This Designer Approaches Design With The Seriousness It Deserves
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
"Look at my work if you want to know about my creativity; great design is great because it speaks its truth to you through visuals." This is what it sounds like when a designer takes the artform and practice of design with the seriousness it deserves. In our interview below, WNW Member Alex Engzell takes us on a tour of his unwavering path toward a career in design, one he dropped out of high school to pursue.
In describing the style and approach he's developed and finetuned over the years, Alex initially mentions "minimalism." But he quickly elaborates, aware of its overuse, and summarizes the actual intent behind minimalism: clarity. Alex sees design as a communicative tool that speaks for itself. To trim away its excess fat is to give a specific design a sharpened and more pointed effect. But it's a balancing act. "The trick is being able to sense the moment that your creativity and freedom has exceeded itself and become an overdosed narcissist. I say 'hold nothing back' and get to that insane place when you’re creating, but then have the self-awareness to step back an inch and then behold your inspiration with objectivity."
Alex also discusses the agency he founded in Sweden, Bonne Marque, and why he eventually had to move on after an almost decade-long run. "I was becoming more disconnected from the reason I started in this industry and I wanted to get back to pure making again." This is where Working Not Working was able to lend a hand. "I regularly visited the UnJobBoard on WNW and when I saw a Creative Director listing from Rosie Lee for their new office in Amsterdam I was intrigued... I was a fan of Rosie Lee’s work too. A few days after applying, Mark Flemming (Founder of Rosie Lee) reached out on WnW and asked for my CV and Portfolio. Four months later, I’m here."
Now that Alex has established himself at Rosie Lee's Amsterdam office, we figured we'd also ask him to share some insights into what separates the agency from the pack, and what it will take for you to get hired there. Alex also has no shortage of praise for Amsterdam as a creative hub: "It’s extremely vibrant, active, and multicultural. The design and technology scene is bursting with conferences, and the pool of talented agencies and freelancers is so deep you can drown twice in it."
Tell us a bit about your creative background? Who is Alex and how did he get here?
There’s only one place to begin - I dropped out of high school, leaving all the repressed control that came with it, and I threw myself into design. Looking back, the decision to pursue this path was nothing but chance, but I put my full weight behind design and I never imagined pursuing another career. In being a freelancer, spending almost three years as CD at Creon, running my own agency (Bonne Marque) for nine years, and then joining Rosie Lee, I have experienced moments of doubt, faced both creative and business challenges, and balanced art, business, and friendship. I have also celebrated times of vindication, overcoming the tax system of Sweden that once threatened to cripple me, relocating my business and family from one country to another, and many more. But, to address your questions more directly, I would say “look at my work if you want to know about my creativity”; great design is great because it speaks its truth to you through visuals. To understand a poet, you read the poet’s work. And before the critics hit back at my poet parallel, I’m not being grandiose or pretentious. This is what it sounds like when a designer takes the artform and practice of design with the seriousness it deserves.
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links your projects, or do you excuse yourself & approach each project as its own entity?
Minimalism is the shorthand answer to this question, though I’d rather refer people to my work to truly understand my signature style, for I fear the name ‘Minimalism’ can be a little reductive in its minimalism. My idea of the genre pivots on the time-honored advice given by so many artists, particularly writers, which is “if it can be cut, cut it.” This is gold. If you can’t give a reason for something being in your work then you’ve failed as a creative. I follow the rule and, in doing so, a consistent quality in all of my work is clarity, and this is crucial. My mind has been known to throw a hand grenade of madness onto the canvas, but there has always been - and always will be - clarity in even the most daring, creative, and free work I create, and this is what ties it together. People don’t understand this. Minimalism isn’t about creating plain work, and it certainly shouldn’t be dull. It can just as easily be wild. The trick is being able to sense the moment that your creativity and freedom has exceeded itself and become an overdosed narcissist. I say “hold nothing back” and get to that insane place when you’re creating, but then have the self-awareness to step back an inch and then behold your inspiration with objectivity.
What do you see as the turning point in your creative development and career?
It was when I realised that design on its own doesn’t solve any problems; great design must interact with great writing, animation, and development to be able to interact with people. I’ve formed amazing creative partnerships with writers, animators, visual artists, other designers, and developers before, but it’s difficult to say exactly why they worked and why others didn’t. One of the most beautiful flaws of creativity is that it’s unreliable, perfectly intangible. And that’s why a designer who can design in creative partnerships is worth their weight in gold. You can’t follow an equation and expect results. You’re capturing a bolt of lightning. And seeing this electric storm was the point at which my creative life was forever changed.
Which of your projects are you proudest of and why?
Launching Vogue in the Middle East would have been a tremendously challenging project for any agency, and I managed the immense design job with just one other designer, Axel Eerbeek. The results speak for themselves, and we created the new, bold Vogue for Arabia while conveying the profound class of Vogue’s legacy.
