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Shed Sessions: Al Mitchell

By Luke Vidamour, 2nd April 2020

When starting my creative career I discovered very early on how important it was for creatives to work under the right Creative Director. I was very lucky in my previous role at Specsavers to work under Graham Daldry and Steve Loftus whom I trusted fully. This trust didn’t mean that I agreed with every word that came out of their mouth, but it did mean that I backed them wholeheartedly, even when our opinions didn’t align.

Creative Directors are gold dust for culture, the right one can create an environment for juniors to flourish and old dogs to learn new tricks, some of them can also produce some bloody good work. Al Mitchell is the reason I joined Potting Shed, working under him has influenced and inspired me more than I ever could have imagined when I screen-grabbed that job listing and rushed home to cobble together my portfolio. Since becoming a collective of three Creative Directors, Al's experience and encouragement has been invaluable to the growth of both Gareth and myself. If together we can do half the job that he's managed to do on his own thus far, we're on to a winner.

So if that's quite enough smoke blown up his arse, let’s see what the old bugger has to say for himself.

Hey Al, we’ve worked together for 6 years now but for anyone reading this who doesn’t know you, who are you and what makes you tick?

Is it really 6 years … that’s scary! Well I’m the co-founder and Executive Creative Director of Potting Shed. I’m 47 years old and I moved back to Guernsey just over 10 years ago after living on Australia’s Gold Coast, working in the surf/skate/snow industry for the best part of a decade. Prior to that I lived and worked in London and prior to that I studied Graphic Design at Central St Martins and prior to that I went to Elizabeth College and prior to that I went to St Andrew’s Primary School and prior to that I sat in my own filth (soon to come full circle I imagine). As to what makes me tick, well, good design, good waves and plenty of time with my family.

Did you find design? Or did design find you?

I always intended to go into the creative arts in some way, although before I did my year Foundation course after A-Level I always thought I would be an illustrator. On the Foundation course students tried a few weeks of loads of different disciplines, a bit like a taster menu. Things like fashion, photography, life drawing, production design etc. But when I hit the Graphic Design section something clicked. I instantly realised that this was what I wanted to do and after that I totally focused on that goal. The very first student brief I had was to design a set of stamps celebrating the work of a famous architect (in my case Mies Van de Rohe who continues to be one of my greatest design heroes) and I still have a copy of them today. So I guess you could say that I found design but graphic design found me. I cannot recommend doing a Foundation course enough. There is a growing trend towards skip this and to go straight from A-Levels to Degree and I think it’s a huge mistake because A-Level is often such a narrow syllabus and a Foundation course really lets you explore your options and discover areas of the creative arts that would otherwise been closed to you.

Having worked as a designer and creative director for a pretty decent chunk of time now, what do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?

I have always been a big believer in continuing to learn new things, to keep evolving. It’s kind of in my nature to want to figure out how to do things, pull them apart and try and work out how to put them back together. So learning new applications and ways to make images is a fundamental to that.

Then it is keeping open and interested to what is going on around you. Living on an Island has its advantages, but it also has its restrictions and one is that culturally it is hard to immerse yourself in what the wider community more readily has access to. After years of studying and working in London at the start of my career, I almost took it for granted what an energising effect being surrounded by a cultural melting pot like London is and the access you have 24/7 to a myriad of cultural outlets. When I moved to The Gold Coast I came down to earth with a bump and I realised that you have to find ways to stay tapped in to culture as much as possible and build your own around you. A big part of that is surrounding yourself with creatives who you admire and trust. You don’t have to think the same things or agree on everything but you have to have common ground, trust and admiration for each other and how that’s evolved at Potting Shed is one of the things I love most about the company.

What is the best advice that you have been given?

  1. "Don’t eat yellow snow."
  2. "God is in the details" (Mies van de Rohe again!) It really is, as humans we hone in on the little things so never cut corners.
  3. "Out of adversity comes benefit" (this will make my father laugh). Change for bad can be a positive agent for change for good in the future. We all need a bit of agitation occasionally.
  4. "Sweat the small stuff not the big stuff because most of us have zero control over the big stuff." In other words, effect change where you can, don’t stress about what you have no control over.
  5. "As a Creative Director, never tell people how you want something to look. Give them a good brief and trust their talent. That way you will end up with something truly unique and surprising." Actually this applies to both Creative Directors and to clients, so my advice to clients is: Do your research, find someone whose work you love and who you trust. Then give them a good brief and leave them alone to do their job, I promise you, the results will be better every time, and if they’re not you either hired the wrong person or gave a bad brief.

In your eyes, how can creativity change the world for the better?

It already does every day. It gives voice to our ideas and our dreams. It allows us to express ourselves and communicate. Ultimately it helps us share otherwise abstracted concepts and give them greater meaning.

Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?

No never in doubt… Of course I have, I doubt my talent all the time, every time I am faced with that blank sheet moment when you are given a brief and a time frame and have to start from nothing all over again. The first day or so of a big project is always an uncomfortable one and I don’t have any advice for how you get through that really. I find that you just have to smash through it by relentlessly banging your head against the brick wall. Sometimes the answer comes really quickly but the great work nearly always comes from the ones that you really had to struggle to get to.

I’ve always been inspired by how keen you are to learn new software and creative tools. How important is education to your creative process?

Well it’s important to me although I’m not sure it’s essential to everyone, but as I said before I always want to learn new ways to solve the problems we face, expand the tools in my arsenal. Some people will just dial in on a single medium or method and become more and more expert at it and that’s great but I think I’m too flighty for that and I’m always look for a shiny new toy to play with.

When you start life as a creative there is so much to learn and inspiration is definitely not in short supply but maintaining that after 25 years can be difficult and it’s all too easy to stop challenging yourself and rely on the same design tricks that have worked for you in the past, which in turn leaves you less inspired and so on and so on in an ever decreasing circle. So my way out of it is to keep moving forwards, find new techniques, new methodologies and surround yourself with new talent to inspire you.

How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?

That is a really good question and I think the answer is that it’s never finished really. Even after I have come to a solution I will always go back over the brief again and again and try to find a better solution, and if I do I try and find a better one than that. So I distill the brief down until I can barely squeeze anything else out of it but in the end the time allotted to the job will, usually, dictate when the work is finished. That said if it’s not right the hours sometimes go out of the window, which may not be great for Potting Shed’s bottom line but very good for its soul… well my soul anyway.

What excites you about the future (both professionally and personally)?

Professionally: Mostly working with the team around me and having a bit more freedom to travel, work remotely, experience other cultures and bring that all back into the studio. Specifically I can’t wait to expand my C4D knowledge to include some of the new render engines like Redshift, Arnold and Octane. I’d love to get back to screen printing which is a medium very dear to my heart and something I discovered at art college but lost contact with along the way.

Personally: Just to keep as fit as I can so I can surf for as long as I can and get to enjoy every last minute of my kids before they fly the nest and continue to evolve as the amazing human beings they have already become.

Lastly, if you owned a boat, what name would you paint on the back?

Unsinkable 2.

Read our Shed Sessions with Tabitha and RJ.

Author Luke Vidamour