Naomi Atkinson is a designer and illustrator who runs her own studio based in Newcastle upon Tyne. An avid photographer, gallery-goer, and tea and sketch-book addict, Naomi is passionate about creating beautiful experiences for the web and mobile.
Naomi is as lovely as they come. We were thoroughly charmed by her brilliant English accent (who wouldn’t be?), her quiet and unassuming nature, and her genuine interest in inspiring others. So what are you waiting for? Go make yourself a cup of tea, get cozy, and sit down to a good read as Naomi shares about taking risks, why her Mum is her mentor, and what it’s like to be in a relationship with another creative person. Cheers!
Interview date: September 12, 2011
Describe your path to becoming a designer.
I have to say it probably started at school with my decision of what I was going to take at A-level. I’m not sure if you have an equivalent level of qualification, but A-levels are usually the thing that we do before going to university. When I was at school, I got to the point where I had to choose what to focus on at A-level. It became a stumbling block before I even started because I wanted to take creative subjects including art, design technology, and graphics. They weren’t going to allow me to take art or graphics, believe it or not, because I hadn’t taken art earlier in my school life. I have a teacher named Mr. McKaw to thank for poking the art department saying, “Here, look at her design technology stuff and how artistic it is. You have to let her do art.”
So it started there and on into my graphics design class, where we played around with CorelDraw (version 4 or 5 I think it was at the time). At that point, I had no idea what I was doing or that the web industry even existed. I certainly wasn’t aware of the kinds of roles and opportunities that were out there. From there I was accepted into university — on a deferred year placement, as the suggested route was to complete an Art Foundation course at college beforehand. So off to college I went. But after only a day there, I came to realize I’d already covered the syllabus at A-level. There was only one thing on the Art Foundation course that I hadn’t done, textiles, which simply didn’t interest me at the time. So I rang up the university and said, “I’ve got a place on your course for next year but would you consider taking me this year instead?” They said sure, so I started university a year earlier than planned, which was great. I went for 3 years and studied Multimedia Design. I basically did a bit of everything: graphics, web, sound, animation, film.
Even throughout university I wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus on. It wasn’t until close to my graduation that I attended a talk by some local businesses who were giving advice about how to get into a job and the kinds of roles out there. One of the guys who spoke there turned out to be my first boss. He invited a few of us to go for an interview for a job concentrating in web design. I ended up being hired, along with another friend of mine, so I kind of fell into my first role before I even graduated! I stayed in that job for 3 years before continuing on to two other agencies and then I eventually made the decision to work for myself.
How many years did you spend working at different agencies before you branched out on your own?
I only went out on my own in July of last year. After working at my first job for 3 years, I then moved to London and worked with an advertising agency for about 8 months. I loved the agency. It was so much fun and I learned a great deal about another corner of our industry and picked up a lot of skills. But unfortunately, the role wasn’t quite right. I spent a lot of time doing banner ads. It just wasn’t where I wanted to be. So I then looked for another role in a senior position, as I’d achieved that seniority in my first job and missed the responsibility and challenges it brought. I ended up in an integrated agency that was well known for print work and branding, but not so well-known for their web stuff. I worked there for a good 2.5 years leading their web design team.
My agency experience was invaluable in setting me up to go out on my own. I would never have jumped straight into this and I’m glad I didn’t. I would recommend that anyone wanting to work for themselves should get some agency or studio experience first - it simply teaches you so much.
Was creativity a part of your childhood?
Yes! Very much so. I have vivid memories of my grandparents taking me to many art galleries when I was a child. One of the most poignant was going to see Picasso’s works in Amsterdam. They (my grandparents) were just fantastic like that. I suppose I was creative in other ways as well. I was musical. I played the French horn for 7 years and was in a number of orchestras. I also loved to sing and be on stage so I was in many, if not all school performances that came up. I was in a pantomime society for a year, which was fun. I had a passion for gymnastics and dancing, which I taught for a lot of years when I was younger. I was absolutely hopeless at sports — I didn’t really enjoy them. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that if it was more about competing and it wasn’t about creativity, it just didn’t interest me at all.
So creativity was definitely a big part of my childhood. I was also always aware how artistic my Nanna and Mum were (they were both very good artists), something that, sadly, neither of them kept up. I think that helped urge me on even more, to make sure I continued to keep creativity a major part of my life.
Was there an “aha” moment where you knew design was really what you wanted to do?
(laughing) Um, no. I had absolutely no idea that I would go into designing for the web (specifically), or any clue that I would start my own business. Everything just seemed to fall into place, but then, I’ve always been a great believer in fate and I think everything happens for a reason. We learn from everything we do, good and bad.
