Gorilla

We thoroughly enjoyed chatting with the hilarious Joe Bowker from Gorilla (we think we got a pretty good deal for 25 bananas). This interview is packed full of some super relevant advice for new grads as Joe takes us through the ups and downs of his design journey. He's not afraid to tell it how it is and have a good laugh while doing it. Cheers Joe!

What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened?

Being, as I am, a living breathing Gorilla my life plans didn’t extend much further than duping the zookeeper into handing over his keys and uniform…

I’m joking, or am I?

On a serious note, I never really had a master plan for graduation. The only vague idea I had was that I wanted to ‘do my own thing’. Unsurprisingly, I felt a bit lost when I left the protective dream bubble of uni. I half-heartedly applied for designer roles then turned them down. I started working as a waiter in a cocktail bar when I met you.

I had this mad idea that I could build a ‘wonder portfolio’ of self-initiated projects that no agency could turn down. This still lies half finished on an old laptop somewhere.

While mixing drinks, I did start to get pretty good at shameless self-promotion. This earned me some of my first proper freelance jobs. The pay was pitiful and the revisions were infinite but I started to hone my skills and understand the commercial reality of design (Yes, every client does want their logo 300% bigger).

Eventually one of the freelance clients offered me a full-time role as a web designer.

They were all about quantity over quality. I hated every second of it. I realise now, it was a blessing in disguise. It took me out of my comfort zone and made me realise exactly what I didn't want to do with my life.

With newfound determination, I quit that job after 3 months and decided to rent a small office. With nothing but a phone and a laptop, I hustled for every job I could get my hands on (yes I cold called and I’d do it again). My mindset was and still is, that even the smallest jobs can become your greatest work if you absolutely insist on pushing the boundaries. It’s not easy waging a constant battle against mediocrity but I believe it is the key to Gorilla’s success. Today companies big and small come to us because they want wildly unexpected and effective design. I’m still as hellbent on giving it to them now as I was on day one.

Give us the elevator pitch on what you do.

We pick fights with the status quo and win.

It took me a while to articulate that. Who doesn't want to win, right? It was born out of frustration that most design companies reel off the same old spiel. I.e “We add intrinsic value by bringing clarity, consistency… oh wait, I’ve gone to sleep.

Design work by Gorilla The Design Kids interviews Gorilla work-2

What are your three must-read design books, blogs or podcasts and why?

Grid Systems in Graphic Design Book by Josef Müller-Brockmann

Read this and all of the mystical secrets of the grid will be revealed. It changed my approach overnight and allowed me to unpick the formula for some of my favourite pieces of design. You have to learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.

Brewdog- Business for punks By James Watt

I read this pretty recently, then I read it again. It’s not so much a design book as rebel manifesto written by a true renegade of the beer industry. Sometimes when you encounter a risk-averse client you may be tempted to sell your design principles down the river to appease them. Read this first, it will give you the resolve to go against the grain AND win more clients who will love you for it.

Zag By Marty Neumeier

This is a book about the importance of ‘differentiation’ in branding. When they zig, you zag. You could read it in the time it takes to catch a bus (in Manchester). Only someone who truly understands the alchemy of ‘branding’ like Marty Neuimeier could explain things in such a simple way. It’s a really useful point of reference when clients ask questions like ‘Why can’t we fill all that empty space with more stuff”. In fact, I have even gifted it to clients at the beginning of a project to make sure we are all the same page- sometimes literally.

What qualities and skills to you look for in a graduate?

This is a tricky one, I think I’m looking for a diamond in the rough.

Someone who is on the cusp of being amazing. This is VERY hard to spot and I think it has more to do with their personality than their portfolio. Ultimately, I think it is the inextinguishable fire in someone's belly that will drive them to be great- not merely technical ability. That said, I am also looking for work that solves a problem in a beautiful, original way. For me, good design should solve a problem otherwise it is art. Art is great but ‘patrons of the arts’ clients are like unicorns, I’m 97% sure they don’t exist. It’s also always great to see a nice packaging project with exciting naming, copywriting and design — even if it's self-initiated.

Design work by Gorilla The Design Kids interviews Gorilla work-4
Design work by Gorilla The Design Kids interviews Gorilla work-4

Ultimately, I think it is the inextinguishable fire in someone's belly that will drive them to be great- not merely technical ability

What career advice would you give your 16yrold self?

“Shhh, stop screaming, I am from the future...

If you (I?) weren’t so damn lazy and bothered to apply to internships you might actually learn their secret processes. The winning formulas the very best studios have to manage projects to successful outcomes. You’d save yourself a few years of trial and error in the process! Also, would it kill you to take up a sport so I don’t have to go to the gym every day!? Now hush child, go back to sleep...”

What’s on the cards professionally andpersonally in the next 12 months.

As you’ve probably realised planning doesn’t come so naturally to me.

On the Gorilla side of things, we refined our website and tone of voice last year. It was a bold experiment to attract more of the type of clients we like (rebel spirits) and put off the ones we don’t (sheep). So far I’m pleased to say it has been a success. We are currently enjoying lots of creative freedom, creating insane stuff for some great, like-minded people. So I’ll be very happy with more of that, please.

On the personal side, I plan to climb Everest blindfolded again and of course, continue my work introducing wild mountain Gorillas into densely populated urban areas. We are taking back the jungle!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this solid gold advice laced with nonsense — or is it the other way around? I do believe there are some lessons to be gleaned here. If you’re anything like I was, young and headstrong you’ll probably ignore it all anyway. That’s ok, some lessons can only truly be learned the hard way — it’s the courage to carry on that counts. Thanks to The Design Kids for having me.

[A non-descript black briefcase slides across the boardroom table. Gorilla cracks open the lid to reveal 35 unmarked bananas as agreed. He nods respectfully and silently leaves the room. Fade to black.]

Design work by Gorilla The Design Kids interviews Gorilla work-6
Design work by Gorilla The Design Kids interviews Gorilla work-6

Where to find Gorilla online.

Get involved