First things first, how did you get where you are today?

Well, as you say, first things first. I’m not sure I know where I am today. But I do know the journey I have taken. When I was at school I could draw, so I looked at doing a fine art degree. But it all seemed a bit ‘hippy’ for me, way too many bangles and bad clothes. Everybody smelt of Petulian Oil. So I chose Graphic Design. I could see the link between ‘art’ and the commercial world and I didn’t have to wear bangles.

During my education I spent every single holiday doing work experience. I didn’t care where I went, small local companies or big London agencies. I used to stick address labels on the bottom of brouge shoes and post them to design agencies with a label tied to the shoe laces saying ‘I just want to get my foot in the door’. That got me into a few places where a ‘Dear Sir’ letter wouldn’t work.

During my final years at Nene College, after a chance meeting in a pub, I got to work for a music merchandising company as a freelance. This chap was managing UB40s world tour and was about to commission all the merchandise designs. I asked him if I could pitch my ideas to him. He agreed. Thanks to some very supportive tutors and a brilliant collaboration with a fashion student, I presented to him a range of 13 merchandise items, plus a printed tour book. He bought the lot. With the money, I bought a car.

When I left education I set myself up working in the music industry and worked out of a small room in a farm in Bedford. My clients included the Sisters of Mercy, U2, BB King and Robert Palmer. I learnt the business end of design first.

What I really wanted, to move to London. I applied for hundreds of jobs. Looking back, I can see why potential employers didn’t really know how to categorise me, I wasn’t a student, I hadn’t been a junior designer – what was I? Well, unemployable actually. I hand printed my CV using an Adana hot metal press, but the world had changed, computers, Macs, were changing our industry and I was on the back foot.

I landed my first and only job in graphic design in a small agency in north London. I worked my nuts off. I learnt how to use Quark and Freehand and I learnt print production. I was fortunate enough to have hands-off Directors who let me deal with my own clients, even to the point of me managing the billing. In five years I was turning over more for the company than they were.

One day I won back a client we had lost and I told my bosses the next day by putting a post-it note on their desk. I also asked for a pay rise. The post-it note came back with ‘well done’ written on it, but no pay rise. I resigned immediately.

Over those five years I had been working evenings and weekends as a freelancer, mostly in the comedy sector designing posters and flyers. I’d banked every single penny I had earned, some £8k.

I was living in Crouch End in a shared house with the actor Andy Serkis, the rent was low and I had worked out I had three months to make it on my own, or it was back to the job market.

I set up Navig8 in 2000 in an office where I could touch both walls if I stretched out my arms. I shared that office with my best friend.

We worked really hard, but we also messed about an awful lot. One week we only spoke to each other in the characters of German porn stars. I think that drove the film producer next door away, we didn’t know how thin the walls were until we took over his office.

Over the 16 year of being in business, the company has grown but essentially it is the same now as it was then although I don’t conduct business in a German accent anymore.

Did you receive any training or qualifications in graphic design?

Yes I did an Ordinary National Diploma in Graphic Design and then a Higher National Diploma in Graphic Design at Nene College in Northamptonshire. It was a brilliant time. I had a pet Thrush (a bird not the ‘condition’) at the time called Harold and I used to take him into class with me. He was probably the only bird that understands kerning.

You learn creativity at university, but nothing of the commercial world. That is something that I believe still needs addressing today. I contributed to a cross-party forum called Policy Connect whose mission was to consult with industry leaders and shape policy. Addressing the issue of bridging the gap between education and industry is a passion of mine.

What is the best part of doing what you do?

I still get a great buzz from seeing a great idea. And the flip side of that is I still get a feeling of disappointment when a project fails to meet its potential.

I like being ‘in business’ as well. Designers often shy away from the business end of things, but I find creativity and satisfaction in almost all aspects of running a design agency.

I live and work in Fitzrovia and I’m lucky enough to be able to dispel the myth that Londoners don’t know their neighbours. Fitzrovians have a true sense of community and it makes me happy every day.

In your opinion, what are the secrets to making it in the graphic design industry?

It depends on what you mean by industry really. Do you mean ‘make it’ as a designer? A business owner? A freelancer?

Let’s set aside the obvious traits you’ll need; passion, commitment, creativity etc. I think you need to be able to balance the needs of the client against your own creative will. If you are working for yourself you need to understand the cost of your own time and take reasonable steps to make sure you make a profit on your work. It may sound obvious but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Learning the business of design is vital, no matter if you are employed or working for yourself.

