After years of actively following the work of London-based designer Ben Mottershead, the Briefbox team were grateful to finally be given the chance to catch up with the Studio BND director and University of Hertfordshire lecturer to find out more about his experiences and journey through the design industry so far.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Ben! You've been fairly vocal about your struggles with managing your ADHD and mental health challenges as a creative. What techniques have you found to try and keep a handle on this and not let it affect your day to day life as a creative director?
In all honesty it's a constant battle. I’m not medicated, nor do I think I ever will be. I did go through therapy which helped me develop some coping mechanisms but the biggest improvement was when I went freelance and left the confines of a 9-5 agency role.
While it may suit some people I always felt like I was trying to fit into the confines of someone else’s processes and expectations which kept me rooted on the ground. Once I left that environment, I found all the personality traits that I was often reprimanded for, were actually rewarded when it came to leasing with your own clients and building a business.
Aside from the day-to-day stuff like giving myself regular breaks, drinking less caffeine etc, exercise is another big go-to of mine. I visit the gym 4-6 times a week and often go first thing in the morning before work. This allows me to burn off a lot of energy which helps keep me on point throughout the day and also manages impulsivity and spontaneity which I often struggle with.
Ultimately it's about finding your own groove, and as ADHD is a spectrum disorder there’s no straight-cut answer. All I can say for anyone else who struggles with the disorder is don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t base your life on other peoples expectations, stay true to who you are and if where you currently are doesn’t reward that, then maybe it’s time to find somewhere else.
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When speaking with other creatives, they've often given us advice on the benefits of hopping between multiple projects to try and help deal with creative block. Have you ever found living with ADHD to almost be beneficial when it comes to working on multiple projects at the same time?
OMG Yes!! Such a great question. It has effectively been my saving grace throughout my career and something that my more switched on directors have really honed in on. I accepted early on in my career I was never going to be a master specialist who could produce amazing 3D scenes, or code groundbreaking websites because I knew I just didn’t have the attention span to practice for long enough.
What I did recognise though was that my fascination with all forms of design, as well as my unbridled energy levels and extroverted communication skills, made me a great asset to be able to jump between multiple projects and disciplines, while also being client-facing. While this wasn’t instantly rewarded as a junior designer, as soon as people picked up on it, and as I progressed through the agency hierarchy, I found myself being utilised in a way that really allowed me to excel.
I don’t think I really came into my own until the founding of Studio BND, as at that point I was fully in control and had to do everything from client meetings, pitching, business admin and design. However, recognising what I should lean into as a young designer definitely helped push me forward.
I know that in the past you've been made redundant from your first three roles within the industry, and had to quit your last full-time role due to a mental health burnout. What was it like handling these setbacks?
It was actually alright. The first redundancy was difficult because it came suddenly, but I had been thinking about leaving for a while anyway, and it was noticeable the new business had really dropped off so I knew something was wrong. That being said it left me in a position where I didn’t have the best portfolio, and I quickly ran out of money and couldn’t get another role as nobody seemed to be hiring at the time. As a result, I ended up going back into an internship (by choice), with a motion agency. Whilst there, I quickly progressed up the ranks due to my experience.
The following two times I was in a much better place and moved into new jobs quickly, but then I’ve always been very honest about how quitting my role was the best decision I ever made - partly down to the reasons stated above.
I’ve always been someone who sees every situation like that as an opportunity and a door opening, rather than one closing. It was this kind of thinking that I believe is crucial during these moments because while you can’t control when it happens, you can control how you handle the situation.
Do you think your experiences working for other people served as your main motivation to initially go it alone and set up Studio BND?
I’ve always loved working with people, and I think my decision to ultimately go it alone to begin with came from me just trying to work things out about myself. I’d gone through a really tough few years and was a little lost in who I was and what I wanted to be doing. Initially, I knew I needed to fix those aspects of myself before I could take on the pressure of working with other people again, and more importantly hiring anyone. As that’s an entirely new level of responsibility.
I am, however, a firm believer that collaboration in this industry is king. It's like the famous phrase says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.'
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We've been following you and your work ever since your early days freelancing under the 'Ben Designs' moniker, and it's been great to see Studio BND take off after starting on what sounded like some fairly rocky foundations. Other than mental health, what were the main hurdles to business growth you've encountered throughout your career so far?
Detaching your personal notoriety from a business can and has been quite challenging. The main reason I moved to the agency format, not only because of an influx in work, was because I wanted to attract a larger client base with higher budgets and be seen as an expert, rather than a button-pusher.
However, I’d spent so many years building up a personal brand that when I took that leap I spent a lot of time actually turning down work because people were still approaching me as a freelancer who had a day rate. We’ve also seen other people like Caterina Bianchini take this move when she evolved into Studio Nari. I think there comes a point where you kind of want to evolve past your personal self into something more, and with that comes its own set of challenges.
