On September 14th, I caught a cab to the West Village for a meeting that I had been excitedly anticipating for months. Jordan Crane, a Creative Director at the legendary agency Wolff Olins had agreed to let me interview him for my blog. As I made my way into their New York headquarters on Varrick Street, I was immediately drawn to the simplicity of their workspace. Modern and white-walled, the office projects a feeling of accessibility and utilitarianism.
Wolff Olins was founded in London in 1965 by designer Michael Wolff and advertising executive Wally Olins and is responsible for many of the most recognizable branding efforts around the world. One of the company’s first assignments was developing the brand that became Apple Corps, the Beatles’ record label. You may also recognize the work that they recently did for up&up, Target’s new private label brand. They also created the NYC branding campaign and the London 2012 Olympics logo.
In preparation for our meeting, I had written up a set questions for Jordan to answer (many of which were based on your suggestions). What I immediately liked about Jordan is that even at his level, he is extremely approachable and candid. We began our meeting by talking about how he got his start in the design industry and amazingly enough, his initial answer was, “It just happened.”
Jordan has always been into art and screen printing and often, friends would ask him to design posters for shows. He carved out his path as a designer along the way without a master plan in mind. Instead, he crisscrossed the country, working at a multitude of agencies in big cities and making connections along the way.
I was really curious about Jordan’s opinion about going to school for design since many of us have wondered if it is really necessary. Though he knows many successful self-taught designers, Jordan relayed the sound advice that if you can afford college, you should go for it. A chance to be educated and to better ourselves should never be turned down if the opportunity arises.
As designers, isn’t the ultimate goal to change the world in some way with our designs? Jordan feels that the most rewarding part of working at an agency as well-known as Wolff Olins is knowing what you design matters. When you think about it, seeing the NYC logo zoom past you on the side of a cab or walking into Target and picking a product off the shelf that you designed the packaging for must feel pretty surreal.
I asked Jordan what the biggest pitfall he sees new designers make and was surprised by his answer. He said that they’re too quick to turn on a computer to solve a problem and turning to technology isn’t always the immediate solution. There are so many other ways to do so and we need to learn to work with our hands, to take walks, to flip through books and magazines and to take a fresh approach to problem solving.
With the abundance of software and information that designers now encounter, I (along with many of you) often contemplate whether it’s valuable to be a jack of all trades versus specializing in a particular area. Jordan’s answer once again was very simple yet poignant: “There’s no point in going to work every day if you’re not happy.” When you think about it, if you loathe coding or branding or packaging design, why would you force yourself to go through the motions? Not only does this mindset make you unhappy but it affects everyone around you.
Working in an agency setting can be intense and stressful when you’re up against deadlines and the last thing you want to encounter is a grumpy, dissatisfied coworker. What you choose to learn should be completely dependent on you as a person. Passion shows. Don’t go through the process just to please those around you. Make yourself happy first and the positive mindset will trickle down.
Many of you wondered what qualities an agency looks for in new hires. Jordan looks for people with a sense of excitement, a passion for exploration and a great personality. There’s a balance between having the best portfolio and skill set versus being a likable person. In Jordan’s eyes, “Great designers that are great people” are ideal candidates.
Finally, I wanted to dig a little deeper into Jordan’s story. With the amount of talented designers in the world, it’s not easy to reach the level of a creative director at a top agency. I wanted to know what steps he took over the years to get to where he is. There was no simple answer but rather a unique combination of ingredients that brought him to his current position.
First and foremost, it was a process of making friends and networking within the agencies he worked at. Jordan worked all over the country and in 1999, he made a website for a deejay. A lady who saw it gave him a call and they became fast friends. She then ended up working alongside him at various agencies. Over the next few years, Jordan built a solid portfolio and began freelancing at Wolff Olins. After a few months, he was hired as a senior designer and began his ascent to the creative director position.
Having the chance to interview Jordan was amazing because there are so many questions that we have as designers; very rarely do we get to go straight to the top and get them answered.
When I was still in school, working at an agency felt so far out of reach. The established agencies in New York seemed like a lifetime away; I imagined them as being completely untouchable. Now that I’ve seen the inside of Wolff Olins and met some of their employees, everything feels much more accessible. When you think about it, nobody sets limits on what we can do but ourselves.
The biggest lesson I took away from our meeting is that is doesn’t matter where you start out as a designer. It’s up to you to carve your own path and to build a career that is satisfying. You are the only person that can make yourself happy. And, shouldn’t that be your goal at the end of the day?