On a more practical level, there are two things I think are really important. Listen to your Creative Director. Really listen. What they say may not always make immediate sense, but they often know the wider picture. Sometimes you might feel they are stifling your creative prowess. They never want that, what they want is creativity, but creative and relevant solutions.

Secondly, read the brief and talk to the client. Often clients don’t know what they want, or what they want isn’t right. Really listen to them, question them and with experience you can often spot the underlying issue. Fix that and they will love you.

Oh and one more thing. Keep off email as much as you can. You won’t build a relationship over email. Some of the best work I have ever done was a direct result of a great personal relationship with a client. That includes big organisations like UCL and British Council. Talk to them, meet them – get to know them.

Where did the inspiration for your book come from?

For the first book I was inspired by an old colleague and friend of mine who was head of brand at Help the Aged.

We were discussing an identity review. A big agency had undertaken the work, pro-bono and it was rubbish. Harry said to me ‘you should share your knowledge, write a book’. So I did. Like most publishing stories I was told ‘there are enough books about graphic design out there, this one isn’t different’. But it is and I believe it still is.

A publisher in Amsterdam, BIS Publishing, actually read the book rather than dismissing the premise. None of my books showcase work from other designers, something a lot of book about graphic design do. The Know Your Onions books are not books for ‘dummies’, these books are for people who want to be experts in their field. Hence ‘Know Your Onions’, read this and you will really know what you are doing.

The 'Know Your Onions' book has now developed into courses - what do you think are the main challenges for graphic designers today?

I think there are a number of things that make a graphic designer’s life a bit trickier than when I started. It seems to me that the value of a creative’s work has reduced. We get asked to provide free creative work in a tender. Does the client provide their time for free when assessing the work? How do you think a mechanic would respond when being asked to fix your car on spec? Why should we offer our skills for free in the hope of winning the contract?

Competition in the creative industry is huge. Very few clients understand what it is they are actually buying or how to buy. The worst are the ones that try to dictate their vision and want the InDesign files at the end so that they can make their own ‘adjustments’. These people should of course be avoided, but there seems to be so many of them these days.

Do you think graphic design is something you can learn online, or on a short course rather than doing a longer degree?

I think you can learn from short courses. That’s why I’m launching Know Your Onions Training. It is important to know who is doing the teaching and what credentials and quality that teaching provides. Go onto YouTube and for the most part you will get a demonstration from someone who has less ability than Harold the Thrush.

University gives you something more than just a design education and I think it is vital that a serious designer has a university education. But as I have mentioned, you don’t learn everything you need to learn at university. Online courses have a place filling that gap. If in doubt, try to get in front of an agency director and show them your portfolio, they will tell you what you are lacking. But remember their time is precious and they are doing you a favour.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?

Do as much work experience as you can. Not every agency can afford to offer paid internships and why would they? Getting work experience at a good agency who will take some time to train you is gold. I think all creative businesses have an obligation to offer unpaid work experience. But they must offer education and career development. If they exploit anyone, in any way, they should be ashamed of themselves. I’ve heard of agencies charging for internships, that is appalling.

Graphic designers tend to be people who love their job. If they are not getting paid to do it, they do it anyway. We all want to produce the best work we can. I know that when we receive a brief our aim is always to deliver the most creative, relevant solution for the client. Clients don’t always see that.

Never stop trying to achieve that goal. In the words of Chumbawamba, ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again’.

Lastly treat yourself as a creative, not just a graphic designer. Look at every problem, and ask yourself, ‘what if’ – apply creativity to everything you do. Swim against the tide.

Do you have one project you are particularly proud of?

I suppose Know Your Onions: Graphic Design makes me proud because of the dialogue I now have with my readership. I would feel that I had nothing to say on Twitter without its existence. I didn’t labour over the book’s creation, I sat with my feet in the swimming pool and a laptop on my knees in Majorca and wrote the first draft in a week.

One of my neighbours in Fitzrovia went on holiday to the Philippines, they spotted a window display of Know Your Onion: Graphic Design in a book shop in Manilla, hearing that was a good moment.

Finally, what's the best piece of advice you have ever received?

‘When ye be a anvil, hold still. When ye be a hammer, strike!’ Actually I don’t think anyone gave that to me advice, but you get the gist.

Advice, let me see, yep, it was my Grandfather, ‘Moderation in all things, wine, women and woodbines’.

Drew De Soto is an author of a number of books on graphic design. These can be found at and the Director of the design agency Navig8,