An interview with: John Aylott
Managing Director - Fourleaf
When I left school every single person I knew went to study A Levels at sixth form. I knew I wanted to go to Art College and went my own way to study in Southend. Originally I went to study fine art but in the end I majored in Photography. After that I went on to study for a further three years at Plymouth in visual communication with a specific focus on Photography. I left my studies and rather predictably went to work in the industry as a photographer. However, nowadays I currently run an international design agency with offices in the UK and Netherlands specialising in the energy, technology and environment sectors. It’s not your typical career path or end point for a photographer, in fact it’s quite likely rather unique.
Did you secure any work experience during or after your studies?
The major part of my university course was photography and the final of year of that was very vocational. In fact I only needed to be on campus for three days in the entire final year. Once at the start to agree my objectives, once in the middle as a check-in and then one day at the end to present everything I had achieved in the year. These three days represented my entire grade. While some people used that freedom to the max I was in the building a lot more. Because most photographers and film makers tend to be self-employed the art college had set up an office for third year students like myself. It was fully equipped with computers, phones and all the other things you would expect in an office. The idea was that you could get yourself setup with zero business costs and hit the ground running when you left. It was a very progressive way of thinking.
I decided to spend some of my time between being in London meeting other photographers and asking if I could assist them. During the final year I set up a reasonably healthy client list of photographers and that also helped bring in some money. The remainder of the time I spent down in Plymouth working in their studios and using their equipment to build my portfolio and put into practice the kinds of things I was learning from my experiences in London. I guess you could call that work experience but it was more about starting out in business.
What did you learn in your first few years of industry work?
I learnt far more in three years of industry than I ever did in three years at university. Sure, creative studies are a great place to experiment but the real learning comes when working in the industry. I have interviewed plenty of designers in my time and it’s incredible how many think they know everything because they have a degree. Unfortunately, a degree will rarely give you everything you need to be good in industry. As for the most important thing… I learnt that the sooner you make your first 100 mistakes the better you’ll be at your job. Get them out the way early, own up to your mistakes when they happen and learn from each and every one them. Mistakes are easier to manage when you’re starting out so don’t be afraid of them. They are part of the learning experience.
What do you wish you had known while studying?
I’ll never tell my own kids this but… no matter how well you do in your exams, it doesn’t matter all that much. Sure, the grades you get are a stepping stone to the next thing but beyond that they don’t hold that much value. When we interview here I never look at grades or qualifications. They could be straight A student but if they can’t design then it really doesn’t matter. We once hired a medical sales rep as a designer. He had no design background or design qualifications. Funnily enough he was also colour blind! He just had a passion for it and it absolutely showed. To sum it up, good grades and no passion won’t get you very far. Instead, grow your passion and whatever grades you get from that is fine.
When did you establish Fourleaf and what were your main objectives?
Working for myself has always been a natural thing for me since the day I left university. However, that was in photography. Fourleaf is a design agency and that’s a slightly different story. After I had been assisting for a good amount of time I needed to go out and build myself as a photographer in my own right.
I had spent a lot of effort to build a customer base of advertising and design agencies in London. That involved me speaking with art directors and creative directors and going to see them with my physical portfolio to try and get on their books. One day I remember sitting at my Mac in my flat in Fulham and I looked up at the TV that was on in the background. What I saw was a news bulletin and a plane crashing into the twin towers with smoke billowing out. From that exact moment I knew the world was about to change. In the coming weeks and months the bottom fell out of the advertising market and there was a lot of uncertainty as the world went into shock. A lot of the contacts that I had built up over a long period were now either not there anymore or didn’t have any new work to commission.
I needed a better way to reach out to new people. Back then the internet was still very young and certainly not every business had a website. I figured that if I had one then I would stand out and most importantly I could show my work and reach more new people and faster. By building that website it gained a lot of interest and the art directors I contacted all commented on it. “Digital Agencies” didn’t really exist and ad agencies were all embedded in traditional media still. As a consequence of building that site I ended up working with a lot of the new contacts on web projects rather than photographic ones. I ended up with a back order book and was turning new projects away.
Fourleaf was born when we needed to start hiring designers to help out with the workload. Today we have healthy agency with offices in the UK and Netherlands.
This makes me look at COVID-19 today and wonder what new businesses will be born out of adversity and where will they be in 20 years’ time. It’s a tragic time at the moment but I’m hopeful that many will make it a time for reflection, change and future success.
Who are your clients and what do you create for them?
