Meet the team: Michael Lester
We resume the series of in-depth interviews with our contributors by quizzing one of Issue Three's brilliant illustrators
It’s with great pleasure that we’re kicking off the latest series of Meet the Team after a long summer hiatus.
This is the medium through which we look to find out a little more about some of the brilliant contributors that make each of our print issues so different and intriguing. We hope that for you, our readers, it will provide an opportunity to learn a little more about their processes and journeys. With any luck, in turn the features will yield further insight and inspiration.
First up is one of our favourite illustrators to date, Michael Lester. Commissioning illustrators is always an exciting part of the mag making process. As we work through the portfolios of all those who submit to be part of a print issue, it’s absorbing to see how different styles interpret their subject matter.
Michael’s style is one that I was drawn to from the moment I checked out his portfolio. His ability to distil complex concepts into simple, clever and often witty graphics is an incredibly valuable one in my eyes. Already able to count IBM amongst his clients, I’m clearly not alone in that opinion either.
Recently his projects have won awards and gone viral, so it’s as good a time as any to pick his brain and find out a little more about the mind behind the magic.
You graduated in 2013, so it’s been a couple of years now in the world of work, in hindsight, how well do you think your studies prepared you for it all?
Coming from an illustration course we were prepared for the world of freelance illustration rather than design or advertising so jumping into the latter was quite a big shock to the system. I felt extremely unprepared but I actually wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. When you’re scared/ unprepared/ out of your depth something happens in your brain and although it might not seem like it at the time I think you learn a lot more, a lot faster. Not having those professional skills wasn’t important because you pick those things up fairly quickly. The other skills I had learnt at university – personal development and creative exploration for example, were much more important and were skills you wouldn’t have learnt in a full time job so in a way I was prepared the best I could have been.
Pretty soon after graduating you moved to Paris to intern with Ogilvy & Mather, a position that led to a full-time position as an assistant art director, how was that internship experience?
I learnt so much in that first six months, in real life situations you can’t fail or come up with the same excuses you might have told yourself in university as to why the work wasn’t up to scratch. I learnt to work in front of people, to have confidence and probably most importantly to share each stage rather than hide away before revealing the final piece. I would sit alone in my room when working on a university project until it was almost finished and I was happy to show people. You don’t get that in a studio or agency, the clients don’t trust you that much! Having the confidence in each stage from sketched idea to execution, and the ability to see your vision through is so important and one of the most valuable things I learnt.
You left agency life behind in September 2014, just as we were beginning work on Issue Three, in order to set-up as a freelancer, had this been your dream since university?
I think I’ve always wanted to be in control of my workload whether that be in an agency with lots of freedom or going freelance. After leaving university I actually applied to a lot of design studios as I realised even though going it somewhat alone was the end plan, I wanted some form of experience, which I would recommend to anyone wanting to go freelance. The Paris thing popped up unplanned and although working in an ad agency had never crossed my mind it became the perfect predecessor of my lunge into the freelance world.
You’ve picked up three D&AD pencils in four years, how useful do you find entering competitions? Are they best for inspiration or promotion?
The most useful thing for me was how they changed my way of working at a time when I was struggling with ‘why’ I was creating work (coming from a fine art course at college I had to make a switch into more rational illustration/design thinking). The briefs and competitions gave me a real question to answer and set out a few barriers for myself and sometimes you need that, even if you’re going to break them. They have helped me to understand why I would make work as a whole too and I think that’s the main difference from pre-university me and post-university, I went from having my work and my personality as two separate things to them being indistinguishable and that’s really what you’re going to get from your studies. The D&AD briefs helped uncover the reason why these two weren’t gelling before, I realise I needed questions to answer rather than plucking reasoning from thin air. And in turn, that drove my personal work too and gave me more discipline and confidence when setting my own briefs.
The two projects that have made waves recently are ‘Hire the Future Me’ which we took you up on, and ‘The World’s Smallest Portfolio’. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind them?
Self promotion is one of those things that can go either way, I think what makes the difference is what it says beyond the self-promotion, beyond you saying ‘look at me’ how does it reflect you as a person? Although both of these projects are fuelled by their ideas I hoped to show a little bit of me as a person – hiring me for the future because I’m a hopeless optimist and shrinking my portfolio to reveal the conceptual side of my process. Being able to reinvent yourself through your work appealed to me from a young age, being fairly shy I struggled with communicating on the spot so this idea of being able to spend weeks thinking about what you wanted to say and how to say it really resonated with me and still does.
What’s your dream brief (if there’s such a thing)?
A dream brief would have, firstly, time. Sometimes we forget how important time is in a project, thinking speed trumps time and if we can get it out a week earlier we will benefit. I am guilty of it too, I often quote how long a project will take to complete but forget to schedule in reflection time, time to just sit on an idea for a few days. If you push an idea hard enough it will roll on its own for a little bit, so it’s important to sit back and watch where it goes. Other than than, a perfect brief would have a clear direction but with lots of freedom, in other words, it’s great to work for people who know exactly what they want but haven’t found it yet. That’s actually the butt of a common joke with client work, ‘they will know it when they see it’, but isn’t that what we do it for – the thrill of opening their eyes and bringing to life what they had in mind? I think the difference is some clients already have something very clear in their mind even if they think they don’t. So an open-minded client with a clear direction, that combination is important to make a killer brief. Add in a clear message/reason for the work other than ‘so it looks better’ and you start to have something great. It takes less than you think and most often it’s not the content of the brief but all the other factors which make it exciting.
Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished a big set of illustrations and animations for the Orange County Transportation Authority with LA agency Nurture Digital so I will be releasing that soon, it was a wonderful project to work on. Right now I’m juggling about 6 projects, some web design , some animation, a logo design and even some script writing so a real mix which is just how I like it. I also have a big personal project that consists of a huge set of 24 animated posters in collaboration with ToandTO which I’ve almost finished and will be dropping soon.
What would be your one piece of advice for design and illustration students?
Never stop learning. A good example on a small scale is when someone tells you a quicker way of doing something, maybe on Photoshop or Illustrator. It’s easy to say ‘thanks but I like to do it this way because I’m used to it’ and ignore the advice and choose routine over the unknown, we’ve all done it but you have to embrace that help as that’s how you progress. You’ll find that those small decisions probably reflect your attitude as a whole. And always welcome failure, I heard this lecture from The School of Life which asked – “do you avoid challenges so you can stay the best or do you embrace them and love to fail?” It speaks for itself and you can apply it to everything. Be a small fish at every opportunity, you might feel a little uncomfortable but you’ll grow faster.
Michael’s site is beautiful. I can’t help but grin each time I hover over the logo and it splits into his initials MWL. It’s packed with clever, crisp and comedic work guaranteed to distract you from whatever it is you were going to do before you started reading this interview.