You talked about college and university. What’s the difference?
University is mainly about studying a degree or master’s degree. College offers a number of courses and qualifications that people may want to do as well as, or instead of a degree. They’re usually shorter in length than the average 3–4 year degree. Most colleges also offer A-level qualifications so if you didn’t want to continue studying at your high school at 16 like I did, you can attend college instead.
So you got a degree from university?
Yes. I got a BA Honors in Multimedia Design from Northumbria University in Newcastle.
Did you or do you have a mentor and how did they inspire you?
For life in general, it was and always will be my Mum. She’s the reason I am who I am today. With regards to design, I’ve never had one consistent mentor, but looking back there have been a number of people over the years including family, friends, and great people I’ve worked with, whether I’ve worked alongside them or for them. A huge rock for me now of course, is Dan. The man just knows too much. I honestly don’t know how he stores it all!
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do and who has encouraged you the most along your creative path?
Growing up, my family always taught me that nothing’s unreachable or impossible, even if they weren’t aware of it. My Mum was a single parent and had me when she was very young so we’ve always been extremely close, almost like best friends rather than mother and daughter. She brought me up to be just as independent and (quietly) confident as she is. She taught me to make my own decisions and she always supported and respected them.
Was there a point in your life or career where you decided you needed to take a big risk to move forward?
Yes, I’d say there were quite a few, but the biggest one was last year in starting my own business. It was a really scary thing to do. I’m glad I did it when I did, not prematurely. I was very ready.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself? What do you hope to contribute through design?
Not so much before the last year. When I was working for others, I wasn’t overly aware of contributing to anything outside of that agency. Now that I’m working for myself and people are following my work or taking an interest in what I’m doing or saying, I’m very aware of my work and opinions and how others might react. I’m starting to speak at a few industry events later this year and throughout next. I feel a huge responsibility to make sure that what I present is inspirational or helpful to anyone who’s kind enough to listen.
In terms of my work and what I want it to do, it’s really simple. I want it to inspire and encourage people. I’d really like people to see what I’ve done and say to themselves, “Okay, it’s easy. I can do it. There’s nothing holding me back.”
“I really believe if you can’t look back on a project and think, okay, I’ll do that better next time, you’re not actually improving. We’re masochists really. We always want to be doing better than whatever is current.”
That’s very cool. Are you satisfied creatively? Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
Ooh, hard question. I think I’d question whether anyone’s ever completely satisfied creatively. I certainly love what I do and get a buzz from what I do everyday. It’s satisfying. But whether I’m completely satisfied, I don’t think that will ever be the case because I don’t think I’d be a good creative or designer if I were constantly satisfied. I’m always trying to better myself as are most of us. I really believe if you can’t look back on a project and think, okay, I’ll do that better next time, you’re not actually improving. We’re masochists really. We always want to be doing better than whatever is current.
I went back to my old university recently to give a lecture to some of their design students. When I was speaking to my old lecturer about the quality of my work, he laughed and said to me, “Naomi, nothing was ever good enough for you. You were always trying to better your work. You were constantly frustrated.” University was 8 years ago for me now and his comments reminded me that I’ve always been that way.
Did that answer your question?
Yes, it did. What about where you see yourself down the road? Do you plan to continue in design or do you have other things you’d like to tackle?
I think I will always be in the creative industry of sorts, no matter what I do. I’d like to create some physical products. I have a growing number of ideas for posters and cards — simple things like that that are very much design related. I have some exciting things on the horizon, I’m part of the team working on Animatable1 which we’re all extremely giddy about.
I imagine I’ll still be working for myself and learning a lot along the way. I’ve learned a hell of a lot about myself in the last year alone — my strengths, my weaknesses, what environments, people, or projects make me happy. I think I’ll continue to progress on a personal level as much as I will with my business.
If you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?
You know, I don’t think I would do anything differently. I don’t mean for that to come off sounding as if I’m perfect, because I’m certainly not, but I don’t like having regrets in general. I’ve been lucky enough to have been extremely fulfilled in my roles across the 3 different agencies that I worked for. And now, working for myself has given me the freedom to travel which is something I’ve been desperate to do for so long. I’m really happy with how life has panned out so far. I don’t think I’d change a thing.
If you could give advice to another designer, what would it be?
