London-based creative director and designer Bruce Usher on running his own one-man studio
One of It’s Nice That’s Graduates in 2011, London-based graphic designer Bruce Usher went freelance two years ago after working as a graphic designer at Inventory Studio, INT Works and freelancing briefly with Wieden+Kennedy. Graphic design wasn’t Bruce's first choice of degree however – he stumbled upon it during a work placement while studying history of art and later switched degrees. He cut his teeth designing flyers and posters for the music scene in Leeds, something that’s stood him in good stead as the creative director behind the newly launched Rough Trade Magazine. His work is tactile and hands-on – a recent project even saw him crafting typography from mayonnaise.
Creative Director, Art Director and Designer at Bruce Usher Studio
Rough Trade Magazine, Lurve Magazine, Sentimental Magazine, Katy Barker
Graphic Designer at Inventory Studio (2011–2014)
Graphic Designer and Art Director at INT Works (2014–2015)
Freelance Graphic Designer and Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy (2015)
BA Graphic Design, University of Leeds (2007–2010)
How would you describe what you do?
For two years now, I've been running my own practice working on graphic design and art direction for clients predominantly in fashion, art and music. Running my own practice means I can decide between projects and any aims for the future, so I'm lucky that I have the opportunity to control my own destiny to a certain extent.
What does a typical working day look like?
The working day is between 9am and 6pm. When things get very busy, these tend to stretch, but that's okay. An ideal day and an average one are probably very similar, that being said, creative work always tends to move through peaks and troughs, usually based on whereabouts in a project I am and how many of them are going at any one time. My favourite time right now is at the very beginning of a project – I love all the possibilities that period holds and is why I do what I do. If the end is as enjoyable too then that's super.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
Unfortunately, when things are busy most of my day is spent at the receiving end of a computer screen in a studio. Ironically, the time away from it is definitely by far the most important, getting inspired by what other people are doing, filling up my brain and working things out with my hands. Without those respites it can feel like I'm quarrying myself.
How do projects usually come about?
Most work comes from other work. I’ve not had a portfolio website for three or four years, so work tends to come from a recommendation or my name within a colophon, which is great. There’s immediately a trust in what I do and understanding of how I might approach a project when work comes this way. For this reason, I don’t pitch for work, as I often feel like it starts a relationship in completely the wrong way.
“The reason that I work as a studio, but alone, is the opportunity it gives me to collaborate often, and with different people.”
How collaborative is your work?
The reason I work as a studio, but alone, is the opportunity it gives me to collaborate often, and with different people. That might be a photographer, a designer, an illustrator, a writer, a web developer or a project manager. This way collaboration never gets stale, which is so important. The advantage of those new perspectives is huge, it's what makes sure I can keep producing work that's broad and interesting, with people I admire.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The feeling that a project could be better than I've made it is the worst feeling by far. It's always been like that with everything I've done, ever since I used to scrunch up piles upon piles of paper trying to make the perfect drawings as a kid. The less 'ifs' at the end of a project, the better.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I'm going to choose three. First, an identity for Katy Barker, an agency representing some very talented photographers. It's always a privilege when the content you're working with is so beautiful, but the generosity, ambition and trust shown by Sarah and Katy at the agency meant ideas that normally would have stayed as PDFs made it to light. The website, in particular, is something I'm very proud of.
Sentimental Magazine issue three was another project where the client was prepared to make brave decisions. With brilliant editorial from a list of amazing photographers (including Jonas Lindstroem, whose work I especially love) Romain Sellier, the editor, let me try something different: gooey typography made from mayonnaise. It ended up as the masthead and permeated the editorial, re-enforcing the issue's theme of monsters.
Finally, I have to mention Rough Trade Magazine. Because of the magazine's quick turnaround every single month, I often don't get the opportunity to step back from it, enjoy and celebrate it. Working with Liv Siddall (Rough Trade Magazine's editor) every month is a real pleasure. Her vision for the magazine is incredible: it’s honest, fun and really refreshing. I don't think there's another magazine able to approach music in the same way; I hope I do her vision justice.
