Ryan McElderry Interview – Masters of Design

posted by Precision | 20th Oct 2016

Ryan McElderry works as a Senior Graphic Designer at online marketing agency Mediaworks. He has worked on accounts such as House of Fraser, Stagecoach, MaxiNutrition and intu MetroCentre, and on projects such as content marketing, infographics, website design, and app design and prototyping.

What made you want to become a designer?
I’ve always been the creative type and was rarely found without a pencil in my hand as a child. The problem came when I had to decide where to push this interest in terms of a viable career. The joy of drawing random characters and still-life drawings at school quickly evolved into a desire to work on branding and related design media. When I discovered that ‘graphic designer’ was an actual recognised industry job. I was under no illusion of what I wanted to be.

Tell us about your career. What led you to the work you’re doing now?
I left school at 16 and decided to solely pursue design at Newcastle College (against the advice of my teachers and career advisors). To me there was no point in having a back-up plan, as I knew design was the only industry I wanted to be in. The Graphic Design Diploma at Newcastle College seemed the best entry point to that. I spent four years at the college, resulting in a Foundation Degree in graphic design, and then chose to top that up to a full degree at Northumbria University on my fifth year.

I had placements along the way, to give me a feel of the type of work I’d be involved with, and then landed my first job at a small design agency straight after graduation. ‘Thrown in at the deep end’ was a phrase designed for my experience there. I was exposed to the nature of clients, the variety of work, the stressful uncertainty of deadlines and the joy of working with like-minded people. There were many highs and lows, but over four years in that environment helped me develop stronger skills and a thicker skin.

Agency work tends to throw up a mix of design tasks across print, packaging and digital, so when I joined Mediaworks two years ago, I was ready to focus my skills a little more. Since then I’ve worked on content marketing and infographic work, looked at more consistent web work as well as dipping my toe into the world of app design and prototyping.

What does a typical ‘day in the life’ look like for you?
The nature of our client base means that there is rarely a typical day. One day I could be juggling illustrations for an article or video storyboard with some content marketing, another I’ll have my eyes locked onto an app design for the full day. It’s one of the many pleasures of a design job; you don’t always know what the day will have in store for you.

What type of design inspires you at the moment?
The two types of design I find myself appreciating at the moment sit on either end of print/digital scale. I’ve been collecting some real quality books, magazines and graphic novels recently. There’s something about the way the colours pop and the stock smells on some good old print. I feel recently there’s been a real resurgence in physical media and people are putting a lot of time and effort into their printed products. Stand-out examples are the Little White Lies magazine and most of the stuff Image Comics are putting out at the moment.

On the other hand, the cool simplicity of app UI design has really caught my attention of late. I’m fascinated at how the visual language is changing in the digital world as imagery and iconography take the place of text. One I’ve used recently is the Air BnB phone app – a design that values simplicity and ease of use over everything else.

How would you describe your tastes?
I believe I’m a relatively tidy person, I like things to be in order. I think this is reflected in my design tastes – clean, simple designs with effective colour and neat typefaces tend to be my favourite. If that’s coupled with some pretty fancy print techniques, then I’m sold!

What type of project do you enjoy working on?
I enjoy pretty much all aspects of design. Creating a website or app from scratch and seeing it through to completion is always satisfying. I’m also enjoying my illustration work, with a lot of my recent projects proving a great platform to show them off. Creating different alien race illustrations for a recent Star Wars name generator hardly felt like work at all.

Do you enjoy working within limitations, or do you prefer to be given full creative control?
It’s difficult because having full control can often wield the most exciting results, whereas I also enjoy the challenge of certain limitations. I suppose I’m not really bothered either way. I think you have to be prepared for anything in the design industry.

What projects do you have in the pipeline?
I’m currently finalising an app design and prototype. I’ve also got some pretty cool websites and an illustrated storyboard for a video animation on the cards for the near future.

What would be your one tip for design?
Don’t be afraid to try something new or push your skills into a different area. Standing still can mean moving backwards in the design industry, so try not to get complacent. I also think it’s important to surround yourself with cool “stuff”. If you’ve got an interest in design you’ll probably do this anyway, but it’s always helpful to have various sources of inspiration around you.

What does the phrase “timeless design” mean to you?
I think a perfect example of timeless design is the recent reissue of the 1975 NASA Graphics Standards manual. A kick-starter campaign was launched to painstakingly reproduce the brand guidelines to form a brand new, hard bound collectors book. It reached its funding target almost instantly and the book is now out and selling well. The project is proof that a well thought-out design strategy created in the 70s can not only stand the test of time, but also become a highly desirable item.

What advice would you give to those looking to pursue a career in design?
I think you’ll know if design is something you want to do. If it is, I’d suggest a good college course because learning the basics is essential. Skills you learn at college or university will be transferable throughout your whole career.

Set yourself challenges, as the timescales you work to when studying rarely reflect the nature of the design industry. Get yourself a placement too, as you’ll probably learn more in your first few months in an agency than you will in your whole student career.

In September 2013, academics at the University of Oxford published a report detailing the likelihood that robots will take over many professions. Do you think this could happen to design and creative work?
I think the creative industry is the one area that likely isn’t threatened by A.I. The very nature of design is self-expression, and I think if anything in design is automated then it’s not going to achieve that. A lot of thought process and flair can go into a design, and removing that would basically result in a randomised visual thrown out from some sort of algorithm. Would that ever answer a brief?

Does your mood or mind-set influence what you design?
Definitely. The more frustrated I am, the more I tend to change my mind or doubt myself. When I’m feeling good I tend to approach a project with much more confidence, which probably results in me pushing the boat out more.

Is there anything special that helps you stay focused?
Music often helps. As much as I love collaboration and believe that the people around can assist in several stages of a design, sometimes reaching for the headphones is the best way to zone out.

What happens when you hit the proverbial “designer’s block”?
It’s difficult, as I don’t think I have a particular resolution to the designer’s block. I just try to take a step back and put pen to paper when I’m really struggling to get things moving. Taking it back to the core idea is always helpful.

What do you think of social platforms like Instagram when it comes to sharing artwork? Do you have any recommended follows?
I think social platforms can be good for some light coverage, and particularly useful for gathering feedback on a design. But I wouldn’t say they were an ideal method of finding work. Plus, you have the client aspect to think of. How happy are they to have one of their designs plastered everywhere?

Social media can be good for inspiration, I follow some of my favourite illustrators on Instagram, such as Tomer Hanuka and mcbess.

Do you have time to do anything creative in your spare time?
I would say I do have time, but I probably don’t utilise it enough. I have a Redbubble account where I’ve worked up and sold some t-shirt designs, but I often find it difficult to juggle a full-time design job with personal design work.

Are there any other creative mediums or forms of art you’d like to explore?
I’d like to play around with digital illustration more, perhaps through the use of a tablet. It’s a device I’ve never really given a chance to in my designs.

You can see examples of Ryan McElderry’s work on his Redbubble account.