Talking samples, sheets and swatches with G . F Smith’s graphic arts consultant, Vanessa Fletcher
Leaving university with a love of design, but not wanting to become a designer, Vanessa Fletcher reached out to G . F Smith’s managing director John Haslam. Seven years later, while she’s no longer designing, her background informs her day-to-day role as a graphic arts consultant at the paper making company. While early aspirations of being a tightrope walker were fast abandoned, Vanessa still finds herself having to balance a busy and ever-changing schedule. Regularly running around London with a car boot full of what she describes as a paper lover’s sweet shop, she meets with designers from various companies, in different locations and at different times. From packaging projects to bespoke invites for Fashion Week, she takes time to understand individual projects and needs, showcasing the company’s unrivalled spectrum of papers and inspiring designers to use them in innovative and imaginative ways. Being a self-confessed paper and print novice herself while at university, she’s now keen to make the ‘minefield of information’ that is paper more accessible to students.
Consultant, G . F Smith (2011–present)
Waitress, Freelance Printmaker
BA Graphic Design for Communication, Chelsea College of Art & Design (2006–2010)
How would you describe your job?
My job is a little bit of everything. From one day to the next I can be doing something entirely different. My job title means I am responsible for keeping our customers up-to-date and inspired by our amazing range of papers, as well as helping them choose suitable materials. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I get pretty involved with the process of a designer or end user – whether that be pointing them in the right direction, giving them ideas on how to use certain products or organising samples and dummies. I’m also a huge advocate for G . F Smith being accessible to students, so I spend quite a lot of time over the year visiting universities and colleges, talking about what we do and how we can help students.
What does a typical working day look like?
No day is the same as the day before. I look after designers, end users and printers in South West, North West and West London. I could be visiting a huge design agency such as Pentagram, presenting to their design teams one day, and meeting a freelance designer in a coffee shop the next.
Designers will often want to meet at different times in the day, so my hours are never really the same. Saying that, I could be asked to visit a designer that has a far more involved project which could last several hours, meaning I’m likely to only have two or three meetings (rather than four to five) that day. It really all depends on what is needed of me.
“I’d spent four years at uni training to be a designer; it was daunting to leave and tell people that’s not what I wanted to do.”
A typical morning would involve me sorting out my samples for the day ahead. Who am I seeing, what will they need and what will they want to see? My job would be pretty difficult if all I had was blank paper to show, so I rely heavily on the beautiful marketing pieces we produce and copies of completed projects from our clients. Throughout the day I am constantly being contacted either by phone or email by designers to organise samples or suggest weights that they can see. That's an important part of the job to keep on top of; without our sample service and the wonderful team in Hull that organise the samples, my job would be incredibly difficult.
I’m currently really busy with the launch of Extract, which means for the next few weeks I’ll be rushing all over London dropping in the new swatch and giving people all the info they need. I’m lucky that I am provided with a company car which I use 90% of the time. Carrying endless amounts of samples on the tube is not much fun!
As part of my job I also visit our paper mills; we have regular trips to Germany, Sweden and the Lake District throughout the year. I also attend a lot of events, such as gallery openings, publication launches and award ceremonies.
How did you land your current job?
I didn't actually know who G . F Smith were until my final year at university. I was approaching FMP time and really wanted to explore printing techniques and materials. I’d realised that throughout my degree I had zero knowledge of anything to do with paper and materials, let alone print. I met with a G . F Smith paper consultant called Alyson who gave me all of the amazing swatches and loads of really helpful information. I went on to use G . F Smith papers to create a paper and print ‘Bible’ for my FMP. Alyson invited me to show it to the joint managing director of G . F Smith, John Haslam. He was excited to see what I’d done and we chatted about the importance of G . F Smith being accessible to students.
For the next year after graduating I did freelance printmaking and letterpress while keeping my university job as a waitress! I got in touch with Alyson and asked her for some advice about jobs that didn't necessarily involve design. By the time I’d graduated I knew I loved design, but I knew I didn't really want to be a designer. The freelance letterpress and printmaking was a way to explore making rather than designing, but I was looking for something else – I just wasn’t sure what. It was then that Alyson suggested I speak to John again.
