Rachel Clancy always had a very clear idea that she wanted to work in the creative sector. However, after witnessing the impact that the 2008 closure of DELL’s manufacturing plant in Limerick had on her family, she was made very aware that if she wanted a creative career, she needed to pursue something that would have a job at the end of her studies. Thankfully, Rachel loved graphic design, a perfect fit, she enjoyed the diversity of projects, the structure, her classmates and the support of the tutors. Since graduation in 2014 Rachel’s career has taken her to the US, back to Ireland and now to London. In 2017 Rachel was awarded a Sky Women In Technology Scholarship to develop Get Closer, a game concept, into a mobile application called A Hero’s Guide To Gardening that aims to help kids develop their emotional literacy.
Can you tell us how your career in design began?
I lived in Limerick my whole life, I could see the dome of LSAD’s Church Gallery from our back garden so moving to Boston was the first time I properly lived away from home. To be honest I did not manage well at first, I was properly scared of being so far away from home, I remember fully sobbing over my suitcase as I packed up to leave. I was also very scared of travelling to Boston without having a job secured and it took me the bones of two months to get hired.
On arrival in Boston the first thing I did was to get in contact with a recruiter who set me up with a few in person interviews but nothing came of it. Every time I got knocked back was scary, I felt like maybe I wasn’t good enough yet. I didn’t know anyone in the city, so I started going to creative industry events (talks, panels, meetups). At an event I went to, one of the panelists worked at an agency I had just sent a job application to. It was one of those automated application forms, and I had yet to receive a call back from any job I applied for in that way – so I asked her at the end of the night if she wouldn’t mind looking at my portfolio site and possibly referring me to the hiring manager. Thanks to her, I had my first in person interview, and then a second team interview where I had to meet three different creative director’s who I’d potentially be working with. After an anxious two week wait, I finally got the offer to become a junior art director at Hill Holiday Boston.
As a designer, my job was to produce the thing that was going to be the final product – as an art director, I was supposed to work with a designer (or whatever other discipline was involved) to make the thing. I did not know how to direct.
On reflection I was not very good at that job – at least for the first 6/7 months. Art direction is different from graphic design, and I hadn’t really come across it as a discipline while I was studying. Art directors are mainly found in advertising agencies, and they are responsible for the visual world of a project. A project can be a film, animation, print, digital, experiential, etc. The really exciting part is that you get to learn about directing so many different mediums and work with dedicated animators, photographers, illustrators, and film directors to bring your ideas to life. I did not understand this at all at first. As a designer, my job was to produce the thing that was going to be the final product – as an art director, I was supposed to work with a designer (or whatever other discipline was involved) to make the thing. I did not know how to direct. I remember being on a shoot and a cameraman was asking me about which angles I wanted to cover off in a shot we were filming, and I kept saying ‘yes’ to everything he suggested. His eventual response was “If you keep saying yes to everything – I’m going to stop asking you”.
I felt constantly out of my depth, that maybe they had taken that I was from Europe as some indicator of classiness that I was not living up to. But, I treaded water long enough to survive, and while I was there my portfolio picked up an Art Director’s Club award and I was sent to New York for a week for a creative bootcamp as part of the prize. Hill Holiday even tried to secure a work visa for me at the end of the 14 months, but even with a sponsor it’s still a lottery system, and I came home in December 2015.
One thing I copped onto in Boston was that for a personal project to gain an audience, you need to think of a ‘sticky’ idea – something that has potential for virality. So it’s a good idea to pick a subject that’s topical or funny or risque, and it’s also good to do something you can build into a series or set or collection.
A return to Ireland, Dick Pics and Dublin
I was heartbroken to have had to leave Boston at a time when I was finally finding my feet, but leaving gave me a chance to experience something different again. I moved back to Limerick and spent a few months job hunting. I also got started with what is now a fairly well worn concept in the illustration world – I decided to ‘art direct’ (by which I meant illustrate, but it’s a snappier title). What did I decide to illustrate? 100 dick pics of course. One thing I copped onto in Boston was that for a personal project to gain an audience, you need to think of a ‘sticky’ idea – something that has potential for virality. So it’s a good idea to pick a subject that’s topical or funny or risque, and it’s also good to do something you can build into a series or set or collection. So I spent that winter illustrating dick pics that I found on Tumblr, or unsolicited pics that people would send me, or unsolicited pics that were sent to other people and then forwarded to me. I thought I was doing a fairly decent job of keeping this project under wraps but apparently my parents were finding these drawings all over the house and they never said anything to me (I told my mom about ADDP recently and she told me that she thought I ‘just had some strange fixation’).
