Interview with Creative Designer and Art Director James Oconnell

Interview with Creative Designer and Art Director James Oconnell
Interview with Creative Designer and Art Director James Oconnell

Welcome to the interview of UK based designer and art director James Oconnell. Share in his experience as a designer and illustrator in his impressive body of works and his freelance works for global clients. James has a diverse and inspiring collection of portfolio and history of projects. I'm glad to be able to share with you today his works and some insights into his trade. Read on and enjoy!


Can you tell us a little about yourself? How long have you been in the business?

I've worked freelance, in-house and agency-side as a designer, storyteller and brand thinker since 2007. During this time I’ve had the chance to expand my passion through the craft of brand identities, online solutions, integrated marketing campaigns and illustrations for a variety of clients - clients who almost always become my friends. I’m currently head of design at an agency through the day - Creative Spark and by night I operate under the alias of Jamesp0p, which I have done so since leaving college so many, many years ago.


How did you start? What inspired you to thrive in this industry?

During the end of my time at university I was lucky enough to be picked up by the Noise festival as a rising talent which gave me my first break, I was with them on a freelance basis for about two months, then began a series of placements at a few agency’s in Manchester. I think one of the strangest things I heard was from my university upon leaving - “because of the career your choosing - we can’t help you, it’s all down to you” what a great way to set me up after spending a ton of money on an education which is supposed to be supplemented with a careers service post graduation. So, anyway - I triumphed and nailed my first few jobs - wrangling my way in a publishers working on a magazine, then an advertising agency ultimately leading to my current agency with a few bits & bobs here and there for other agency’s in the middle. One of the main things that inspired me to thrive was the ability to approach anyone and talk about their problems, listen to their stories and collaborate with them. I’m a huge advocate of stories and try to build a narrative within most of my work - I find it’s the perfect form of expression especially when executed with a beautiful visual.

Fantastic Mr Fox

Are you formally trained? If so, where did you go, what degree did you achieve? How did you work up into professional work?

At college I studied all the usual subjects to acquire a career which then propelled me onto university where I began a multimedia course which saw me doing the usual print based stuff together with elements of web design, front/back end development, animation and sound design. The problem I had with the course was that I was rapidly learning new skills within the different mediums yet not having the time to actually master any of them. This got me a little worried as I was thinking how on earth was I going to be able to get a job. To supplement my education I was also taking on freelance work, which was in the form of branding and illustration. I think it was all down to practice that got me into the professional sphere, as well as asking a hell of a lot of questions.


You do a lot of commercial projects, how much time do you spare for personal work?

You’d be quite surprised at how much time I use for personal projects. Ever since university I’ve only ever required a small amount of sleep to keep the engine going - and being a highly motivated person I can take on a plethora of projects whilst still delivering over and above for my agency’s day-to-day clients. Personal work to me is the perfect way to explore new skills and approaches without the strict deadlines of a regular client brief.

Studio 4

Are you selective of your clients? What is your selection process? What kind of projects won't you take?

Over the years I have been able to be really picky in terms of the clients that I work for and believe me, it’s still a tough decision to say that definitive word ‘no’. I’ve not always been like this, during the formative years of a creative career you have to say yes most of the time to either make some more pennies or get a bit more varied work into your portfolio. Most recently I had to say no to a job from the BBC purely because I was preparing for a big project in my day job and also the fact that it’d require a huge amount of thought and craft - it was a tough decision but one I stand by, and I did also sign post them to a few of my illustration friends who could’ve also executed their brief. I take pride in saying that I do a great deal of charity work, giving my services instead of money to help causes locally and globally. I find it more satisfying to see the effects of my personal donation rather than giving money which could end up anywhere. With this in mind, I’d outright say ‘no’ to any briefs or clients which go against my morals and ethics, if you don’t have that line then you could see your work cropping up on any type of media.

Grand Budapest Hotel

Being a well experienced graphic artist, what have you been most proud of throughout your career?

I think the best and most enjoyable moment in my career so far was being able to create a front cover illustration for the TimeOut New York magazine. It was a tough deadline, especially as I was working full time in an agency and this was a bit of freelance on the side. I had no idea it was a weekly magazine so I had to work swiftly, turning around concepts and colour options in super quick time. Luckily I nailed the brief in one fail swoop. Not only did the cover become the fastest shifting edition of the magazine, I also become really good friends with the Art Director, if anything - this was better than making the cover - I made a relationship that’s going to last forever!


Can you name 5 websites you visit to get inspiration?


Besides the websites, what do you do to get inspiration? Do you have any hobbies?

I’ve been trying to unplug recently as my work has been taking over my life, long days in the studio and then even longer nights only my personal projects - to combat this I’ve taken to running and have been managing a good 6K every 3 - 4 days. Not only is it getting my fitness back to where it should be, it’s a great way to listen to some new music and grab some fresh air. I use the Nike+ app to track my progress and set attainable goals, plus I love the motivational ‘cheering’ - it’s a bit cheesy but it helps!

Studio 3

Can you share with us your workspace?

My day-to-day agency workspace is completely bizarre, but it works. We’ve multiple areas for collaboration including a thinking shed and a ‘mens lounge’ complete with some stylish chesterfield sofas. The studio is emblazoned with our signature illustrations courtesy of Manchester based Hammo. To top this off we keep a cow on the ceiling to remind us never to take ourselves too seriously. At home my space is relatively sedate, I’ve a simple raw wooden desk sitting on a pair of trestles accompanied by a print by Anthony Burrill and one of those standard ‘designery’ style clocks (I’ve had to take the batteries out of it as the noise of every element moving drove me crazy!)

Studio 1

How do you see your work evolving in the next 5 years?

I’ve no idea how it’s going to evolve and I’m totally fine with that. I think that collaboration is going to be key in the next coming years as the projects I’m working on are getting bigger and bigger and if there’s one thing I really enjoy - it’s being able to work with über talented people, people who are at the top of their game allowing us to make pure gold!

Studio 2

Thank you for your time, can you leave a final message to other individuals who are just starting in the industry before ending this interview?

Hear ye, hear ye - never stop asking questions, even if your question sounds stupid - say it. One thing I always ask of my own team is that if they have any inkling of an idea no matter how silly it sounds - say it. I’ve been known for throwing crazy ideas around the room but the great thing about doing this is that it gets your thinking out there and then as a team, you can converge and really bring it down to earth in a more executable fashion. So, ask them questions!


About the Artist

James Oconnell has been in the graphic design industry since 2007 and is currently based in the UK. Find out more about him and his works by visiting these links: (Twitter, Dribble, Instagram, Behance, Personal folio)

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