Our clients range from global energy giants all the way through to small niche firms within the energy, technology and environment sectors. In short, we help them communicate their stories through digital, print and brand based communications. That could be anything from websites and apps to touchscreen walls and events. It really is very varied.
Can you sum up a typical working week at Fourleaf?
Every week is different and I like it that way. Everyone here works flexible hours so there’s never a fixed start or end of the day. You’ll find people in the office and online at all sorts of hours so it’s hard to have rigid schedules. However, because we work in smaller teams it’s up to those teams to create structures in the way of briefings and stand-ups.
Although I run an agency I never worked in any other design agency myself which is rather odd. What that does allow us to do is work in the way that we want to work. There are no norms that we feel the need to comply with and I think that’s what keeps us constantly fresh. I once heard of a business that held all internal meetings in the plank position. If you broke plank you were out of the meeting. It was their way of keeping meetings as short as possible. It’s not one for us but I like the idea of finding the right way doing things simply because they work for you.
I was really impressed reading about Fourleaf’s sustainability pledge. Can you tell us more about it and how it all started?
It’s less of a pledge and more of a mission! In a small way it’s born from our specialism within the energy and environment sectors. Throughout the years we have worked very closely to the issues around sustainability so as a company we really get it.
It’s become a whole lot more for us though and these days it’s an obsession. Our goal is to be the most sustainable design agency in the world. We’ve achieved a lot and I feel like we are well on the way. I can’t even begin to tell you the level of the detail we go into. The amount of time I’ve spent discussing things like the glue used to seal tea bags and therefore which ones are the most sustainable. For new people coming in I think it might be a bit daunting. I’m very proud of it though and this year we have been shortlisted as “SME of the Year” for the Global Good awards based on our approach to sustainability.
Do you currently have a mentorship or internship program at Fourleaf?
We don’t have a specific program for either, but that’s not to say that we don’t do it. We have taken on interns but only when we think they might have the capability to end up as a full timer. We use it as a stepping stone to give newcomers some valuable industry experience while not making a full commitment to hiring them. In terms of mentorship, of course we do that internally within our teams but not externally so far. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t consider it for the future. We have also taken people on for work experience and other similar programs so long as we can commit time to them.
What does Fourleaf look for in a junior team member?
Passion, portfolio and potential. Some newcomers when asked about their portfolio immediately suggest that it’s limited because they don’t have any industry experience. However, this for me is a likely lack of passion.
If you want to be a designer and want to get started then beg people to do work for them. What family members or friends own a business that you could do some free work for? What sports or social clubs do you know that you could design something for? I’m sure that the vast majority of people know organisations that would accept the offer of some design work.
Build your commercial portfolio. Also do some self-initiated projects for big brands. If Nike launched a new range of football boots for example, how would you design their new microsite? We see that if they have passion and a commercially driven portfolio then they might well have potential too. When we hire a junior what we’re actually doing is hiring a new senior for the years down the line so we have to see that future potential and ambition too.
What skills do juniors in your field need to have in order to break into the industry?
Adobe creative suite is a must have. Learn as much as you can and be as good and knowledgeable as you can be with it. Also, and something which is far too often missed out, is the understanding of simple design principles. Things like alignment, proportions, content hierarchies and call to actions are so often not demonstrated in the portfolios we see. To not have all the basic design principles demonstrated is a real negative signpost.
What sort of tasks would an intern / junior designer be given to do at Fourleaf?
While interns and junior team members are there to support the more senior team on artworking based tasks, they can in reality work on anything. We tend to distribute projects based on suitability so if for example you have a passion and talent for typography then you could find yourself working right in the middle of a brand project.
What advice would you give to companies thinking about providing internships?
- Give back to the wider creative community. Everyone needs to start somewhere and I remain hugely grateful to those that gave me a chance in my early days. If you were given a chance too then it’s time to give that back.
- Those starting out today are the leaders of tomorrow. Use it as a method to grow and nurture your talent for the future.
Covid-19 is going to impact the creative graduates of 2020 for a little while due to social distancing and companies getting back on their feet after months of uncertainty.
Will Fourleaf be looking to hire interns and juniors in the near future or would mentorship, Uni collaborations and online workshops be more appealing until the dust fully settles?
Yes to all of the above. We are always on the lookout for new talent and we welcome people to get in touch. In fact I think about half of our entire current team have come to us as a result of getting in touch with us rather than applying to an advert or job posting. Given my background and previous studies, I also really value the part that industry plays with education so we’re always open to collaborations. Please just get in touch.