Find the creatives that inspire you and follow them in their careers. It’s something I didn’t do much of when I was younger and I wish I had. Also, know that you will make mistakes and that it’s a good thing, a very good thing. If you don’t come away from a project thinking about how you would do something differently next time, or you haven’t learned some sort of lesson from it, then you will never improve.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
Hugely. I just moved into a new apartment in April and I cannot explain how much of a difference it’s made in my day to day work. I was in a small flat before with no kind of outdoor area or garden. It was fine for just little old me, but if I had anyone else with me, it was far too small and compact. I certainly couldn’t have brought clients over or anything like that. This place I’ve got now is a strange mix of somewhere to live (being homely and comforting) and somewhere to work (being a large, open plan and very spacious). It’s not an office per se, but a very, very big apartment. It’s truly perfect as it allows me to get away from my work (so important) and I now feel comfortable inviting clients or colleagues around for a meeting or to work alongside me.
What about the area you live in (Newcastle)? How does that affect your creativity?
I miss London. But that said, Newcastle is great. Since I came back, I feel like there is a lot more going on. There are a couple of great industry conferences that have popped up and there seems to be more of a (web design) community here now, which is great. I’ve been back for over a year and I still don’t feel like I’ve made the most of the design community, but it’s here. I need to make more of it.
It’s hard coming back from London where there’s so much going on all the time. One of my favorite things in London was when I’d walk back from work at night and stumble upon a gallery opening. I probably went to about 10 gallery shows that way. I’d walk in, pick up a glass of white wine, meander around the space, and pick up names of a few artists I’d never heard of before. That was a surreal and fantastic kind of creative environment. I do miss that big city living, but I’ve got a miniature version of it here and it’s far from bad.
[Ryan] You mentioned art a couple times. Do you do any personal art or has it always been design?
I used to and I should be doing more. I’ve done a lot of life drawing over the years and have been looking for local classes again recently. I kick myself every time I have spare time and I reach for the TV remote over picking up my pencils and sketchbook. I used to sketch a lot and I’m determined to do more.
[Ryan] Now we have to ask you this since we interviewed Dan first2 and you guys are in a relationship… What is it like being in a relationship with the one and only Dan Rubin?
Oh, god. (chuckling) I should say fantastic. No, it is fantastic. I’ve never had the privilege to be in a relationship with someone who quite gets me on a creative and design level and who is as passionate as me (if not more-so at times!). That’s something really new to me and it’s truly brilliant. As lovely and as fantastic as my family members are, they don’t really fully understand what I do. Dan and I can run things past each other, work on projects together… we understand that we don’t work a 9 to 5 job, and know that sometimes there is going to be so much going on in our own minds that we need some space for a while. I think Dan mentioned that too. For us both to just get that, without it even needing to be said, is just fantastic. I couldn’t ask for more, really. Dan and I have a great thing going and I’m very grateful for it.
What does a typical day look like for you?
If you’d asked me 18 months ago, it would have been a really easy question to answer. Things have changed so vastly now that I work for myself, not to mention having a partner that lives on the other side of the ocean.
It always involves tea, on a daily basis. That’s probably the only consistent thing. I could be working from home or sometimes I’ll go out and work from a cafe. I like to get away from my desk and my screen, so I’ll go for a walk or to a gallery, or take myself to another space and flick through some books or something. I suppose most of my days usually involve staying up far too late and not spending enough time away from the computer screen.
Now for the fun questions, the easy ones… Current album on repeat?
Okay, there’s two that I have constantly on repeat at the moment… when I really need to get in the zone, I put on Daft Punk’s Tron album. And now they’ve released the remixed version. Oh my god, I can’t switch it off. It features the french horn a lot, it must be an inner calling. The other one is The XX, Crystalised. That’s usually what I listen to while doing admin work.
How about a favorite movie or television show?
They’re all overly visual. I suppose that may be a little typical. Sin City, The NeverEnding Story, The Science of Sleep, a French film by Michel Gondry, and Pan’s Labyrinth.
Do you have a favorite food?
Not particularly, but I think that the French and the Italians get it right. I like good bread and mature cheese alongside a glass of wine. But, if you give me a good pizza or pasta dish, I’m a very happy chappy. It’s carb-city — I really should be about 10 times my weight!
The only person we haven’t asked this last question is Dan. I don’t know why. He said so many great things that he probably answered it without us asking (laughing). What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
Oh my… I’ve never really thought that I would be known enough to ever contemplate leaving a legacy if I’m honest. Um, I think it just goes back to inspiring people. If I can inspire anyone in any way… to go out on their own for work, to have the strength to move to another city to take a great job, or to think about something in a slightly different way that they hadn’t thought about before, to just to go for it and believe that anything is possible.
I think I’d like to be perceived as a go-getter — a creative go-getter.
“Find the creatives that inspire you and follow them in their careers… Also, know that you will make mistakes and that it’s a good thing, a very good thing.”