My next job was at Design Factory in Dublin. I remember taking a three-hour-each-way bus ride to do the interview, and then having to abruptly move into a half built bedsit that my uncle was renovating at the time. It had no hot water and I got very good at cooking a selection of foodstuffs in a toaster. Thankfully, I really enjoyed being a designer again and working with and learning from the directors Conor Clarke and Stephen Kavanagh. Design Factory is an institution of Irish Design, and the team are real crafts people, I really enjoyed getting into the finer details again. My favourite of their clients was Gino’s Gelatos, I spent several very enjoyable days drawing various options for cows for some instore decals.
London & The Kennedys
At this point I felt the need to travel again, and I started looking at London. I approached recruiters to see if I could find work as an art director, but quickly found that in the industry art directors usually work in partnership with copywriters. As a relatively inexperienced art director, there weren’t many opportunities available to me while I was working alone.
In desperation I mailed a creative director I worked with in Boston and asked for advice. He recommended a placement program with an agency called Wieden + Kennedy, called ‘The Kennedys’. I completed an online application with questionnaire questions like: You can add one new body part, what do you add and why? and Describe your sex life in a movie title (for that one I chose Me, Earl, and the dying girl, because both make me cry). I wanted to make an impression, so I took the online application, printed it out on the back of a poster of 64 of my choicest dick pic illustrations, and posted it to the executive creative director Tony Davidson (I looked on LinkedIn and saw he had done a photography book on things that look like boobs in aid of breast cancer so I thought he’d appreciate the subject matter). Tony really did appreciate the dick pics and the agency flew me out to London for a group interview, which involved more lateral thinking challenges, like using our mobiles to present a personal biography in 3 minutes.
I was accepted, and moved to London to take part in the first year of the W&K Kennedys London program (it had already been going a few years in their Amsterdam office). The Kennedy’s slogan is ‘THIS IS AN EXPERIMENT’ – and that really was the vibe for the 6 months that the 6 other creatives and I spent together. (That whole situation is a whole other story in itself, and included a burglary, a literal murder, and producing a music video about smashing watermelons open with your head). I was kept on after the program and I’ve been working as a creative at W+K ever since. I really love this job! The project I’m most proud of from my time so far at Wieden + Kennedy is the ‘Where different takes you’ film I directed for Honda. No one on the team understood the connection between being from Limerick and making a film about a Honda Civic, but it made me smile anyway.
Code Liberation – Back to Education & Get Closer
My friend and fellow Kennedy Vytas Niedvaras was the person who really got me interested in learning about programming. He was with us on work placement as part of his BA in Computational Arts, and seeing his work in physical computing, generative artwork, machine learning etc really impressed me. We spent a few evenings on the roof of the office with him trying to teach me the basics – and it felt like going from being proficient in Photoshop to being bumped back to MS Paint. Vytas told me about a series of workshops being run by an organisation called Code Liberation. Their mission is to get more women/female-identifying/non-binary people into programming, and I started making games. The first project I did with Code Lib was exhibited at the V&A as part of the Parallel Worlds gaming festival.
I took part in a hackathon called Global Game Jam with my girlfriend Aida. We built a game together in 48 hours called Get Closer, which was a text adventure game about talking to a friend with depression. Get Closer won the game jam, so we decided to use it as a proof of concept to apply for funding through the Sky Women In Technology Scholarship.
In 2018 I took a year out from work to go back into education to study for a MA in Independent Game and Playable Experience Design at Goldsmiths College, London. After a few years of client work, it was so satisfying to be able to indulge in my own ideas for a year.
One weekend I took part in a hackathon called Global Game Jam with my girlfriend Aida. We built a game together in 48 hours called Get Closer, which was a text adventure game about talking to a friend with depression. Get Closer won the game jam, so we decided to use it as a proof of concept to apply for funding through the Sky Women In Technology Scholarship. Sky started funding women lead projects in 2017 to address the gender imbalance in the tech industry. They awarded us £25,000 to develop Get Closer into a mobile game that aims to help kids develop their emotional literacy. The project is called A Hero’s Guide To Gardening and will hopefully be out and published by the end of the year (coronavirus notwithstanding).
Aida and I are working with a game developer and a narrative designer, but we are handling the vast majority of the production ourselves. It can be terrifying, we’ve never undertaken a project of this scale before and have encountered many, many, many ‘learning moments’ along the way. BUT – It’s also very exciting, we are learning shedloads, and I’m so proud of what we’ve done so far. The biggest challenge we face is trying to balance our jobs with developing this project on the side. It can be demanding but we are getting better at looking after ourselves to avoid burning out. At this moment in time, I’m in lockdown and working from home, there’s a small silver lining as we are able to spend more time working on Hero’s Guide – with absolutely nothing else to distract us!