Hunter Farmer was a project that my agency, Bonne Marque, attacked with pure creative madness. We set loose a fine-art illustrator to work with our writer, Samuel Burrows, to create a story of the history and current position of the recruitment agency, Hunter Farmer. My role as Creative Director in commissioning the pieces and keeping the writing in line with the artwork was one challenge, and the challenge of actually designing the platform on which this madness would need to be controlled (and get results for the client) was another one altogether, but the results were incredible. I think we changed the way the recruitment industry approached digital the day we launched that site.
How did you wind up as Creative Director at Rosie Lee?
In running Bonne Marque over the course of its decade-long lifetime, and especially in its final year, I came to the realisation that too much of my time was being spent on areas in which I had no interest: accounting, HR, new business, and all the other tasks that come with being the managing director. I was becoming more disconnected from the reason I started in this industry and I wanted to get back to pure making again.
I regularly visited the UnJobBoard on WNW and when I saw a Creative Director listing from Rosie Lee for their new office in Amsterdam I was intrigued. I felt ready to leave Bulgaria. I didn’t want to return to Sweden. Amsterdam was a city in which I had long been interested. I was a fan of Rosie Lee’s work too. A few days after applying, Mark Flemming (Founder of Rosie Lee) reached out on WnW and asked for my CV and Portfolio. Four months later, I’m here.
Describe Rosie Lee in 3 words.
Dedicated. Discerning. Idea-driven.
Which project of Rosie Lee’s makes you proudest to work there and why?
Nike Unlimited Shanghai - the scale alone is remarkable, spanning the creative gamut from experiential, digital, and graphics. The campaign flooded China’s largest city with a convoy of branded vehicles that brought the Nike experience right to its incredible fan base.
What separates Rosie Lee from other agencies?
We work from concept to execution with impeccably high standards for all parts of the process. Some agencies are wildly creative but lack the talent of getting their work out there and seen, and some agencies lack creative ability but are impressive at collecting awards and making profit. Rosie Lee is hot on creative and also getting our work out there.
We’re culturally aware on an international scale, with offices worldwide and working pretty much everywhere, and we're able to translate brand values and concepts to local relevance really effectively.
What about the culture of Rosie Lee makes it an ideal place for potential hires to work?
We work hard, and it’s rewarding work. Every creative wants to work hard because being creative relates to passion - it’s what we live for. I think you can tell from our work that we love what we do. Also, there’s nothing preventing juniors, for example, speaking frankly with CDs and even Founders, so we enjoy a relatively flat hierarchy and culture of openness. The final point I’d like to add, even though I could go on for a lot longer here, is that we’re fortunate enough to be able to reward our employees with enjoyable perks and surprises. We respect the effort and sacrifice and we try to create the best work-life balance anywhere in our industry.
How does someone get a job there? Seriously, what’s the secret?
Well, it’s not good enough to be a designer who’s concerned about just making things look nice. You’ve got to be concept-led and thoughtful about what you’re doing. You should present your talent proudly, and be confident about it, be culturally aware, and prove that you’ve done things off your own back, made things happen.
How would you define the Amsterdam creative scene?
It’s extremely vibrant, active, and multicultural. The design and technology scene is bursting with conferences, and the pool of talented agencies and freelancers is so deep you can drown twice in it. Amsterdam is home to huge brands, like Tommy Hilfiger, Booking.com, and Heineken, and big international brands, such as Uber, has its European headquarters here. It’s an undoubtedly cool place too, home to streetwear brands and some of the world’s biggest festivals as well. It’s just an awesome place in which you can get lost in waves of inspiration.
If not here, where would you most like to live?
Who are your biggest creative influences?
David Lynch and Michael Wolff.
One book, one album, one movie, one show. Go.
Catching the Big Fish - David Lynch
Blank Face LP - ScHoolboy Q
Persona - Ingmar Bergman
Einstein on the Beach - Philip Glass
What do you do when Not Working?
A creative is someone who redefines what ‘working’ means. Think about the creative process. Where do you think inspiration begins and ends in that process? There is no beginning or end. It’s permanent and part of the deal. Do we sit at our desks and decide to be inspired? Or do we live our lives forever open to inspiration, always judging the angles and aesthetics, always reading and learning, and always ‘working’? I don’t need to answer these rhetorical questions, do I?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard or received that all creatives should hear?
Respect the power of great writing. It’s transformative.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Right now, it’s really exciting. We’re working with Beats by Dre and Pepsi, and beginning to partner with some local brands as part of our expansion plans. You’ll be hearing more about that soon. Follow me on Twitter @Engzell - I’ll be sharing our news there, somewhere amongst the savage artwork, underground Japanese hip-hop, and whatever snippets of genius I’ve felt like sharing.