In the latest installment of our “Stories from Design Bridge” series of interviews with the people we work with every day, we sat down for a chat with Jason Kempen, Partnership Creative Director in our Amsterdam Studio. Find out about Jason’s background in the world of design, how he came to work at DB, what he looks for when building his team, and his slightly unusual breakfast requirements…
Hello Jason! Now, that doesn’t sound like a Dutch accent…
It’s not! I’m originally from sunny South Africa – Cape Town born, raised and schooled. I studied design at a private college as, at the time, universities weren’t really equipped to teach graphic design. That was back when the design zeitgeist was focused on the eponymous work of David Carson and his work for Raygun magazine – a style that greatly influenced my love of editorial design and the value of considered typography and negative space!
Luckily, universities are now fully committed to running design courses, which is having a positive impact on South Africa’s role within global design and advertising. There’s a uniquely edgy aesthetic coming from a very entrepreneurial young generation of artists and designers. But yes, Cape Town is where I developed my career as a designer in various agencies, before starting my own small design agency in 2008.
How did you end up at Design Bridge Amsterdam?
After 35 years of living in Cape Town, I started to long for discovering more of the world out there (I’m somewhat of a travel-bug) and, given my Dutch ancestry, I figured that Amsterdam would be a good place to base myself. I had already come across Design Bridge, having worked on Dulux at my own agency, so I got in touch back in late 2013 and it was only a few months later that I was packing my bags, too many boxes of books, and a lifetime of nic nacs into a container and heading towards the Netherlands. The rest, as they say, is history!
Have you noticed any differences or similarities working as a designer in the Netherlands compared to South Africa?
Working life in South Africa draws many parallels with working in Amsterdam. South Africans tend to have quite a pragmatic, can-do approach with a lot of entrepreneurial spirit and a good dose of humour – something that resonates well within the Dutch market, too. So in that sense, it was quite an easy transition – the easy-going culture at Design Bridge also quite closely matched the atmosphere that I fostered at my agency in Cape Town, so I definitely felt like I’d “come home” when I started working here. Apart from the weather, of course. That definitely isn’t like home!
From a market perspective, the stakes are higher in Europe, and clients invest a lot more in design and strategy. As a Creative Director this means that you need to have a clear point of view on the vision for the brands you work with, and confidence in why you make the decisions you do. I enjoy the rigour that goes into interrogating our work, making sure that we’re always doing right by the brands that we’re lucky enough to design for. That said, I do try to make sure that we bring a healthy dose of ‘gut-feel’ to what we do, too – creativity is not an absolute science, after all!
Tell us a bit about Dutch life…
I find that being based in the centre of Amsterdam is a daily source of inspiration – from our Studio building (a beautifully converted horse stable & tram shed), to the great variety of galleries, cafés and bars within walking (or biking!) distance.
Not to mention that the Studio backs onto the Vondelpark – the perfect spot to catch a bit of sun on a warm summer’s day, or to clear your head with a brisk winter walk! Throw in the energetic music scene and the newly-ignited food culture and you quickly find yourself immersed in a busy and vibrant city.
What does an average work day look like for you?
The day-to-day life in the Studio is quite varied. It’s a cliché, I know, but in my role as Creative Director, no two days are the same! A typical week for me includes briefing and reviewing work with my design team, as well as figuring out the approach on new and on-going projects with the Strategy and Client Servicing teams – we work very collaboratively. If time allows, I also jump in on some design & presentation work. It’s still something that I love to do, although I often have less time to be as deeply involved in design projects than I did in the past. Normally a few client presentations will be thrown in for good measure and, occasionally, some travel within Europe in order to do so.
Tell us about some of the clients you work with…
I work across a number of different categories so that keeps me on my toes. In one day I can jump from the world of dairy into beer, then shower gel and personal care products. I find that there are always interesting observations to take from brands in one category and apply them to another. It’s this collision of seemingly disparate insights and concepts that often yields the most original and unexpected ideas. The very multi-cultural mix of the Studio also provides a never-ending source of cultural truths and opinions – often very amusing, always valuable.
As well as client work, what else do you get up to?
One of my responsibilities in the Amsterdam Studio is being closely involved with the recruitment and development of young talent – from giving lectures & talks at colleges and universities, to reviewing student portfolios and interviewing potential candidates for placements here at the agency. I find this part of my job highly rewarding and energising. I love being inspired by a new generation of designers with fresh ideas and unrestrained thinking.
Apart from that, there’s always something on the go in the Studio – whether it’s getting stuck into the kitchen for an upcoming bake-off, or planning elaborate themes for the next summer party. It’s pretty full on, but working with a lovely team and creating great work makes it all worth the while!
Speaking of recruitment, what do you look for in a designer?
For me it’s all about the personality fit. This is a fast-moving environment where we have to work very collaboratively and intuitively, so there is definitely no space for egos and divas! Of course, besides being an easy-going, friendly person to work with, it’s important that our designers are able to come up with original, breakthrough ideas that they can then translate into beautifully crafted designs. At the more senior end of the scale, I also look for people that are as comfortable in a boardroom presenting to a client as they are to getting their hands dirty and jumping in on design briefs.
Any words of wisdom for young designers looking to break into the industry?
Keep your portfolio focused and curated. It is far more important to see 4 or 5 really well thought out projects than it is to see pages and pages of design options. Be clear about what your brief is, give a short overview of your inspiration and idea and how it applies to the brand, and then show how you translated this into a final, beautiful design concept (tip: including work-in-progress sketches is always good to see). For me, it is always important to understand how a person thinks and approaches projects. Technical skills and crafting can be learnt on the job, but the power of a great idea, simply translated and ‘on brand’, is what really makes me sit up and take notice of a portfolio. It doesn’t hurt if you share my team’s obsession with coffee and breakfast biscuits, too : )
Breakfast biscuits, eh? Noted!
If you’d like to join Jason and the team in Amsterdam, check our Careers page for the latest opportunities.