On working during Covid-19
I’ve been very lucky to keep my job during the lockdown. I think working from home suits me very well. I’m not commuting so I save the bones of an hour/an hour and a half traveling in and out to the office every day, which in turn means I’m getting more sleep! My colleagues are very down to earth, I’ve turned up for 9am Zoom calls having woken up 6 minutes beforehand and still looking like a piece of chewed-up chewing gum!
We’ve just completed a project for Facebook which will be going live from May 11th, talking about how people have been using Facebook Groups during the quarantine. It would have been a challenge to complete under normal circumstances, with our client 8 hours ahead in the US and our director an hour behind in Sweden – before we even get into the challenge of remotely directing actors/real group members via webcam! We would wake up every morning to review footage that had been sent in overnight, and in the evenings we’d sit in on calls for hours going through the edit shot by shot with the editor and director. With music, or for some of the animated sections, we’d have feedback meetings, and then have batches of options to review. My colleague Katy said “it’s funny how a big client call with a dozen people, some of them quite senior – feels less intimidating when you’re taking it sitting on your bed or on your couch!”
I’ve definitely felt the pressure a lot of creatives are talking about to be extra productive with this time spent at home. I’m on a bit of time off now, and instead of planning how to jam as much as I can into this break, I’ve just got a list of a few things I might like to try so I don’t spend the week binge-watching movie explainers on youtube! It’s more important that I make time to keep up with my friends and my family at home in Limerick, and probably throw in a Zoom pub quiz with some of the lads from LSAD too!
Work hard – you make your own luck
I’m trying to be mindful of describing things as ‘lucky’ when the fact is that I’ve worked hard to make things happen for myself. I’m under no illusion that luck is always a factor when it comes to finding opportunities, meeting the right person who gives you a referral for an interview, or being selected for awards and funding. However I’ve been learning a lot about the ‘confidence gap’ that can affect female professionals in any field. We are raised not to take credit for the things we do well and we are taught to be self effacing and to minimize our achievements by saying things like ‘if I can do it, anyone can’ or ‘It happened because I got lucky’. I’ve definitely had real strokes of luck at multiple points across my career already, but I also love what I do, and I pour a lot of effort and energy into my work, so I want to acknowledge that too. Ultimately, I think the mix of being a woman AND being an Irish woman, (where our national culture is also one where we often take the piss out of ourselves, and are sometimes guilty of accusing someone of having notions or delusions of grandeur when they speak well of themselves) has made me question my value, and I want to get past that.
I think the caliber of talent that comes from LSAD is so high that students should feel so proud of themselves, and to be their own biggest cheerleaders. Sometimes the deciding factor between you and someone else is how confidently you come across.
Some Advice for students?
Even if you’re still growing your skills (and you will always be growing your skills, you are never going to reach a point where you’ve learned everything, that’s a good thing!). You might not be comfortable saying you’re a brilliant typographer/illustrator/photographer, but if you know you’ve got a strong work ethic and you are excited about learning, you can speak to that, and represent yourself proudly about those things. I think the caliber of talent that comes from LSAD is so high that students should feel so proud of themselves, and to be their own biggest cheerleaders. Sometimes the deciding factor between you and someone else is how confidently you come across. It’s a hard thing to master if it doesn’t come naturally. Believe me, as a queer woman with ADHD – and all the knock-backs that comes with, it took me a very long time to even feel like I was entitled to confidence, and I’m still working on it all the time.
What I’ve seen when it comes to who gets chosen for placements or internships is that in advertising, self initiated projects are really attractive in a portfolio.
What advice would you give to students who are beginning their studies?
Enjoy it! College is where you’ve got this time where you can be really self indulgent and make the work that really interests you. The time flies and the best way to spend it is just to make loads of work, loads of experiments, and loads of collaborations with each other. Client work has more constraints to navigate, so enjoy the freedom you’ve got right now. Make every use of the college, the tutors, the library, the workshops, get your hands on everything you can, this is really precious time you get to spend on developing yourself, and you’ll get out of it what you put in.
And for a graduate wanting to work in advertising/design?
What I’ve seen when it comes to who gets chosen for placements or internships is that in advertising, self initiated projects are really attractive in a portfolio. If you want to include illustration work, do it as a series and make an IG account. If you’re interested in screen printing, do a collection or set up a brand. If you’re interested in animation, set up a channel and give yourself a format that’s easy to generate work around. Stuff like this shows that you’re capable of planning and strategic thinking, and in general hiring managers are interested in people who have their own creative practice and point of view that they can bring to their work. Feed your brain! If you stay inspired, it’ll keep you excited about making work, and you’ll have loads of creative fuel to draw on!