, in the hope my younger self absorbs them.

I know, weird.

- Get mentors. Lots of them.
- Don't wait. Just do.
- Make stuff. 
- Academia won't define you. It's a business. A machine.
- Be kind and humble.
- You are powerful beyond measure.
- You are also weak and vulnerable too, and this is OK.
- Develop a high level of self-awareness. Know who you are, what you are and why you are. 
- Question everything.
- Don't work for free.
- Don't take shit from anyone. Ever.

 

What would you tell yourself when you were towards the middle of your career?

Statistically, I'm currently in the middle of my career!

When I was 10-12 years in, like many people who are at that stage I struggled to grasp where I was going and how I was going to continue to level up as a Designer. There were better Designers than me, and to be honest, I wanted a bigger challenge. 

I think of it as a line of sight towards something more. Just something that could show me that I could move forward.

I also really battled with how Designers were perceived. It didn't matter that I was a Creative Director, Senior Designer, Art Director or agency owner; most clients put me in the 'creativity box'. A box that didn't deserve a seat at the boardroom table and really wasn't part of the decision making.

I fucking hated this and was adamant to change it and it wasn't until I immersed myself into strategy roles and learning about strategy that things really changed for me. 

It allowed me to take part in decision making of large and complex projects as well as challenged my clients briefs because let's be honest here, most briefs are written so badly, a sixth grader could improve them.

So I would say to my 10-12 year career self, don't stop learning and teaching yourself new things so can continue to level up.

 

Now that we’ve looked at the past. You seem to have done it all. You’ve run your own agency, have a nice office, won awards, done some great work for big clients, done purposeful work etc. What's next for a guy like you? Where are you heading next?

Everything I do is for my three children. The time I have with them now, I will never get back.

Never.

So I'm driven to work less hours and focus on more time with them. I don't touch client work outside of the hours of 9-5.30pm. I don't even think about client work outside of those hours. So if I can reduce those hours, and work less days per week. That will be a start.

I'm also driven to help young Designers cut through the bullshit and teach them the skills that helped me navigate my career so they too might navigate their own.

 

What is 1 piece of advice you would give to designers out there, who want to walk a similar path to you? 

Be true to yourself. Don't bullshit yourself. If you don't know who you are, if you're questioning yourself or if you are delusional about your own ability. You're fucked.
Understand who you are, what you're capable of and why you do what you do and get out there and do it.
 

Awesome thanks for your time Jim. 


For more great insights from Jim, check out his blog and weekly newsletter. Or check out his class on strategy