Each summer DA profiles a selection of the top design graduates coming out of our tertiary institutions. We welcome these talented emerging professionals to our industry, learn about their passions, final projects, developing creative confidence and ambitions for the future.
Today we speak with Rob Burrowes from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University
Was there someone that inspired you to pick design as a career path?
I don’t think a singular person on their own that could have made me pursue anything. However, there is always an amalgamation of creatives that really inspire me. Whether it’s designers, photographers, filmmakers, painters or musicians; for me, they all melt into one pot of creatives muses to aspire to. These inspirations can change on a daily basis but within design, there’s always the icons like Dieter Rams, Paul Rand, Axel Vervoordt, Aaron James Draplin or Saul Bass for example.
The person who really gave me the confidence to be creative was Kanye West. As some really awesome art teachers at primary and high school levels. Anyone who knows me well knows of my slight obsession with Kanye. Many people find his egotism or arrogance rubs them the wrong way. I 100% understand that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But for me, he has always been a leading light. Especially in New Zealand, where the popular psyche is to be humble rather than to back yourself and believe you can actually achieve something. It’s that classic tall poppy syndrome that is so pervasive here that really takes a lot to overcome it within the creative field. Someone like Kanye is a perfect person to look to in order hone that sort of confident thinking necessary to take risks.
Can you tell us what your graduation project focused on?
For our Communication Design capstone course, we were tasked with creating a portfolio of our design work or a project that supplements our portfolios. This is in order to have a practical tool for gaining employment as graduates transitioning into the design field.
As I already had a website prior to this capstone paper that functioned as a digital portfolio, I wanted to find a new way to get in the faces of companies whose work I admired. I felt job
applications and cold emails usually end up buried in the bottom of someone’s inbox. So I decided to create a physical portfolio mailer. Created with the purpose making a memorable impact to those I’d like to work for. To give them an ‘experience’ with my work rather than relying on a formal job application. The idea was I send a beautifully designed package/envelope, with my own packaging design. That included an introductory page about who I am, my formal CV, my business card and examples of my work in the fields I specialise in photography, videography and design. Not only does this show off my design skills shows some of my personality. The act of even sending your work to someone you admire was daunting to me but I think it could impress them if it was done in the right way.
The mailer also had a postcard attached which was a bit of a cheeky move. The pre-stamped postcard had two boxes. One they could tick if they liked my work or one if they wanted me to bugger off. The idea being they could simply drop it in a mailbox with their contact details in the blank space. I didn’t really expect people to do this part but I think it was a good way of encouraging the recipients to do actively something with my work. Even if it was just taking my contact details from the business cards I threw in there and getting in touch with me.
This mailer idea, in general, was to be a bit of fun that doubles as a collectable magazine like object that could find its way to coffee tables within these companies I admire. Planting the seed for future opportunities, simply by making my name front of mind for them.
What were some of your most exciting or unexpected discoveries to come out of your project?
Probably seeing my work as a whole in a compact little package like that. The feeling I had a complete body or work I was totally confident in. It was exciting to think the value in that now had the opportunity be recognised by people whom I wanted to work for. Often as a creative you are sort of creating in a vacuum. Prior to this project, I didn’t really have any concerted effort outside of my website to really put myself out there that boldly. So this was a good way to make a bang.
What did you enjoy most during your course at Victoria?
It was trying out new things and developing my skills in a bunch of new disciplines. It’s always an uncomfortable feeling to improve your weaknesses. University is the place for
people to experiment and find out what exactly it is they enjoy. It’s a low risk environment so you can’t really go wrong. I did a paper on drawing, on industrial design like 3D
printing, some in marketing, some in typography. They’re all things I had interest in and wanted to get some more background on. I’ve only really scratched the surface with my
bachelor’s but I feel like I’m a lot more informed than before.
What was your biggest challenge while studying and how did you overcome it?
Definitely time management. I don’t think it can ever fully be perfected but it’s just something you have to manage. By the end of 3rd year I was tutoring a first year course,
doing University full-time, freelancing and had part-time job at a start up. It was a bit much but thankfully I have some room to breathe now. That process of juggling is never
easy but you need to just make priorities on what is important for you. Finishing my degree was well up there so I always made it happen in the end.
What’s the most valuable lesson you learned during your studies?
It’s hard to say. Perhaps that I am capable of seeing things through. Even If I am a type A personality, always striving to be the ‘A’ average student, I still found uni extremely
difficult. I’m not really cut out for it personality wise. I’m more of a “do it on my own” kind of person. So there were many moments where I just wanted to give up and drop out. But
I stuck with it and got to the end. I think being able to see through a long term goal like completing a degree is no small feat and now I’ve done it I can say I am capable of
accomplishing something of that scale.
Even though university is seen as a right of passage for many young New Zealanders. We don’t always highlight how difficult it is, whether its figuring out your living situation,
managing finances, balancing your work and social lives whilst trying to maintain an semblance of health mentally and psychically is tricky when you are still young and
figuring things out. I think I had it much easier than some of my peers where I had a lot of support from family and my girlfriend. Outside of academic learning, those soft skills is
really where I had to grow the most to get through.
How has your ability and confidence progressed since the beginning of your studies?
I think the most progression I’ve seen in myself is my writing skills and overall literacy. I’m not dyslexic but always found parts of reading and writing tricky. I think another place where I’m more confident now is research. I can identify whether something is credible. In the world of fake news, it’s a skill on being able to call bullshit on things or not. The ability
to seperate anecdotes and evidence, inherent bias and objectivity is so undervalued. University brings the understanding of the difference between the two and gives you some room to form your own opinions.
