We caught up with Paul Garbett from Garbett Design. His words of wisdom include; ‘there are no bad outcomes, only judgements’, ‘be like the Oak tree and not bamboo’ and ‘be suspicious of anyone who tells you they have the answers’. Thanks for your time Paul.
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design?
When I was around four or five, I discovered an old suitcase in the back of my mother’s cupboard. It was filled with old bank notes, certificates, passports, photographs, stamps and other pieces of ephemera. They turned out to be the belongings of my deceased grandfather. By sifting through these objects I was able to have an experience of him, a person I had never met before. It was a powerful, fascinating experience and I connected emotionally with who he was. These bits and pieces were all graphic design although I didn’t know it at the time. As I grew older, I had an affinity with logos and album art and would redraw them by hand. I was also a massive comic book and graphic novels fan and wanted to be a comic book illustrator for many years. I always loved to draw and have anything to do with making art. When I heard the term ‘graphic design’ at around 15, I was drawn to it for some reason and have not looked back.
Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?
I was fortunate to be able to study art at the Johannesburg School of Art, Ballet, Drama and Music (now the National School of the Arts) during high school. We studied and practised photography, painting, sculpture, pottery, design, drawing and printmaking and design history as well as the regular academic subjects. It was a brilliant environment, everyone there was creative and odd in one way or another. This experience incredible as I’d found a community, I’d found my people. After High school, I studied Graphic Design at Wits Tech (now Johannesburg University). While at uni I did a range of different jobs to make a bit of extra cash: I screen printed my own t-shirts to sell at markets; I did freelance work for dance clubs and rave parties; I worked as a caricaturist (and worked the medical conference circuit for a while); I drew comics for newspapers; and of course the odd freelance logo and illustration job here and there. My first full-time job wasn’t really my ideal job (as I explain below) but I made the most of the experience, worked hard and hung around the kind of designers and typographers that I admired whenever I could. I used my spare time to explore design and created personal projects which helped me develop.
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened?
During my last year at uni I worked with a mentor who was the head of one of the country’s leading design studios. I was exploring an African design language as part of my dissertation. During the process of us working together, he offered me a job once I graduated. I was stoked as it was my dream job. I took it for granted that the job would come through so didn’t put much effort into finding other employment, in fact I turned down interviews that resulted from our graduation show. However, when it came time for me to start there was no job anymore. I was pretty bummed and accepted a job at a small advertising agency I’d been freelancing for. This actually turned out to be a really good first work experience for me and I stayed there for a couple of years. As part of a small team I got to do all kinds of things from branding to cinema commercials and everything in between. I learned first hand how a studio ran and got to experience many things that I would never have in the larger studio system. There wasn’t a great amount of creative direction so learned to trust my creative instincts early on. What I learned from this and other experiences that didn’t feel so great at the time is that there are no ‘bad’ outcomes. Only judgements. Things that might seem disappointing at the time have a way of shaping us and pushing us in more interesting directions.
What are your three must-read design books/blogs/podcasts and why?
A solid grounding in graphic design history is vital, therefore, I’d suggest getting hold of A History of Graphic Designby Phillip Meggs and reading it over to cover. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is a good novel to read. Get into James Victore’s weekly Burning Questions.Design Matters by Debbie Millman is a great Podcast series – She is a very good interviewer and there are loads of great interviews from (mostly American) graphic designers, illustrators and other creative types. There are loads of design blogs and it can be quite overwhelming to keep up with whats going on. I can get completely overloaded with all this stuff so I think its quite important to get away from it every now and again.
What do you look for in a great portfolio?
I am looking for signs of an individual point of view, someone with their own ideas. I look for someone with talent, skill and craft. I look for care and attention to how the folio is put together. I look for an individual who is on their own journey and not merely mimicking the trendiest design styles. I’m looking someone who can add something new to the studio.
What career advice would you give your 16yr old self?
Do what you love and follow your own path. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to succeed as some things take time and a sustained career of steady growth can be more satisfying and stimulating than overnight success. Aim to be like the oak tree and not the bamboo. Travel more. Read more. Cultivate interests outside of design.
What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way? 1. There are no wasted experiences, only judgements. 2. Make lists – set goals, write them on a list, cross things off. 3. Enjoy it – Do good work and achieve your goals make sure to have fun along the way. 4. Make mistakes – Don’t shy away from trying new things. 5. Go with your gut – Trust your inner feelings, if something doesn’t sit right with you, fix it. 6. Make friends – Good relationships will form the basis of doing great work. 7. Nobody really knows – Be suspicious of anyone who tells you they have the answers (be particularly suspicious of lists).