This story is taken from a recorded interview and is transcribed with very little editing to preserve the details. Buy the zine.
So, my name is Gavin Strange, and I would say the best description for what I do is, a designer. I would say at heart, I am a designer. When I first started out that was graphic design and then it quite quickly changed and morphed into web design. I really just like the term designer in general, because I love designing things from websites to games to toys to skateboards to exhibitions to anything I can get my hands on, so I would say designer is my calling card as it were.
I’ve got fond memories of growing up. I was born and raised in Leicester in the Midlands originally, and now I live in Bristol. I grew up there, and I didn't leave until I was in my early 20's. I would say it was a normal childhood, if that makes sense. I remember playing out a lot, I remember being outside. I remember being close with my brother, the age gap was actually really good because I felt like an older brother, I wanted to look after him, so I was hanging out with him a lot, very family oriented. We were a real working class family, I was never the kid that had the latest and greatest and I was always asking for the Airmax 93's and I never got them, I got the Gola's instead.
I never held that against anyone, it was never "I don't have the cool stuff", my parents always took us away on holidays and gave to us like that, rather than material possessions, that really meant a lot.
I became aware of my social class and status when I was a lot older. I would say it was when I moved to Bristol, in my 20's. I didn't know anyone else of any other class, there were just people, that was it. I didn't take any notice of any politics or anything growing up, and the school I went to, both and primary and secondary were state schools were quite rough. Secondary school was funny, I didn't absolutely love it, but I didn't hate it. I didn't ever bunk off school, god forbid. I was too much of a scaredy cat, and too scared of my mum to do that. It was, “This is what you do, what else you gonna do". That's what kids do.
When I started secondary school I was also a ballroom and latin dancer, which was interesting. I started dancing when I was 10 or 11, just before I went to secondary school, so that was interesting to be a teenage boy and a dancer. I actually really enjoyed it, and again, I never really gave it much thought, I knew I'd get teased a bit, but to be honest I was more scared of quitting, it was routine, it was what happened, my mum paid for me every week and I went there every week.
GCSE's were funny because I again I knew I liked art. I'd always paint and draw. I do remember being the kid in class that was like “oh gav can draw, can you draw us this” and I'd draw Sonic the hedgehog or something like that. I didn't think it was a talent, I just thought that I can draw a bit better than others sometimes. I thought I'd do art, art will be one, I think it was design as well actually. I more just picked them based on that.
I remember doing work experience at school, again I didn't know what to do, and I didn't even think you could find cool jobs or anything like that, so I went and worked with my uncle for 2 weeks being a painter and decorator. I loved it. I was also the only kid in school that got paid as well. I got paid £90, £45 a week. I bought a pair of Reebok Classics, and a pager, like a boss. Why would I need a pager when I'm 15, I'm not a drug dealer. That was quite interesting just to see how the world works. I'd never heard so much swearing in my whole life, on a painter and decorator site, it was unbelievable. I remember thinking, “OK, that's a job, maybe I'll do that as a job then, cos that's what a job is”.
I don't think I broke my mum's heart because she probably didn't expect it but, I remember being about 10 or 11 and being like “Mum, I'm going to go to university”. I didn't really know what it was, I remember saying those words to her and she was like “”Oh wow, ok, good for you”. And then when it came to that time, I was like “Mum, I don't want to go to university”. and again, it didn't feel like a monumental decision, it was just like, it's not for me.
When I went to college, I made best friends with my mate Jonny, who is still my best friend now, he was my best man at my wedding. We were totally different because he was from a small town in Leicester, but he was into skateboarding and liked cool music. I was still a total townie, because I was in the city and he'd come from afar and it was a bit more alternative.
We should have been at total odds really, our music taste was so different, and that's all you really bond about when you're that age, but we actually became really close friends, and we were both really into film. We spent a lot of time talking about films, watching films, going into the IT room and using quicktime to download trailers from the first version of the apple trailer website, and just watching trailers over and over again.
So that was interesting that I found a bit of a kindred spirit and that's when we started to do extra stuff. We made a college video just for fun called the Umpire Smokes Crack. I'd borrowed this massive honking camera from a family friend and edited it together in camera and using the VHS. That's as far as I can remember, that's my first side project, it was just like “ahhh, we should film something, we should make something”. So it was actually the catalyst with him, just doing stuff.
A design agency came in (to college) and said “We're looking to take on a junior designer” and me and this guy called Rob went in on separate weeks to do 2 weeks each of work experience in the design studio. I just went in and did whatever I was told and... I tell this story now, I think it's true, I'm pretty sure it's true, again I don't know if memory has warped it, but I remember the creative director saying “Look, the other guy ran out all of my favourite letraset marker pens, and you didn't, so you can have the job”. I remember him being really flippant and really like “Well, we might as well have you then, you'll do”, and that was it.
And then I was an employed person, I remember feeling weird about that, I remember feeling like I couldn't believe I was walking to work, because someone was going to pay me to design, you know. I still feel that often when I'm walking to work, when I think about it, it's like “this is crazy”, so that time actually, I really felt I was starting to change, switching on basically.