John met me at a cafe on Southbank for an informal chat. I told him what I’d been doing and that I’d decided to step away from the design process but I wasn’t sure where my love of print and paper were applicable. The next day John called me and offered me a trial as a maternity cover consultant. Nearly seven years later I’m still here!
You’d have to ask John what he saw in me to give me a chance, but at the time I remember just thinking to myself: “Be honest. Don’t oversell yourself and tell them you don’t quite know what it is that you’re hoping to do or be.” I immediately loved the flexibility of the job, the ability to use my design knowledge to communicate with our clients; and the way that I was surrounded by beautiful design that I really appreciated – but didn’t have the desire to design myself.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I could be in a studio, a coffee shop, someone’s home garden studio (never call it a shed, I learned that early on!) or a museum. I’m also lucky that I can work from home rather than report into an office when I’m not with clients. Home is where I can organise my week ahead, sort out samples and keep up-to-date with the masses of requests we have each day for swatches and meetings.
Since January this year we have been lucky enough to have opened our amazing W1 Show Space. I can now meet clients in there and spend the whole day meeting clients. It’s an incredibly inspiring place for visitors and it makes my job pretty easy as we have all of our papers there so a designer can come in and walk away with sheets and swatches.
How collaborative is your role?
Because I technically work alone, my day is spent interacting face-to-face with the people I’m visiting that day. However, I spend a huge amount of time on the phone with both our London and Hull offices. I really honestly mean it when I say I couldn’t do my job without the huge network of people within our organisation. From Trevor who makes the beautiful dummies our clients request and the London office who organise quotes for customers wanting to buy paper, to the guys and girls in Hull who hand pick, cut, score, trim, duplex, make envelopes and then wrap and pack each piece of paper my clients ask for. We are an incredibly close knit company and the people behind the scenes are the ones who make the job that I do possible.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
As with most jobs there are highs and lows. A personal hatred of mine is my personal admin. I’m terrible and hate report writing. My time management for clients is pretty good and I’m always on top of that, but I’m pretty appalling at the admin I have to do weekly (I’m sure my boss is reading this and agreeing!) I also really really hate dealing with complaints. It’s rare that I have to get involved, but if a print job has gone wrong and the printer is suggesting the paper is the cause, I will have to manage that and resolve it. As for the rest of my job, it’s great. I’m always blown away by the amazing way our papers are used and the innovative ideas that can evolve from a meeting.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
There are so many, and so many ways in which I am involved. From organising and suggesting products for the Design Museum x Hella Jongerius “Seeing Colour” exhibition catalogue with the head curator at the Design Museum, to organising amazing papers to be sent to Hella’s studio to be crafted and intricately woven into the paper hanging that was part of the exhibition.
The beauty of working for a company that is so inherently linked with the design industry is that I witness and get involved with wonderful projects all the time. We are constantly collaborating with artists and designers, whether it be for events, workshops or something entirely new and exciting.
What skills are essential to your job?
An ability to appreciate a client’s needs and to be engaging. I pride myself on having learnt a lot about the industry over the seven years I have worked for G . F Smith. That allows me to always give an honest opinion and because of my design background, an opinion that makes sense to the designer I’m working with. Our products are wonderful and our selection of papers are unrivalled which makes my job pretty easy in that respect, but they often need explaining, or a bit more information. Being good with people and approachable had always worked to my advantage in this job.
“I’m the conduit between the design and print process for clients. Without an understanding of design I probably wouldn’t be able to have the type of impact on certain projects that I do.”
Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
For a long time I owned a few Adana presses. A few months ago I sold them as I just didn't have the time to use them and they were taking up a lot of space! I miss them terribly. I still do the occasional bit of design, but mainly for friends or for fun.
What tools do you use most for your work?
My car gets me around and my boot is a paper lover’s sweet shop. My phone is always to hand to pick up emails from clients, and to keep me in touch with the office so that I can organise samples. I am so old fashioned and have a proper diary that’s illegible to anyone else, but helps me plan my time – if I lost it I wouldn’t know where I was going or who I was seeing. I’m a list maker and a note taker so a notebook is a necessity. (Unsurprisingly, I am inundated with gorgeous notebooks!)
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
When I was very little, a tightrope walker…then I got realistic, and wanted to be a fashion designer!
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
My family are all very creative. I knew early on that I wanted to go to art school which prompted me to do well enough go to a good one. I was also fairly academic at school, so there was a big push from my teachers to “got to a proper university” which I wasn’t interested in doing. I’m glad I stuck to my guns.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Really useful. I know the design process and I know how little knowledge designers have about paper and print. I’m sort of the conduit between the design process and the print process for a lot of my clients. Without an understanding of design I probably wouldn’t be able to have the type of impact on certain projects that I do.
What were your first jobs?
This was my first proper job! During university I’d done some internships and work experience in studios and with freelancers. Then I did my own thing for a year while I figured out what I wanted to do, then this came along!
“Paper is a minefield of information. From differentiating grammages, knowing how it’s made and what it’s made of, to the provenance and stories that each one of our papers carry.”
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Without Alyson Hurst (who agreed to meet me during my third year) I wouldn't have been introduced to the company. She was so incredibly inspiring and knowledgeable. If I could be half as encouraging and interesting as she was when I first met her I’d be happy! From that meeting onwards, I suppose it was my honesty about not wanting to be a designer. I’d spent four years at uni training to be a designer; it was daunting to leave and actually tell people that’s not what I wanted to do.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
That's a tricky one. Each project I am involved in is different from the next. It could be a packaging project where we are supplying tonne after tonne of paper or it could be 100 exquisite fashion week invitations. Each project teaches you something new and allows you to take on board the nuances that are required from job-to-job.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Paper is a minefield of information. From differentiating grammages, knowing how it’s made and what it’s made of, to the provenance and stories that each one of our papers carry. We are also expected to know a lot about the print industry which is constantly evolving. With the evolution of digital print and even the revival of old print techniques, it’s my job to know what I’m talking about.
Also, we are a company based on history and heritage, and with that comes a responsibility to know a lot about who we are as a company. For our customers, choosing paper isn't alway about the colour or weight it’s also about us as brand. We are all brand custodians at G . F Smith. There’s a huge sense of pride in each person that works here.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
In the beginning I was afraid to admit I didn't always know the answer. I would pretend I knew. Big mistake. Nobody will ever think badly of you for saying “You know what, I’m not entirely sure on that, but I’ll find out for you.” Giving misinformation will always lead to you getting caught out. Seven years on, I still don’t know everything and I’m certainly not afraid to let people know that.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I really had no idea what this job would be like. It wasn't what I thought I’d end up doing, but to be honest I didn’t have clue what it was that I wanted to do, so this came along at a good time. Being given a company car, a phone and a list of the top design agencies in the UK who would want see me at the age of 22 was, to me, about as professional as you could get!
What would you like to do next?
I’ve done a lot of growing up since starting my job at G . F Smith. I’ve bought a home, got married and got a dog! My next goal is to really push the student side of G . F Smith. I believe we can do a lot more and I’d love to draw on my own experiences as a paper and print novice at uni to help us build better ties between us and students.
Could you do this job forever?
Well G . F Smith have a notoriously long service history! I’m still the new girl after seven years. A lot of my colleagues have been here for 25 plus years. So yes…it’s a likelihood!
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
G . F Smith are a company that encourages self-motivated progression. If I saw an opportunity to develop an area of our business or to introduce a new way of doing something, they will always be ready to listen and help realise that.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
There is so much more out there than just being a designer. For some people, being a designer is their goal, but for people like me who weren’t sure: all I can tell you now is that there is a whole world that you don't know exists. From account management, to print buying and studio managing and so much more. The design industry isn't made up of just designers and art directors. There are people who don't do the design work but are just as valuable to the process.
This article is part of a studio feature on G . F Smith.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Photography by Sophie Stafford
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