“I find that if I’m not positive, it’s hard to create good work.”
What skills are essential to your job?
Positivity, objectivity and communication. I find that if I’m not positive, it’s hard to create good work. If I’m not objective, I can't see the project from someone else's point of view. If I can’t create good relationships with my clients or collaborate on ideas properly, then the whole process becomes unenjoyable for everyone. It’s easy to forget that creating something can be a really exciting and fulfilling experience for someone who doesn’t take it for granted, because they don’t do it every day. I find that it’s really important to be generous and open, to make sure everyone involved feels part of that process.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I probably have exactly the same laptop, scanner and phone as everyone else. I have a Ricoh GR II (recommended to me by a really good friend, Ollie, from Catalogue) that is great for taking quick sketch-photos and videos. It's actually the camera I used to shoot the typography for Sentimental Magazine, and a few last-minute features in Rough Trade too. All of my sketchbooks are dotted Leuchtturm white sketchbooks; I really like how they age and get mucky when you use them over time. I think I'm on my tenth now. I feel like time away from the screen is a real luxury and also when I get my best work done (The Katy Barker website I designed recently was drawn entirely in a sketchbook on a train journey to Birmingham) so I try and make sure the drawing instruments I have are things that I really want to use. My favourite is a stubby, black mechanical pencil by Kaweco.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Past the age of nine, where all I wanted to be was a pirate, I don't think I've ever had a dream job. Part of the problem is that you choose from what you're exposed to in your everyday life – I hadn't got a clue what a designer was because I'd never met one.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Very, but the course I was on perhaps taught me that you have to push to do the kind of design work that you're interested in, and make a conscious and driven effort to pursue it. I found most of my course very, very uninspiring and spent a great deal of time trying to find people in Leeds, where I was studying, who would let me design posters, flyers, shop windows and books so that I could do the kind of work I found exciting. Fortunately, Leeds has a great music scene and many small venues, so this payed off to the point where I began to ignore my course to create work that I could see all over the city.
“I don’t pitch for work, as I often feel like it starts a relationship in completely the wrong way.”
What were your first jobs?
The first job I had came six weeks into my original university course, History of Art. I called my dad and told him that the course that I'd been pushed towards by my school really wasn't for me, and I was ready to drop out. His response was “That's fine, but don't give up and come home, take a couple of days to think and come back with some options.” So I did, and organised a week placement at a design studio called Section D in Harrogate, using my reading week to try it out. From pretty much the first moment, I absolutely loved being there and from that point I couldn't really imagine wanting to do anything else. After that week, I dropped out of university, and continued working for them for the whole school year. Knowing that this was the environment I wanted to work in made a massive difference to how I treated the next three years. That piece of advice from my dad is still probably the best I've had to this day, and the willingness of that studio to be patient with a student that at that point couldn't use Quark (prehistoric InDesign) is something I'm still very grateful for.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
After working for some amazing studios and with some incredibly inspiring people, I was ready to work out how I could do what they were doing, but for myself. I was offered a project to design an identity that would keep me financially stable for about three months. That was all of the push that I needed, so I did it. Working for myself is a real privilege, and the open studio mentality I have means I get to work with other amazing designers, illustrators and makers on a wide range of projects.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I never really understood or took too much notice of what a ‘graphic designer’ should be, or what my job should be like. I just try to find the best ways to keep making what I do feel interesting and new.
Could you do this job forever?
Provided I'm happy I could keep going – happiness is key. That being said, I think that graphic design is a craft, and I'm not necessarily interested in solely being a craftsman for the rest of my life. I love working with people who inspire me and I think that that cross-pollination of ideas and aesthetics is where the best work is made.
Words of Wisdom
What advice or recommendations would you give to a young creative wanting to become a creative director and graphic designer?
The best advice would be to first work out what you want to achieve and then set out to do it as best you can.
Interview by Laura Snoad
Mention Rough Trade