So my official job description is senior designer and it's at a place called Aardman animations, which some people know. A lot of people know Aardman through growing up, being creators of Wallace and Gromit, Morph, Shaun the sheep and things like that. My official remit is senior designer for the digital team, so I work in the digital sector and I design games, apps interactive things and anything with pixels really. That's sort of my main remit, but over the years I've worked in lots of different departments.
I've just finished working on a short animated film with a director, I worked on the Shaun the sheep feature film providing graphic design, I worked with the charity sector for a project called Shaun in the city and Gromit unleashed. I'm good friends with Nick Park, Pete Lord and Dave Sproxton, the two founders and Nick, being Mr Park, creator of Wallace and gromit. I feel a part of the Aardman family, I really do, and that's because they made it open, from day one really, I was just so appreciative, and so honoured to be a part of it, I would just go and make friends with people and see what they're working on.
I absolutely adore essentially having sort of two jobs. Aardman is my day job which I adore, and feel very lucky to have and give it my all. But I still have that same excitement that's built up, at night, thinking “I'd love to do this, I'd love to do that or love to get involved”. I basically just do things at night, under the name Jam Factory.
Basically Aardman really encourage it, they were just totally cool with it, and I think they found me because I was being so public with sharing under the banner of Jam Factory. That's just amplified it more, if anything, I'm more busy now I've got a day job, because it's taken off the financial pressure. Anything I do in the evening, I don't really do it for anyone else, I don’t take on any paid jobs. I think I've done one paid job this year, because it was for the National Union of Teachers about strike action, so it's something I really believed in, that was it.
I've also been writing a book this year which wasn’t even on the fictional list of “I would love to do this”. It was so exciting I thought, what if, just give it a shot, you know, the worst thing that could happen is Miranda (Do Books) will say no. But as it went on, it progressed and we met up in London and basically I've written this book called Do Fly.
The book is sort of the format for my talks, it's sharing my thoughts and my process, but really headed all around positivity and actually just doing stuff. I want to share that sentiment and that feeling. Anyone can have that spirit, and that energy to do things. In this time where it's really easy to just to say no, and not to bother trying because you think you can't achieve it, well, I feel like I'm proof that you totally can. I never thought I was worthy of doing anything good, and actually, you don't have to wait for anyone's authority to tell you you are good enough, or to tell you can, you just do it, and that's how you learn and that's how you progress.
I don't feel like my working hours are more mental than anyone else. You look at people who have the real work, doctors, nurses, civil servants and people that do the real work that are on their feet, on the go all the time. I feel because the nature of what we do, we are in a nice comfortable office on an expensive chair on an expensive computer. It doesn't feel laborious, that's the thing, and that's the thing I talk about in the book. I feel quite strongly about work and that it can sometimes have really negative connotations. Maybe that's why I presumed I would never have a good job because I thought work was not meant to be enjoyed, but it is. So it doesn't feel like I'm working, it does not feel laborious.
My parents definition of work was a different thing because my mum worked at the blood donation centre, on the administration side of things. My dad was an engineer, my dad's actually a really great artist and I remember as a kid asking him to draw us stuff because we just loved the way he drew, but he was never an artist professionally. I don't think it was really seen as a viable profession when he was a lad.
I never heard them moan about work, I never heard them make it be a negative thing. They just worked hard, they worked really hard to provide for us as well. I think they definitely know I love my job and that I'm very very lucky, and they are very proud that I've got something that I love, because that is really rare.
A day off for me means hanging out with Janey my wife because she works just as hard as I do, so us sitting down together and watching a film, walking the dog, we love just going somewhere nice and walking Arnie the dog. I love playing Playstation, it feels like a little treat, because I do it so infrequently, well once a week, that's quite frequently. But that’s still like a little escape, that's really nice. I love playing the drums. This is the thing, I really enjoy working, I really enjoy creating still, so I suppose playing the drums is still creative to a degree. I would actually now happily, if it's like you've got a free day, I'd probably take the computer, and take these little music controllers, and try and make some music, because it feels like I'm maybe not working towards a project so it's just pure fun. I really like just taking the camera out. I think it's just maybe doing it in my own time because even the personal projects it's like “9 o'clock, let's go, here's the goal for tonight” where as time off, it's just to mooch about. I might actually be doing the same thing, I'm just doing it at my own pace.
It's almost indescribable, as corny as that sounds, how much I value my job, how much I value the experience, the people, the opportunities it gives me, to work on a feature film, to goto award ceremonies, to have the ceremony around the name of Aardman, the value of that. Value doesn’t mean monetary. The value of learning with incredible people, because everyone that works there is fantastic, so you are working with really good people. The value of making stuff that matters, that's up for debate you know, maybe art does save lives, with the positivity and just with the experiences. But making stuff that communicates to people, making stuff that makes people laugh. To work with these people that have entertained families on Christmas day every year for 40 years, that's amazing. There's not many people that have done that, so to work with those people, and be at a company founded by those people, I value that more than anything really.