During our interview with our next guest, Gavin Strange, he said the words ‘cup of tea’ so many times that I decided to keep a tally at the top of the page of notes I was making. Five times in a one-hour interview - and that’s just one of the reasons I knew I was going to really like this guy. There’s nothing I love more than sticking the kettle on and sitting down with a piping hot brew so without having even met Mr Strange, I was already finding a rather comfortable spot on some common ground.
If you’ve already listened to our podcast episode with Gav, you’ll know that he seems to like his cups of tea with a big old slab of humble pie on the side. For a curious and creative mind with such an esteemed career in design and a dazzlingly sunny disposition, he sure is modest. So, without further ado, let us share the fabulous story of the brilliant brains behind design studio, Jam Factory, and designer & director at the world-famous Aardman Animations.
“Growing up, I was always just - from what I can remember - sort of fascinated with imagery and characters”
All stories start somewhere and for this graphic, motion and toy designer with fingers in the (humble) pies of film & television, children’s presenting and book authorship, it goes way back. Back to the late 80’s and early 90’s in fact, when young Gavin was nurturing quite the fascination with video games at his family home in Leicester.
Unable to afford a Mega Drive, a Super Nintendo or whatever console it was the cool kids were playing on at the time, Gav poured his pocket money into the next best thing: video game posters and gaming magazines. He credits these childhood investments as being “the beginnings of [his] interest in creativity”, providing a “portal into a different world” of “wild and wonderful” characters and colours.
Fast-forwarding a few years, Gavin describes himself as being a “totally average student” with no grand plan to speak of. Nobody expected particularly wonderful things from him, so he never expected great things from himself either. This “meandering” and “being in the middle” with a “not good, not bad skillset” as Gav describes it, meant he was always able to focus on there here-and-now, rather than always looking ahead to a greater plan.
This ordinary outlook and ordinary output began to transform into something extraordinary however following a pivotal BTEC diploma in graphic design at his local college in Leicester. The course enabled Gavin to explore and experiment something which he had an innate passion for, cultivating a next-level confidence that would carry him far.
“You don’t get confidence in anything unless you do something over and over again, and you invest yourself in the world and you really place yourself within a path, or a discipline, or a skillset”
University was never on the agenda for young Gavin Strange. The partying and chronic hangovers simply weren’t his style. So, during his BTEC course at college, he was invited to speak with a local design agency who came in to offer an alternative option - work experience out in the field. Making quite the impact, the two-week work experience with the agency quickly led to a job as a Junior Graphic Designer and the forming of relationships that would change his narrative forever.
Gavin tells us about one person in particular - his boss Nathan, who was an instrumental cog in the wheels of one of the most defining moves in his life. Encouraging employees to indulge and develop their side projects and passions, Nathan was the push Gavin needed to create his own digital alias, Jam Factory. Today, it’s a successful design brand built through a labour of love over the course of Gavin’s life. Then, Jam Factory was a website and domain set up on the first PC Gavin ever bought, at the age of 16, to practice and develop his creative practice.
The job at the design agency not only catalysed the existence of Jam Factory, it also flicked a “huge switch” in Gavin, forcing him to shed his “wishy-washy” demeanour like puppy fat and instead, be proactive in progressing and making decisions. He would work during the day at the design agency and then come home in the evenings and explore extra-curricular skills such as motion graphics, animation and toy design through Jam Factory. Still very much how Gav operates today actually.
“That’s why I feel so passionately about passion projects and side projects because they honestly can unlock brand new ways, brand new opportunities you never thought were possible”
Gavin has always been a “big believer in side projects” and is living proof that with true dedication, passion can become profession. He eventually left the design agency which had been his diving board into the realms of real world design to work full-time as Jam Factory. That was until, on one unforgettable day 12 years ago, he received an email in his inbox from somebody at Aardman Animations looking for a freelance digital designer to join them on a project for Channel 4 for a period of six months.
Having been inspired by the work of Aardman - one of the most renowned animation studios in the world - this was proper dream-come-true material. After receiving the email all those years ago (and picking himself up off the floor after “falling off his chair”), Gavin “popped in for a cup of tea” to discuss the role and never left. Today, he’s Designer & Director at Aardman, with bragging rights to credits including the title sequence of A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon.
Gavin works full time at Aardman before heading home to his wife, Jane and three-year-old son and their schedule goes a little something like this: dinner time, dog walk, bath time, bedtime, then watching something short ’n’ sweet on the TV with Jane before they both sit down at around 9pm-11.30pm to work on their passion projects.
It is this level of commitment to the creative practice which has also enabled Gav to publish his own book, Do Fly, which was recommended to ONEOFTHE8 readers and listeners in our episode with Ben Mottershead. Do Fly is “a self help book for people who flippin’ hate self help books” and tries to “encourage people to overcome all of the hurdles that you will inevitably face to be your best self”. A must-read for those looking to polish their mindset, optimism and motivation to learn a new skillset.
“If we have the chance to make things that become these, sort of, markers in people’s memories and brains, I think that’s beautiful. I think that’s so, so cool”
If you’re a ONEOFTHE8 regular, you’ll know by now that before we wrap up any conversation with a guest, we always want to get to the root of their inspiration. If you’re not a ONETHE8 regular yet or you’re new around here, this is the part where we ask our guests to pinpoint something that has most inspired them during their lives, be it a book, a song, an event, a place or a fellow human being. For Gavin, it’s a film which he first saw on VHS at the age of 13 and has watched countless times since.
The film is Akira - a post-apocalyptic animation set in a Neo Tokyo, dystopian future and originally released in 1988. Despite not being anywhere close to his own visual style, Akira is a “work of art” which Gav “thinks about on a daily basis”. Upon doing a quick Google search of the film, I did notice that it is now actually currently showing in cinemas (rather coincidentally) so if you fancy watching it, now might be your perfect opportunity.
Animated at 25 frames per second, Akira was super ambitious for its era, “technically and visually spectacular” and a cinematic creation that has “enraptured” our guest by his own admission. We have no doubt in our minds that someday, somewhere there will be another 13-year-old kid also enraptured but this time, by the creations of Gavin Strange. In fact, we bet it’s happening right this very moment.
If you’d like to see more of Gav’s work or purchase a copy of his book, ‘Do Fly’ head on over to the Jam Factory website. To hear more about his colourful narrative thus far, make yourself a cuppa and catch up with his episode over on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast.