We have a Designer Interview With Drew de Soto who is the founder (2000) and Creative Director of Navig8 and has gone on to work with some of the most influential UK organisations, including the British Council, the UK Government, international charities and brands. His previous books Know your Onions – Graphic Design and Know your Onions – Web Design are both BIS Publishers bestsellers.
— The Logo Creative™ (@thelogocreative) 17 July 2019
Drew has contributed to Policy Connect, the UK think tank that works with parliamentarians, business and the public sector to help improve government policy.
He runs an independent gallery (Nancy Victor) in central London, and spent a fair few years on stage as a comedian, performing in clubs and theatres ranging from the Comedy Store in Leicester Square to shows in Hong Kong and beyond. Drew has written comedy sketches for Comic Relief and three radio plays.
Drew is the author of Know Your Onions: Graphic Design, Know Your Onions: Web Design, Know Your Onions: Corporate Identity, and What to put in your portfolio. Know Your Onions: Graphic Design ran as a career development course at Middlesex University (London).
He doesn’t take life too seriously. He lives in central London with his wife and son.
The Logo Creative – Hi Drew it’s a real pleasure to be featuring you in our designer interview.
Drew de Soto – Hi Andrew, busy boy you… sure I’m up for that, up for anything me…
The Logo Creative – What was the turning point in your life when you decided to become a designer and how did you proceed?
Drew de Soto – I don’t think there was just one occasion when I decided, I think there were a number of stages when circumstances and opportunities presented themselves – and I took them – they were all turning points.
At school, I could draw a bit, but I had no graphic design work to show when I arrived at my interview at Nene College. They could see I was keen and sent me away to create a portfolio. I designed my own hand-drawn font, it was a Bauhaus-esque effort, and a massive amount of made-up projects. I got in. At this stage, I had decided to be a graphic design student.
A 16 year old’s attempt at creating a font.
I did stacks of work experience, which I think was invaluable. Whilst working in a pub, I met a bloke who looked after all of the big bands at the time, producing their merchandise. So, I asked him if I could have a go. My first job was UB40’s Labour of Love Tour. He bought the lot from me and I bought a car. At this point I decided to start my own business.
It was an amazing time. I worked with some of my musical heroes (U2, BB King and the Sisters of Mercy), as well as Chesney Hawkes. But, like all good things, it came to an end. So, I decided I wanted to move to London and get a job as a graphic designer.
I worked for an agency in north London; to be honest, the work wasn’t very good, but I did learn the business. After five years of running my side of the business, the accounts, purchasing, even invoicing, I decided to set myself up in business again, but as a proper agency with business cards and everything. At this point, I knew I was a designer, but I didn’t know I could be a businessman as well.
I set up my agency in 2000. It is still small and going strong.
original logo (and the current one) is a customised combination of Berkeley and Helvetica
In 2011, after a chat with a client and design manager at a major UK charity, he decided I should be an author. Despite writing four or more books and more in the pipeline, I still don’t feel like an author, but I do feel like a graphic designer at least.
The Logo Creative – What does your day consist of?
Drew de Soto – Wake seven-year-old son – this can take 45 mins. Dog walks me to work. We have a new puppy. I used to walk to work, pick up a scrambled egg smoked salmon sandwich with a double espresso – now I pick up poo!
- Get to work and look at my inbox, which has 6,742 emails – on average
- Conference call
- Day’s briefing with the team
- Shout at dog
- Estimates, discuss new briefs, review concepts (shout at the dog) – this is the best bit (with the exception of the dog)
- Have a pint with the team after work
- Dog walks me home
- Spend time with my family and write
- Dog and me time
The Logo Creative – Are you a morning person or night owl and is there a reason why?
Drew de Soto – I describe myself as a morning person, because I stay up until the early hours. When I set up Navig8 the first thing I did was set a start time of 10 am. I can barely speak before 9 am and if I do it tends to be quite negative.
I don’t know why I’m a night owl. People evangelise about getting up at 5 am and me missing ‘the best of the day’, but in my experience it’s dark, the bin men are your only friends and London looks at you suspiciously.
The Logo Creative – What was the first logo you ever designed?
Drew de Soto – Tough one. As students, we designed all sorts of things we thought were logos, but I don’t think I can count them. I think the best logo I did, back in the day, was one for myself. It was a linocut self-portrait when I was hirsute. My life, I’d love to be in a place now where I could get a chisel out for a logo.
My first proper logo for my personal identity. Originated as a linocut.
The Logo Creative – What is your favourite logo you have designed?
Drew de Soto – Even tougher one. I suspect, like most designers, it’s the designs that often get rejected that are the ones you are most proud of. This concept presentation (below) was for a very lovely hotel and spa. It came to nothing in the end. Despite delivering it yonks ago, I think it’s a great example of how me and my team tackle things and shows the diversity of thinking.
First round creative presentation, way back in 2010 (crikey – nine years ago!)
The Logo Creative – What is your favourite logo of all time?
