Entrepreneur: Designed and Redefined
Michael Lenz survives angry alcoholics and sleepy suburbs to bring us his latest designs
Some people go into banking. Others head for Shoreditch and end up with a hapless booze-hound smashing bottles of whisky at their feet. No two paths are the same. From bleeding Birkenstocks to Japanese adventures, graphic designer Michael Lenz walks us through his less than conventional career.
Shoreditch is where all the cool cats are. Whack on a pair of drain-pipes, a Comme Des Garcons tunic, forget to wash your hair for a week, head for Shoreditch and you’ll have met all the requirements for entering the realm of Hipsterdom.
As the founder of a boutique graphic design company, you can forgive Michael Lenz for assuming that setting up in Shoreditch was a pre-requisite for success in his field.
The reality of this decision was a bit different. Sure, there’s plenty of smart stuff going on down in Silicon Valley, but for the most part, Shoreditch was just a lesson in pretentious fecklessness. After some misguided wastrel assaulted him for the umpteenth time, endangering his toes with broken glass and destroying a perfectly good pair of Birkenstocks, Michael made the executive decision to relocate.
So now he’s based in Camberwell. Right next to the Maudsley psychiatric hospital. Crazy is the new trendy, obviously.
Michael is an interesting character. To meet him, he’s unassuming – polite, reserved, gentlemanly. His appearance betrays nothing of the upstart beginnings, determined business ethos and rollercoaster of sexual self-discovery that has shaped his life.
Essentially, though, Michael is a thoroughly “modern man”. He runs a popular design company that deals in bespoke image and brand creation. He works with people he has great respect for, has the liberty to pick and choose his clients and can even work remotely, from places as far-flung as Japan. It sounds like he’s got it sussed, so let’s see if we can uncover his secrets to success.
As a child, he was one of those little upstart tykes who you’re relieved you didn’t father, but who you can’t help slightly admire, from a suitable distance.
“I grew up on a small estate with loads of kids and we always tried to be slightly ‘entrepreneurial’. I remember trying to raise money for fireworks, but we didn’t have a Guy Fawkes. So I dressed up as Guy and was sort of this feral child on the streets of South Woodford, variously playing dead and then getting up and chasing passers-by while my friends solicited them for cash.”
As an adult, Michael takes a slightly softer approach. He is now one half of a partnership that runs Draught Associates. Some of his bigger name clients include Saatchi and Saatchi, Visa and RIBA. Nothing to scoff at…
Despite having these big names on the books, Michael and his colleagues have a particular ethos when it comes to picking people to work with.
“We actually prefer to work with start-ups. We like working with small companies and building relationships and watching them develop. What that then affords us is, instead of inheriting a brand or developing a brand that has already got a certain amount of heritage, we have a real opportunity to carve out a pathway and to be invested in a distinct story.”
Variety is the spice of life. In order to keep the team motivated, Michael and his co-director ensure that the projects coming in are significantly diverse.
“It is important to never feel like you are stagnating. We do print work on a day-to-day basis, but we do exhibition work, animation work, web design. You never do two exhibitions on John Nash, for example. One minute we will be designing a website for a firm of architects and then the next we will be designing a look-book for an ethical fashion brand. No two jobs are the same.”
If you don’t understand the concept of branding, you’ve been living under a stone. Everything from using Posh ‘n’ Becks in the Armani campaign, right through to the ludicrous idea of pairing champagne and hot dogs (ahem…no offence Bubbledogs) has a basis in branding. Branding is not just a company’s concept and identity, it is the message it wants to project, the clients it wants to attract and the lengths it will go to in order to attract them.
A good design company won’t just throw something together that looks colourful and exciting. It will think about your target market, the feelings you want to evoke, the required user-friendliness, the story you want to be part of, as well as what will be most attention-grabbing.
“There is a lot of visual noise and there are so many areas which overlap, so it is so important to try and have a fresh approach. Every decision that has goes into developing a brand has to be justifiable and measurable. Whether you do that with market research or focus groups or something else.”
What’s does the future hold for the print industry? It’s the question that every journalist, designer and media student wants to know…
“Well, we are progressively moving into a digital age, yes. But what continually surprises me, when I go to degree shows, is that graphic design students always showcase magazine and book designs. It seems to be an anachronism in this context.”
“There are new, or rather old ways of approaching print, which are growing in cult status and take it back to a place of pure aesthetics. Risograph printing, for example, is a great way of adding a design element to a short-run print project.”
“Reference material and straight literature is going on to the web. So, in terms of tangible print, you are looking at things which have an aesthetic or a tactile quality. The likes of Taschen, for example, are producing incredible high-end books with limited print runs, which have a luxury aspect to them.”
Michael is a man in his 30s, with a job that allows him to be flexible with his hours and handle projects remotely. He recently went on a voyage of discovery and design inspiration in Tokyo, where he admits to exploring all day and then waiting for the other side of the world to wake up so that he could work most of the night. Sleep is overrated anyway.
He has worked his way up from humble beginnings, to a place where he feels he can be creative, confident and honest in his approach. Pretty much, it sounds like he’s got it made.
But what does Michael feel it takes to make a modern man these days?
“Who knows?! There’s no simple answer. I think there has been such an explosion in the creative industries, that it has obviated the need for us to have a sense of ‘traditional’ male professional roles. I think men now feel less pressure to conform than they ever have.”
“My personal story has been quite dramatic. I grew up independently with two strong female role models. I then had a relationship with a woman for ten years, before deciding I needed to explore my sexuality and then eventually coming out as gay in my 30s. I have had so many points of self-discovery and I am only just now starting to settle in to myself.”
Perhaps, then, the “modern” part of being a modern man is about the freedom shirk such labels, as well as the freedom to continually re-invent oneself.
What’s the biggest difference between you and your 14 year old self?
Honesty. I am not protecting myself anymore, so I have the freedom to be much more sincere.
A song that gets you through the work day?
Hah, you mean other than ‘Work’ by Kelly Rowland? We used to listen to Underworld in the office until I realised it was making everyone quite anxious. So nowadays it’s probably something more soothing like Alt-J, Purity Ring or Aphex twin’s 85-92 album.
Tips for anyone thinking of starting a similar business?
Prepare for some soundbites.
Treat people as you would like to be treated. This is fundamental.
Work well, not hard
No question is ever a stupid question
Don’t try to do everything – you don’t need to know everything, you just need to know the right things well and learn to trust other people’s opinions.