Adult Art Club designer Jonny Costello on making a career from the things you love
Before Jonny Costello had even landed his first in-house design role, he’d art-directed a skate magazine, helped run a small web design company and was a dab hand at printing processes – all learnt through DIY passion projects. But graduating in mid-recession Ireland, jobs were few and far between, so he joined the mass creative exodus, settling in Birmingham. His deep knowledge of youth subcultures proved invaluable when setting up his own studio Adult Art Club, which counts Ed Sheeran, Rita Ora and Tiesto as clients, as well as underground techno stalwarts Perc and Truss. Here he chats to us about graft, Gucci Mane and growing a business in Brum.
Art director, director, designer and illustrator and founder at Adult Art Club (2007–present)
Sony Music, Warner, Universal, Apple, Red Bull, RBMA, Channel 4 and Bacardi
How would you describe your job?
We primarily work with brands and artists that fit with the style of work that we do and our vision, in the overlap between music, art and culture. Having a natural alliance with clients leads to the most fruitful working relationships.
Our client list is quite varied and mostly people find us organically. We mix it up with large and small artists and brands – it keeps us sharp. Some bigger music clients include Columbia records, Sony Music, Syco Music, Warner, Universal, Virgin, Atlantic, but we also collaborate with electronic music labels where we can work outside of commercial restrictions, and take a much more challenging approach to the artwork.
We’ve created artwork for Ed Sheeran to Einstürzende Neubauten, Perc to Rita Ora, Tiesto to Truss. It's all about having a wide working knowledge on the aesthetics, styles and trends that are at play within each genre and what will help an artist stand out.
Our work with Red Bull entails delivering creative and festival branding and we’ve also just completed an animated video with Bacardi and BBDO in New York for their new Music Liberates Music campaign. Alongside this, we work on branding and design projects that are unrelated to music, such as our project with Apple last year.
What does a typical working day look like?
A typical working day at the studio can be quite varied. We generally oversee a lot of elements of the creative campaign – from the initial research, to working with photographers, directors, animators and creative technologists to deliver on various parts of the project. A lot of the team work remotely, but we have a core team of art directors, designers and editors.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
That’s a tough call. We worked on the Ed Sheeran campaign for almost nine months, and that was really ace for its sheer scale. We also worked on an animated video with Tiesto and Gucci Mane, which was pretty special, because we pretty much had free rein. We did a global rebrand for Red Bull Culture Clash – and seeing that all over the world was pretty momentous.
Another really special project for us was a video for Jorja Smith, all filmed in the Midlands. It was an adventurous concept but it all came off really well. I love the fact she is local and killing it on the world stage.
“When you reach a breakthrough in your creative work it’s always a really positive feeling that fires you up to do more.”
What do you like about working in Birmingham?
Birmingham is the UK’s second city, but doesn’t feel too big or overwhelming. The art and design community is pretty close so there are always events on and lots of people working on interesting projects. I’m situated in Digbeth where there’s a healthy scene of creators. You can read all about it in BAB Mag (Birmingham and Beyond magazine), a magazine the focuses on the Birmingham creative scene.
What skills would you say are essential for your job?
Hard skills-wise you need to be on top of the relevant programmes to use in your day-to-day. For me, these are Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign. You don’t need to be an expert in everything but you need to know a few of them inside out, so you can focus on getting the creative down rather than the interface. Necessary soft skills include good communication, having confidence and being willing to compromise. Design will always be based on feedback and a series of compromises in order to get to the end result.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up ?
Perhaps a graffiti artist – graffiti took up a massive section of my life from the age of 15 to 22. Through this I found a passion for creativity and immersing myself in a subculture. I also took a lot of photographs and designed a skate magazine, so I guess I always knew I would do something creative. Looking back on it now, all the roads I’ve taken to this point have laid a solid foundation for what I do now.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
My upbringing was pretty standard suburban Irish working class. My parents have always been supportive and encouraged me to follow what I wanted to do. They’re hard workers so that has rubbed off. Irish people just love graft.
Do you feel it’s necessary to have a degree for the work you do?
I didn’t go to an art college, I went to a more tech-based college with architects, animators and filmmakers. It was good at core skills but didn’t teach creative thinking in the same way an art college would have. This was beneficial at the start, as you need to have the core skills as a junior. I know other people who came to design with no university experience; I don’t think it’s imperative to study design in an educational setting, it can be learnt too.
“You need good communication, confidence and to be willing to compromise. Design will always be a series of compromises and feedback to get to the end result.”
What were your first jobs?
I did a work placement at a studio that then offered me a junior position. It was a pretty easy transition into the workplace. In the run-up I had been doing a lot of freelance work, designing a magazine, helping run a small web-development agency and working part-time at a printers, so I was pretty skilled-up as a junior.
Was there a project that particularly helped your development?
Designing the first One Direction global campaign was a breakthrough in terms of shifting our mindset. After delivering that project with a small team and a short turn around, it changed my outlook on what’s possible with the right people, some good ideas and a laptop.
What has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Financially, the start was very challenging. In Ireland we had a major recession; unemployment was at an all-time high and the creative industries suffered. Having just completed university, the outlook in Ireland was bleak. A mass exodus of young creatives were jumping ship to Berlin, New York and London. Making the jump to the UK was difficult. Junior wages didn’t cover the basic cost of living, so I had to freelance at night from 9pm to 2am.
As tough as it was, it did provide an antidote to some of the agency work at the time. Financial challenges are one of the hardest things people will face at all stages of their career. I was lucky that the EU paid for my education, but hearing of graduates in the UK leaving university with £50k debt – that’s tough. I don’t have the answers but this all needs a shake-up. We run the risk of the creative industries becoming very elitist; there’s a cost-of-entry with fees that a lot of youngsters just can’t absorb.
Could you do this job forever?
I love seeing images of fine artists still producing fresh and relevant work in their eighties. Some artists have produced some of their best work well after their sixties or seventies. If you can remain mentally sharp and switched-on, there is no reason you can’t stay in the game.
What does the future of the industry look like in your mind?
I’m not even going to guess at this, as it changes so fast. At the moment I’m seeing a lot of creative work being dictated by emerging technologies, to varying degrees of success. Maybe this is how it will be from here on in, maybe we will get better at it.
I’m also hoping the trend for hyper-capitalist brands and companies telling you to use less plastic or pedal a social message to gain some cultural capital will subside, especially when they are avoiding tax or employing child labour. People are getting blindsided and sharing it in order to engage in some mild, feel-good clicktivism.
I do think brands need to step in and be agents of positive change in society, but they need to nurture subcultures and not just rinse them for quick cultural purchase. I think consumers will demand this as time progresses. Brands will need to stand for something deeper and give more back. This will also be better for creatives, as it will enable us to work on projects that are more relevant to culture and society, making positive, well-founded and genuine change.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Surround yourself with good people who are on the same path. Get involved in whatever way you can and just reach out to people. Everybody started where you are now, and if you are putting in the work people will see that.
Don’t be afraid of just reaching out – most people will be happy to hear from you. Start an Instagram account or a Tumblr and just put work out there. Creative careers are not always straight lines either. Accept that the sea will never be calm, so just jump in and start rowing.
Try to find your own voice – so many creatives just do the same thing. This has been compounded by the Instagram herd mentality. Work on projects that resonate with you, this is where you will shine.
Written by Laura Snoad
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