#004 - What's on your bookshelf? Interview with Rob Draper
Updated: Apr 23, 2019
I managed to catch up with Rob Draper shortly after a talk I attended at the Birmingham City University. Rob's talk was really inspiring and he showed a journey of how things that had interested him growing up had stuck around in one shape or another and ultimately shaped the direction he took with his creative practice.
Some snippets from his musings within the talk are:
In relation to his love of graffiti.
The things that stuck with me - The more creative the brief, the better. The more creative the letters, the better. The more creative the placing, the better. Do the piece, get the photo, move on.
These principles certainly shaped his current practice of creating beautifully designed pieces on ephemeral materials, some of which might not even last. He puts the work in to make them as finished and well realised as possible before taking pictures and moving on to the next piece.
One of his aesthetics which he developed during working for a fashion brand was to create things as cheaply as possible, but without ever compromising on the overall finish.
In his spare time he started drawing really detailed pictures of birds on envelopes that he would then sell in galleries, as a creative outlet in addition to what he was doing in his day job.
When he was made redundant from his job at the fashion brand he started getting jobs hand painting typography on walls and A boards for restaurants, and decided that if he was going to be doing this kind of work, it would be a good idea to invest in himself and do some training with a narrowboat painter to get a better grasp of the skills and techniques of doing the things that he loved.
Rob commented that he hates selling, and wanted to find a way of selling, without selling. He had a conversation with someone who knew Donald Jackson who was the official calligrapher to the Crown, and picked up the following quote:
"Play working is the best investment you can make" - Donald Jackson
From there he began to look at Instagram and sharing work online that wasn't made for a specific client. He started to apply the things that had stuck with him in order to create things for himself, without a client. He had begun to draw on coffee cups to see how far he could push his creative output on a restrictive medium and in the beginning would often just leave the cups behind for someone to find and either bin, or keep.
"What if I were to treat it like a 'paid' project?"
He pulled everything together for the coffee cups, gave it a write up and showcased it on his website. Eventually the project was picked up by the Daily Mail who wrote an article about it, and then things blew up and it began to appear on design blogs around the world. It has since appeared in published books, and at one point there was a range available for sale a china cups in John Lewis.
The Coffee Time project was the first thing that drew me to Rob's work, but he has pushed the whole thing in many more directions, drawing on food, money, napkins, and even skulls.
His instagram feed is always a source of inspiration that often surprises me, and it was great to hear him talk about it.
He got to a stage in his life where things went through a big, unexpected change. Without going into it too much, he felt like he had hit rock bottom. He decided to stop and take stock of the things around him, putting things into perspective. He looked at what clients expected of him, and found that there were 3 things:
Through his work with the coffee cups he had learned that he had the ability to do his work anywhere; coffee shops, libraries, kitchen tables, or anywhere with WiFi. He didn't need an office.
He knew that the better the 'play' work he did - the better the client work he would get. He just needed to concentrate on three things with his 'play' work:
Concept, Execution, Presentation.
A lot of his Instagram posts were done using a cheap tripod with a selfie stick zip tied to it, using his phone to record what he did. This proved to be a portable setup that was enough to achieve the things that he needed to. Rob's main focus is his relentless work ethic, drawing, drawing, drawing.
His talk is aptly called Hard work, Relentless dreams, and WiFi.
I have done a separate post about his talk already which you can find here, when it was fresher in my mind, but I decided to read through my notes when I was writing up the conversation below.
Rob's story and the way he tells it really does motivate me to want to do better, and makes me realise how much can be achieved with so little. I had a chat with him after the talk about all sorts of things. His top 5 things for creatives below are great, especially 'Mindset Matters', and it's refreshing to be able to talk about mental health with someone. I think one of the best things I got from Rob that wasn't discussed as such, but was something that I picked up from him, was when things start looking like they are getting really tough or difficult, stop and take stock, assess what is important and cut away all the things that you might be chasing or trying to do because you think you are supposed to. Focus on the things that will make the positive changes and run with them.
What would you say are the three most important or influential books that you have on your book shelf? They don't have to be design related.
'Subway Art' by Henry Chalfant/Martha Cooper 1984.
This was a book that changed everything for me. It made art rebellious, creative, divisive and fun.
'It's not how good you are, it's how good you want to be' by Paul Arden
This is a fascinating insight into this industry. There are so many ‘take homes’ from it and principles that can be applied to many projects.
'The Flying Scotsman' by Graeme Obree
Graeme's story is so inspirational. How he had a mindset, different to everyone else and used it to become the worlds best whilst fighting depression and despair.
There seems to be a theme within what you say in your talk and some of the books you've mentioned that I can see reflected in your attitude towards what you do. I think the name for your talk is rather apt too "Hard work, Relentless dreams, and WiFi". You certainly inspire me to keep on with things, making small steps towards bigger goals. It's also reassuring that 'The Flying Scotsman' was able to achieve his dreams while tackling mental health issues. While mental health issues should not be ignored, it's good to see that they don't have to hold you back.
Is there a book that you go back to time and again, knowing that it will inspire you when you’ve hit a creative lull?
Very likely ‘It's not how good you are, it's how good you want to be’ by Paul Arden. Often a new situation can crop up that a fresh read of this will offer a different mindset to that situation. Or any book on Jackson Pollock, Keith Haring, or Roy Lichtenstein.
Often as designers we take it for granted that people know the same things that we do; or have been on the same kind of journey. If Design is a language, what are the top 5 things (vocabulary, if you will) that a designer should know to help them converse in the world of design?
Don’t take it personal
Get lost in the moment but never take your eye off the big picture.
Try to put as much pride and effort into everything you do, no matter how small.
Would you say that you have a favourite designer, and can you explain why they hold that rank with you?
There are so many but one which as a student made a huge impression which has stuck with me is David Carson, almost making typography illustration was hugely influential. Wild, chaotic combinations of images and type that looked like nothing else at the time.
I remember seeing something where David Carson was explaining his approach to Graphic Design, and he was suggesting that he broke so many of the established rules because he didn't know they were rules. It was this that allowed him to experiment in ways that others in the past had not.
One of my favourite Bass guitar players is Viktor Wooten and he suggests that he can learn a lot from someone who doesn't play the bass, perhaps they are a drummer, or have no musical background, but when you hand them the bass and ask them to play, they will approach it in all kinds of ways that you might never have thought of before.
Are there any other books you’d like to recommend?
Yes, without doubt the Paul Arden book mentioned above, Damn Good Advice by George Lois and Whatever you think, think the opposite by Paul Arden and all full of tips and stories to help shape your mindset.
I feel like the that 'Whatever you think, think the opposite' may be similar to Viktor Wooten's approach, in the fact that it's about approaching things from different perspectives rather than going down the well trodden path.
Thank you for sparing the time to talk to me, I've been following your work now for some time.
Also, look for my Blog post that I did about his talk.