Drew de Soto – If you think you are going to get FedEx and UPS from me, forget about it. These are the everyday logos I like, and I’ll tell you why:
Ubiquitous but often overlooked
I’ve written a blog about them here: http://www.navig8.co.uk/knowledge-comment/2017/2/15/ubiquitous-and-overlooked
The Logo Creative – Can you describe or give us an overview of your logo design process?
Drew de Soto – I can. I think the process is very important and whilst every job is different, if we are all honest with ourselves, the underlying process is the same. What does differ is the level and depth of preliminary work and then the final application. I’m about halfway through Know Your Onions: Identity and it has been interesting trying to articulate process on projects that are so wide-ranging, from say a local restaurant to a global brand.
Where do you begin? Where do you stop? We rarely get asked just to design a logo; at the very least we perform a complete corporate identity project. Let’s not forget, identity isn’t ‘branding’, identity is just a part of branding.
Do we include strategy, positioning, and analysis? Do we include copy, straplines, descriptors – lift speeches?
This is even before we start with creative and concepts.
I suppose to answer the question, I’ll share our process PDF on how we go about it.
The Logo Creative – What brands do you most admire and how do they influence your creative thinking?
Drew de Soto – My philosophy is this: buy the most expensive you can or the cheapest. Never buy in the middle. Anything middle is rubbish, middle-lane driving, middle of the lane journalism, middle England. I’ll happily buy a suit from Sainsbury’s, but I wouldn’t buy a pocket square from anywhere other than Turnbull & Asser.
I’m not influenced by any brand. I love my experience with the brands I engage with and I mean this in the true sense of a brand. Not Apple, not GUCCI and certainly not Aston Martin. Although all of them are aspirational, they produce stuff I really like and usually can’t afford, none of them inspire me or influence me. I have a respect for what they have built up.
From a visual perspective (which isn’t brand, it is only a part of it), I love the work of La Boca. These guys don’t give a monkey’s about the trends – the work is mint. I like other stuff, too. I see stuff on Behance that frankly knocks me to the floor, the talent out there is extraordinary.
Setting aside my penchant for pocket squares or a shirt made by master craftsmen (or women in this case) and the most understated, professional service you get from Turnbull & Asser, the best brand experience is a cafe.
In Fitzrovia, where I live and work, Felice owns Italia Uno, the most authentic Italian cafe you’ll find outside Italy. He’s got about 6 TVs in there all showing football. Football shirts and memorabilia hanging from the ceiling. I hate football, but I love this place. It’s honest, it’s a great value, home-cooked food and I barely have to cross the threshold and he’s made me what I want. He’s behind the counter no matter how early I start in the morning and it is a rare thing for me to pass by on my way home and he’s not there. Bloke deserves a medal.
The Logo Creative – What do you consider your most successful design project, and why?
Drew de Soto – Probably my son. Half me, half my wife. So deeply on brand, it’s ridiculous. Design wise, I would say most of our annual reports are up there. At Navig8 we do a lot of reports and accounts, and to be really good at them you need to have a deep understanding of the client, stakeholders and the messaging. Designing a nice set of accounts just doesn’t cut it. I was dead chuffed with an interior project we did at Boxpark, in Shoreditch. We had a tiny budget and a week to do it, that included fitting. We installed a custom floor, walls and display. We had interactive screens, and the work (students from UCL) was displayed like works of art. It was short lived, but boy-oh-boy was it a buzz.
The Logo Creative –How long does it take to complete the average logo design project from start to finish?
Drew de Soto – Two whiskies and notepad. The rest is mechanics and takes as long as it takes. I’ve done them in a week and I’ve done them in a year.
The Logo Creative –What are you recommended design books to read?
Drew de Soto – This is a trap – if I list my books I’ll look a right plonker and if I don’t, I’ll miss a mass marketing opportunity. Instead, I will respond like a politician and answer the question I want to answer. Which is ‘What books, other than design-related books, do you recommend a designer should read?’
Nice question, I’d recommend they read these, roughly in the order listed below, with a brief description of why I think they are worth a read:
you can read this at any point in your life, for me, it’s a rite of passage book for any free spirit.
Published in 1936, it is still relevant today (except the advice on ‘how to deal with your wife’!) read it every couple of years until you practise what he preaches.
Bennet is a genius, and this is an odd one from him, written in 1910. It’s not to be taken too seriously, like life. It’s a bit out of date, but the principles apply today.
There is no publishing date, but it was about 1513, and yes it is relative today if you set aside waging war and generally being an overlord.
and all of my books such as Know Your Onions which Andrew did a great review on.
The Logo Creative –Which software do you use frequently and is there any you would recommend to designers?
Drew de Soto – Pad and pencil, software does little for creativity, it can even be detrimental.
The Logo Creative –What is your favourite style of logo design? And why?
Drew de Soto – Well, I’ll tell you something – what I don’t like – logos that pamper to the trend of the minute. It’s even worse with web design where almost every client asks for the same site, you know the one, logo, hamburger menu, big picture with an invitation to ‘scroll down’. God save me.
