Simon Barrett and Lara Allport, co-founders of Sydney Agency, The Drawing Arm, take time out from creating their incredible work to chat to TDK. We hear about Lara starting out as a design student in 1990’s London, Simon telling his 16 year old self to just ‘get on with it’ and about their other joint venture, The National Grid.
Give us the elevator pitch on what you do. Simon: We run The Drawing Arm Illustration Agency – We represent talent for companies looking to commission illustration. The Drawing Arm is an Australian illustration agency representing a collective of hand-picked, top-notch contemporary artists and illustrators. Hailing from across Australia and beyond, our artists specialise in a whole range of styles – from vector magic to lovingly hand-crafted typography. So whatever you’re after, we’ll have someone to fit the bill. We also run The National Grid – A thinking company – building beautiful brands. Lara: I am the co-founder and owner of two of Sydney’s most exciting creative agencies (if I do say so myself) The National Grid – a graphic design studio committed to producing creative that increases sales and brand awareness, and The Drawing Arm – an illustration agency representing over 50 of the world’s most talented illustrators. The National Grid and my incredible team consistently applies beautiful and intelligent solutions to branding and visual communication, often preventing our clients from making expensive mistakes, as we get right inside their business model and objectives in order to build the solution that fits and will produce the best result best for them. The Drawing Arm helps industry professionals and people commissioning commercial illustration to find the right artist for their brief, as well as oversee the whole process from start to delivery to make sure the outcome is bang on brief, always on time and within budget.
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design? Lara: It was October 1996 and I was given the first issue of Wallpaper Magazine ‘urban modernists’ to look at. I loved it, the photography, the illustration, the typography and tidy but unusual layouts, the trendy contents. I was just about to start my foundation course at The London Institute’s College of Art at Camberwell, and my intention of being a fine artist evolved into a strong desire to become a graphic artist. I finished my foundation course and then went to The London College of Printing and Distributive Trades (now The London College of Visual Communication) at Elephant & Castle, to do an HND in typography and graphic art. It was a very exciting time as the digital age was commencing in earnest and the Internet was becoming more readily available. We still learnt how to letter-press, about bromides and practiced all the traditional print techniques, but ‘the mac’ and digital software like Quark Express and Photoshop for example, were the classes floating everyone’s boat at the time.
What do you look for in a great portfolio? Simon: Commercial illustration is a weird, wonderful and incredibly unpredictable world! In one day last week one of our illustrators had three briefs come from three different agencies in three regions of Australia. Our role at The Drawing Arm is not only to pick the finest talent but also stay ahead of trends. We look for a number of things in both people and their portfolios when considering representing them.
• The work – Is it brilliant? Is it going to be popular as commercial illustration?
• The person – Are you a super reliable soul who answers your phone and your emails when deadline looms! Can we count on you – even if the work is brilliant, the world of advertising can be a relentless game and reliability is key.
• The diversity – Can you move with the brief. Often we get a specific brief with an exact outcome required which can evolve into something quite different. We know who’s capable of multi styles and formats (typography, character, storyboards & the rest!). This diversity in a portfolio is key.
How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others? Simon: I say what it does on the tin – tell it exactly how I see it in as simple a way possible. We used to work on magazines when we started – you get into the mentality (when the magazines have feck all budget that you need to make things that have impact). You need to make quick impact AND you have a lot to do in a short turnaround time. I try to be on point with my illustrations and not over cook them. Again, I think diversity is king. Be malleable but don’t crack. It should always look like you did it.
What have been your highlights since you started out? Simon: Watching Reg Mombassa launch The Drawing Arm. Building a warehouse space that makes me smile when I walk into it (mostly!). Talking at Vivid ideas. Seeing briefs for some of the worlds biggest brands come into The Drawing Arm and from that, watching the careers of the illustrators we represent flourish. Working with our design team at The National Grid to put an amazing digital platform for The Drawing Arm’s new website out there. The site is aimed at saving busy creatives, account managers and event organisers time when trying to book an illustrator. It’s been an illustrious career so far!
What career advice would you give your 16yr old self? Simon: Get on with it! You’ll be 40 soon enough ha! When you look at the careers of illustrators and artists, they move with what is happening within their lives. You can see a change in style when people are in a different country, mindset or relationship. I truly believe that being free to roam, explore different cultures, countries and behaviours have made me who I am as a creative. Have a sense of discipline – write the month and year on your sketchbook so you can go back to those throwaway thoughts years from now. Get all those ideas down, even if you have no idea what they mean! Your brain is like a giant record collection – being creative is knowing what records go together to make that perfect sound or feeling. The more records (experiences) you have in your stash the more diverse the mix. Lara: The best advice I could give a graduate would be ‘step away from the machine’. We use it all the time in our studio. The computer and the internet can make young graduates become ‘trend based’ designers. We find getting out in nature provides the best platform for original thinking and elegant visual ideas, not a Pinterest mood board.
Whats on the cards professionally and personally in the next 12 months? Lara: 2016 will see The National Grid continue to be discerning with who we work with. If the passion and desire to see the brand, product or project succeed does not match the energy we intend to put towards it – we won’t take it on. It’s that simple. Time is so precious and we’d rather use it to develop our own brands and ideas than to deliver creative for people who don’t ‘mean business’. 2016 will be a hugely busy time for The Drawing Arm with illustration now – more than ever – being strongly recognised as a powerful device to convey a message, attract attention and deliver a strong point of difference to a campaign or product. Originality is a sought after commodity in this over cluttered digital age, and The Drawing Arm is an artillery of Big Guns who can shoot a project to visual stardom! I think both of our brands and the people who are involved with them can help the design community, both with sharing their process and encouraging creative thinking. It’s one thing to be able to deliver a pretty visual, it’s another to make informed, intelligent and effective decisions and apply them to that pretty visual for a better outcome and more beneficial results for both creator and client.
What’s the big goal in the next five years? Simon: Keep building the dream team in both businesses. Retain a business model that is fair to illustrators, designers & artists by managing the things they aren’t made to do. That and hopefully building a purpose built house with an art studio in the garden.