What does your creative process look like?
What I tried to do with my university portfolio was make it useful in my freelance practice outside of university. I wanted to create work that would serve multiple purposes and
needs. So even if mailing it to companies I like failed miserably, I could always use bits and pieces for other areas of my practice as collateral or promotional material etc.
I guess you would call this part of my progress based in pragmatism. I think good design always starts with serving a function and fulfilling a need. So I made sure I could maximise that purpose and mission. From there I could focus on how this would actually go together and happen visually. For this project that was driven by what I valued visually as a “personal brand” considering this project was essentially designing for myself. So I just took elements of what I like and integrated it in. For example, I wanted a really minimal business card that just got the info across in the most simplistic way. Business cards are expensive to print so I just decided to get rubber stamps made so I could cut my own business cards and “print” them as I wished. These stamps could also be used for stamping packaging, labelling my work, on prints of mine etc. So it served more purposes than just for the business card but for branding in general. I carried this kind of methodology throughout designing my portfolio. The entire idea was to make something that was a pleasant experience to open and enjoy when you received it. That would be valuable and beautiful, rather than just junk that people felt the burden of throwing away once they received it.
How do you see your work and practice developing, and what are your main aspirations?
As a freelancer I’m predominantly and photographer and videographer. So the role design plays for me is that super handy thing to have in my back pocket. To me all creative practices at large are based in the same skillsets: Creativity, problem-solving, lateral thinking, organisation, planning, collaboration etc. In my eyes I see all these disciplines as the same core-skills. In the past I have created entire promotional album packages for musicians. Directing their music videos, photographing album covers and using design to tie it all together in promotional material, designing their posters etc. So I feel like I’m making myself a jack of all trades in the kind of “digital media economy”. But I don’t see that is just the limit of myself as a lateral thinker. I’m super into so many things science, technology, industrial design, engineering, manufacturing, product, branding. I love it all. I don’t really want to put myself in a box too much. I feel if I can provide some level of value for people in that landscape I’ll be happy.
At the same time I don’t want to stretch myself too thin across those disciplines or make it hard for myself to create a personal brand where people know exactly what I do. I recently read a book called Range by David Epstein, which subtitle is “Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World”. I may be biased. But feel like the future humanity will have more generalised or multi-skilled practitioners. The meeting of the metaphorical lunch tables instead of siloed specialisations. That to me is where you can really gain a lot of creativity that is informed by other areas and knowledge bases. I think a lot of innovation can be found there. For me think my attention span and curiosity is too interested in everything to just be really good at one singular practice. As long as it is creating some value to myself or others I’ll be happy.
Which piece in your portfolio are you most proud of and why?
Probably the whole thing as a whole, like I said in question 3. It feels so good to have all of what I am succinctly in one little envelope. It reminds me of when Steve Jobs unveiled the MacBook Air in 2008. Where he slides this amazing thing out of an envelope. I liked that feeling of surmising who I am as in artist within something so simple as a brown vanilla envelope.
Why did you choose to study at Victoria, and what do you feel you can take away now that you’ve completed your course?
A lot of people ask me why I didn’t choose Massey University for my studies. In all honesty, it was the length of the degree. 3 years at Victoria vs 4 years Honours at Massey is essentially the question you have to ask yourself. I believed finishing my degree quicker and getting 1 year real-world experience was going to be more valuable than another year of studying for an Honours degree. Will that pay off? Who knows but I think that’s just what suited me better. Qualification isn’t everything in the creative field so I felt like an Honours degree was at the point of diminishing returns for me personally.
How are you feeling about the future?
I’m very relieved to be done with university and just want to get stuck in. COVID provides a fair bit of doubt for graduates right now. Which is concerning on the job security side of things. But I’m just excited, I want to get amongst it and do what I’ve wanted to do the whole time I’ve been studying. I’ve been working on a film that I’m directing at the moment, we crowdfunded it on Boosted (https://boosted.org.nz/projects/dance-dance-revolution). That’s what Im focussing on right now. I think in New Zealand we are pretty well-positioned to get along with things as near normal, so I am really thankful to the governments management so far of the COVID situation.
What does your dream job look like?
The dream job is not to have a job. I feel like If I can be an independent creative collaborating with my favourite companies, brands or individuals I will be pretty happy. I’d love to do some work for I-D magazine, some fashion brands or with Kanye. I just want to be able to create value for others in some capacity with likeminded people. The ultimate goal is not to take orders from people, or have to clock in sell my time for my livelihood. Time is our most valuable asset. Doing that whilst being able to maintain a healthy personal life would be amazing.
I’ve always noticed my work takes a bit of a hit when I am doing it for the money or sacrificing my own mental/physical health. My favourite work is always that which is self-motivated without external drivers like money. So If I can protect that sovereignty in my work I will be really happy. That requires a lot of factors, financial stability mainly. So for me it’s a matter of getting to that level financial independence so I can protect my work from the world. If that makes sense?
I understand this could come across as super idealistic but I’m a really focused person. I will try my best to make this happen. I feel like a lot of creatives say something along the same lines and either end up broke or working in more of the commercial world than the art world. I’m willing to do whatever it takes as a creative to break that stereotype that you’re either broke or a sell-out. I just don’t think that’s true. So will be working on that one, watch the space.