Other than that, it’s just the usual stuff that a lot of people face. Starting a business in the middle of a pandemic definitely didn’t help with attracting new business, but I’m never too hard on myself. I got into design to do something I enjoyed with my life and the moment that stops I’ll most likely move on to something else. I’m not in it for fame and fortune so to speak, so providing I keep having fun and making more right decisions than wrong ones, I’ll continue to keep jumping those hurdles.
Are there any particular creatives or agencies who have helped and inspired you along the way?
Too many to count if I’m honest. I always laugh when you see people describing themselves as a ‘self-made’ this or that. Nobody gets anywhere without help and the expertise of others. I regularly talk to far more successful agency owners, directors etc than myself.
The trick isn’t knowing who to get advice or inspiration off, it’s knowing which parts will help you grow, and which don’t fit in with your current plan. Anyone can speak to hugely successful designers but being able to action what they recommend takes a lot of practice and a lot of failure... but you can’t succeed unless you’ve failed a few times.
What about today's talent? Is there anyone out there that you're really digging right now that stands out from the crowd?
I’m not a grid lord and if I see one more piece of packaging with giant Helvetica, or Gotham type down the side of it I might cry. As a result, I’m very drawn to people who put a lot of expression into their work and I’m also a stickler for projects that combine brand, motion, digital, illustration and social. I love seeing seamless art direction across an entire brand because it really comes back to my own interests and having a love for multiple disciplines.
If I had to rattle off some names I’d probably say, ‘Collins, Studio Moross (Aries in general is just an awesome personality), Dixon Baxi, Studio Output, Studio Blup, The Midnight Club, Jaimus Taylor of Greater Goods... the list is endless.
I rate anyone who’s just putting a piece of themselves out into the world.
You've worked for some very high-profile clients throughout your career, including Nike, Vice just to name a few. What advice would you give young creatives looking to find work with clients of this scale?
Run? Haha. I don’t know to be honest. I used to think I’d love to get those types of names under my belt but when you get there you realise that everyone in the industry has a Nike, Coca Cola, Adidas etc and you also learn that big budgets carry a lot of eyes, a lot of expectation and a lot of tight deadlines.
I love the freedom these brands offer in terms of exploration but it’s far from all fun and games. I guess my advice would be for people to really ask themselves why they want to work for these brands. Is it because they genuinely have an affinity for their mission, or is it just because they think it will look impressive. If it’s the latter then they might need to do some soul-searching because the only way to really get noticed by these companies is to live for what they are offering and be able to communicate that not only in your work, but also when you’re face to face with them in meetings.
Also be patient. You need to inspire confidence and trust in these brands. They’re not going to come to you straight away. Focus on your own journey and building confidence in your abilities and knowledge, so when you do get to that stage, you’re ready.
You've been very vocal in the past against unpaid internships and the idea of exploiting young designers keen to get started in the creative industries. What advice would you give creatives who are having to weigh up the pros and cons of these types of internships themselves?
Ultimately no business worth their salt asks people to perform unpaid labour, and more and more people are saying 'no' to these opportunities. It’s financial discrimination wrapped up as experience. Experience that many people from lower-income backgrounds cannot afford to take part in, and it’s what ultimately led to the design sector being filled with lots of middle-class, white, university-educated men and women. As an industry that prides itself on communicating to all areas of society, I find it almost laughable that companies would take part in making industry access about someone's financial stability rather than talent.
It is changing though and long gone are the days since I graduated. Touch wood it will continue that way, but my only advice is if a company tries to recruit you to an unpaid position - run.
We've spoken before about the idea of 'imposter syndrome' and feeling like you don't really fit in among your peers in the industry. As someone who now lectures at the University of Hertfordshire and clearly feels confident enough in their own abilities to be able to lead and inspire others, what advice would you give to young creatives who are worried about 'fitting in' and finding their place in the creative industries?
Don’t fit in. Fuck that, I can’t imagine anything more boring. I always hear young creatives and students worrying about how they will fit in, or be taken seriously and my advice is always don’t. Why would you want to go from a peacock to a grey piece of paper that’s surrounded by other similar types of paper?
That isn’t me saying you can’t learn a lot from your peers but your aim shouldn’t be to fit in. It should be to learn how you take your own amazing personality and view of the world and communicate it effectively within your work.
I’ve never worried about fitting in and neither have most of the creative people I idolise. I knew it was never going to happen and once I embraced that I also didn’t have to live life with multiple alter-egos. I’m just me. I turn up to meetings with businesses in hoodies and caps, I probably swear a little too much, I’m overly talkative, I wear bright clothes and I don’t apologise for who I am. I want to work with people who want to work with the authentic me and not someone I just pretend to be.
So, don’t fit in. Stand out and make your own place within the creative industries.
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A massive 'thank you' from the entire Briefbox team for sitting down with us and shedding some light on your experiences in the industry, Ben!
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