It is our absolute pleasure to catch up with Annie Atkins. She transformed her career from working in advertising to set design to graphic design for Wes Anderson. She’s the master mind behind many of the beautiful graphics you see on the sliver screen. Annie shares how she paved the way to her niche career and some great advice for those starting out.
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened? I graduated in London and expected to work there in advertising, as I’d interned at a couple of agencies before finishing my degree. But when I graduated I found that I just couldn’t wait to get out of the city – I’m from a tiny village in North Wales and I was itching to get somewhere with some fresh air. Instead, I decided to go to Reykjavik in Iceland, which is a very small city. I got a job in advertising there, which was great as I quite suddenly got to work on some large accounts. I managed to move up from junior graphic designer to art director relatively quickly.
When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started? It took me a very long time to find an area of design that I really loved. I was never really very good at corporate branding and advertising, although that’s what I worked at for many years. When you don’t really enjoy something it’s easy to not be very good at it! Ironically, I first fell in love with design that same year I decided to pack it all in. I quit my job at the ad agency to go and study film, and ended up specialising in production design – that is, designing the spaces and props that the actors and directors have to work with on a film set. It was a great way to combine my experience as a graphic designer with my love for filmmaking. My first job after I graduated was on a TV show called The Tudors – I had to design and make all kinds of royal scrolls, stained glass, and various death warrants for Henry VIII.
Whats your take on internships? (do you take interns now?) I think internships can be a great way for graduates to catapult themselves into any given industry, but there has to be regulations. Personally I only take on interns for 4-6 weeks at a time. That gives me time to teach them some tricks of the trade and also gives them time to create some work that’s of actual use to me. Anything after that I feel is exploitation! I’m also very keen on proper interviews for interns – I need to see portfolios and know that the person is both capable and ambitious enough to make a difference to my working day. I don’t look at unsolicited portfolios though I’m afraid, my internships are only open to people who have taken my workshops.
What do you look for in a great portfolio? I’m looking for fully realised, three-dimensional graphic prop design. I have no interest in seeing Illustrator layouts – these things need to have been actually printed, cut up, stuck together, folded, dressed, and photographed. For example, if you’re designing a packet of cigarettes, then I want to see the packet photographed with actual cigarettes inside it, perhaps with an ashtray in the background and some atmospheric smoke. Have fun and be creative – see your prop design as a miniature story in itself. One intern I took on reimagined Gandalf from Lord of the Rings as a modern character and designed the cigarettes that he might smoke today – I thought that was a fun take on things. I’ve also been sent the contents of Mary Poppins’ notebook – the letter that Jane and Michael sent to her – ripped up and stuck back together again – and her shopping lists and bookmarks and train tickets with ‘Votes for Women’ printed on the back of them. I try to teach my workshop students to really get into character and research the period and location of the stories they’re designing props for. I love seeing what they come up with after they get back home.
What qualities and skills to you look for in a graduate? You need to be pro-active. You need to take action when you’re inspired to make something. Don’t write down lists of ideas and then forget about them. In fact, don’t write down lists of ideas at all: just sit down and start making! Also, you don’t need to wait for anyone’s permission – if you don’t have a brief, just make your own brief up. I’m looking for people who are creative enough to come up with their own ideas, but dedicated enough to see them through to completion.
How to you apply traditional graphic design skills in a digital age? I’m constantly moving back and forth between my drawing board and my computer. I try to use the real tools for the antique props I’m creating, but they always needs editing digitally eventually – for example, I might do some calligraphy with a feather quill, but I’ll then scan it in and tidy up my ink splats in Photoshop.
What career advice would you give your 16yr old self? Don’t waste your time trying to get ahead in areas of design that don’t interest you, and don’t be afraid to specialise. Just because a certain area of design is “niche” doesn’t mean that you can’t be the one to excel in that area.