The best ‘style’ of logos are the ones that barely need to change over decades. Evolution not revolution. Design one of them and you are cooking.
The Logo Creative –What is your daily inspiration when you design?
Drew de Soto – My team, my clients and the constant belief that we can always do better.
The Logo Creative –When you’re not designing do you have a favourite free time activity you like to do?
Drew de Soto – I love to write. I write most days, not just about design. I’m ‘lucky’ enough not to have a TV; you would be amazed what you can do if you are not glued to Love Island. I’m learning the Cello, which I started in May this year and it is the hardest thing I have ever tried to do. My teacher looks about 11 years old and has the patience of the Dali Lama, and even though I am rubbish, I love it.
I like driving my Morgan 3 Wheeler and drinking scotch, but not at the same time.
The Logo Creative –What was the biggest challenge you ever faced on a project?
Drew de Soto – Every job is a challenge and it should be. If you don’t challenge a client on their business card design then stay in bed.
The challenges I see on every design project are these:
- Astonishingly loose and poor briefs. Even after extensive questioning, there can be a complete lack of information to help us give the client what they are looking for.
- This need to have all the source files so the client can take over and, well, y’ know.
- The expectation that you will work for free, meetings, endless estimates, and extra work being the main culprits.
The Logo Creative – In your opinion what’s the best and worst part of your job as a designer?
Drew de Soto – Worst: clients who don’t understand how to buy design, dictate what they think works and become defensive when things don’t turn out the way they think they should.
Best: Every day is different, every job a creative challenge – I still whistle my way to work.
The Logo Creative –Who is the most inspiring person to you and why?
Drew de Soto – When I said yes to this interview, I was expecting easy questions, like ‘is it true you can play the harmonica?’ or ‘If you were a song what song would you be?’, not these tricky ones. If I had to choose, it would probably be Charles Dickens. Rubbish childhood, father in debtors prison, forced to work as a child, on-off education. Self-taught, pursued his dream, loved his children and worked extremely hard. Became a national treasure in his own lifetime, without trying to be highbrow.
The Logo Creative – Who is your favourite graphic designer and why?
Drew de Soto – I don’t have one, although I am quite partial to a bit of Abram Games.
The Logo Creative – What’s your favourite design quote or quote in general, and do you have a mantra or saying you live by?
Drew de Soto – “When you are the anvil, hold you still. But, when you are the hammer, strike your fill.” George Herbert
The Logo Creative – In less than 10 words what is graphic design?
Drew de Soto – I’ll put it like this
- Actual brief
- Client tampering
The Logo Creative – What steps did you take to start your graphic design business? Did you have to make any sacrifices on your journey?
Drew de Soto – I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar … no hang on a minute, that’s not right. I was working at an agency, but freelancing my trousers off in the evenings and weekends. I made sure nothing was a conflict of interest, but took on as much as I could. I worked all of the time.
I saved every penny. When my short-sighted bosses didn’t give me what I wanted, I walked. I walked into a tiny studio in Goodge Street, Fitzrovia, London, where I still am today (not the same studio I might add). I worked every evening and every weekend, I still do.
There were sacrifices, but who cares.
The Logo Creative – Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you would have changed early on in your career?
Drew de Soto – Well, I’d have positioned myself slightly differently at the beginning. The people you meet early in your career make a huge difference to how you end up working on later.
When I was a student we had a talk by Peter Saville, either I’m showing my age or his. So, I asked him, ‘how come you get to work with such great clients and projects?’ He paused, swept back his luxurious locks and said, and I have to paraphrase, ‘the people you meet when you are young may go on to great things and they can then turn into great clients’. How you do that I don’t know. But he was right.
The Logo Creative – If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
Drew de Soto – Don’t get undressed in your girlfriend’s parents’ living room no matter what time it is.
The Logo Creative – What’s the most important piece of advice you have received as a designer that’s helped you?
Drew de Soto – It was from a chap called Bob Hewson, who was Creative Director at an agency I did work experience for when I was about 19 years old. We had to work late on a job and the work had gone out to the typesetters (look it up) and it wouldn’t be back to us for paste up (look it up) until really late. He asked me what we should do? I said ‘tell ’em to get a shift on or we will be here all night’. He said, ‘No, we go down there and help them get a shift on, even if it’s just make them a cup of tea’. He taught me the value of working with your suppliers and building long-term relationships. I’ve worked with one printer for about 23 years.
The Logo Creative – What would be your advice for new Logo and Graphic Designers?
Drew de Soto – Just how new is new? Starting from birth then:
- Toddlers: Don’t draw on the walls and steer clear of Sharpies
- School children: Copy work from the greats but make it your own: think a tour poster for Skepta by Abram Games
- Students: Get lots of work experience. Experiment all you can but make sure the work ends in a tangible final result
- Juniors in employment: Be helpful and listen. Write down what you have been told to do so you don’t forget. Be as keen as mustard.